Jun 06 2007
Seed, Sprouts, Pellets and Real Food: What Should Your Parrot Eat?
The stereotypical parrot in a stereotypical cage generally has a large bowl of clean water and a large bowl of mixed seeds. Sunflower, safflower, millet, wheat, buckwheat, cracked corn, oat groats, nuts, coconut - you name it, it’s probably in there. And parrots really enjoy eating seed, cracking open nut shells, throwing seeds and hulls all over the place and generally being a pain about their seed mixes.
Yet seed isn’t the greatest diet for our parrots to be on, especially when it’s offered by itself. The fat content in seeds is astronomical, which leaves very little space for anything else to be present in the seed. Additionally, with the way how seed leaves behind hulls, it can be challenging for inexperienced bird owners to determine how much their parrot is actually eating when they’re given a seed diet. What looks like an almost-full bowl of seed may actually be largely composed of shells and hulls, and the bird may or may not eat any of what’s remaining in the bowl.
Like everything else in life today, there are other options available for feeding your birds and making sure that they are getting what they need to be healthy. The information below should help you with deciding what exactly to feed your bird.
Seeds, nuts and dried fruit
Even though they’re not the optimal diet to feed, seeds and nuts can still be valuable parts of a parrots’ diet without being the main component of the diet. Sunflower, safflower, and other seeds make great training incentives for medium and large birds, and nuts can be an important way to add Essential Fatty Acids and required fat to the diet. Additionally most seeds can be germinated and sprouted using a specialized sprouting jar or even just by spreading seed on paper towels and keeping them moist. Sprouting seeds should be rinsed frequently and closely monitored for any sign of mold or mildew. Treatments such as grapefruit seed extract can be used to inhibit mold growth on sprouts. The next step beyond sprouting would be to actually grow a seedling or plant from a seed, which most parrots greatly enjoy - but that’s for another section.
When feeding seed, pick clean mixes that are free of debris. Generally mixes marketed towards parakeets and canaries are still entirely edible by larger birds, and contain a greater percentage of healthier seeds. Whenever possible try to find human-grade organically grown seeds from a reliable source, such as a health food store, to ensure the best quality for your birds.
Pellets are the next popular choice in bird diets, and most are a great base to start out with. Think of pellets like human cereal - generally grain-based, cooked (baked), in bite-size shapes, frequently flavored and sweetened to enhance their palatability. Many come in a variety of shapes and sizes to be easier to eat for specific sized birds, and some brands even market specialty formulas for specific species or special-needs birds.
Not all pellets are created the same, though, and some careful consideration is required in selecting pellets to feed your birds. Just as with human foods, those pellets that include artificial flavors and colors aren’t always the best choice. Some pellets are also more processed than others, and that extra processing can lower the amount of nutrients present in the end product. As with seed, organic-quality ingredients can really make a difference in the quality and results of the end product, so it can be worth taking the time to track down an organic source for the pellets.
Converting a bird to pellets when they’re used to a primarily seed diet can be challenging, but well worth the time it takes. Conversion isn’t something that should be rushed, and it certainly is easier to do when the bird is younger and more willing to try new foods. Ideally pellets should be included as part of the diet that the bird is weaned to and introduced as early as it is trying to eat new foods. There are many different conversion methods out there, so I won’t go into them now.
Another advantage of pellets is that like most seed they are shelf-stable, and so can be left in a bowl throughout the day for the bird to eat whenever they are hungry. While parrots should be closely monitor to ensure that they are not overeating and gaining too much weight, this is closer to how a parrot would eat in the wild compared to the meal-feeding recommendations for dogs and cats. At the same time, leaving pellets in the bowl for easy access provides no physical or mental exercise for the bird. Thankfully the shelf-stable quality of pellets also makes them great choices to use in foraging toys, simulating the search-and-eat process that wild birds would be forced to use. There’s no reason why all pellets couldn’t be placed into foraging containers or toys when being fed, provided they were introduced appropriately before the feeding method was changed over to this.
Vegetables, Fruits, Flowers and Real Foods
While pellets serve as a good launching ground for most parrot diets, they’re also rather uniform and… well, pretty boring for a day-in, day-out food. Turning them into the focus of foraging toys can only add so much interest when the meal is always the same thing - kind of like how peanut butter and jelly is always the same, no matter whose lunch box it comes out of. Additionally, pellets are largely processed seeds, which we said above weren’t the greatest balanced diet. Sure, there’s supplements and additives mixed in with the pellets to provide more nutrients than a straight seed diet, but that’s all been processed as well.
Thankfully, there’s a great way to add more color, phyto-nutrients, interest and excitement into a parrot’s diet - using real foods. Not everything grown in a garden is safe for parrot consumption, but there’s not many foods that they can’t eat. Many plants can even be eaten in seedling, leaf or flower forms in addition to the final fruit / vegetable, which also leaves lots of room for variation. Seeds can be sprouted, with extra sprouts allowed to grow - gently press in to organic potting mix and let the plant grow. Oat grass and wheat grass make excellent parrot garden crops, as do radish and broccoli seedlings. Even pea and bean sprouts can be allowed to leaf out before being offered to parrots. Lettuce and spinach seedlings also make a delicious tender treat that many parrots love. And of course, seedlings can be grown into full size plants and allowed to flower - and yes, many parrots will eat flowers - and then allowed to mature into fruits and vegetables for your bird to eat. (An article about gardening with birds with be forthcoming later on).
Even if you don’t want to grow your real foods, there’s lots of different ways to incorporate them into your bird’s diet. Your local store probably has quite the selection of fruits and vegetables right when you walk in. Non-organic items are less expensive, but can be dangerous for parrots due to the high levels of toxins found in the pesticides and herbicides used for industrial farming. Thankfully most grocery stores these days carry a modest-but-pricy selection of organic fruits, vegetables and greens. Some organic items can even be found canned (watch out for sodium and / or sugars added during processing) or frozen for year-round availability. In season, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), farm stands and farmer’s markets can also be great sources of local organic produce for your parrots.