The 10 Things You Should Know About Feeding Your Birds

The 10 Things You Should Know About Feeding Your Birds

By Rick Kleyn

The correct diet is essential to the well being, breeding success and longevity of your pet bird. Not only should you feed your bird the correct diet, but you also need to avoid feeding those ingredients which may be harmful. Here are ten things that every bird owner needs to know about his/her bird’s diet.

1. Feed a Balanced Diet

All nutritionists and bird keepers should strive to feed their birds what is widely known as a balanced diet. In nutritional terms we consider all food items that are consumed on a daily basis to be a part of the daily diet. A balanced diet will provide the bird with all of the required nutrients, together with sufficient energy to metabolise those nutrients each day. It should not contain gross excesses of any nutrient and it should be free of biological contaminants (e.g. bacteria) and anti-nutritional toxins. If a bird consumes a balanced diet, it bird will remain healthy and productive throughout its natural life span.

2. Birds Consume Nutrients – not Ingredients

All animals require a diet which provides them with adequate levels of available nutrients at the cellular level. They do not require specific ingredients to provide these nutrients; rather they require ingredients that contain adequate levels of the important nutrients. It is true that different species of bird have unique adaptations to allow them to fill a specific ecological niche in the wild. This means that the manner in which they eat and digest their diets will differ between species, but the manner in which the nutrients are absorbed and metabolised is to all intents and purposes the same. Some species differences are known to exist, for example certain forest dwelling birds like toucans and mynahs metabolise iron in the normal way buy are not able to excrete and surpluses in the normal way. This will cause theses birds to develop iron storage disease developing if these birds are fed the incorrect diet.

3. The Diet Contains only Nutrients and Energy

All diets contain only two things, nutrients and energy. Some 30 – 40 nutrients are now know to be important in avian nutrition, but this number increases as the science of nutrition evolves. These nutrients include components of protein the amino acids, vitamins, minerals and some essential fats. The nutrients are principally used in the maintenance of body tissue, for growth, for reproduction purposes (egg formation) and for maintaining a robust immune system. Many of these nutrients are deemed to be ‘essential’ as the bird cannot synthesise them from any precursors so they must be provided in the diet. This gives rise to a situation where a diet can be perfect in all but one aspect, but because of a single missing nutrient the bird may not able digest the diet efficiently and breeding success and immunity will be affected. The converse of this situation also occurs. If a diet contains a surplus of an nutrient it may cause the birds to avoid eating the diet. Also, a surplus of one nutrient often impedes the absorption and/or utilisation of another nutrient. In short, in both of the situations described above, the diet is not balanced.

As with any system, the body requires energy to fuel the multitude of biochemical reactions that take place within it. Birds are not able to create their own energy via photosynthesis, so they are entirely dependent upon the energy provided in the diet. This energy is supplied principally by the starches and sugars contained in plant material, particularly grains and seeds. These are known as carbohydrates. In addition, energy is supplied by the fats and oils contained in the diet, which contain about 2.5 times as much energy per gram as carbohydrates do. If a diet does not contain enough energy, the bird is simply not able to use the nutrients contained in the diet.

4. Seed Based Diets may not be Appropriate

Most parrots will preferentially consume seeds if a variety of foods are offered. Seeds are high in energy in the form of both carbohydrates and fat, and low in most of the nutrients necessary for good health. The meat of a sunflower seed contains in excess of 40% oil! Parrots that eat only seed will suffer from malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies, even though they may look healthy, and may even be overweight! Feeding a diet high in fat may cause problems with calcium absorption.

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 seed only diets to any type of parrot or soft bill is not to be recommended. 

There is little to be gained from feeding a whole range of different type of seeds. It is true that the birds do like the variety, but there are only very small differences between the nutritive values of millet or manna seeds for example. Safflower and sunflower are also similar. They both contain high levels of fat, and not much else in nutritional terms. Safflower is a more bitter tasting seed, so most birds will consume fewer of them as opposed to sunflower seeds. Safflower is also more expensive so feeding diets high in safflower will achieve little more than reducing the amount of sunflower would.

Often, bird owners think that they are providing a better diet by purchasing fortified seed mixes or by adding one of the many supplements available to the diet. Unfortunately, the vitamins and minerals are impregnated into the seed hulls, which are discarded when the bird eats the seed. When complete diets, dried fruits and nuts are also included, the complete diet (pellets) is often rejected by the bird, in favour 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 to phosphorus ratio and contain lots of sugar, so vegetables are more nutritious to feed than fruit.

5. Feed a Complete Diet

Complete diets, be they in pelleted or crumb form, all contain a blend of many ingredients. This means that each mouth full a bird takes will necessarily contain a full complement of the essential nutrients and energy, all in the correct proportions. Although we still have much to learn regarding parrot nutrition, complete diets are formulated to provide what is thought to be a balanced diet for most psittacines. While birds will flourish on a complete diet, you may want to provide your bird with fresh vegetables, small amounts of fruit, table food (including pasta, whole wheat bread, and small amounts of meat, cheese and other items), nuts, and perhaps, some seed. As a rule of thumb, try to provide at least 50% of the daily diet (on a dry basis) in the form of a balanced product. Remember that fruits and vegetables contain between 70 and 80% water.

It is mostly not necessary to give a bird eating a complete diet a vitamin or mineral supplement as complete diets contain amount to adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals for the healthy psittacine. People don’t realise it, but it is possible to over-supplement a bird with vitamins and/or minerals, resulting in toxicosis and/or organ damage. The overconsumption of protein can also have a negative effect on birds’ health and fertility. In short, it is possible to kill our birds with kindness.

