The decision to own an exotic bird should only be made after careful consideration. Many beginning aviculturists don't realize all that is involved in caring for domesticated birds – they are not low maintenance pets!
As is the case with any living creature, nutrition is the cornerstone of good health and vitality in birds.
Many owners over feed their birds – a problem also seen today in an increasing number of cats, dogs and other companion animals. Too many treats and too little nutritional variety are major contributors to poor health in pet birds.
With over 8,000 species of birds in the world, there's no one-size-fits-all ideal bird diet. But the more exotic bird enthusiasts know about the basics of good bird nutrition, the better able they are to nurture the health and quality of life of their pets.
Proper nourishment of a pet bird (or any other living being) means not only feeding a nutritionally balanced diet, but one that can be efficiently digested and absorbed once swallowed.
It is the successful absorption of essential nutrients into your bird’s body that makes the difference between a well or poorly fed pet.
There are six types of nutrients necessary for a bird’s health:
- Carbs and fiber
- Fatty acids
If your bird isn’t getting the right balance of these nutrients, or if his digestive system isn’t able to do its job efficiently in preparing his food for absorption, his body won’t be optimally nourished.
Six Nutritional Building Blocks Essential for Your Bird’s Health
Water is the most important ingredient in your bird’s diet -- it promotes and sustains all the processes of digestion and absorption of nutrients. Your bird gets moisture from the food she eats, the water she drinks, and as her body metabolizes nutrients from her diet. Making sure your feathered friend has pure water, free of chlorine and heavy metals is a must. Use a quality bottled water if you're not sure if your tap water is free of toxic chemicals.
Your bird needs sufficient protein, but not too much. Too much protein can lead to liver and kidney problems. Nutritional variety is important, as most pelleted bird seed mixes contain some but not all of the essential amino acids. For example, feed composed primarily of plant proteins will be deficient in the amino acids lysine and methionine. If you feed a pelleted diet make sure the pellets contain these amino acids.
- Carbs and Fiber
Starch is a soluble carbohydrate. The seeds of starchy plants are an excellent carb source to supply your bird’s energy requirements. Fiber in the form of cellulose is an insoluble carb. Your bird can’t use cellulose for energy because his body can’t break it down during digestion.
However, similar to the way fiber benefits human digestion, your bird needs an appropriate amount of cellulose in his diet to provide bulk and move food through his digestive tract. Remember, carbs contain calories that will be stored as fat if they’re not burned.
- Essential Fatty Acids
Healthy fats are also an energy source for pet birds. But fats have a higher caloric content than other energy nutrients like protein and carbohydrates, so it’s important to insure your bird doesn’t become overweight by eating too many seeds that are high in oil. Essential fatty acids (my favorite being coconut oil) in your bird’s diet will also:
- Improve the size and hatchability of eggs
- Help the condition of your bird’s skin and feather coat
- Protect the liver from fat accumulation
- Aid in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins
- Promote overall growth
Pet birds need the same minerals all animals need for health at the cellular level. Birds require both macro-minerals and trace minerals. Macro or large minerals are the most abundant in the bodies of animals and include calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. Trace minerals are just as essential to health, but are needed in much smaller quantities. Trace or micro-minerals include cooper, iodine, iron and zinc.
Your bird requires both fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins in his diet.
- The fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E and K. Deficiencies in these vitamins can develop if your bird is eating a restricted diet with low fat soluble vitamin content. The opposite problem in the form of toxicity can occur if your bird’s diet is too heavy in fat soluble vitamins, A and D in particular.
- That’s why variety in the diet is so important. Ideally, your bird should receive a good balance of most or all of the vitamins he requires in his diet, making supplementation unnecessary.
- The water-soluble vitamins are the B complex vitamins like niacin, riboflavin and thiamin, as well as vitamin C. Unlike fat soluble vitamins, these vitamins aren’t stored in your bird’s body, so they must be replenished continuously through the diet.
- To absorb vitamins adequately, your bird must have access to either direct sunlight (time outside, not sunshine through windows) or you must provide UV rays in the form of a 'bird bulb' (an ultra-violet light that shines on your bird for four to eight hours a day).
How to Make Sure Your Bird is Well-Nourished
Seed-based bird diets are no longer recommended by most avian veterinarians. Organic pelleted-based diets are a much healthier option for your feathered friend.
Pelleted-based diets can be purchased at pet stores, veterinary clinics and also online. You’ll want to choose a variety appropriate for the type of bird you own, as formulations differ. Some mixtures are higher in fat than others, some have a higher protein content.
If you aren’t sure which variety to feed your pet, talk with your avian veterinarian.
I also recommend you add organic fresh veggies and fruits, legumes and whole grain pasta, whole unsalted raw nuts, and a small amount (no more than 30 percent) of seeds to round out your bird’s pellet diet.
If your bird, like many, is a picky eater or isn’t used to fresh fruits and vegetables in her diet, she might show little interest in them initially – even for several months. But with patience and persistence on your part, eventually your pet should grow curious enough to sample the new fresh additions to her meals.
There are a wide variety of fresh fruits and veggies you can feed your bird. Here are just a few:
A Word about Essential Fatty Acids
In my years as an avian veterinarian treating patients at my Feathers Bird Clinic, I’ve noticed even the best-fed pets are not exempt from certain all-too-common health and behavioral problems, including:
- A dull feather coat and poor pigmentation
- Excessive powder down
- Flakey beak and nails
- Skin irritation
- Toe-tapping, wind-flapping and feather picking
- Over grooming and self-mutilation
If your bird has any of these problems and you’re feeding an appropriate pelleted-based diet plus the add-ons I mentioned, he might be lacking in essential fatty acids. This is a situation that can only be remedied through diet or supplementation, since animals don’t produce these nutrients internally.
I recommend coconut oil as a fatty acid supplement for domesticated birds. I’ve witnessed remarkable, dramatic improvement in the condition of my own flock when I began giving them a bit of coconut oil daily. Coconut oil not only improves the condition of the skin and feather coat, it is an immune system fortifier as well.
I recommend a pea-sized amount of coconut oil per 150 grams of body weight.
Another option is red palm oil, which is high in carotinoids which supply vitamin A. A colleague of mine, Dr. Greg Harrison, developed an organic Brazilian red palm fruit oil called Sunshine Factor. Red palm oil is also an immune system booster and can be especially useful for enhancing the vibrancy of the plumage of colorful birds.