Diet for Domestically Cared for Parrots

When I was a child, I was often told: You are what you eat. I hated vegetables and meat and favored, like every kid, sweets, cakes, pies and ice cream. We were always given a dessert but had to finish the food placed in front of us first.

When I started keeping birds, information on diet was very deficient. A sunflower or safflower seed based diet supplemented with a bit of apple, endive and maybe a piece of carrot was deemed adequate. Fast-forward 40 years and our understanding of diet for these birds has evolved considerably. Today we truly understand that to own a healthy parrot the cornerstone is a good, balanced diet.

For the importance of diet to be understood, we must look at parrots in the wild, where these birds feed on a vast variety of foods. In a study that I conducted in Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil between 1985 and 1989, I recorded over 59 items that were consumed by Maximilian Parrots Pionus maximiliani, 61 items that were eaten by Yellow-winged Amazons Amazona aestiva and 17 items eaten by Sharp-tailed Conures Thectocercus acuticaudatus, the latter only casually observed and not the focus of the research. The items selected contained the highest amount of fat when the birds were nesting, but otherwise tended to be eaten as they became available and then until the supply was exhausted, when another item was targeted. The list of foods item is not inclusive and over the years I have added many more. I have realized that bark plays an important role in detoxifying the birds, which as you will read later on feed on many items that contain toxins. If a generalization can be made in terms of diet it is that the birds never feed on just one item, but rather feed predominately on one and complemented their intake with the others. They are, if I can generalize, balancing their diet.

In my fieldwork, I have found that the parrots consume shoots, leaves, bark, buds, flowers, seedpods, fruit and seeds, occasionally a source of protein (lizards or even nestling passerine birds) and once the fresh droppings of Howler Monkeys. I have also seen parrots excavate grubs from rotting branches and feed on the carcasses of dead animals (namely penguins) and the hides of cattle sprayed over a rack for drying.

My research in the wild has confirmed that different species feed on different items that only they target. Green-winged Macaws Ara chloropterus, for example, feed on hard palm seeds while the Scarlet Macaws Ara macao feed on the drupes of palms that are softer shelled, this because the biting strength of the Scarlet seems incapable of cracking the hardest nuts. This selection of different palm seeds allows both species to occupy the same habitat and not compete with each other for the same food resource.

In the wild, some foods may be available for much of the year but will be eaten only at a certain stage of development or at a specific time of the year, such as when the young are about to fledge, or only if other food resources become scarce.

Some of the foods eaten by parrots, when tasted, are very unpalatable. Copey Clusia sp. produces a flower that leads to a fruit, which is a favorite of many Purrhura conures and the Touit parrotlets. When I tasted it, I could not understand the fascination and attraction that parrots find in the astringent fruit. This plant is widely grown in Florida as an ornamental. Whenever my birds see me with a handful, the excitement becomes noticeable. What they find appealing is beyond my imagination. The same applies to Hog plums Spondias mombim, which the birds adore when green. During the short season it is available, I feed it to the birds. They quickly consume the bitter flesh and then spend hours manipulating the seed in their mouth. This plant is an important food resource for many wild parrots, which, like my birds, prefer it green and not when it is yellow or orange, flavorful, sweet and ripe.

To deter predation, plants concentrate toxic compounds in unripe seeds, fruits, flowers and pods. These alkaloids seem no obstacle to parrots, which readily eat these; the parrots cannot wait for the seeds, pods or fruits to ripen, as they then compete with monkeys, fruit eating bats and other mammals and with frugiverous birds for the same resource. The parrots nullify the toxic alkaloids by consuming clay or bark or even certain bromeliad flowers. How the parrots learned to consume these elements to bind with the toxins so they can be excreted is one of nature's mysteries. (As an aside, the green seeds often sprout, and research conducted by Pepe Tella and his group is showing that where parrots disappear, the forest diversity begins to wane.)

So interesting, complex and vast is the subject of wild parrot diets that an entire book could be devoted to the subject. For the sake of brevity, the information can be summarized as follows: parrots eat tremendous variety of foods, they are opportunistic (eating what is available) but may avoid certain foods at certain times, and the dietary needs of different species varies with the season or breeding stage, suggesting that in captivity no single diet should be used across the board for all parrots all of the time.