6. How to Balance a Diet

Balancing a diet at home is not straight forward. It is possible to use small amounts of many ingredients in the hope that you will overcome any shortfall in the nutrient content of one ingredient by a surplus in another. However, the ‘shotgun’ approach often fails to provide the correct protein quality, and will almost certainly not provide the correct levels of vitamins and minerals.

Balancing a diet is not simple even for a professional nutritionist. Not only are the nutrient requirements of each individual bird specific, (they are determined by its size, its breeding status and a number of other factors), but the nutrient content of the available ingredients can vary dramatically. Even the use of sophisticated feed formulation software does not help overcome these problems.

By ensuring that a fair proportion of a birds diet comprises a complete and balanced component will go a long way to ensuring that each individual bird consumes adequate levels of each nutrient.

7. Avoid Toxic Ingredients

Many of the ingredients that are commonly used in birds diets either contain toxins or are toxic themselves. For example, all legumes (peas and beans) contain a range of toxic substances that can only be inactivated by cooking. These often form a major part in the protein supply of bird diets and can’t be ignored. There follows a whole list of ingredients that should never be fed to pet birds.

  • Chocolate is toxic to birds. It is digested in such a way that 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 coloured 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 and cold drinks).
  • Excessive consumption of table salt (sodium chloride) can cause increased thirst, increased water consumption, increased urination, depression, neurological excitement, tremors, un-coordination and death. Avoid feeding your birds chips or salted peanuts.
  • Alcoholic beverages can lead to un-coordination and death. Birds should never be allowed access to any products containing ethanol (alcohol).
  • Some seeds and pips 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 pips contain seeds that produce cyanogenic glycosides (which release free cyanide). They 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.
  • Milk sugar is called lactose. Birds simply lack the enzyme lactase and cannot digest milk products containing lactose. They will develop diarrhoea when the lactose content of the diet exceeds 10%.
  • 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. High levels of oxalates can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, poor blood clotting and convulsions. Lower levels can result in decreased growth, poor bone mineralization and kidney stones.
  • 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.
  • Beta-carotene is a non-toxic form of a precursor of vitamin A. Yellow maize is rich in this substance but other seeds are notoriously deficient in vitamin A precursors. When ingested, the body turns what it needs into vitamin A and the rest passes out of the body unchanged. Synthetic Vitamin A, as supplied in most supplements, does not pass through the body, but rather is stored in the liver. Small amounts can also be found in the kidneys, lungs, adrenal glands and blood. When birds are over supplemented, Vitamin A levels in the various organs increase to the point where toxiocsis may occur.
  • Dog food traditionally contains protein of animal origin. They are thus high in iron. Feeding dog food to passarines will result in iron storage disease developeing.8. Hand Rearing.Manufacturers of hand-feeding diets have spent a tremendous amount of time researching the ingredients that are best suited to baby birds, as well as what the ideal nutrient profile of the diet should be. Anything that is added to a hand-rearing diet, be it baby food, baby cereal, or other ingredients, will cause the energy to nutrient ratio to be altered. 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. Should you add more water than specified you can significantly dilute the diet and the baby bird will simply not be able to consume enough nutrients on a daily basis. It is essential that fresh formula be used and that all feeding equipment is sterile.

8. Hand Rearing

Manufacturers of hand-feeding diets have spent a tremendous amount of time researching the ingredients that are best suited to baby birds, as well as what the ideal nutrient profile of the diet should be. Anything that is added to a hand-rearing diet, be it baby food, baby cereal, or other ingredients, will cause the energy to nutrient ratio to be altered. 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. Should you add more water than specified you can significantly dilute the diet and the baby bird will simply not be able to consume enough nutrients on a daily basis. It is essential that fresh formula be used and that all feeding equipment is sterile.

9. Food Preparation and Presentation

In order to bet the best out of life for both yourself and your bird, their diet need to be properly prepared and presented. This begins with using clean bowls and utensils. In addition, 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. Once the items have been chopped up, these bacteria are able to multiply rapidly and spread through the food. Secondly, when using a prepared component of the diet, follow the manufactures recommendations on how to use the product. Do not add additional nutrient supplements unless advised to do so by a nutritionist and/or veterinarian. The final point has to do with the preparation of fruits and vegetables. Ensure that you cut these into small bite sized chunks (a food processor works well). If birds are fed large slices, they tend to pick them up, take a couple of bites and then drop the remainder on the floor.

10. Water is King

Water is the single most important nutrient in any birds diet. As a rule of thumb, birds will consume twice as much water as food. Put another way, they will only eat half the amount of food as available water. This means that it does not matter how good the birds diet is, if water supply or quality is limited, the birds will simply not consume adequate amounts of nutrient.

There are three areas that require attention. Firstly, it is essential that drinkers be kept full and clean and that they be placed in such a way that all birds in a collection have access to good clean water. Water bottles are the preferred way of supplying birds with water as they do not get contaminated as easily as open dishes or bowls. Secondly, water quality can be compromised by high levels of minerals. This will not only suppress intake, but may result in malabsorption of other nutrients. Borehole water tends to be a far higher risk in this regard. Lastly, water can be contaminated with coliform bacteria. These are the organisms that cause food poisoning in humans and can cause disease in birds.

If you would not be happy to drink the water, don’t expect your birds to drink it either. 

Contact: rick@spesfeed.co.za / +27 31 766 0016.