Most of us eat a little junk food every now and then, even though we know that it's not good for us. A burger here. A bag of chips there. Fatty, salty foods just taste good!
Birds enjoy fatty foods too, in the form of seeds. But, if you want your bird to have a long, healthy life and a good disposition, it will need an optimum diet. In this blog post I'll talk about how to convert your bird to pellets and other foods that will help it enjoy a long, happy life.
Avian vets tell us that between 70 and 80% of their office visits have to do with avian malnutrition. The majority of these birds have been on seed diets most of their life. People say, “I just can’t get my bird to eat pellets.” Or, “My bird refuses to eat vegetables.”
The trouble is that seed diets are high in fat and low in nutrients. They are particularly low in amino acids, vitamins, and essential minerals, as well as Omega fatty acids. These are essential nutrients that help the body and brain to function properly.
Switching your parrot from seed-based food to a healthy pellet-based diet takes patience, but it is one of the best things for your bird’s long-term health and emotional disposition.
Your parrot will be happier because it feels nourished so you'll probably notice an improved mood and plumage. Wouldn’t it be nice to stop worrying about your pet bird?
The first thing that I suggest you do before changing your bird's diet is to get a wellness check with your avian veterinarian. Talk with your avian veterinarian before making any major changes in your bird’s diet.
You’ll want to make sure you’re your bird is healthy enough to tolerate the dietary change and you'll need to get a baseline weight so that you know if your bird is, in fact, eating the new diet.
You’ll also want to know if your bird is overweight or has pre-existing organ damage from a fatty seed diet. Talk with your vet about whether your particular parrot species has special dietary requirements, such as fat intake, higher need for calcium or whether it can tolerate additives and colors in some bird foods.
Purchase a reliable bird scale and monitor your birth weight in grams every week. This will help you know how well that your bird is tolerating the dietary changes.
Many parrots are hesitant to change their diet on their own and they may refuse to eat all together if they undergo drastic dietary changes. You’ll want to make sure that your bird doesn’t starve itself. Remember that new habits take time. I’ll talk more about this in a bit.
When changing your bird’s diet, It will be important to monitor its weight at least a few times a week. The best way to tell if your bird is actually eating is to monitor its weight in grams at the same time of day on an accurate bird scale.
You can drag out your wallet and lay down $100 or more on a fancy gram "bird scale," but, it's just as easy to teach your bird to stand on the platform or a removable perch to get weighed. After all, a gram is a gram, whether it's in bird weight or food.
This is one of my favorite bird scales.
Create a graph to record your parrot's weight. Censor the weight to ensure that your parrot does not lose more than 1-2% of his body weight per week. For a 29 gram Parrotlet that would be a 2 gram weight loss, while it would be 18 grams for a 926 gram Cockatoo. If your bird loses more than 1-2% of its weight, back up just a bit and talk with your avian vet.
Of course, this is more important for a health compromised pet. If your vet deemed your bird is tip-top health, the transition will go smoother. But, it never hurts to keep your vet in the loop.
Formulated pellets come in various sizes to accommodate any sized bird. Very reputable brands include Harrison's Bird Food, Roudybush, and TOP’s pellets. Harrison’s suggests using their High Potency Blend for the first 6 months whenever you're changing a bird's diet
While flavored and colored pellets may help you convert your parrot more quickly, keep in mind that they contain sugars, dyes, and preservatives. These substances are not good for your pet.
Your bird’s liver has to work extra hard to remove these substances from the body. Some species, for instance Eclectus parrots, are particularly sensitive to dyes and preservatives.
If your bird won't eat pellets, there are several things that you can try to encourage it along. You may need to try a few different pellet brands before you find one that your bird likes.
Some parrots convert to a new diet quickly while others are more suspicious and averse to changing bird food. After all, it is a big change. Think about how difficult it is for you to go on a diet or how hard it would be to change to a healthy diet if you're used to junk food.
“Keep in mind, the ultimate goal is the change itself, not how long it takes. And, don’t be too proud to use bird psychology!”
In the wild, Mom and Dad spend a great deal of time teaching their young which foods are safe to eat and which to avoid. Bird’s tend to have a natural instinct to not eat unfamiliar foods unless their parents have shown them that they're safe. Our pet birds still have this survival instinct intact.
When your pet bird refuses to try a new food, it's not because of the taste, it's because they've never been shown that this new food is safe. Bird’s only have about 30% of the taste buds that you and I have.
So, how do you teach your bird that a particular food is safe?
Pretend that you're eating it right in front of them.
You can make a game out of this technique. I like to call it the, “I'm Not Sharing” game. If you're bonded with your bird and it's bonded with you, you can bet it will be paying attention to you when you introduce this game.
Cockatiels, budgies, and other birds that normally forage on the ground in the wild can often be converted to a better diet using the following technique. Use this method with hand-tamed pets.
Grab some pellets and some millet
According to the latest research on avian diets, approximately 40% of your bird's daily diet should be a premium brand of pellets. Of course, this is somewhat species-specific.
We're finding that the other 60% of your bird's diet needs to be a rich range of raw, uncooked vegetables, low sugar fruits, grains, herbs, sprouts, and nuts. The more diverse these offerings are, the better. If your bird is not too keen on these unfamiliar plants, try the methods that I described above to improve your pet’s palate.
Switching your bird over to a foundation of approximately 40% pellets and 60% super healthy plant-based foods will be one of the best things that you ever do for your bird. I've found that these two books by Karmen Budai are invaluable in learning which vegetables are the most nutritious and for providing fun recipes and healthy fresh food combinations.
In conclusion, your bird views you as a trusted flock member and so it looks to you to teach and guide regarding which foods are safe. Some birds will starve themselves rather than risk dying over the possibility of eating something that may be unsafe. Dial your efforts back a bit if your bird is losing too much weight too quickly.
So, at the end of the day, if you want to get your bird to eat new, healthier foods, teach it!
Hint: Once a bird begins to regularly eat pellets, its droppings will usually change from green to a brownish color. They may also become a little looser due to the extra water the bird drinks while eating a pelleted diet.
Diane Burroughs, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist trained in ABA therapy techniques. She specializes in anxiety disorders and nutrition for mental health. With over 30 years experience, in a range of settings, she’s created thousands of successful behavior plans to help turn around challenging behavior. She’s authored a number of books on supporting challenging behavior in birds.
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