Top 5 Nutritional Needs Of Parrots
By Diane Burroughs
A varied diet is critical for your parrot’s long-term health. Parrots in the wild feed on potentially hundreds of fruits, nuts, flowers, greens, seeds and grasses. In captivity, it can be challenging to provide absolutely everything you parrot needs. A good, well-rounded parrot diet must include a selection of fresh greens, vegetables and fruits, as well as a high-quality formulated feed such as Harrison’s bird food.
Did you know that malnutrition is the most common reason parrots are seen by avian vets? Pet birds often suffer from insufficient nutrition because their keepers simply don’t understand all of their needs. All birds are complex, and therefore have complex nutrition requirements, but caring for them properly doesn’t have to be daunting. The major thing to remember is that no bird – but especially not parrots – can live a long and healthy life on seeds alone. These just don’t have the range or balance of nutrients required.
Don’t forget that parrots come from all over the world, so their diets may vary based on region. Goldenfeast brand bird food specifies the appropriate bird food based on size and region, and recommends feeding the fruits, nuts and other ingredients wet to guard against dehydration. Pellet foods are formulated based on size and nutrition load, which are especially effective if you have birds from different regions but with similar nutrition requirements.
Parrots need a fairly extensive variety of vitamins, minerals and roughage to be healthy, but these top 5 parrot nutritional requirements can never be overlooked. Imbalance or deficiencies in any one of these can be deadly, and the parrot’s high activity level and long life span don’t leave much room for error.
Calcium Is Critical For Parrots
More birds die every day from calcium deficiency than virtually any other nutritional issue. Calcium provides the structure for a bird’s bones and beak, as well as for connective tissue and the structure of their feathers. Because parrot’s bones are denser than most other bird species, they require substantially more absorbable calcium. Plus, feathers need calcium to grow properly. Calcium also has significant mood stabilization effects, calming nervous parrots.
It’s important to understand the difference between “absorbable” and “non-absorbable” calcium in your bird’s diet. It’s true that dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale and turnip greens carry a nice calcium load that may seem perfect for providing your bird with its daily dose of this critical nutrient. Unfortunately, most vegetation-based forms of calcium also have oxalic acid and other such oxalates in them. This is a major problem because oxalates bind calcium, preventing it from being used by the bird’s body.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t feed your birds leafy greens. In fact, those greens carry a ton of other vitamins and nutrients that the parrot requires for long-term health. What it does mean is that you need to understand your bird’s daily calcium requirements and make sure that your packaged food provides it or that you offer other forms of calcium. Buttermilk and yogurt both offer parrot-safe, absorbable forms of calcium. On the same token, a properly formulated food is critical because too much calcium could cause kidney failure. Birds that are young, molting or laying have higher calcium requirements than most adult birds.
While the parrot can get some calcium from nibbling cuttlebone and calcium blocks, it’s neither as appetizing nor as reliable as, say, the calcium content in Harrison’s Adult Lifetime or High Potency Formula’s. Often, the primary benefit in whole calcium blocks and cuttlebone is that they wear on the parrot’s beak to keep it at a healthy length. It is not uncommon for birds to enjoy crunching or scraping these blocks of calcium, but then drop them to the bottom of the cage with zero benefit to internal calcium levels.
Calcium deficiency comes with a whole slew of horrible side effects. Sadly, by the time these effects are really noticeable in your bird, it may have already suffered severe damage from this nutrient deficiency. Symptoms may start with nervousness, feather-pulling and other relatively minor behaviors. After that, the bird may become listless, lose weight, then experience organ failure and loss of cognitive function. This is why it’s so important to pay attention to your parrot’s normal weight, activity level and personality: Any variation could mean a big problem.
Critical Vitamins For Parrots
The importance of Vitamin A cannot be overstated. Deficiencies in this vitamin spell a slow and painful death for many birds, and high mortality rates among juveniles and unhatched eggs. A Vitamin A deficiency can make it difficult for the bird to breathe and affects the production of mucus that lubricates its eyes, throat and nasal passages. Dry, scaly feet and faded feathers are some of the most obvious early signs of Vitamin A deficiency. As problems become more advanced, Vitamin A deficiency may leave ulcers in the parrot’s airways, cause swelling around the eyes, and may cause the bird to lose its hearing.
Vitamin D is often overlooked in a parrot’s diet because it’s simply not at the top of most people’s minds. The average human gets enough Vitamin D through a mixture of dietary intake and sunshine. Birds need a relatively high level of Vitamin D, and filtered sunlight just doesn’t cut it in the bird world. These are animals that have adapted to life under full sunlight with a high UV index, and the ill effects from not getting enough aren’t readily apparent in the early stages. Full-spectrum lights and/or an outdoor aviary can help ensure your bird gets enough Vitamin D. Formulated food with a Vitamin D3 supplement fills in any gaps left by the typical indoor life of a pet parrot.
Essential B vitamins help break down the food your bird eats. Without the right balance of this class of vitamin, it’s almost impossible to provide good nutrition because your parrot’s body can’t absorb the nutrients properly. The most important of these vitamins include B9, B6 and B12, among others. It’s also this class of vitamin that helps the bird handle stress during molting, mating, or other potentially stressful times. The physical effects of stress can severely damage a bird’s overall health, including its ability to properly utilize nutrients. High enough stress levels may also quench a parrot’s appetite so that it will only pick through its favorite foods, significantly decreasing the chances that it will consume the variety it needs to stay healthy.
