Are You Sure Your Pet Bird Gets All the Nutrients He Needs?

Calling all bird owners!

In this short video, Dr. Karen Becker shares her tips for a balanced, nutritious diet that will have your pet bird feeling and looking his best.

Pet bird nutrition has evolved over the last half century.

Once upon a time bird owners were told all they needed to feed their pets were fortified seed diets. When my avian veterinarian 30 years ago suggested I add legumes and fresh veggies to the all seed diet I fed my birds, I assumed I was offering my flock the best diet imaginable.

Nowadays, much more is known about the specific nutritional requirements of domesticated birds.

Whether your bird is a psittacine such as a budgie parakeet, cockatiel, or a macaw, or a passerine like a finch or canary, you can dramatically influence the health and behavior of your feathered companion by feeding a balanced, nutritious diet.

If You're Still Feeding a Seed-Based Diet, It's Time for a Change

Today, your avian veterinarian is likely to recommend you replace your bird's seed-based diet with a much more nutritious pelleted-based diet -- preferably organic, and free of toxic chemicals and dye.

These diets come in the form of pellets, crumbles or nuggets. You can find them easily at pet stores, vet offices, and online. The formulations differ depending on what type of bird you have, so you'll want to choose a blend suitable for your pet.

If you own a macaw or a Golden conure, for example, you'll probably choose a formulation with a higher fat content. If your pet is an Amazon or perhaps a cockatoo, you'll want to choose a diet low in fat and higher in protein.

If you're not sure which formulation is best for your bird, check with your avian veterinarian.

To round out the pelleted diet and balance your bird's nutritional intake, I recommend you add the following items:

  • Fresh fruits and veggies, preferably organic
  • Legumes and whole grain pasta
  • Whole, unsalted raw nuts
  • Seeds, but they should account for no more than 30 percent of the diet

Tips for Adding Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

As every bird owner knows, your pet can be quite finicky when it comes to her food.

If your bird is used to a seed or pellet diet, you should anticipate a period during which the fruits and veggies you offer her will wind up everywhere but in her mouth.

Don't be surprised if your bird drops her healthy fresh food out of the cage or flings it against a wall. She may play with it, shred it, or ignore it completely. And this behavior may go on for several months, but don't despair.

This is where your patience and persistence will pay off. Your bird might be finicky, but she's also naturally inquisitive. Given time and the consistent presence of a new food, most birds will eventually be curious enough to sample, and then begin to eat it.

There are a wide variety of vegetables you can add to your bird's diet, including:

Broccoli  Eggplant Peppers (sweet) Sugar snap or snow peas 
Carrots Endive  Radicchio  Squash
Cauliflower Green Beans Radishes  Sweet potatoes
Collard greens Kale  Red potatoes (cooked)  Tomatoes
Corn Kohlrabi  Red beets (peeled)  Turnips
Cucumber Parsley  Romaine lettuce  Turnip and beet greens

Healthy fruits you can incorporate include:

Apples  Cantaloupe Oranges
Apricots Cherries Peaches
Banana Cranberries Pears
Berries  Grapes Pineapple

Does Your Bird Have Any of These Problems?

As pet bird nutrition science has continued to improve, birds are living longer, healthier lives.

However, over the years I noticed something about many of the domesticated birds I saw at Feathers Bird Clinic, my avian hospital. It seemed even high quality nutrition wasn't enough to eliminate certain health and behavior problems, including:

  • Dull feather coat with poor pigmentation
  • Excessive powder down
  • Flakey beak and nails
  • Over grooming and self-mutilation
  • Itchy, irritated skin
  • Toe-tapping, wind-flapping and feather picking

I realized that even with the great strides made in understanding pet bird nutrition, something was still amiss when it came to providing optimal wellness for birds living in captive environments.

Birds in the wild get a much wider variety of nutrition than domesticated birds. They have access to types of seeds and berries, for example, which are simply impossible for you to provide to your companion bird.

Wild birds also have natural sunlight, complete freedom of movement, and the ability to create their own preferred habitats. These are things your pet living inside your home does not have, even though many avian owners do a wonderful job simulating as closely as possible a natural environment for their birds.

Your Feathered Companion Might be Deficient in This Important Nutrient

Around the time I was trying to solve the puzzle of why even nutritionally sound birds continued to experience certain health challenges, I was also coming to terms with the fact that I needed more fatty acids in my own diet.

These were seemingly unrelated circumstances, however, it occurred to me it might be that my birds and many others I saw at my avian hospital weren't getting a healthy supply of fatty acids, either.

As soon as I began supplementing my flock's diet with essential fatty acids, I noticed several improvements. My African gray's dull tail, which also had a stress bar (a horizontal black line devoid of color or pigment), became a vibrant red color and the stress marks disappeared.

My umbrella cockatoo's flakey beak and very dry feet improved.

And my eclectus with the dull green feathers, some of which were actually black, returned to his wonderful bright green hue.

I noticed a dramatic improvement not only in the condition and appearance of my flock's feathers, but also in their attitudes and behaviors. They were better able to focus, and in fact, my African gray's vocabulary began to expand.

The remarkable positive changes I witnessed in my flock made me understand my birds had been dealing with the same fatty acid deficiency I was.

If your bird has any of the problems I listed above and you're feeding an appropriate pelleted diet plus the add-ons I mentioned, he might be lacking in essential fatty acids. These fatty acids are called "essential" because they must come from the diet – neither humans nor birds make them naturally.

What Kind of Essential Fatty Acids Does My Bird Need?

Humans can supplement their diets with fish-based oil like krill oil to get essential fatty acids.

But pet birds and psittacines in particular, are natural vegetarians. They can eat certain bugs and lizards (black palm cockatoos in the wild have been reported to consume some types of lizards), but in general, domesticated birds are not carnivores.

Carnivorous birds are called raptors and include hawks, eagles and falcons. Raptors do require meat as part of a balanced, nutrient-rich diet.

When I started giving my flock coconut oil as their fatty acid supplement, the changes were dramatic. Three months after I added the oil to their diets, the condition of their feather coats was remarkably improved.

Six months and a full molt later, they looked like different birds – so much so that I documented the changes in pictures. I also started recommending coconut oil to clients at my avian clinic.

One of my colleagues, Dr. Greg Harrison, has produced  a derivative from  a certain palm berry called red palm oil or dende oil. This oil is very high in beta-carotenes or carotinoids which supply natural vitamin A.

If you own a colorful bird, the vitamin A from red palm oil can enhance the vibrancy of your bird's plumage, in addition to enhancing his immune function.

I recommend you offer your bird a small amount of coconut or red palm oil every day to insure his essential fatty acid requirements are met. I think you'll be delighted at the changes you'll see in his plumage and the health and condition of his feather coat.

Less obvious but just as important will be the improvement in your bird's immune system function, which will lead to a longer, healthier life for your avian companion.

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