The "old school" of parrot care tells us that parrots, next to goldfish, are perhaps the simplest of all pets to feed. From this school of psittacine culinary treats we were told that parrots need a diet stocked well with seed, seed and more seed (preferably, a big, heaping bowl of greasy sunflower seeds). Indeed, you can still walk into most pet stores in the country, pick up a parakeet and walk out with a bird in one hand and a bag of seeds in the other. However, this is far from the perfect diet for a parrot! Why, one might ask, are we being lied to? Most likely it is a simple lack of knowledge on the part of the person selling the bird food. In addition, the fat content in seeds make them very appealing to parrots. Pet parrots rarely refuse a seed meal, and many owners are under the misconception that animals eat only what they need (the logic would then follow that if my bird eats so much of it, it must be good for him!). Also, seeds can "keep" a long time on the shelf, making it an easy diet for pet stores to stock. Fortunately for pet parrots, however, the pet owning public is beginning to realize that a bowl of seeds does not a decent diet make!
And Now, The Truth...
As the popularity of birds as pets has increased, so has the interest in their care. Once people discovered what delightful companions parrots made, they began to wonder how they could make the lives of their feathered friends better and, indeed, longer. As it turns out, seeds are high in fat and protein, but little else. In fact, a bird that subsists on an all seed diet is likely to be fat, have high cholesterol, have multiple nutritional deficits and be less resistant to cancer and disease. Most people know that many parrots can live well past 50 years of age. However, this is rarely true of a bird on an all-seed diet. So what do we feed? The answer lies in our pets' wild cousins.
A Wild New Diet
In the wild, parrots eat a large variety of foods including fruit, veggies, grains, seeds, nuts, blossoms and (sometimes) even worms and carrion! In their native lands, parrots may eat as much high-fat foods as they can find. However, an owner must realize that wild birds are exercising much more than their own, house-bound birds, just in search of food! Since our pets have no need for such exercise (although play exercise in encouraged) we must help curb our feathered friends' hunger for fatty seeds and nuts by giving them alternative diets.
Now what should this alternative be. If you imagine a human's "perfect" diet, you could model a parrot's somewhat after it. You know what your doctor told you, a lot of whole grains, beans, pasta and rice, along with dark yellow or green fruits and veggies, with a little protein and fat mixed in. This is a very simplistic description, and many of you are probably now lamenting that we could never replicate exactly at home, what nature gives birds to eat in the wild. Luckily, avian veterinarians and scientist have been working diligently over the last few decades studying what birds need to live well in captivity. The result? "Pelleted" diets. These diets are something akin to the kibble that we feed dogs and cats. They are pellets of food formulated so that each bite has uniform nutrition specific to the parrot's special needs. These pellets come in many formulas, including brightly colored and interestingly shaped forms. Most avian veterinarians recommend a diet that is 70-80 percent pellets with the remaining portion being fresh dark green or yellow fruits and veggies (preferably organic), whole grains, pastas, rice (cooked brown), beans, and a little bit of seeds or, better yet, nuts(for fat and protein). Certain parrots, such as Hyacinth Macaws and Black Palm Cockatoos require different diets. These birds require more fat and protein in their diets - please consult your breeder, bird store or avian vet for special pellet formulas and nut mixes. Many avian vets are becoming concerned with artificial colors and preservatives in pelleted diets. There are mixes available that are made from 100% organic, human grade foods. Your avian veterinarian can give you more information. Also remember, the smaller, more active the bird, the more seeds they can handle in their diet. Once converted off of seeds, seeds and nuts can be returned to the diet, so long as it is not the sole food source. Budgies and small softbills are very active and may need more seed than a slow heavy bird such as an Amazon Parrot.
Caution! Do not feed your bird avocado, guacamole, raw onions, rhubarb, chocolate or raw milk products. These foods all cause different, but serious, problems in birds!
The Conversion Factor
Changing a bird from an all-seed diet can be a challenge. If you would like ideas on how to expand your bird's tastes, please visit our page on changing your bird's diet.