Bear in mind that vitamins, by definition, are only needed in trace amounts. Too much can be dangerous, but too little is at least as life-threatening. This is yet another reason why properly formulated food is an absolute must as the staple of your parrot’s diet. While it takes a pretty dramatic overconsumption of vitamins to cause a problem in most cases, there’s no telling just how much got thrown into poor-quality food. When you pick a good pellet that’s specifically formulated for your bird’s needs, you can rest assured that it’s getting the right balance of dozens of essential vitamins and minerals.
Parrots that get a lot of seeds in their diet may get a decent amount of protein, but often with too much fat content for the bird’s overall health. Obesity in parrots is a huge concern and, as with other species of animals, it is potentially crippling and/or lethal. Getting the right amount of protein in a diet heavy in fruits and vegetables can get a bit tricky. At the same time, protein deficiency in the diet can cause the bird to eat significantly more food than it needs in an effort to get enough protein, increasing its risk of obesity even more. An overload of proteins and fat can also cause a hormone surge. In other words, it gets in the mood to mate – and gets irritable and presents difficult behavior until the hormones die down.
First, it’s important to realize that not all proteins are created equal. That is, there are many different types of proteins and amino acids, and birds need quite a few of them to be healthy. It’s impossible to get protein from a single source and still be healthy long-term. Parrots glean proteins from nuts, seeds, some types of fruits and vegetables, and dairy products such as yogurt. The all-important variety in the bird’s diet, plus a good formulated pellet, will provide all the different types of protein the bird needs.
Among other things, protein offers the building blocks for muscle and tissue. Insufficient protein may impact the bird’s muscle tone, and in turn affect its ability to fly, perch properly, or even coordinate its eating movements. Prolonged protein deficiencies can lead to more serious issues, such as organ dysfunction and complete failure.
Protein provides more calories than most other components of a bird’s diet combined. Calories are important because they give your bird the energy it needs to maintain a healthy activity level. Low calories can cause a parrot to lose weight and significantly decrease its daily activities, which in turn severely impacts its mental stimulation. Without enough stimulation, the parrot will get bored, and may eventually suffer from depression.
Everyone needs water, so this one is a no-brainer. Right? Not necessarily. Parrots can easily suffer from dehydration, and require moisture in their food as well as a dish of fresh, clean water at all times. This seemingly simple requirement may be more challenging than you think. Simply providing a bird with a dish of cool, clear water may not be enough to keep it healthy and ensure it gets enough moisture.
Typical tap water contains chlorine and chloramines to kill potentially harmful bacteria in the water. Some municipalities add in fluoride or other things that could be harmful to your parrot. The concentration of chlorine in typical drinking water is far less dangerous to large mammals such as humans or dogs than the bacteria it kills. In a relatively small bird, on the other hand, these chemicals may build up to harmful levels. Bird experts often recommend that you use filtered or purified water for your birds instead of tap water.
Parrots like soft food, and that can cause more water problems. Unless you’re feeding warm cooked bird food or a similar bird mash that’s wet when served, the parrot will likely dunk pieces of its meal repeatedly in the water dish. Add the dander, bits of bedding and other contaminants that are plentiful in the average bird cage, and you have water that gets really disgusting and even deadly very quickly. Most likely, your parrot will need fresh water several times a day.
Bacterial contamination in your parrot’s water is not only potentially harmful to the bird, but it can make the water taste and/or smell bad so that the bird doesn’t want to touch it. You’re changing the water out regularly so that it doesn’t get cloudy and gunky, but what about the dish itself? A quick rinse won’t kill all the bacteria. If you don’t have time to change your birds water every time it gets gunky, get a Bird Water Bottle. Remember, if using distilled water or filtered water, it doesn’t have chlorine in it, so it won’t get rid of bacteria on contact. Most microorganisms in any body of water, however small, concentrate on hard surfaces such as the sides of the dish. Wash dishes well every day.
Whenever possible, wash out the dish with hot water and mild soap, and then allow it to dry thoroughly before returning it to the cage. Most types of waterborne bacteria that survive normal washing will die quickly once the surface dries completely. This is one of the reasons why it’s a good idea to have at least two water dishes or glass bottles on hand for your bird; you can provide an immediate dish of clean water with one, then wash the other in preparation of the next water change.
Importance of top-notch parrot nutrition
Most species of parrot can live for decades, and lifespans of over 100 years are not uncommon. That’s a lot of time for the damage from improper nutrition to sink in. During that time, an unhealthy bird could suffer from painful conditions, nervousness & depression, feather loss and overall ill health. Some of these health issues may not be enough to kill the bird, but it could mean that it spends years feeling and looking unwell.
Healthy parrots are time-consuming but extremely rewarding pets. These gorgeous animals are intelligent and alert, and are always looking for new experiences. Once a parrot knows you, it will readily interact with you, enjoying many forms of attention and even participating in games. Healthy animals have the brightest possible colors and attend to most of their own grooming needs. In comparison to dealing with health problems, the cost of a top-quality food such as Goldenfeast, Harrison and others is inconsequential. To a parrot enthusiast, a healthy bird is truly priceless.
Don’t forget to communicate regularly with a veterinarian that has experience in parrot care. Regular checkups for health issues, paired with timely trims for beaks and talons, can help ensure that you’re on track with your parrot’s health and well-being. Add a great setup that provides lots of mental stimulation and human interaction, and your bird is set for a long and happy life.