For hundreds of years, birds have been kept in cages and fed seed based diets. Some birds kept good health on these diets; others did not and were classed as “difficult” breeders or “delicate” birds. It is now recognized that a seed based diet is inadequate for good health in birds, even if greens are added as supplements. The analogy is with puppies, which 20 years ago were fed gravy beef and milk, and commonly suffered with rickets and weak bones. Since the advent of pelleted dog foods (Eukanuba, Proplan, Tux etc) these diseases are rarely seen, and dogs are living longer and healthier lives (except where over fed!). The science of bird feeding lags behind that of dog and cat feeding, but happily is rapidly catching up.
The best diet for cage birds is a pelleted food.
These are made up of various ingredients to provide the correct carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamin and mineral balance for different species of birds. Pelleted foods are also available for breeding birds and nestlings, with higher calcium and protein levels to support growth. Pelleted foods are only recently available in New Zealand, so consult your veterinarian for suitable brands available in your area. Vetafarm and Harrison’s Bird Diets are reputable brands.
But everyone feeds their bird seeds, I hear you cry. True, I would reply, and most cage birds eating only seeds suffer from some degree of malnutrition. Why is this? Wild birds eat seeds, but they do not have access to an inexhaustible supply of sunflower seeds, or millet seeds, for example. There will only be a few amongst the whole flock of birds. In different seasons they must eat other seeds that become available. Also, they get a much greater amount of exercise to find these seeds, and the seeds are always fresh, not dried. Most children, offered only ice cream, would happily eat this above all other foods, but no-one would suggest that this is a good idea. We continue to offer children vegetables, meat and bread, even though they prefer ice cream, because this provides a balanced diet. It is no different with birds. The only nutrients available to the bird are those that it has available, and those that it chooses to consume.
How will I start my bird eating pelleted foods?
This can sometimes be very difficult, especially in older birds, but persistence will usually win the day. It is wise to weigh your bird before changing to pelleted food, and weekly during the change. No more than 10% of body weight should be lost during the change to pelleted food. If your bird loses more weight than this, consult your vet immediately.
Several methods can be tried. One option is to remove the food bowl for parts of the day, so the bird is hungrier. Wild birds do not feed all day, but commonly feed early in the morning and last thing before dusk. Mix some pellets with the normal seed diet, and moisten just enough to make a ‘rissole’ of food. Place this in the bird’s food bowl, and in picking the seeds out of the rissole your bird will get a taste for the pellets. It takes some practice for the bird to realize that the pellets don’t need husking, as seeds do. There may be some crumbling and wastage at first, but have patience. Gradually increase the amount of pellets in the rissole, and reduce the amount of seeds.
Another option is to mix some pellets with peanut butter, a food relished by many parrots, and give them the taste this way.
Caging another bird near your bird which already eats pellets, may teach your bird as it copies what the other bird eats. (Make sure the other bird is healthy before keeping it with your bird).
A fourth strategy is to provide a limited amount of the normal seed diet in the morning, then remove the seeds and offer only the pelleted food during the rest of the day and evening, also the pellets will be the only food available when the bird wakes up hungry the next morning.
If your bird refuses to eat the pellets, return to the normal diet for 2 weeks or so, and then try again.
During the day when the seeds have been removed, offer only fruit and vegetable treats as part of training or play, not a large seed meal.
Many birds can be converted to pelleted food while feeding young, as they are extra hungry at this time and will more readily take new foods; however do not restrict the food supply of birds feeding young.
What is wrong with a seed diet?
Lots of things. The fat levels are too high, especially for birds that do not come out of the cage or exercise. This leads to obesity, fatty liver disease and low thyroid levels with poor feathering. The calcium levels are far too low for egg laying and feeding of young, and marginal for adult birds. This leads to a high incidence of egg binding and egg peritonitis. Vitamin A levels are low, leading to reduced immunity to infection, reduced egg production, egg binding and skin abnormalities. If the seed is grown in iodine deficient soils, then goiter will result, especially in budgies.
We spend a lot of time and effort feeding our spouse, our children and our dogs a balanced diet. It is only right that we should do the same for our bird companions, some of which have potentially very long lifetimes.
Bird foods should be kept cool and dry, in sealed packages and free of insects and rodents. Mouldy foods should never be fed. Fresh foods eg fruit, insects, vegetables, should be removed from the cage after 8 hours, or even less in warm humid weather, to avoid the possibility of bacterial build up and food poisoning for your bird.