Fads and ideas about parrot nutrition and diet have come and gone, but modern avian nutritional research has helped to hone the best parrot cuisine known today!
A healthy parrot is a happy bird. It is interested in life, active and long-lived, but all that is dependent on a well balanced nutritional diet.
The best reward for large parrot owners is a bird that is a joy to be around. A happy parrot looks forward to interacting with you and being part of the family. They love the household routine and many also enjoy learning tricks and talking. Like all of us they love to live a good life, happy and contented with good health and glossy feathers.
Without well balanced nutrition however, a parrot’s good health will gradually decline and it simply will not enjoy a good life. It will gradually become susceptible to disease and illness and its total lifespan will shorten. Even worse, it will start becoming moody and temperamental. It will not want to participate with you or in the family’s activities because it simply won’t feel good or be energized.
It’s absolutely amazing what is found in a parrot’s diet. In the wild parrots will spend about 80% of their time foraging for food items. Although there are some variations from one species to the next, they have a huge variety of natural foods. They are known to eat everything from seeds, fruits, berries, nuts, flowers, nectar, roots, leaf buds and vegetable matter, to grains, palm nuts, corn and other cultivated crops, cultivated fruits, and even insects and their larvae.
Many parrots feed primarily from the tree tops while others feed mostly from lower lying bushes, and some parrots will also forage from the ground. There are many ways to provide optimal nutrition while also accommodating their innate feeding styles, natural behaviors and activities.
As parrots have become more popular as pets, research has made great advances in the knowledge of avian medicine and nutrition. In the early years, most parrots sold as pets were wild imported birds that had to be tamed, and the new owners would by “parrot food” to feed them, which was basically a dried seed diet. But it hasn’t taken long for people to realize that birds need much more, and that those from different areas had different dietary requirements.
Long gone are the days when a companion parrot’s diet was simply made up of a dried seed mix and maybe a nut, carrot, or a piece of fruit thrown in. Today so much more is known about their activities and what they eat in the wild, that it’s almost like a food frenzy going on.
Today parrot owners are having a lot more fun feeding their bird companions. Making cool meals and treats is very rewarding and becoming the norm. Chopping fresh salad combinations, sprouting beans and seeds, and cooking bean mixes all lend themselves to creativity and diversity. People are creating casseroles, grain bakes, homemade bird breads, crackers, cookies and more! Beyond providing a varied and nutritional diet, watching your feathered friend do a tail up dive into the foods you offer is wonderfully satisfying.
Types of parrot foods
Vegetables and fruits
The perfect parrot diet is still an unknown, especially since it differs somewhat between species. But today it is recognized that vegetables and fruits make up an essential part of a parrots diet. A variety of vegetables will guarantee a balance of essential nutrients, and both fresh and frozen “human” vegetables can work well. Fruits also provide nutrients, but some are high in sugar with less nutritional value.
Fresh foods do tend to spoil quickly. They also loose nutritional value over the time it takes to be shipped and stored before being offered for sale, so get them a fresh as possible. Try sprouting beans or other legumes. Sprouts are one of the best fresh foods you can offer, because they are living plants so are at the peak of their nutrient value
Dried Seed Mixes
Almost every parrot species, whether from the arid Australian grasslands or the humid South American rain forests, will eat naturally occurring seeds. This is probably why in early days it was deemed a “no-brainer” to provide seed as a staple food. But like all foods in a parrot’s diet, there are pros and cons.
Dried seed pros:
- Seeds are a great source of fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamin B6, omega-3 fats and vitamin E. These are necessary nutrients in a parrot’s diet for healthy eyes, skin and feathers. They also help maintain brain function, nourish red blood cells, and fight inflammation.
- Parrots love them! Parrots have a natural desire to forage, and seeds help satisfy a gathering and hulling behavior.
- Foraging and hulling seeds is an involving activity, and can provide emotional satisfaction and comfort for the parrot.
