I got my first parrot, a precious cockatiel, back in the 80’s. When I left the store with my new pet, I was instructed to keep the cage clean and to feed fresh seed and water daily. I remember walking away thinking about how dull that diet seemed to be.
Not long after, I added a second cockatiel. I became enchanted with their outgoing personalities and found myself studying every move they made. I noticed right away how important it was to them to interact with the family so they enjoyed lots of out of cage time. I picked up on their constant need to chew. I had recently bought a book on origami and was forever making them little playmates out of paper, which they immediately turned to dust. But I still felt troubled about their diet. Something didn’t feel right to me, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it.
My big mental breakthrough came one night when I returned to my unattended dinner plate to find them standing in my broccoli. They weren’t just eating, they were devouring, as if they’d been deprived. I remember feeling a little uneasy because this went against the instructions I was given from the pet store. But something in what I had just witnessed told me that their information was wrong, or a least incomplete.
I decided that I needed to find out more about my birds’ diet and, since this was long before the internet came along giving us easy access to a world of information on every conceivable topic, I began researching the subject the old school way: at the library, where I spent most of my free hours over the next several weeks. My husband at that time thought I was having an affair.
I came across books that discussed the avian diet and mentioned giving table scraps to our birds. They listed only 2 or 3 foods that they offered and never mentioned how much was appropriate. I looked into the diets of wild cockatiels, native to Australia, and I hadn’t even ever of the foods they seemed to enjoy there. They were most certainly not growing freely in my backyard, or in anyone’s else’s here in the states, for that matter. It felt a bit like a dead end.
Still, I did learn that a cockatiel’s diet should consist of more than just seed. My next step was to investigate avian anatomy and human nutrition to see how our foods might benefit a bird. In my studies, I tried to inject as much common sense into my theories as possible. For instance, we have all been told since childhood that carrots are beneficial to eyesight. Parrots have eyes, which they probably enjoy seeing through. That was a no-brainer. I went through long lists of fruits, vegetables and grains to learn how they served us.
My final study was to learn what was bad for the body. I learned there was no need to add salt, sugar or butter to a bird’s food, and that I should, in fact, be restricting it in my own diet. When you are compiling a list of DOs, it is always a good idea to compile a contrasting list of DON’Ts.
The problem with my research, looking back, was that the same logic I used that said spinach was good for birds is the same logic that would have told me avocado was also okay, which today we know to be terribly toxic to birds. Fortunately that never came up. Also, as I came to understand that feathers and beaks were made of the same materials as human hair and nails, and as both humans and birds need strong bones, I selected dairy products as a source of calcium. We now know that birds are lactose intolerant, an expression I was unfamiliar with at the time, even in terms of human health. Though most birds will tolerate a small amount of dairy, I admit I got lucky with some of the choices I made more than once.
There was a lot of guess work involved in the changes I made in my bird’s diet, but I used my instincts coupled with common sense to guide the way and, for the most part, I did really well. The cockatiels, and the birds I later added to my flock, eat a diet today similar to the one I was feeding way back when, except most of the fresh foods are now served raw instead of cooked as I have learned that the cooking process destroys many nutrients. During this period of research, I arrived at this motto: “If it isn’t good for you, it isn’t good for your bird”, which has since bee enhanced with “When in doubt – don’t.”
The avian sciences have progressed to the point where we are able to develop an appropriate diet for the individual parrot species, rather than just parrots in general. It is no longer: “all birds eat seed. Period.” We now know which species require more fat in their diet, or more protein. There are some species specific formulated diets available, although I am not convinced that they are as they should be, but it’s a start.
**Note: A word of advice for those using the internet to educate themselves: beware. Much of the information that you will come across is merely opinion. There is nothing wrong with putting your opinion out there as long as it is not stated as fact. When I am researching a topic, I go to sources that I have come to know and trust as reliable and up to date in their information. If something is in question or debate, I require that four or five of my sources be in agreement before I take anything into serious consideration. When choosing a source, look for long term experience combined with scientific knowledge.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.