WHAT DID COMPANION PARROTS EAT BEFORE THE PET INDUSTRY TOOK OVER???
By Sally Blanchard
I was asked this question: I would be interested in learning what parrots kept as companions or in zoos in North America were fed in the early 1900s. Was there a pelleted diet then or were they fed whatever the family was eating. We all ate healthier before the advent of processed food. Do you know the answer, Sally?
- My answer: I have researched this pretty thoroughly and know a lot of the answer. When people first started importing parrots commonly into Europe in the early 1780s the diet was for the most parrots really bad - bread soaked in milk, stale bread and some even believed that African greys didn't need to drink water. Some people did feed green foods and fruits but it was generally considered that they gave parrots diarrhea. We know now that polyuria is not the same as diarrhea and the wetness of the poop had to do with the water content of the greens and fresh foods. John Kellogg invented cereal in the form of corn flakes in 1894 and it had corn, sugar and malt flavor. The mix was heated on a flat surface so they were crisp. It was several years or so after that when people began to think about feeding manufactured food with meat in it to dogs and cats but it took a long time for processed foods to be made as a total diet for parrots.
- I had a budgie when I was a kid which was in the 1950s and Hartz Mt, French's Seed and others started pushing a dozen or so seed mixes in little jars as a total diet several years before. That was when people started to believe the hype that a bunch of seeds was enough to keep caged birds healthy. We were told not to feed vegetables because they gave birds diarrhea. That was probably to sell more seed. I had budgies and 'tiels that were fed mostly seed but I always gave them greens and grated carrots. I got my first "real" parrot in 1976 and was lucky enough to meet people who had lived with their parrots for a long time. Some of the birds were in their 50s and older. Like pet dogs, they had been fed "human" foods all of their lives. Many of the companion parrots ate off of plates at the table which seemed to be pretty common from reading old literature from the early to mid-1900s. Of course, the majority were wild-caught imported birds back then that were brought into the country by individuals. They were most likely still used to eating a variety of foods. Also, people did eat a lot healthier at that time with hardly any processed food filled with chemicals and other questionable ingredients so many of their parrots ate well then.
- I was very lucky because Paco's breeders believed in feeding their parrots a varied diet of healthy fresh foods along with quality seeds. So most of the breeders I met did too. I was introduced to feeding healthy fresh veggies, mashes, chops, and, a varied healthy diet. One couple brought back a dozen or more Panama Amazons from Panama and fed them an incredible diet. There was a visible difference in the feather condition and health of the parrots on a fresh food diet. It was so obvious to me back then, that my parrots have always been fed mashes and fresh foods. They have also been fed a little seed and in the last 15 years or so they have also been given TOPS Parrot Food, which is the only pellet that I feed or recommend. I wrote about that in another article with a link at the end of this article.
- From about the 1950s on seed mixes began to be pushed as a total diet - especially after they started the scam of vitamin enriched seed; to me, it is like putting vitamins on a candy bar wrapper for kids. There were seed company "wars" with one company convincing people that sunflower seed was bad and addictive and that safflower seed was good and healthy because that company made a mix with safflower and no sunflower. The whole thing was bogus and profit motivated. While most parrots love sunflower seed, it is actually more nutritious than safflower and not really addictive. The problem was not with seed as a small part of the diet or a treat, the problem was that people were feeding it as a total or near total diet. Too much seed causes severe malnutrition and kills parrots long before their time. I once had a breeder brag to me that he fed nothing but seed and he had an Amazon that lived to be 36 ... not a very long lifespan for an Amazon.
- Then with an outcry against seed as the total diet, companies started to manufacture pelleted diets for companion parrots - they were being used in zoos and were being fed to dogs and cats so why not? Luckily many of the good zoos now feed more fresh foods and meat (to meat eaters) than pellets. I saw pelleted diets for the first time in the mid-1980s but they might have been around longer than that. More and more companies started making parrot pellets and more competition began to develop. Most were pushed as a total diet and from the beginning, they were highly processed with synthetic and even carcinogenic ingredients. Marketing and advertising hype with pretty birds in them convinced easily-led people to believe that their birds would live a long healthy life. Unfortunately, that is not the case with all of the crap that is in their foods. People need to do their homework to know what is really healthy for their parrots and stop believing the pellet myth.
- I used to think that a primarily pelleted diet was better than a primarily seed diet. But then I decided to research all of the ingredients in pellets and the way they were processed and it dramatically changed my mind. I am certainly not condoning a seed only diet and many commercial seed mixes are now full of some of the same chemical crap as pellets. I have fed my birds a fresh food diet with a little seed for their entire lives with me. Several of them were rescues on very bad diets when I got them. I believe that gradually getting them on a varied fresh food diet made a difference but with a few rescues, it can be difficult to counter 20 or more years of nothing but a seed mix or Pretty Bird.