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Avian Medicine: Avian Nutrition:
Nutritional Strategies for the Companion Parrot

Authors: Susan E. Orosz, PhD, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian), Dipl ECAMS; Bird and Exotic Pet Wellness Center Toledo, Ohio and Christal Pollock, DVM, Dipl. ABVP-Avian; Lafeber Company veterinary consultant

Date: Dec 10, 2008

Key words: Formulated, pellet, extruded, diet, Nutri-Berries, Avi-Cakes, enrichment.

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Key Points

  • Seed-only diets are not recommended as the sole diet for companion parrots because they are deficient in essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Seed-based diets promote normal behaviors such as beak and tongue manipulation of the various foods, sensation of textures for brain stimulation and foraging behaviors.
  • Psittacine birds in captivity are not able to self balance their diets when offered a seed-only diet along with a choice of fruits and vegetables. Even in the wild, psittacines are only able to self-balance their energy, protein, and calcium needs.
  • Birds with free choice of seed-only diets (which are high in fat) will be deficient in many nutrients, including amino acids, minerals, and vitamins. Birds will eat to first meet their energy needs. When next trying to satisfy their amino acid and mineral needs, birds will get excess energy in the form of fat, becoming both obese and malnourished.
  • Nutritionally balanced products are based on limited studies on companion birds along with detailed information on a variety of grain eaters that include chickens, ducks, quail and turkeys. Feeding balanced products improves the health and breeding of companion parrots.
  • Pelleted and extruded foods developed for companion birds provide balanced nutrition in a convenient form, however these diets by themselves do not provide sufficient physical or mental stimulation.
  • Lafeber Company manufactures diets that are balanced nutritionally and promote natural behaviors including foraging behavior. Lafeber foraging diets include: Nutri-Berries, Avi-Cakes , Nutri-Meals , and Nutri-An Cakes.
  • The best diet for an individual companion bird will vary with its species, lifestyle, and life stage. Tailor the diet to meet the needs and preferences of that individual avian patient.

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Introduction

In the 1960s and 1970s, companion birds were commonly fed seed-only diets, rich in millet and oil seeds, including sunflower seeds. Dr. Ted Lafeber, Sr. observed in his veterinary hospital that birds fed a variety of vegetables, grains, fruits, and other “people foods” in addition to seeds were healthier and lived longer than birds that were fed seed-only diets. With this knowledge, Dr. Lafeber encouraged his clients to provide their birds a variety of healthy foods from vegetables to cooked eggs and supplemented their diets with vitamins and minerals that were lacking in seed-only diets. However, many of his clients did not have sufficient time to prepare a variety of foods and supplements each day. This inspired Dr. Lafeber to work with the premier avian nutritionist at the time. Together they developed a diet that was formulated to meet the needs of Dr Lafeber’s companion bird patients. For these diets, he ground together a mixture of seeds and grains with the correct mix of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids in balance for their health to form the first formulated bird food for companion birds in 1974.

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Nutritional strategies

There are various approaches to provide food for the companion parrot. Each nutritional strategy has its own advantages and disadvantages.

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Seed-only diets

An un-supplemented seed-only diet (Fig 1) is not balanced for companion birds. These diets are deficient in some of the essential amino acids, minerals, and vitamins, particularly the fat-soluble vitamins: vitamin A, D3, E, and K. Additionally, the amino acids are not present in the correct ratio to provide sufficient protein. For this reason, birds, trying to meet their amino acid and protein needs will continue to eat this unbalanced seed diet. They may get to their amino acid requirements but, because these diets are high in fats, they will get fat in the process. Seed-only diets are also deficient in calcium that can lead to a variety of problems – from seizures to egg binding. Therefore a seed-only diet leads to malnutrition and secondary health problems.

Lorikeets eating seed Opals-on-Black

Figure 1. Rainbow lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus) eating sunflower seeds. Image by Opals-on-Black.

However seed-only diets are quite palatable. Ingestion of seeds also promotes natural behaviors like manipulating and cracking food items. Theoretically, seed-only mixes may be supplemented with vitamins and minerals. Most of these seeds are coated on the outside of the hull with these vitamin/mineral mixes. When the bird dehulls the seeds to eat them, the mix is removed. Therefore, seed mixes with added minerals and vitamins provide little nutritional value. Another technique is to add a colored pellet into the seed mix but most birds do not eat these, so balance for proper nutrition is not gained.