Dried seed Cons:
- The drawback of a seed only diet is that it is not nutritionally complete. Seeds are missing some crucial vitamins like vitamins A and D3, as they are also lacking in necessary minerals like calcium.
- A seed diet is just too high in fat for the sedentary lifestyles of large companion parrots. It is fine to include the seed mixes in the diet of smaller birds, like parakeets and cockatiels, because there lifestyle is much more active than the larger parrots.
- Commercial seed is unregulated and the types of seed used in mixes are often not found in the natural diet of a parrot.
- The quality of commercial seed mixes is dubious, especially by the time it reaches the consumer. It can dry, brittle, and too old to retain nutritional quality.
- Commercial seed is often highly fortified with vitamins of unknown quality. They may be synthetically manufactured, have little nutritional value, and mostly not absorbable
- One of the biggest dietary problems with offering seeds is that Parrots like them so much that they will often ignore other offered foods, which leads to deficiencies
With the advances in avian nutrition, and the realization that seed wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, all sorts of interesting foods began to be offered. Many were very good and nutritious, but unfortunately parrots, like children, would eat what they liked and ignore the rest, so they still were not necessarily eating a balanced diet. In response researchers developed a formulated pelleted diet. Although containing most of the basic diet requirements, pellets may not be the total diet solution as they have their own drawbacks.
Pelleted diet pros:
- Pellets contain more nutrients and have a better balance than a seed diet.
- Parrots can be picky eaters, and pellets eliminate the deficits that result from a parrot’s desire to pick and choose.
- There is no spoilage or bacterial growth with dry pellets.
- They are convenient and easy.
Pelleted diet cons:
- Pelleted diets don’t take into consideration the different requirements for parrots originating from different countries, so are not a total solution to a well balanced diet for all parrots.
- The heat processing needed to extrude the pellets destroys many of the vitamins, so nutrients (supplements and manufactured vitamins) have to be added after the extrusion process.
- Different brands of pelleted parrot foods may differ in quality.
- Parrots are found to get bored with a pelleted diet, even those with dye added for visual stimulation.
Parrot treats and supplemental foods
- Pasta, cooked grains and legumes
Cooked whole wheat or vegetable pasta, all sorts of cooked beans, brown rice, and cooked barley are just some nutritious foods that parrots will enjoy. Cooked millet and quinoa are also great. Beans can even be prepared in advance and kept in the freezer to use later.
Nuts are a great source of protein and other nutrients, but also add fat to the diet. They are good for macaws to satisfy their chewing instinct and help prevent boredom. They provide the same entertainment for cockatoos and amazons but due to these types of birds needing a lower fat diet, nuts should be offered more sparingly.
- Table foods
Pet birds can be offered left over table foods. In general what is good for us is good for them, but with some exceptions. Stay away from avocado as the skin is toxic. Also avoid chocolate and anything with caffeine in it, like coffee, tea, and soda. Any vegetables, fruits, and berries can be offered. You can offer cooked foods too, as well as non-fatty meats like chicken, turkey, and fish. A once-a-week hardboiled egg is fine too.
- Healthy parrot snacks
Parrot snacks include commercial treats available at the pet store for parrots, but also all those wonderful concoctions you can make at home. There are all sorts of parrot recopies shared on the internet and fun to make. Homemade birdie breads, bird cookies, crackers and more, as well as commercial treats are nutritious snacks that parrots will delight in.
The key to a balanced parrot diet is variety. Many experts now believe the nutrients available in seeds can be provided through a more balanced diet with fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains.
It is suggested that dried seeds be offered as a treat a few times a week rather than as a daily staple. Pelleted diets may not be the total solution either, even though they are more nutritionally complete than a seed diet. Pellets can make up to about 50% of the parrots diet, with other foods being types that can be varied every day.
The best approach is to offer fresh nutrients daily and something more that the bird will like enough to eat!
Clarice Brough is a team member at Animal-World and has contributed many articles and write-ups.