Advances in recent years have shown us that feeding an all-seed diet is not just a bad diet, but one that actively contributes to the death of thousands of pet birds every year.
Did you know?
- That sunflower seed contains 49% fat – three times as much fat as the average chocolate bar? Many other seeds contain similar levels.
- That birds love to eat fatty foods, just like many people?
- That birds on seed diets suffer many of the same health problems as people who eat high fat diets — obesity, heart disease, fatty liver, diabetes, bad skin?
- That birds on a pelleted diet live longer, have fewer health problems, and look better than birds on a seed diet?
Some important truths about feeding birds
There are many misconceptions and myths about feeding birds but here are some important truths you should know:
- Seed is not a natural and heathy diet. While seed can make up a small part of a balanced diet, it is neither natural nor healthy to feed it as a sole diet.
- Although pellets are made from seed, the way the pellets are prepared makes the pellets much healthier than just feeding seed. The seed and grain that is used to make formulated diets has been modified by removing much of the fat content and then adding protein, minerals, and vitamins to reach a healthier diet. These levels have been obtained from research into the diet of wild birds.
- Birds have not evolved eating exclusively seed. Birds have lived in Australia for many millions of years. We have been growing agricultural grain here for about 250 years. Grain is simply a new addition to the diet of birds, one which they like and have taken advantage of to extend their range. But wild birds don’t just eat seed – it is a small component of their overall food intake.
- While pellets are processed food and artificial many studies have shown that they are much healthier than seed. So, if one food is artificial but healthy, and the other is natural but unhealthy – which should you choose?
Most avian veterinarians recommend you should feed your bird a diet that is approximately 60% formulated diet and 40% vegetables, with seed and fruit used a treat only. There are some exceptions but, broadly speaking, your bird will live longer and be healthier on this sort of diet.
Formulated diets – getting your bird to eat them
Many people complain that their bird will not eat a formulated diet. This is usually not because of the taste, but because the bird doesn’t recognise it as food. We have to teach many birds, just as their parents would have done, what is safe to eat.
- The first step is to work out how much seed your bird eats. This is simply done by measuring how many teaspoons of seed your bird eats in a 24-hour period. Just measure the amount fed in the morning and then 24 hours later blow off the husks and measure how much is left. The difference is the amount been eaten. Repeat this exercise for 3-4 days to get an idea of the average daily consumption.
- The next step is to then feed only that amount of seed, but now mixed with an equal amount of the formulated diet and thawed mixed frozen vegetables. Mix it all together to make a uniformly distributed mash.
- The last step is to then take away a pinch of seed each day. This makes your bird slightly hungrier each day and, as he/she forages through the mash it starts eating the formulated diet and the vegetables. At the end of 2-3 weeks most birds are eating the formulated diet and the vegetables and aren’t getting any seed at all.
Other tricks that work with some birds:
- Pretend to eat the formulated diet and then offer it to the bird
- Sprinkle some of the diet on a table top or the floor, and let the bird explore and nibble at it
- Convert two birds in the same cage at once – the competition for food often makes the conversion faster and simpler. As soon as one bird sees the other eating the new diet, it will ‘give it a go’ as well.
If at any time during this conversion period your bird looks unwell or develops small black droppings, feed the bird some seed immediately. You may have ‘pushed too hard’ and your bird is starving. If your bird does not immediately start eating, or is not improving in a few hours, seek veterinary assistance.
There are three main vegetable types that can be fed to birds, easily grouped by colour:
- Yellow vegetables – corn, carrot, sweet potato, pumpkin
- Green vegetables – beans, peas, silver beet, broccoli, milk thistle, dandelion
- Red vegetables – beetroot, capsicum, chillies
It’s a good idea to do some research and select vegetables that are low GI (see below).
Ideally, low GI (glycaemic index) fruits should be fed. High GI fruits (such as watermelon) are rapidly digested and absorbed and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Low-GI fruits (apples, apricots, bananas, grapes, kiwi fruit, peaches, pears, plums) are more slowly digested and absorbed, producing more gradual rises in blood sugar. Keep in mind that all fruit is high in sugar and should be regarded as a treat only.
Lorikeets are unique among the parrots in that their very anatomy and metabolism has evolved around a high energy lifestyle. Wild lorikeets eat high sugar, easily digested foods (pollen, nectar, and fruit) but ‘burn it off’ quickly. In captivity, lorikeets fed a similar diet are likely to gain weight and suffer the associated health problems. They should be fed small amounts of commercial lorikeet diets (i.e. one dessert spoon per day) and low GI fruits and vegetables.
1. Doneley B (2018) Avian Medicine and Surgery in Practice: Companion and Aviary Birds, 2nd ed. CRC Press