Avian Diet and Care
There are five major diet types available to pet birds: seeds, supplemented seed diets, seeds with fruits and vegetables, table foods, and manufactured (extruded/pelleted) diets.
Seeds are often considered by some to be the natural diet for pet birds. Certainly, many birds eat seeds in the wild, but the seeds found in the pet store, unfortunately, are not the common seeds eaten in the wild. It is nearly impossible to provide pet birds with the food for which they forage in the wild. Birds in the wild are quite different from domestically raised birds. Pet birds do not have to search for their food, nor do they have the same need for high fat, high energy foods as wild bird. Pet birds simply do not have same pressures in the home environment as they would encounter in the wild.
Seed diets are sold as a common and inexpensive food to pet birds. Pet birds readily consume seeds and there is often no difficulty in converting a bird onto this type of diet. Simple seed diets may contain a few or several different seeds (they often have a proso millet base). If no supplementation is added to the diet, then a seed only diet is not adequate for pet birds. Seeds lack several key nutrients including vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, several trace minerals, and essential amino acids (lysine and methionine in particular, two crucial protein building blocks). Several disease syndromes are directly related to these deficiencies and can be characterized simply by the physical appearance upon examination of the bird.
An example of a deficiency syndrome arising from a seed only diet can be seen with vitamin A. As the skin and tissues around the mouth, nares, eyes and gastrointestinal tract develop, essential vitamins are needed for normal growth. A seed only diet cannot provide that essential vitamin A or vitamin D either, because it simply is not present to be utilized. Consequently, abnormal tissues develop (such as blunted choanal papillae) which can lead to poor health and disease. Clinical signs of vitamin A deficiency in birds include hyperkeratosis of the nasal passages, oral mucosa, conjunctiva and respiratory tract. Retinal degeneration has also been documented with vitamin A deficiency.
Calcium is another important nutrient for birds. A seed diet contains very little calcium. Without adequate calcium bone development and integrity is affected. Female birds which are reproductively active on a calcium deficient diet often have egg or reproductive abnormalities such as soft-shelled egg production or egg binding. Providing essential nutrients in the proper ratio and amount is crucial as well for nutrient uptake. In the absence of vitamin D and the mineral phosphorus, the calcium is of little value. Seed diets are inherently high in fat which can lead to obesity, lipoma formation and hepatic lipidosis in susceptible species.
Fortunately most companies today provide some form of supplementation to their seed diets to improve the nutrient balance and supply the important missing nutrients. Several forms of supplementation are available. The way a diet is supplemented may affect its ability to provide the absent nutrients. Because birds’ mouths are dry, with little saliva, a powdered vitamin and mineral supplement has inherent problems. Most of the powder on a seed shell or hull will drop to the floor when the bird cracks open the seed. Another way of providing a powdered supplement in the diet is to supply it in the water or on soft foods. This method also has problems. Vitamins tend to break down very quickly in an aqueous environment and when exposed to ultraviolet rays. These conditions make providing the correct dosage of vitamins and minerals difficult and potentially dangerous. The danger arises when these nutrients break down into inactive compounds in the water which increases the risk of bacterial colonization of the drinking water. Currently most manufactures today supplement the seed diet with a granule, pellet, nugget, or other form of solid supplement in the diet. If the bird consumes this added bit, it will receive the supplement. This concept, though, is based on the bird consuming this supplement and many pet birds do not ingest these supplements.
Some premium foods have been developed which provide a wide variety of dried fruits, vegetables, nuts and specialty seeds. Most of these diets contain some form of supplementation. Generally these diets are better than straight seed or supplemented seed diets because they increase the variety of food items available to the bird and decrease the number of higher fat seeds. A table food based diet is not recommended for pet birds as most people lack a balanced and nutritious diet. Table foods such as pizza, pasta and high salt items such as chips should not be fed to birds in large amounts due to the high fat and sodium content.
The ideal diet for most companion birds is a formulated (extruded nugget or pelleted) diet. There are many companies now that manufacture formulated foods for pet and zoo birds. This practice has been done for the past 50 years with canine, feline and poultry diets. A formulated diet undergoes processing to create an extruded product. This includes raw ingredients such as egg, corn, wheat, oats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. A mash is created and cooked at very high temperatures. This extrusion process destroys most bacteria and produces a highly digestible and palatable diet. Pelleted diets are manufactured similarly to extruded diets, but at lower temperatures.
The advantage of a formulated diet is the bird receives a balances and complete balance of nutrients with a lower fat content than seed. Due to the longevity of most species, a formulated diet is the ideal option and will aid in maximizing health and reproduction for breeding birds. The greatest disadvantage to formulated diets is they require a conversion process. Birds such as budgerigars and finches may not recognize the food initially. Because these birds are small, with very high metabolic rates, they cannot go long without food intake. Caution must be exerted when trying to convert birds to these diets. A gradual conversion process over weeks to months is ideal for most birds. For most species a combination of a formulated diet (50-80%) is ideal along with fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, and other appropriate fresh foods.
There are several human foods that are toxic to most pets, including chocolate, onions, garlic, avocado, caffeine, fruit seeds that contain cyanide, dried raw beans as they contain hemagglutinin, tomato and rhubarb leaves, some mushrooms, alcohol, and dogs can not tolerate the sugar substitute xylitol.
Our avian patients should have long, productive lives. Genetically they are programmed for lifespan of 10-30 years for small birds and 50 plus years for larger species. This makes the selection of an appropriate diet an extremely crucial one. The diet you recommend to your avian clients should be one which is both complete and balanced and will fit into the caretaker’s lifestyle as well.