CONVERTING PARROTS TO A HEALTHY FRESH FOOD DIET
by Sally Blanchard
I am convinced that just about every parrot can be converted to a healthier diet if his or her caregivers perseveres. I have known parrots that have been on bad diets for over 30-40 years and are luckily still alive who have been converted to a fresh foods diet. It may take only a few days or it can take a few months, but they kept introducing new foods until their parrots ate them. Instead of giving up after trying a new food a few times, people need to find a way that their parrot will eat healthy fresh foods. OK is easier to shovel seed or pellets into their dishes, but these are really not healthy foods. To me, it is criminal for breeders and bird shops to wean their babies to a pellet/seed only diet. This is especially true of parrot-family birds that tend to be difficult to change to a healthy fresh food diet like budgies, grass parakeets, cockatiels and even some cockatoos. I don’t understand how people can keep their parrots on substandard seed or even a highly processed pellet only or near-total diets and excuse it by declaring, "My bird won’t eat that." after they try to get their bird to eat a new food once or twice. The cliche follows: If I had a dollar for every time I have heard that in about 43 years, I would be bird watching in Australia right now!
The following are techniques that work:
» Take the time to go to the other nutrition articles on this website that are listed at the end of this article and read the other articles on this website that deal with Nutrition. They will give you a good idea of what foods are healthy for your parrot and the balance these foods should have in a nutritious diet.
» Cooking for your parrot can actually be fun ... maybe not every day but at least a few times a week. You can also make a big batch and freeze the food in portion size for your parrots. The rest of the week you can give them cut up veggies and fruits as part of their fresh diet. You can certainly use cooking mixes for parrots. When I serve a cooking mix, I always add mashed sweet potato, carrots, winter squash, chopped greens or carrot baby food after it cools down. This guarantees vitamin A in the diet since cooking can destroy this vitamin. Vitamin A is also not stable in pellets and is one of the most important nutrients in a parrots diet and one that is sadly lacking in many parrots with malnutrition.
» The major reason most people don’t succeed in changing their birds’ diets is their lack of patience. They give up way too soon. Don’t expect miracles within a few days or even weeks. The most effective caregiver knows he needs to make a lifetime change in the parrot’s diet. Instead of thinking, "I want my bird to eat this right now or else," think more realistically — "In a year my parrot will be eating healthier foods and every step I take to improve his diet from now until then will ensure that this becomes true."
» A seed-only or pellet-only, or predominantly seed/pellet diet is nutritional abuse. Feeding only seed or pellets is a "death" diet no matter what anyone says in their seed mix/pellet advertising or packaging. Parrot owners should not rely on the nutrition provided by seed or pellets as the base of their bird’s diet. A quality seed mix can be a small treat in a healthy, varied diet but should never be considered anywhere the main source of nutrition. Converting parrots from a predominantly seed or pellet diet to nutritious fresh foods and mashes combined with TOPS Parrot Food (http://topsparrotfood.com/) as no more than 30% of the diet. TOPS is the best pellet you can feed because it doesn't have all the questionable ingredients that other pellets have like soy, corn, peanuts, Menadione, artificial food coloring and other questionable chemicals that I wouldn't feed to squirrels outside. If a parrot caregiver read and researched the ingredients in just about all pellets, they would never feed them to their parrots.
» I believe a diet of fresh foods is far healthier than feeding a total or near total manufactured parrot diet. After years of researching nutrition and dealing with hundreds of parrot caregivers, I only recommend TOPS because it is made from real food powders. The other pellets have a non-nutritive base, chemical supplementation and a lot of ingredients that I would NEVER feed my parrots. If fed intelligently, fresh foods are a far superior diet to pellets for the longevity and health of your parrots. Christine's Chop Shop (https://christineschopshop.com/) has a full line of healthy freeze-dried and dehydrated veggies, fruits and other products that can make it easier to get healthy foods into your parrots.
» Before starting any conversion process with a parrot, have his health checked by his avian vet. Have the veterinarian weigh him and ask what should be a healthy weight range for a parrot his size. Going by a species weight chart may not accurately reflect your parrot’s ideal size. Keep track of his weight on a regular basis as you work to change his diet. Either weigh him on a scale or, less effectively, check his weight daily by feeling his keel bone and the amount of flesh around it.
» Don’t ever cold turkey a parrot — instead, change the diet slowly by gradually replacing the less healthy foods with more healthy foods and let your parrot get used to the new foods gradually. Make changes gradually, especially if a parrot has been on a seriously deficient, seed-only diet. Depriving a nutritionally compromised bird can stress him and make him ill. Years ago, representatives of a pelleted diet told everyone that if their parrot didn’t eat their food immediately that the people were doing something wrong. They insisted that if you fed nothing else for a few days, any parrot would eat it. Unfortunately, some people believed this and their parrots became ill and even died ... this was the situation mostly with small parrot-family birds - birds that their caregivers loved.
» Make sure your parrot is getting enough to eat during the conversion process. There is a "Catch 22" — a parrot who is suffering from malnutrition will have health problems that may be aggravated by changing his diet too quickly, but if you don’t change his diet, he will continue to have health problems. For example, a parrot with liver problems related to malnutrition will most likely become sicker if he does not get enough to eat. The key is to gradually replace unhealthy foods with healthier foods without compromising a parrot’s need for nourishment.
