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Let's Talk About Nutrition....Again
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A Non-Nutritionists Point of View:
Is Your Parrot REALLY Eating a Good Diet?

Liz Wilson Parrot Behavior Consultant

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Several years ago, I was talking to a new boarding client on the phone. As I collected information about her parrot, I asked her what her cockatoo ate, and she said "Everything." Confident that I understood what that word meant, I went on to talk about other things, like whether or not she covered the cage at night or something. A week later, the bird came in to board for ten days. During that time I offered vegetables in every way that I knew. I offered them cubed, minced and pureed, diced and French cut. I steamed them, sautéed them, baked them and offered them raw. Nothing worked. In the 10 days that cockatoo stayed with me, it ate absolutely nothing but seed. When the client came to pick up her bird, I commented that I'd failed miserably at getting her parrot to eat vegetables. She looked at me like I had two heads.

A Failure To Communicate

"Oh, he doesn't eat vegetables!" she said, obviously amazed that I would even consider such a thing. It was then that I had a true epiphany -- a luminous moment of discovery. Our verbal confusion was due to differences in the definition of the word EVERYTHING. When she said her parrot ate everything, she meant everything that her family ate. And she only looked slightly embarrassed as she explained that her family didn't eat vegetables. So the parrot was happily eating meat and potatoes, pasta and pizza and potato chips, etc..

Forced Clarification

That was when I realized I needed a better way to get boarding clients to explain what their parrots ate. I finally came up with the following questions for new boarders. The first is What is your bird's Base Diet? [i.e., pellets or seed.] Next question (and this drives everyone nuts): If you took your bird's total daily food intake as 100%, what percentage would be in each of the following categories: base diet [seed mix or pellet], vegetables, fruits [which are NEVER categorized with veggies], protein, and Other [with a space in which to write what they meant by that]. I have since dumped the Other category, and added the categories of: carbohydrates [pasta, bread, etc.] and junk food [cookies, potato chips, ice cream, etc., etc., etc.]

Official Disclaimer #1: before any of you get all flustered (I can hear you sputtering from here) let me state that I'm perfectly aware that any numbers like these are simply guestimations. We all know that it is virtually impossible to tell what a parrot simply decimates and what it actually consumes.

And that doesn't even take into consideration all the stuff it lobs across the room so it rolls under your antique roll top desk, to be found in a prune-like, unrecognizable state sometime in the future. However, the point of the exercise is not to drive people crazy -- their parrots are already doing that, thank you very much. The point is to force clients to rethink what their feathered friend is actually consuming, as opposed to what the humans are putting into the bird's bowl. Obviously, two totally separate things.

An Explanation of The Various Categories

Now, let me go into more detail about each of these categories. The base diet is pretty self-explanatory -- a parrot's base diet is generally a seed mix or pellets. However, I find it surprising how ma-ny people get confused about the remainder of the categories. (I mean, don't they teach anything about nutrition in school, anymore? Am I showing my age, again?)

Many people don't seem to really understand, for example, the difference between vegetables and fruits. They are so used to lumping them together (as in, fruitsandveggetables fruitsandvegetables) that they have difficulty separating the two. When I ask what vegetables a parrot eats, owners often list apples and grapes - apparently unaware that they are adding fruits to their list. However, differentiating is really important, since there is often a stunning difference in the nutritional content of the two groups. (More on that later.)

Pros and Cons Re: Vitamins

Many people also don't understand the difference between vitamins and minerals. I can't tell you how many times I have mentioned to someone about how important calcium is to a parrot's diet, only to have him/her respond, "Oh, that's not a problem -- I give him vitamins." (Note: in case I slipped that one by you, calcium is a mineral, not a vitamin. So if you are just giving vitamins [as opposed to a vitamin-MINERAL powder], then you are not supplementing calcium, or any other mineral.) I should insert here that of course, any vitamin or vitamin-mineral supplements must be specifically avian products. Dog and cat vitamins (and people ones, too), utilize vitamin D2 and D2 cannot be used by birds. Avians (and reptiles) require vitamin D3. More on that later. And while I'm at it, here are a few more comments on the subject of vitamins:

Vitamins added to a bird's water [no matter what the manufacturer says] are NOT recommended by avian veterinarians for several reasons.

1. Vitamins added to water also adds color -- some birds stop drinking completely (which isn't good).

2. Vitamins added to water are impossible to calibrate as to actual dose -- owners have no idea how much they are giving and how much the bird is getting. Directions often call for "x number of drops" for a particular size of bird, but neglect to mention the size of the water bowl. Without specifying the volume of water in the bowl, manufacturers are completely ignoring the concept of dilution. Knowing the actual concentration the bird is receiving is therefore impossible.

3. Vitamins added to water maintain potency for a short time -- maybe as little as an hour. So if your bird doesn't drink right away, it may be getting no benefit at all.

4. Vitamins added to water DO benefit the bacteria that normally inhabit everyone's water (bottled or otherwise). Makes them big and strong. (That is what that slimy feeling stuff in the bottom of a water bowl is -- bacterial growth. Veritable cities of bacteria.) According to Avian Medicine: Principles and Application (Richie, Harrison and Harrison, Winger Pub., 1994, p. 65), there can be a "100-fold increase in the bacterial count in 24 hours".

5. Vitamins added to water have been implicated as the cause of some cases of feather plucking -- birds that bathe in their water bowls can end up with sticky feathers that the bird can't get clean -- so they get pulled out. So obviously, vitamins should be added to fresh food, not water, and a vitamin-mineral powder is much better than just vitamins. According to the Association of Avian Veterinarians, a parrot on a seed-based diet DEFINITELY needs avian vitamin-mineral supplementation, since the base diet is so lacking in nutrition. However, research on human nutrition has proven that vitamin-mineral supplementation helps, but it does not counteract a poor diet. In other words, you can't eat a steady diet of fast foods and junk and think that a vitamin-mineral supplement will put you on a good nutritional plane. It doesn't and can't -- and not for your parrot, either.

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