How Common Sense And Research Guided Me To The Right Parrot Diet In The Dark Ages (before internet)

Posted by Bird Tricks on

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.

Wild cockatiel photo from

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.

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  • pellets, beans, seeds, rice, veggies and fruits and now and again.. a bite of a corn chip low salt and a bite of cheese about once a week. My Macaws and african grey eat better than i do..ha! It was a learning process in the beginning.. I am sure I did everything wrong at first until i dove in the studies..Just as important as their diet is, so is their mental and emotional well being. I could not have one without the other and think my babies were going to be ok. It has taken me several years to find a great balance for them, and the best part.. as they mature and find they are capable of new things.. so does our training and education and life together. :) We are forever growing old with one another and enjoying all the glories of life as it is offered to us :)

    Annie on
  • To Ray: i did recently watch that movie ”bird man of alcatraz” after seeing a post from you raving about it before… and i admit it was interesting, although it did bother me that he was smoking cigarettes the entire time he was doing his research while surrounded by birds. It’s too bad he never figured out that is also bad for them. I’m in my 30’s and to me this is an old time movie so it’s probably a bit too old for some people to wanna watch but there were definitely some interesting & enjoyable parts so I watched the whole thing and liked it for the most part.

    Vavoom on
  • Hi Guys – have you ever looked into the evolution of food prep and the process of cooking or heating our meals? The simple action of heating food is why we are so exceptional. Just some ‘food for thought’ next time your chomping away on your raw carrot and wondering why the process is so unpleasant… perhaps the theory rings true for our bird friends as well. No disputes about the nutrient and mineral degradation, but the heating process aids in quicker digestion and ultimately creates a greater energy source for our brains and increases our learning capacity. Scientific research confirms this theory, hit up scientific publication sites or white papers & you’ll be amazed. Perhaps that’s why our fluffy friends love our cooked veggies as much as we do. I’d take a cooked carrot over a raw one any day :) and my birds love love love cooked carrots and broccoli, i flight to keep them off my plate, so at dinner time they are tucked away for my own sanity.

    Kristie on
  • Your cockatiel in the picture looks so healthy, I am envious. I have 2 tiels and changed their diet from seed to pellets bought at the Vet. This took nearly 2 years. I had just about given up until one day there was just a bit of dust left in their dish. I had to look twice. Still working on fruit and vegies. All food is taken out of cage in case of night visitors eg. insects or cockroaches (you never know) and their floor of cage is clean. In the morrning I offer fruit/veg in their food dish whilst changing their water dish. It is looked at, but that is all. Not even a curious peck. Maybe this will take another 2 years? However in Australia,s dessert where tiels come from there is not a lot of fruit and greens available unless they fly to their water source.
    Petra CoffsHarbour Australia

    Petra Coffs Harbour Austalia on
  • I also need to ad that my first cockatiel has been having health problems when I had him on a seed diet recommended by the pet shop 14 years ago. At age seven I began to change his diet recommended by an avian vet. He eats very well now but also needs to take supplements. He does not do as well without the supplements. He needs to keep up with his younger friend. I give him Sunseed sundrops. I have it listed on my sidebar on my newsletter.

    Barbara DelGiudice on

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