» Companion parrots seem to reflect our food likes and dislikes. If you make an exciting fuss about it every time you give your parrot a piece of pizza, he will probably love pizza. (What companion parrot won’t eat pizza? BTW the toppings - except for meats) are healthier than the crust) On the other hand, if you frown and make an "ugh" sound every time you try to get him to eat broccoli or just put it in your parrot's bowl, it is doubtful that he will eat it no matter how often he is exposed to this nutritious vegetable. I always smile when I give my parrots a new food and they are often quite adventurous in trying them.
» Parrots should NOT be in control of what they eat. The idea that they will automatically eat what is good for them is a myth. While there is truth to the belief that wild parrots seasonally eat what is available and therefore eat the proper diet, companion parrots have to be exposed to healthy foods on a regular basis for them to select what they need. Because parrots can’t whip up a nutritious meal for themselves, they need us to make intelligent dietary choices for them. We also must be vigilant that the nutritious foods we buy and prepare for our parrots actually get into their digestive system.
» Starchy and sweet vegetables and fruits such as corn, grapes, and apples are not the healthiest foods, but real seed junkies may learn to eat them more readily as a transition to broccoli, sweet potatoes, winter squash, carrots, collard greens, and healthier foods. Once a parrot tries a new food, it is much more likely that they will try more new foods.
» Parrots have incredible color perception and can see in the ultraviolet range. They are attracted to the color, shape, and texture of foods, so you need to provide a variety of healthy foods until you find a way he will eat them. For example, carrots can be fed raw, cooked, by themselves or in mashes, whole, diced, sliced, in strips, mashed, grated, pureed, juiced, and so on. This is not a reason to feed highly processed unhealthy pelleted diets with dangerous and toxic food coloring.
» Have fun — make food into toys. Lace greens in the cage bars. Make birdie bread, mashes and/or wrap foods in other foods — my parrots like a little nonfat cheese squished in with their TOPS pellets. Put veggies and fruits on kabobs. Put mashes in whole grain tortillas. Wrap greens around other foods that your parrots love like little dolmas (stuffed grape leaves but use kale instead). Place large leaves of sopping wet greens (collards, turnip, mustard, or kale) on the top of the cage. Many birds enjoy leaf bathing and may eat the greens at the same time.
» Chop may not work right away or some parrots might not go for it. Neither does putting new foods in their bowls - they may not immediately recognize it as food. One technique is to make the new food special instead of just in the bowl where they are used to seeing their normal stuff. Show him a piece of broccoli, a leaf from some kind of greens, a half of a grape or cherry, a small slice of white low salt cheese, a slice of a clementine, etc. Let the birds see you eat it with a smile and tell them how good it is - don't give it to them right away - keep chewing as if you really love it. Then either put a piece it in a bowl with nothing else or hand it to them if they will take it.
» Plan on wasting food! Parrots are messy eaters and will usually waste a lot of food, especially when you are trying to get them to eat new foods. I don’t ever feel guilty since my dogs have always eaten the leftover glop and veggies either when it falls to the floor or when they happily lick the bowls.
» Parrot see, parrot do. Parrots are social eaters. My parrots will eat almost anything once they see me or the other parrots eating it. When I bird sat a lot of parrots, I found that most parrots on a rigid seed or pellet only diet would be more likely to eat new foods if they saw other parrots eating them.
» Parrots are influenced by our food likes and dislikes. Sample nutritious foods as you feed them to your parrot. Be an Oscar-worthy actor, smile and act like you genuinely love the food even if you don’t. If he is bonded to you, he will usually eat what you eat or what someone feeds you in front of him. The Model/Rival concept of feeding healthy food to the favored person with the parrot watching will not only bait its curiosity but make him want to eat what the bird's best buddy is eating.
» Let your parrot eat healthy food with you. Most parrots social animals and are more likely to eat new foods if they are fed away from the cage in a social eating situation. While you eat, a T-stand by the table with a food cup works great to stimulate your parrot's appetite.
» The model/rival concept can work quite well. This involves the least favored person feeding a nutritionally sound bite of food to the parrot's favorite person in front of the parrot. In the beginning, the favored person eats the food with expressions of pleasure such as "Yum - this is really good!" After doing this a few times, the parrots should start to show interest and the favored person only eats part of the tidbit and offers the rest to the parrot. Eventually, the parrot will eat just about anything that the least favored person feeds to the most favored person after that person shares the food with their bird. I used this technique with several couples to get their parrots - especially greys - on a healthy diet. It didn't take very long for a change to happen.
» Pay attention to your parrot’s preference and habits. Feed the most nutritious foods when he is the hungriest. Some parrots eat best in the morning; others eat best in the early evening. Most are likely to try new foods when you are eating with them.
» Be creative. It may take weeks or even months! If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try, try, try and try again! If you truly love your parrots, get them on to a healthy fresh food diet and off of a "death diet" of pellets and seed. It really will make a difference in their health and longevity.