20 Things You Must Know About Nutrition

Nutrition is one of the most important facets of pet bird ownership and it is one that you, as a pet bird owner, have the most control over. By providing your pet bird with a healthy, nutritious diet, and by practicing good sanitation and hygiene, combined with preventative veterinary care, you will be doing the best job you can to ensure that your bird will live a long, disease-free life. It is up to you to supply a balanced diet to your bird, and then to ensure that it is consuming what is offered. Some foods are toxic to birds, and others are not always safe to feed, and others, if fed in excess, can be bad for a bird's health. Let's learn the essentials of avian nutrition so that we can make educated choices for our birds.

1. Make Sure Your Bird is Healthy BEFORE Attempting to Change the Diet

Although it is tempting to make changes to your bird's diet once you have discovered that you could be providing a better diet, it is very important that your bird receive a clean bill of health first. Since birds are so good at hiding signs of illness, by stressing a bird with dietary changes, it is possible to precipitate a health crisis in a bird that is marginally ill. Take your bird to your avian vet for a thorough check-up and any recommended lab tests before making radical dietary changes. Remember, it is impossible to ascertain the health of a bird just by looking at it; some lab testing should be performed. As a minimum data base, a complete blood count (CBC) should be evaluated on each and every bird. Blood chemistries, radiographs, bacterial culture and sensitivity and Gram's staining may also be performed. Other tests for polyoma virus, Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), chlamydiosis (psittacosis), aspergillosis and protein electrophoresis may be performed.

Once your bird has been checked-up, it is time to discuss tailoring a diet specifically for your bird with your avian vet. Your vet should be able to give you guidelines and recommendations for the species of bird that you have, and for your individual pet, based on the exam, your lifestyle and your bird's activity level and health condition.

2. A Seed-Based Diet is Inappropriate for Psittacine Birds

Most parrots will preferentially consume seeds if a variety of foods are offered. Seed is high in fat, and low in most of the nutrients necessary for good health. Parrots that eat only seed will suffer from malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies, even though they may look healthy, and may even be overweight!

Budgies and cockatiels do eat primarily seeds, grass seeds and small amounts of other types of vegetation in the wild, and they will do remarkably well on a diet that would be dangerous for other species of parrot. However, feeding only seed is not recommended for any type of parrot or softbill.

3. Fortified Seed Has Most of the Fortification in the Hulls

Often, bird owners think that they are providing a better diet by purchasing fortified seed mixes. Unfortunately, the vitamins and minerals are impregnated into the seed hulls, which are discarded when the bird eats the seed. Often pellets, dried fruits and nuts are also included. The pellets are often rejected by the bird, in favor of the seeds in the mix. As nutritious as the pellets may be, they do the bird no good on the cage floor. Fruits are a part of a good avian diet, however, they usually contain an improper calcium:phosphorus ratio and contain lots of sugar, so vegetables are more nutritious to feed than fruit.

4. Pellets Are a Good Base for a Diet

Because pellets have a blend of many nutrients, each bite a bird takes will contain good nutrition. We still have much to learn regarding parrot nutrition, and pellets are formulated to provide what is thought to be a balanced diet for most psittacines. While the bird food manufacturers are constantly improving their diets, it is best to provide your bird with pellets, fresh vegetables, small amounts of fruit, table food (including pasta, whole wheat bread, small amounts of meat, cheese and other items), nuts, and perhaps, some seed.

5. Birds On a Pelleted Diet Usually Do Not Need Vitamin or Mineral Supplementation

Unless your avian veterinarian prescribes a supplement for a specific reason, it is most often not necessary, and can actually prove dangerous, to give a bird eating a pelleted diet a vitamin or mineral supplement. Pellets contain what should amount to adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals for the healthy psittacine. Most folks don't realize it, but it is possible to oversupplement with vitamins or minerals, resulting in toxicosis or organ damage. However, some birds may have special needs during certain times, and your avian vet may prescribe a specific supplement. For example, an African Grey parrot patient of mine, Poppy, is on a pelleted diet, supplemented with table foods, fruit and veggies. She developed seizures due to low blood calcium (hypocalcemia) and was prescribed a liquid calcium supplement to be placed in the drinking water. (This condition, peculiar to African Greys and the occasional other species, is the result of problems utilizing or absorbing calcium, and not the result of the bird not having enough calcium in the diet, usually). Poppy's blood calcium levels will be monitored periodically, to determine if the supplement is being administered at the correct dose. At this writing, Poppy's seizures have ceased, and she is doing well.

