Parroting a Wild Diet
Fresh Forage Feeds Birds Well
Wild parrots expend time and energy seeking available foods according to nature’s cycle. Parrots in captivity need owners to mimic this routine for their pets.
Ann Brooks, founder of Phoenix Landing, in Asheville, North Carolina, remarks about the deficiencies of conventional packaged birdseed diets. “Most lack essential ingredients like vitamin A, calcium and protein, and are also high in fat,” she says.
As an alternative, in recent decades manufacturers have turned to formulated pellet diets. As with any pet food, bird owners are advised to check labels for the nutrients that are best for their type of parrot and take care to avoid genetically modified ingredients.
Fresh foods, always the more nutritious alternative, require more time and some ingenuity. Avian Veterinary Technician Shari Mirojnick, with the Backos Bird Clinic, in Deerfield Beach, Florida, explains that North Americans, even in the subtropics, don’t have access to all the foods that parrots eat in the wild.
“We have to make up for what they’re missing,” advises Mirojnick. “Parrots that live in dense rain forest will often dine on certain tree fruits, which differ from supermarket fruits. Plus, human cultivation has sacrificed much of the nutrient content found in the original fruit in exchange for sweetness.” We need to reconcile the loss in other ways, such as with vegetables.
Mirojnick notes, “Many of the best vegetables for parrots are high in key essential nutrients like vitamin A and calcium, which these birds do not efficiently metabolize in captivity.” She recommends nutrient-dense dark leafy greens, carrots, sweet potatoes and broccoli. But avoid avocado, which is poisonous to birds, and nightshade produce such as eggplant and mushrooms. When in doubt about a food, check it out through a reputable source such as PhoenixLanding.org/parrotcare.html or an avian veterinarian.
Blueberries, cranberries and goji contain helpful antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins C and K, and fiber, and have a low sugar content compared with their nutritional value. Other fruits like papaya and cantaloupe are high in vitamin A.
Providing good fresh food isn’t necessarily time-consuming nor difficult. Parrot Nation proprietor Patricia Sund, of Hollywood, Florida, leads the “chop” revolution, teaching this efficient approach for delivering vegetables, leafy greens, grains and healthy seeds to pet birds—whose care is generally time-intensive throughout their long lifespans—to bird clubs and rescue groups around the country.
By gathering ingredients and preparing a large batch, an owner can freeze multiple healthy servings in containers to thaw and feed to parrots over an extended period. Recipes vary, based on the fresh produce available according to growing seasons, regional crops and individual bird tastes.
Food as Enrichment
Because 50 to 70 percent of a wild parrot’s time is spent foraging, according to Brooks, companion parrots need that kind of activity for mental and physical stimulation. “Foraging keeps them busy, is fun and gives them a job,” remarks Lisa Bono, a certified avian trainer and educator and owner of The Platinum Parrot, in Barnegat, New Jersey. Besides finding food, foraging also keeps a bird’s beak in shape and its mind occupied in finding things to play with, she says. “A busy beak means a busy mind, and less time to develop undesirable behaviors like screaming or feather-destructive habits.”
Bono says the popular African grey parrot likes playing with durable and versatile beak and claw toys, plus shredding and tearing bird-safe materials like untanned leather, small plain cardboard boxes, and uncolored and unwaxed paper cups—simple items that can double as destructible “dishes” for parrot foods.
Robin Shewokis, of The Leather Elves, in Weymouth, Massachusetts, and a board member of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators, adds, “Any toy can be turned into a foraging device by merely placing some food in or on it; with fresh foods, be careful to avoid spoilage. Be creative: Switch the placement of food and water bowls for a simple parrot puzzle. Put a paper towel over the food dish on another day. Have fun with it. You can put a lot of love and thought into a food’s presentation.”
Sandy Lender is the publisher of In Your Flock, a companion parrot magazine. She lives in Southwest Florida with seven parrots that she feeds varieties of homemade chop. Reach her at Publisher@InYourFlock.com.