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How to Find the Right Nutritional Mix for Domesticated Exotic Birds – Is it All Nuts?

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Many of us spend most of our life on a diet. And not just one diet, but many different diets. Scientists are constantly discovering more about nutrition, often in contradiction to what we thought we knew only a few years back. Fat was bad, but now it’s good and instead, sugar is evil. Protein (I.e. meat) was good – now, not so much. The same research has been applied to food for domestic pets, with a plethora of “science diet” solutions for cats and dogs. But what about Polly?

Exotic birds, as the name suggests, are not used to being kept captive, so have not evolved or changed their dietary needs in the same way as a fully domesticated animal. So, if we still haven’t worked out what food is best for us, how can we possibly know what’s best for them?

In the wild, most tropical parrots are canopy feeders, eating mainly fruits, nuts, and seeds of rainforest plants. They are not obligate frugivores, but in some ecological studies depending on the species, as much as 80% of their wild diet is reported to be fruit. We also know they require a diet rich in β-carotenes (converted as needed to vitamin A) and plant proteins. On the other hand, their diet should be relatively low in fat. Let’s take Eclectus parrots as an example:

“Pet Eclectus parrots are critically dependent on their diet to help maintain health,” said Dr. Mark Simpson, owner of Sugarloaf Animal Hospital in West Wallsend, who has built up almost 30 years of experience in treating exotic animals.  “Problem behaviours and vices, such as feather-picking, may be dramatically accentuated when suffering from poor nutrition.”

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Some estimates put nutrition-related illness in pet birds as high as 90%. Amazon parrots can suffer from flaking on the beak or dullness in their feathers. Budgerigars and canaries are likely to get flaky skin and be overweight.

Dr. Mark recommends a balanced diet comprising 30-50% of a high-quality pellet food specifically for parrots, combined with 40-60% of fruits and vegetables. Of that, slightly more than half should be subtropical and tropical fruits, including banana, mango, paw paw, passionfruit, rock melon, watermelon, berries, pomegranate and kiwifruit. Use lesser amounts of apples, pears, and oranges. Changing through fresh, organic, seasonally available tropical fruits is best, but using thawed frozen fruits is also very useful.  

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Vegetables in the form of pulses or legumes are very important in supplying plant protein and fibre, so slightly softened chickpeas, fava beans, lentils, and soybeans are excellent. They should comprise 10% of the fruit and vegetable component.

Dark green leafy vegetables are an excellent source of β-carotenes and include dandelion leaves, milk thistle, bok-choy, spinach, and carrot tops. Dicing them finely and mixing them with other components increases their acceptance. You should limit cruciferous (brassicaceous) vegetables such as broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, mustard, and turnip tops, as these contain oxalates and can interfere with absorption of other nutrients. In large amounts, these plants can cause problems.

Brown rice is highly digestible and has a significant amount of fibre. It can be fed daily as a quarter of the grain/seed component (about 2.5% of the total daily ration.)

Nuts are a rich source of fats, so they should be fed sparingly to avoid obesity and liver disease. They are a strong source of plant protein and are highly palatable, so can be used as a treat! Walnuts are commonly contaminated with aspergillus aflatoxin, which will lead to life-threatening hepatitis. Safe levels of aflatoxin for humans are dangerous for birds.

Quite a few other food sources also make it onto the danger list. Just as with human temptation, these are often the foods that birds like the most, but are not part of their natural diet. There’s a high amount of salt in bread and processed foods that puts immense stress on the kidneys. In most natural diets, fat is very limited and of very specific types. By contrast, sunflower seeds are more than 50% fats (also known as oils or lipids), which makes them very tasty and somewhat addictive. However, they can disturb absorption of nutrients and quickly contribute to liver disease.

Other ingredients in commercial, wild bird-seed mixes used to attract wildlife include oats and corn that are both high in starch, which when moistened or old, promote fungal growth.  A seed diet lacks many important nutrients and can lead to malnutrition. Basically, a lot of what we use to attract wild birds to our garden is not good for the birds at all. It’s like giving kids Halloween candy every day!

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However, sprouted seeds are an excellent source of nutrition. This has become easier as some specialty greengrocers offer a wide variety of sprouted seeds for use in salads, such as alfalfa and mung beans.

It has always been the recommendation of the Sugarloaf Animal Hospital that feed stations should not be used to attract wildlife, and especially wild birds, to gardens. Instead, Dr. Mark has come up with a three-point plan, which although requiring more effort, is much safer for the birds and their eco-system.

  1. Plant large numbers of locally indigenous native plants
  2. Provide permanent water sites, preferably designed to be safe from cats
  3. Provide as many shelter sitesas possible

Should you require any further information on nutrition for exotic birds – whether they live with you or just visit – contact an Avian veterinary doctor for advice.

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