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Pelleted diets

Lafeber Company and Roudybush are the only bird food companies that make a truly pellet-based food. Pellets consist primarily of ground grains like corn, soybeans, and oats supplemented with vitamins and minerals to produce a balanced food. This mix is then made into cylindrical pellets by forcing the mix under increased temperature (160-180ºF) and some pressure through a form (Fig 2).

macaw pellets

Figure 2. Lafeber Company macaw & cockatoo pellets.

The biggest advantage of pellets is they provide excellent nutritional value because the bird is not able to pick out individual components to “unbalance” its food. All Lafeber Company pellets and granules are in an easy-to-feed, balanced formulation that supports the maintenance requirements of adult companion birds. The finch and canary granules as well as parakeet and cockatiel pellets support all life stages from adult maintenance to breeding.

On the other hand, pellets provide reduced enrichment for the bird because of their uniformity in shape and color. While seeds alone often vary in shape or color, one pellet looks pretty much like another. Unfortunately, pellets may also not be accepted when compared to whole seeds, particularly in granivores like parakeets and cockatiels. These birds normally eat a large number of seeds in the wild so they are naturally attracted to seed-based diets.

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Extruded diets

Extruded bird foods were first introduced in the late 1980s. Extruded foods are produced by a variety of bird food companies including Harrison’s© Bird Foods, Kaytee®, Zupreem®, and Hagen®. Like pellets, extrusion utilizes ground grains with an appropriate addition of vitamins and minerals to balance the food. However, the ground mixture is forced through an extruder under high pressure and high temperatures (250 to 275ºF or 90 to 180ºC) to create a variety of shapes and colors (Fig 3).

extruded diet

Figure 3. Extruded diets can be made in multiple colors and shapes.

The extrusion process requires that grains and seeds are more finely ground than when producing a true pellet. This fine grinding along with the high pressures and temperatures cook the product and result in complete gelatinization of starch. The small size and the extrusion process provides reduced stimulation to the gastrointestinal tract and may produce a softer, wetter type stool that can have a sticky quality to it. An exception to this rule of thumb for particle size is Harrison’s© Bird Foods, which contains larger particle sizes in some of their diets. Like pellets, extruded foods homogenize the nutritional components and reduce the foraging benefit.

As with pellets, extruded diets may not be easily accepted by granivores such as parakeets and cockatiels. These birds normally eat a large number of seeds in the wild so are naturally attracted to seed-based diets.

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Foraging diets

Nutri-Berries , Avi-Cakes , Nutri-An Cakes , and Nutri-Meals all contain a mix of pellets blended with grains and hulled seeds:

  • Pellet, containing amino acids, vitamins and minerals, are dispersed through these diets.
  • Each product is formulated as a balanced meal but is not ground up like a pellet. The unique advantage of these products is that they provide balanced nutrition while offering a variety of shapes and textures which are so important for enrichment and normal foraging behavior.
  • This combination of seeds, grains and pellets in one product also makes these excellent foods for conversion to a health diet.
  • The whole grains and seeds provide large-sized food particles, compared with pellets and extruded foods, to promote healthy gastrointestinal function.

Nutri-Berries were one of the first foraging, nutritionally balanced foods introduced for companion birds. Nutri-Berries were the first product to have the seeds shelled or dehulled and then have amino acids, vitamins and minerals added. This novel feeding strategy utilizes whole grains and seeds in a round shape while providing additional components for dietary balance. The size and shape of Nutri-Berries are very similar to what parrots select in the wild. The shape helps birds engage in their natural foraging behavior (Fig 4). Nutri-Berries are often held in the foot by the larger parrot species, allowing them to mimic their natural feeding behavior of working on an object to extract components.

Amazon eating NB

Figure 4. A blue-fronted Amazon parrot (Amazona aestiva) eating Nutri-Berries.

All varieties of Nutri-Berries – Classic, Tropical Fruit, Sunny Orchard, El Paso, and Garden Veggie – are essentially the same nutritionally, while providing different tastes and textures. Nutri-Berries are similar in composition to pellets, except that the ingredients are not ground up. Nutri-Berries for parakeets and cockatiels support breeding, and all Nutri-Berries may be fed for adult maintenance.

All forms of Avi-Cakes may be fed for maintenance and cockatiel Avi-Cakes also support breeding. Although these products have a cakes-like shape, this does not imply they are fattening (Fig 5). Parrot Avi-Cakes are relatively low in energy and their energy content is similar to that of pellets.