6. As Far As Seeds Go, There Isn't Much Difference, Nutritionally Speaking, Between Sunflower and Safflower

An old rumor used to go around about sunflower seeds having something addictive in them. Seed mixes were formulated using safflower seed in place of sunflower. Unfortunately, safflower has similar nutritive values when compared to sunflower, except it is a more bitter tasting seed, so most birds will consume fewer of them as opposed to sunflower seeds. Safflower is also more expensive. Let's finally put this rumor to rest: there is nothing addictive in sunflower seeds. There are probably no benefits to feeding a safflower-based diet, as opposed to a sunflower-based one, except birds may eat fewer of them.

Both safflower and sunflower contain lots of fat, and not much else that is nutritional for birds. It is thought that the sunflower seeds with more white in the hulls are better nutritionally than the little, black seeds. Occasionally, feeding foods high in fat is beneficial, especially for the bird that needs to gain weight.

One final note: feeding a diet high in fat may cause problems with calcium absorption. If a bird like my Poppy patient above is suffering from calcium problems, the diet must be evaluated to ensure that she is not consuming too many fat calories, which may interfere with her ability to properly absorb calcium.

7. Although Feeding Table Foods to Dogs and Cats is a No-No, It is Beneficial for Pet Birds to Share People-Food

In addition to feeding a pelleted diet, bird food manufacturers recommend supplementing the diet with some vegetables, fruits and table foods. Many birds really enjoy sharing mealtime with their owners. Birds can be suspicious by nature when it comes to eating new foods. This makes sense, because wild birds in a flock eat what they see other birds eating. This way, they are less likely to consume something toxic. By sharing your meal with your bird, it will be much more interested in tasting what you are eating, since you are part of your bird's flock. Of course, there are some foods that birds should not eat (see #8) and some that are not very healthy additions to the diet (fatty, fried foods, very salty foods). Use common sense when supplementing your bird's diet. And remember, we should never allow a bird to eat directly out of our mouths or off our fork, since we carry microbes in our mouths that can be dangerous to our birds.

8. Some Foods Are Toxic to Birds

Chocolate is toxic to birds. It is digested differently in birds than it is in humans, and the resultant digested products are toxic. Bittersweet, baker's chocolate and dark chocolates are more toxic than milk chocolate. Chocolate, in any form, should never be fed to birds. Signs of chocolate toxicosis may include disorientation, hyperactivity, vomiting, diarrhea, irregular heartbeat, seizures, dark colored droppings and death.

Some types of avocados are toxic to birds. The skin, meat or pit may contain toxins, so it is best to not feed avocados at all.

Caffeine is also toxic to birds. No products containing caffeine should be offered to birds (including coffee, tea, cola drinks).

Excessive consumption of table salt (sodium chloride) can cause increased thirst, increased water consumption, increased urination, depression, neurological excitement, tremors, incoordination and death.

Onions can be toxic to dogs and cats, and although onion toxicosis is not well-documented in birds, it is probably best to avoid feeding onions to birds. In mammals, onions cause Heinz-Body Hemolytic Anemia, which causes red blood cells to rupture. Red blood cells of birds contain a nucleus, which those of mammals do not, and this may offer some protection against cell rupturing. However, until studies are performed, avoid feeding onions. Small amounts of onions used in cooking are probably not dangerous, but be aware that there might be a problem.

Alcoholic beverages can lead to incoordination and death. Birds should never be allowed access to any products containing ethanol (alcohol).

Some seeds and pits may be toxic to birds. Apple seeds contain cyanide. It is safest to remove all seeds from an apple before offering it for feeding. Cherries, plums, apricots and peaches are safe to feed, but the pits contain seeds that produce cyanogenic glycosides (which release free cyanide). The pits should not be consumed, but if they are, by mistake, the rapid transit time of the gastrointestinal tract of birds, coupled with the type of stomach that they have, seems to protect the birds from intoxication.