So how can findings from studies in the wild be extrapolated to the diet of captive parrots?

I will relate my opinion based on more than 40 years as an aviculturist and after having done considerable fieldwork in every continent where parrots are found. My information is light years away from being complete but it is providing some clarity as to the needs of parrots.

Today pelleted or extruded diets are very popular. Many manufacturers of these composed diets suggest that their product is complete and should form as much as 90% of the diet. They suggest that if you feed other items, the nutritional balance in the compounded food will be compromised. Data suggests that the birds can survive on pellets and water. This diet is certainly far better than one composed of fatty, deficient seed mixes. But is the pelleted diet truly ideal for long-term physical and mental health? Since most parrots are long lived, we simply do not know how pelleted feeds will affect their long-term health and through multiple generations.

There is also the psychological component of feeding a sole item. Watch any wild parrot and you will quickly learn that they truly explore their environment for edible foods and that they often spend considerable time extracting an edible morsel. The Glossy Cockatoo Calytorhynchus lathani uses a heavy, bulbous bill to extract diminutive seeds about the size of a pinhead from an Australian pine cone. Palm Cockatoos Probosciger aterrimus visit many Pandanus trees to feed, even though they could easily satiate their appetite in a single location.

Wild parrots spend hours looking for their meal and then feeding. Pellets can be swallowed without any manipulation. They erode a natural behavior of finding the food, exploring the food item with the tongue, rotating it in the foot and removing whatever piece can be eaten.

My second concern about an all pelleted diet is that they have almost invariably been manufactured from nutritional studies based on poultry. But parrots are very different from poultry, which have been bred for a condensed existence—a couple of months for broilers and about two years for egg layers. Parrots are longer lived, grow slower, are altricial and primarily arboreal—all the opposite of poultry.

Based on the above, I do not believe that pellets should form the sole diet, but rather comprise no more than 60% of the daily intake. The pellets should be sized for the species to avoid waste. The birds should be fed maintenance pellets which are lower in protein if they are pets; only birds in a breeding situation should be offered the higher protein pellets.

If pellets are not the optimum food, are seed diets better? The answer is also a resounding, "No!". A diet composed of sunflower, safflower, an occasional nut and apple or other fruit or one or two types of vegetables is terribly inadequate for sustaining a bird's health long term. Some may argue that parrots have survived and been bred to multiple generations on this diet and I cannot argue with that point. During the 1800s it was believed parrots did not need water. Some survived a long period of time, but that deprivation was not healthy. I feel similarly about a diet of seeds with only an occasional piece of fruit or vegetable. This diet will eventually lead to deficiencies, malnutrition and without doubt serious illness, which may explain the reduced lifespan of parrots which have (and whose ancestors) fed only on seeds. Pellets are a better option to a predominately seed diet, but BOTH pellets and seeds require that the diet be broadened significantly.

Mixed seed diets can overcome some of the deficiencies seen in only a single seed diet, but the problem is that many of the smaller seeds will work their way to the bottom of the food bowl, where the birds ignore them. In such cases, the birds will eat only the seeds at the top. Offering vitamin-coated seeds is in my opinion worthless, as the parrots shell the seeds; they do not eat the husk. Their mouths are dry. The vitamins thus do not get ingested.

For those hobbyists that feed seed diets, my recommendation is to offer as much variety as possible and to limit the seeds to no more than 60% of the overall diet. These seeds should be offered in like-sized groups to reduce waste and selected to meet the nutritional requirements for the species being maintained, ie. lowest in fat for species prone to obesity like Amazons and cockatoos (especially the Galah Eolophus roseicapillus) or fatty liver disease (like the Quaker Parakeet Myiopsitta monachus) and higher in fat for species like African Greys Psittacus erithacus and macaws that need more fat in their daily diet. For parrots needing fat, small sunflower, safflower, hemp and shelled peanuts can be offered one day, and assorted millets, oats, buckwheat, perilla, etc. on another day. If the birds will eat them, items like pumpkin seeds can be included. For species prone to obesity, a few small sunflower and safflower seeds can be mixed with wheat, milo, paddy rice, popcorn, oats, buckwheat and other similar sized seeds as a treat. For both groups, I always recommend adding some pellets to the diet for variety. (For birds fed a pelleted diet, a few sunflower or safflower seeds are a great treat and should be included in the diet.) The pellets can be sized to the seed type being fed. For Budgerigars, a selection of millets (Japanese, red, white and yellow), husked oats, linseed and canary seed can be provided, the selection being varied from day to day. The intention is to offer as much variety as possible and to encourage the bird to eat everything.