Avi-Cakes

Figure 5. Avi-Cakes are a balanced diet nearly identical to pellets in nutrient content.

Nutri-Meals and Nutri-An Cakes are newer Lafeber products. Nutri-Meals may be fed for maintenance and are available over-the-counter, while Nutri-An Cakes are prescription diets sold only to veterinarians. Nutri-An Cakes for Foraging and Weight Maintenance are a low energy food that can promote weight loss if fed as the sole diet. Nutri-An Cakes for Recovery and Nutritional Support are designed for patients that require higher energy and protein.

While most birds will consume Nutri-Berries and the other foraging foods easily, this is not true for all individuals. Some birds are more likely to start eating new products if they are crumbled and added to their daily food. In grain eaters, like cockatiels and parakeets, presenting crumbled Nutri-Berries on a flat surface encourages their natural feeding behavior. Offering different sizes of Nutri-Berries or Avi-Cakes can also be beneficial to get bird interest.

On rare occasions, a bird may eat only one type of seed or grain from some of the foraging foods such as Nutri-Berries or Avi-Cakes. A bird that picks out and eats only a few seed or grain types will not ingest a balanced daily diet. If the bird eats about 30% of the food or more, then the meal will remain balanced.

Conversely, some birds, mainly Amazon and Eclectus parrots, can overeat when offered Nutri-Berries free choice, often leading to weight gain. (Download our 3-page PDF with feeding recommendation for classic and gourmet parrot Nutri-Berries). Reducing the quantity provided helps to reduce weight gain and waste. Placing foraging foods into foraging toys can also help with weight reduction by stimulating natural feeding behaviors and promoting mental stimulation.

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Table 1. A summary of the current nutritional strategies available to pet birds.

Pellets Extruded Pellets Nutri-Berries Avi- Cakes Seeds & Supplements & Table Food
Ease of Nutritional Balance Easy Easy Easy Easy Hard
Texture Appeal Low Low High High High
Texture Variety Low Low High High High
Shelf Life High High High High Low
Freshness Varies Varies Varies Varies High
Convenience High High High High Low
Eye Appeal Low Low High High High
Cost Varies Varies High High Varies
Palatability Low Low High High High
Nutritional Uniformity/Bite High High Med Med Low
Nutritional Uniformity/Meal High High High High Varies
Particle Size Variety Low Very Low Med-High Med-High High
Degree of Gelatinized Starches Low High Low Very Low Very Low
Quality of Droppings Normal Possible Loose Normal Normal Normal
Boredom Factor High High Low Low Low

This table is a general summary of available diets, however exceptions exist. Harrison’s Bird Foods have some larger particle sizes in some of their extruded pellets (a good strategy) as compared to most other available extruded diets.

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Conclusion

Most bird owners rely on a variety of nutritional strategies, offering a variety of foods that include formulated food, people food, and seeds. There is no one nutritional strategy that is appropriate for all companion birds. An important role of avian veterinarians is to work with owners to find the diet that meets the specific needs of each bird and works for that owner. Any nutritional strategy that incorporates a significant portion (> 50%) of pellets, extruded foods, Nutri-Berries, Nutri-An Cakes, Nutri-Meals, and/or Avi-Cakes is vastly superior to a seed-only diet. For optimal nutrition, it is best to use a name brand such as Lafeber Company, Harrison’s© Bird Food, ZuPreem® or other major brands for optimal nutrition. Fresh vegetables, particularly the orange vegetables along with true berries (such as blueberries) and nuts (like walnuts) may be added in small amounts as well. Healthy foods and nutritional strategies to meet their needs enhance the health and well-being of these wonderful companion birds.

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References

Harrison GJ, McDonald D. Nutritional considerations. In: Harrison GJ, Lightfoot TL (eds). Clinical Avian Medicine. Palm Beach, FL: Spix Publishing; 2006: p. 108-140.

Roudybush TE. Nutrition. In: Altman RB, Clubb SL, Dorrestein GM, Quesenberry K (eds). Avian Medicine and Surgery. Philadelphia, PA: WB Saunders; 1997: p. 27-44.

Klasing KC. In: Harrison GJ, Lightfoot TL (eds). Comparative Avian Nutrition. New York, NY: CABI Publishing; 1998.

Orosz SE. Avian Nutrition Revisited: Harrison GJ, Lightfoot TL (eds). Clinical Perspectives. . Proc Annu Conf Assoc Avian Vet. 2005: p. 209-217.