Parsley has been reported to be toxic to birds. It has only been shown to cause photosensitivity to sunlight in ducks and ostriches. I routinely feed parsley to my birds, as it is a good source of vitamin A, and it contains some calcium. My finches and canaries love it. It is safe to feed to indoor birds.

9. Feeding Greens Does NOT Cause Diarrhea

When a bird eats foods with high moisture content (fruits and vegetables), the bird will urinate more to compensate for the increased water intake.

There are three parts to a bird's dropping: the urine (the clear liquid), the urates (the white to cream-colored portion) and the feces (the green to brown solid part). Diarrhea occurs when the fecal portion is unformed, loose or very watery. Birds that urinate a large amount may be incorrectly diagnosed as having diarrhea. It is possible for a bird to urinate independently of passing feces in the dropping. So, not every dropping will have all three portions every time. A nervous bird may also urinate more.

Often, older budgie books erroneously stated that feeding a budgie greens (with increased moisture content) would cause diarrhea. Let's disabuse that notion once and for all. It simply isn't true.

10. Droppings Will Vary Depending on What a Bird Eats

Birds eating a seed-based diet usually have dark green feces. Birds consuming a pellet-based diet usually have brown feces. Some birds that pick out certain colored pellets from a color assortment may develop droppings tinted the same as their favorite pellets. Colored pellets use harmless food-coloring to tint the pellets, and this may pass through the gastrointestinal tract of a bird, resulting in rainbow-hued droppings.

Birds that eat berries will develop berry-colored droppings within a few hours. Other foods with pigments will also cause unusual colored droppings. For example, feeding sweet potatoes may result in orange droppings.

11. Birds Cannot Digest Milk

If you think about it, this makes sense. Mammals are nourished during infancy with their mother's milk. Birds would never be in a situation in the wild where they would drink milk. For this reason, birds do not possess the digestive enzymes necessary to process milk. Parent birds regurgitate food to their babies in the nest. Although you might have heard about pigeons feeding their babies crop milk, this is actually sloughed cells from the crop and secretions, and not a milk product at all.

Milk sugar is called lactose. Mammals have a digestive enzyme, lactase, to digest milk sugar. Birds simply lack lactase and cannot digest milk products containing lactose. Birds will develop diarrhea when lactose in the diet reaches between 10 and 30 percent. Products that contain a significant amount of lactose are dried skim milk and dried whey. Humans may also suffer from an inability to digest lactose, and this is called lactose intolerance.

Some milk products contain little or no lactose, and these may be safely fed to birds. And actually, these products (cheese and yogurt) are a good source of calcium for birds. Some owners have asked me if they can feed birds items containing lactose if they also give them one of those products for humans (such as Lactaid) to aid in the digestion of milk sugar. Unfortunately, that is also dangerous, as one of the by-products of lactose digestion is galactose, which is also toxic to birds. So these products must never be used in birds.

12.Some Foods are Nutrient Antagonists

Oxalate (oxalic acid) is an organic acid that efficiently binds calcium and other trace minerals, making them unavailable to the bird. The highest levels of oxalates are found in tea, spinach and rhubarb. Potentially toxic levels are found in the leaves of rhubarb and the houseplant, diffenbachia. High levels of oxalates can cause vomiting, diarrhea, poor blood clotting and convulsions. Lower levels can result in decreased growth, poor bone mineralization and kidney stones. Feeding some spinach occasionally will not cause problems, however if a bird consumes enough of it daily, it might present a problem.

13. Vitamin A Can Be Toxic When Overdosed, Whereas Beta-Carotene Cannot

Beta-carotene is a non-toxic form of a precursor of vitamin A. When ingested, the body turns what it needs into vitamin A and the rest passes out of the body unchanged. The carotenoids are found in several plant pigments.

Vitamin A is necessary for the immune system to function properly, it is involved in vision and is important for the proper growth of bones, for reproduction and for maintaining healthy mucous membranes. Seed is notoriously deficient in vitamin A precursors or vitamin A. Birds that eat a seed diet for a long time are prone to sinus and respiratory problems. Often, the choana is swollen and the choanal papillae will be blunted. Many birds suffering from respiratory problems that are eating a seed-based diet will benefit from an injection of vitamin A during their initial veterinary evaluation.