For birds requiring fatty diets, some nuts should be provided. We give our macaws an assortment of nuts—walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, macadamia and Brazilnuts. The African Greys receive cracked walnuts and hazelnuts and almonds. While on the subject of nuts, I am always concerned about aflotoxins in nuts but especially peanuts and Brazilnuts. This is why I recommend that parrots be fed shelled peanuts intended for human consumption and only the best quality Brazilnuts available. Where in doubt, have the peanuts or nuts tested by a laboratory or health food agency, or look online for methods of detecting aflotoxin contamination. (Aflotoxins cannot be viewed with the naked eye, smelled or tasted.)

The soak and cook diet used decades ago and developed by Dr Raymond Kray is still fed by some pet owners, whose birds are antediluvian. (I know of two Double Yellow-headed Amazona oratrix and one Yellow-naped Amazon Amazona auropalliata that have been fed this diet for over 40 years that look the picture of good health.) This diet consists of equal parts of cooked pinto beans, fresh or frozen corn kernels, dog food and brown rice. My concern is that the high levels of iron in the dog kibble could prove deadly to some species and contamination with pathogens is an ever-present risk. Also, spoilage is a problem with this diet if left sitting in a bowl all day.

Many readers will be thinking that my recommendations are laudable, but that their birds are addicted to seeds or pellets and eat nothing else. I get many messages with such comments each month, but I simply do not accept such arguments. When I was a kid, as I previously stated, I hated spinach and steak, but when those two items were served for dinner, I had two options: go hungry or eat them. I ate them. The difference is that parrots can be obstinate. They may reject the other foods initially, but persistence and ingenuity in presentation invariably pays dividends. In over 40 years as an aviculturist, I have yet to find one – yes not ONE-- parrot that couldn't be coaxed into eating a broader diet.

So what foods can be used to enrich the diet? The list is very long and can incorporate items that may only be regionally available. As an example, we feed the seeds of ornamental palms to our birds as a form of enrichment and to augment the diet. All of the parrots will chew the fibrous covering and then play with the seed for many hours. But these seeds are not available everywhere. I cannot produce rose hips in the very humid south Florida where I live, but hobbyists in the northern parts of the USA, Europe and elsewhere can offer this excellent food sources to their birds.

Many weeds that are detested by gardeners can be an excellent food source. Chickweed, dandelion, plantain and many others can be offered whole, with the roots attached. (Look online for the entire list of weeds that can be fed to the birds.) The only caveat is that they come from a chemical and fertilizer free environment. I know of several hobbyists that never spray their backyards so that they can harvest the weeds for their birds.

Cultivated fruits have been selected to suit the human palette, which with each generation requires sweeter fruit. The results of this means that many cultivated varieties of apple available today have as much as 160 grams of sugar per kilogram of fruit. Just 50 years ago, the sugar content was less than half. The same can be stated for grapes, pear, peaches, oranges, etc. If you examine wild fruit eaten by parrots, few are rich in sugar and very rarely are they eaten when the sugar content is at its peak. Indeed, as previously stated, fruits are preferred when they are not ripe. As an example, in Seville, Spain, I have seen feral Ring-necked Parakeets Psittacula krameri feed on the most bitter oranges imaginable, even though a sweet tangerine tree was growing nearby.

Cultivated fruit can be included in the diet but select varieties that are not packages of sugar. This means seeking out some of the heirloom varieties or picking types intended for cooking. Tropical fruits are excellent. Many have high sugar contents but they are nutritionally superior to temperature fruit and this in my opinion justifies their use. Mango, genip, papaya, guava, Opuntia cactus fruit, carambola, etc are all suitable. The list is long and again can vary from region to region.

