Like humans, the long term health of birds is greatly affected by the quality of their diet. According to Montclair Veterinary Hospital’s Exotics veterinarian Doctor Barbara VanGilder, many of the conditions that she treats on a day-to-day basis in birds have their origins in a suboptimal diet. Problems such as liver disease, reproductive and behavioral disorders, and metabolic bone disease can all be traced back to an unbalanced or nutritionally deficient diet.
One of the most difficult facets of taking care of a companion bird is that the dietary needs of every species vary much more than in cats and dogs. As such, there is no catch-all diet that works equally well for all birds. As an avian caretaker, the onus is really on you and your veterinarian to come up with a viable and individualized dietary plan for your bird.
Additionally, scientists and veterinarians simply don’t have a full body of research on the dietary needs of most bird species. For this reason, keeping birds captive who have highly variable diets in the wild, such as parrots, is often doing them a great disservice. As humans, we just don’t have the capacity or knowledge with which to simulate a wild bird’s true diet.
That being said, veterinarians have learned some important components of a balanced bird diet, and there are certainly steps that you, the bird’s caretaker, can take to stave off diseases and disorders born of malnutrition.
Before we discuss the particular foods to feed birds, it is prudent to take a moment to reflect on how we are conveying birds’ food to them. As we previously discussed with Doctor VanGilder in our article on creating active foraging opportunities for birds, it is vital that birds living in captivity are given opportunities to exercise their basic foraging instincts. Birds are highly intelligent creatures with brains built to spend around 80% of the day actively foraging for food. When left to simply sit in their cages all day, birds can begin harming themselves and screaming out of sheer boredom. A bird with nothing to do is an extremely unhappy bird, and learning how to prepare foraging devices to store their food is an absolute must for bird guardians. As a rule of thumb, food should be available all day.
The ideal diet for a bird is a combination of a good pelleted food with fresh vegetables. Contrary to popular belief, seeds should be used for treats and rewards, not as a primary source of nutrition. Seeds are often thought of the as the quintessential bird food, and most people have seen birds in the wild going after seeds on the ground or in bird feeders. While seeds are a perfectly safe food to feed your bird, they should not be thought of as the cornerstone of a balanced and healthy diet for three distinct reasons. The first is that they lack two essential nutrients: calcium and vitamin A. Diets low in calcium can lead to metabolic bone disease and egg binding. Vitamin A is integral to the health of epithelial cells which cover and protect the respiratory, urinary, and intestinal tracts of birds as well as their skin. Deficiency can lead to serious problems in each of these areas.
The second reason that an all-seed diet is not healthy is that seeds are very high in fats. When used sparingly as treats, this is not an issue for birds. However, diets which are primarily composed of seeds lead to higher risks of heart disease (atherosclerosis), obesity, and liver dysfunction.
(Picture credit: BirdChannel.com)
Finally, birds’ bodies gauge when it is breeding season by the presence and abundance of rich foods such as seeds. When seeds are fed in large quantities they can cause birds’ hormones to activate which may lead to aggressive and unwanted behavior.
As such, it is much more appropriate to think of seeds in the same way one might think of dog or cat treats: good for encouraging desirable behavior and for rewards, but not something to feed all the time.
Let’s return to what we should feed our birds— namely, pellets and fresh vegetables. Since we know that vitamin A is such an important asset to birds, foods which are high in pre-Vitamin A substances called carotenoids— found in leafy greens and orange and yellow vegetables— are the ideal food for birds. Doctor VanGilder recommends trying peas and squash which are both high in vitamin A. Vegetables to avoid are onions and especially avocados which can lead to heart failure. Orange and yellow fruits such as apricots and mangos are fine to feed, but are high in sugar and should only be given infrequently as treats.
Here are some other healthy vegetables that the Avian experts at https://lafeber.com/vet/ recommend:
Broccoli, Carrots, Chard, Chicory, Collard Greens, Dandelion greens, Kale, Mustard greens, Parsley, Peppers, Pumpkin, Spinach, Sweet Potato, Turnip Greens, and Watercress.
Remember that the best diet is one that is varied—we recommend cycling through these different vegetables options to keep your bird’s diet as interesting and nutritionally well-rounded as possible.
Aside from avocado and onions, here are some toxic foods that should not ever be fed to your bird:
Chocolate (the darker the worse), garlic, comfrey (may cause liver problems), stone fruits containing pits, table foods that are high in fat or sugar, and sugar free candies (xylitol and other sugar substitutes are proven to be highly toxic in dogs).
As always, planning out your bird’s diet with the help of a veterinarian is always ideal. We hope this article has helped give you a good broad overview of the kinds of decisions that will help to ensure your bird is getting sufficient nutrition.
(Picture credit: tamedpets.com)