Vitamin A is stored in the liver, and small amounts can also be found in the kidneys, lungs, adrenal glands and blood.

14. Grit is Not Required By the Normal, Healthy Psittacine or Passerine Bird

Grit, usually defined as a granular, dense, insoluble mineral material (generally granite or quartz), is required for birds that consume whole, intact seeds. Examples of some birds requiring grit are pigeons, doves, free-ranging gallinaceous species (Red Junglefowl, Common Turkey, Helmeted Guinea Fowl, Domestic Fowl, quail, megapodes, pheasants, grouse, and more) and ostriches. Notice that parrots, canaries and finches aren't on the list. The smaller psittacines (budgies, cockatiels, lovebirds and parrotlets) may overeat grit when they aren't feeling well, and this may result in an impaction of the gizzard. Psittacines and passerines will get all the minerals they need from a balanced diet.

15. Baby Birds on Hand-Feeding Formula Do Not Need Any Vitamin Supplementation, Nor Should Other Ingredients Be Added

Manufacturers of hand-feeding formula have spent a tremendous amount of time researching formulas. When the hand-feeder, aviculturist, pet retainer or new pet baby bird owner starts adding baby food, baby cereal, or other ingredients to the formula, this will change the fat to protein ratio of the diet. When this occurs, digestion may slow, resulting in what is commonly called "slow crop" or "sour crop." Vitamins and minerals are already incorporated into the formula, so additional amounts are neither necessary nor advisable. It is always best to feed the formula exactly as the label instructions recommend. If you carefully read the label, you will see that you can feed hand-feeding formula from day one. My husband and I have incubator-hatched close to 100 baby birds, including Queen of Bavaria conures, blue and gold macaws, green-winged macaws, scarlet macaws and several species of Amazons, and we have fed them all commercial hand-feeding formula from day one. You can too!

16. Healthy Birds Consuming a Pelleted Diet Should Not Require Sunshine (Unfiltered By Glass or Plastic) for Their Vitamin D

Don't get me wrong. Sunshine is very good for birds, and if possible, pet birds should receive sunlight, not filtered through glass or plastic (which filters out the ultraviolet rays), an hour a week during the summer months, and perhaps an hour a month during the winter.

The uropygeal gland (also called the preen gland) secretes an oily substance that the bird spreads over the feathers. This secretion aids in waterproofing the feathers and helps keep them supple. The secretion also has precursors of vitamin D that are spread on the feathers during preening. When the bird's feathers are exposed to natural sunlight (or full-spectrum indoor lighting), the secretion is changed to the active form of vitamin D, which is then ingested when the bird preens. Vitamin D is necessary for a bird to properly utilize calcium, which is necessary for strong bones, normal eggshells, muscle contractility and more. However, if a bird is eating pellets, vitamin D is added to them, so providing a bird with sunlight shouldn't be necessary. (As an interesting side-note, Amazon parrots and Hyacinth macaws don't have a preen gland, yet their feathers are as water-proof and supple as those found in birds that do have one.)

17. Monkey Biscuits are for Monkeys, Avian Pellets are for Birds

Monkey biscuits designed for New World primates (those from Central and South America) have very high levels of vitamin D in them, because New World primates have a very high vitamin D requirement. Unfortunately, these biscuits have too much D for parrots, especially macaws, which may show signs of toxicosis, including kidney problems, mineralization of tissues and increased urination. Birds with vitamin D toxicosis may go off feed, become lame, develop diarrhea and become lethargic. It is my opinion that there is no reason today to feed a monkey biscuit based baby-food diet, nor should they be fed to adults. One manufacturer has recently increased the vitamin D levels in the biscuits. The biscuits may also harbor acceptable levels of Gram negative rod bacteria, which is harmless to monkeys, but potentially dangerous to birds.