Vegetables are in my opinion an excellent supplement for caged parrots and are preferred over fruit. Hot peppers, okra, carrot, beets, greenbeans, broccoli, fresh peas, corn on the cob, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, jicama and many more should be on the menu. Greens including endive, escarole, spinach, chicory, the tops of beets and carrots, and many others should likewise be part of the menu. There are two caveats with vegetables: some greens (namely spinach, chard, beet greens and kale) contain oxalates that can affect calcium uptake and should therefore be offered in limited quantities (though never excluded) from the diet, and some vegetables are better cooked—the beta-carotene content in carrots increases in cooking and cruciferous vegetables (including broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts) loose their thyroid inhibiting qualities when heated. Steaming is the best means of cooking, but boiling can be considered as long as the vegetables are not cooked to a mush. When boiling, use the same water to cook brown rice, whole grain pasta or pulses, which the birds relish (see below).

Other food items that can be included in the parrot diet are cooked whole grain pasta, brown rice, beans (some, such as black and fava beans, spoil quicker than pinto beans or chick peas), couscous, quinoa and more. Whole grain bread, birdie bread (look online for recipes), nut butter (smeared on the whole grain bread) and even certain dry breakfast cereals can be offered to the birds; the latter should not contain sugar or hydrogenated fats and should be derived from whole grains. These items should be selected for feeding species requiring either higher or lower fat diets.
Sprouting seed, fed when the sprout is just emerging, are packed full of good nutritious elements and are eaten by all species. The act of germination changes the nutritional composition of seeds, consuming fats packed in the seeds to start the growth process.  We sprout seeds, including safflower, sunflower, various types of peas, milo, popcorn, lentils, mung beans and more for the birds and they generally eat these before other foods. When sprouting, the seeds need to be washed intensely several times daily and a bacterial growth inhibitor used to deter bacterial growth. Flowers, fresh branches, natural foods (palm seeds, pods, etc), green millet sprays and more can be added to the diet as long as they come from a pesticide and insecticide free source.

When feeding fruits, vegetables and cooked foods, two important points need to be borne in mind: they can spoil, so should be removed after a reasonable amount of time, and flying insects may be attracted to them. We provide seeds or pellets in the second feeding; the first feeding is invariably the long list of items mentioned above, which are offered in bowls that are removed after two hours. The exceptions are flowers, branches and natural foods, which can be left in the cage.

The daily challenge of every aviculturist is to provide variety to the birds. I normally sit with a pen and paper and plan the weekly menu, taking into account items that are grown locally and which are at their nutritional peak.

So how do you get a bird that refuses to eat anything but seeds or pellets to broaden its dietary intake? The solid food (seeds or pellets) should be removed at night and the fruits or vegetables or cooked foods offered early in the morning; cooked foods should be provided while still warm, which often increases interest and palatability. Adding items like cooked beets, which stain everything red, make the food even more attractive. This food should be left in place for two hours.

Offering new foods in the morning is important. The birds will be hungry at that time and more apt to sample new items.

The fruits and vegetables should be offered chopped. They should retain their integrity—mush if rarely eaten. I will never forget when the late John Stoodley encouraged me to feed my birds a mash of pulses, vegetables and some fruit. The birds had been accustomed to eating tremendous variety but outright refused to eat the indiscernible mash.  When the integrity of the ingredients was retained, the birds ate the mix of pulses, vegetables and fruits quite well.
Bright colors attract parrots and should always be offered in the daily mélange. Orange, red and yellow are far more attractive to parrots than greens or browns. Beets and carrots are often the first items that a parrot on a will eat.

Finally there is the organic and GMO (genetically modified) issue that must be kept in mind. Where possible, I try to feed my birds organic, but not all foods are available from an organic certified source. There is also a study that showed how breeding was not improved by feeding normal versus organic foods. I am not so convinced about the use of GMO foods, though understand that in the USA, these items are pervasive, so I try where possible to identify and exclude these from the family and animal diet. This is a personal choice, and not a rule that must be adhered to.

When feeding, be creative, open-minded and go the extra effort. The result will be evident in the sheen and intensity of the plumage, the behavior of the bird and its general state of health.