18.For the Hard-Core Seed Junkie Bird, Sprouting Seeds May Be a Way to Increase the Nutritive Value of the Diet, and Get the Bird to Experiment With a Better Diet

Sprouted seeds have a lower oil content, which is better for the bird, and can help the bird that prefers seeds make the transition from hard, dry seeds to the more fleshy foods. Fresh seed can be sprouted by placing them in a shallow, flat pan. First, the seeds should be rinsed well in lots of fresh, clean water, and then soaked in water overnight. Next, the bottom of the flat pan should be covered with wet paper towels, then the seeds should be placed in the pan, in a single layer. The pan is then covered tightly in plastic wrap, with a few holes poked into the plastic. The pan is then placed in a warm environment, and the paper towels are checked daily, and remoistened, if necessary. If the seed mix is of good quality, and is fresh, then the seeds will begin sprouting within two to five days. The should be rinsed in cold water several times and stored in the refrigerator to retard bacterial and fungal growth, once they have sprouted.

Some seed companies offer little tins of seed that come pre-packaged for sprouting for birds. These are very good for budgies and other small birds.

19.The Way A Food is Presented May Determine if a Bird Eats It or Not

Your bird may reject a carrot stick, but it may be willing to taste carrot if it is grated or peeled. A bird may prefer to eat bits of carrot mixed into special birdy muffins or bread, baked just for your pet, even though it won't go near grated carrot in its bowl. Some birds really relish corn wheels (corn on the cob, cut into round pieces) and others prefer corn cut into long pieces. Yet, other birds prefer the corn cut off the cob.

Skewering veggies onto a metal pole, and hanging it in the cage, may entice a bird to nibble foods good for it. It is easy for a bird to take a piece of food that it doesn't want to taste, and hurl it out of the food bowl, but if it wants to remove a shish-kabobed veggie from the cage, it will need to rip it up into pieces to drop it to the cage bottom, and in the process, it will be likely to taste the veggie, and may even ingest a bit. The same goes for food that is tied to a perch.

Instead of putting veggies and other nutritious foods into a separate dish, it may be beneficial to mix it into the seed mix, so that the bird runs into it while fishing for the seeds.

Of course, it should go without saying that all fresh fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed before being offered to your birds. Potentially harmful bacteria and other microorganisms may be found on the surface of fresh produce.

20. Water, Clean and Pure, Is Necessary for a Healthy Bird

If your water quality is suspect, I recommend serving your pet bird bottled spring water. Do not use distilled water for a birds water source, as this water has all mineral content removed, and is a very flat-tasting water. As an alternative, a water filter may be used to purify the water prior to offering it to your bird.

Consider having your water professionally analyzed by a private laboratory or through your local health department. If the coliform (this is a group of bacteria commonly found in the intestinal tract of mammals, that may cause disease in birds) count is elevated, it will be safer to offer bottled water for your bird. Although sulfur or other compounds may impart an odor to tap water, this is not usually dangerous, but it may decrease palatability of the water. The lab that analyzes your water can give you specific recommendations. Be careful if you submit a water sample to a company that sells water treatment systems, as they are in business to sell them. It is better to have an independent lab perform the testing.

I always recommend that an owner supply water to their birds via water bottles. Parrots are so smart that they will figure out how to use a water bottle in no time. By using a water bottle, birds will not be able to dump food into the water, making a horrible soup that quickly grows bacteria. It seems that no matter how often you clean their bowls, bacteria will rapidly multiply. In my experience, birds with water bowls and not bottles have higher levels of sub-clinical bacterial infections. Also, contamination of water in a bowl by fecal material can also cause problems with reinfestation with certain protozoa, including Giardia. While some canaries and finches will successfully drink from a water bottle, they should also have a water bowl for bathing and drinking.

It is vital that an owner check the water level in the bottle daily, and also check the tube, to ensure that the water is flowing properly. Occasionally, a bird will figure out how to stick its beak or toenail into the bottle, draining it in just a few minutes. Some birds, notably the cockatoos, will figure out how to stuff a seed or piece of veggie into the tube, effectively blocking the water. Birds cannot survive without water, and after three days of water deprivation, a bird will be near death. That is why it is so very important to check the bottle daily to make sure that it working properly.


I hope that this has given you some "food for thought" about your bird's diet. Remember, always discuss your birds diet with your avian veterinarian, and make sure that your bird has received a clean bill of health from your avian vet prior to making any dietary changes. As a bird owner, you have the most control over your bird's health on a daily basis by providing a healthy, nutritious diet and making sure that your bird is actually consuming the diet. Mealtime should be fun for you and your bird. 

Bon apetit!

Copyright 2006 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved

Printer Friendly Page