African grey with greens



by Sally Blanchard

Andy, the African gray, shoveled through his dish impatiently. There was no "food" in the dish, only strange shapes with funny colors and textures. Was this green stuff something he was supposed to eat? The mushy things felt funny clinging to his foot and beak. Frantically, Andy pulled the glop off of his foot with his beak and wiped it onto his perch. He had never seen things like this in his "seed cup" before.

Digging for his familiar sunflower seed, he took everything else, piece by piece, and flung it as far as he could. Some food splatted against the walls. He stood and curiously watched a glob of it slide down the wall. Now Andy was upset. He had pulled everything out of his "seed cup" and there was no seed - just the shiny bottom of an empty bowl. The disgruntled gray climbed down to the bottom of his cage and picked around at all the discards. Still no seed! He climbed back up to his perch. Andy reached out and grabbed one of his toys and smashed at it, flinging it back and forth. He was hungry and there was no seed! He grabbed another toy and really shook it this time!


Andy was a two-year-old domestically-raised African gray parrot. Tony and Sarah Quinn purchased him from a pet shop just after he was weaned. Unfortunately and ignorantly, the store weaned their baby parrots to nothing but seed, mostly sunflower seed. The Quinns bought a bag of vitaminized parrot mix, being reassured that it was a total diet for their new avian companion.

Andy was their first parrot and Tony and Sarah didn't know any other bird owners. They trusted the information that they had been given at the pet shop. Occasionally, Tony would share a snack with his Andy when the bird was out of his cage. Other than that Andy had eaten nothing but seed since he was weaned.

About the time he turned two years old, Andy started shaking his head and falling off of his perch. The veterinarian who sees the Quinn's German Shepherd referred them to Dr. James Harris, who was a San Francisco Bay area avian specialist who diagnosed malnutrition in the African gray. Andy was having brain seizures caused by severe calcium deficiency. In addition to treating Andy, Dr. Harris recommended that they consult with me about improving Andy's diet.


As a behavioral consultant and the instructor of many bird-care seminars, I am always surprised how many bird owners still feed their pets a seed-only or mostly seed diet (and now how many people think that they should only feed a pelleted diet). Some owners feed their birds occasional fruits, vegetables or table scraps but still rely on a seed mix as their parrot's nutritional base. Often, when I ask what other foods the birds eat, the owner mentions apples, grapes, corn, pizza, french fries, tacos, lettuce, celery, peanuts and other foods that lack the basic nutrition that birds need for health and long life.

It can be dangerous to tell bird owners to feed their birds "people food", considering the diets that many people are on today. Many bird owners believe that the parrot mix that they feed their pet bird will provide the needed nutrition. How did the seed myth get started? For many years, we had very little accurate information about the diet, habits, and behavior of wild parrots. Because of this and the profit-motive hype and marketing of the pet industry, many people believed that they were doing the right thing.

Parrots were often classed as seed-eaters even though they are opportunistic omnivores, eating almost anything edible that they discover while foraging. Caged birds accept seed readily which does not mean it is good for them. It is abundantly available, relatively inexpensive, clean, easy to feed and requires no preparation or work for the caregiver.

A manufacturer or retailer that encourages a pet owner to feed a seed only (or pellet only) diet receives one hundred percent of the bird food profit. If the seller also recommends feeding fruits and vegetables, then they lose profit to the supermarket. The manufacturers, pet shops and breeders who are concerned about the welfare of pet birds recommend seed only as a portion of a bird's diet. Breeders and pet shops should wean their baby birds to a varied diet that includes fresh foods! Weaning them to a predominantly seed or pelleted diet can cause serious health problems and often make it difficult for the owner to convert their bird to a nutritious diet.


Although nutritional content may vary somewhat in different seeds, a mixture of many seeds still can't meet a bird's protein, mineral and vitamin requirements. The arguments about sunflower versus safflower seed or black sunflower versus gray, safflower versus sunflower seed are insignificant if seed is properly considered as a small part of a varied diet. With the exception of millet, none of the seeds commonly occurring in a "parrot mix" are seeds that any species in the parrot family would eat in their native habitat. Even seed-eating parrot family birds don't eat the dry packaged seeds that are available for the pet market. In the wild, they eat fresh, growing, germinating seed that has much more nutrition than any dry mix.

Most parrots never saw a sunflower seed before they entered the United States. Depending on the species of parrot, a maximum of 15% seed to none at all may be acceptable. I have many clients with pet birds, including parrots, that thrive on a diet that is totally void of a commercial seed mix. My birds eat TOPS Parrot Food, a quality actually organic pellet made from real food powders as about 20 to 30% at the most of their diet. They get daily rations of vegetables, fruits, and other nutritious goodies. Seed is dessert, a special treat that I feed sparingly a few times a week. A healthy sprouted seed is a far better source of nutrition in that germinating seed is very healthy.


Despite any occasional controversy, a proper balance of protein is an essential part of a bird's diet. Much of the recent "protein scare" has been based on a misunderstanding of important nutritional concepts. There is no evidence that a diet with up to 20% high-quality clean protein, a balanced protein/fat ratio and the proper proportion of essential amino acids will cause health problems in cage birds. Proteins are an essential ingredient of a bird's diet and too low a level will result in deficiencies. Some companies, bowing to popular pressure, may actually be creating a diet for birds that is protein deficient. Although some seed mixes can contain as high as 40% crude protein, the parrots eating them can still suffer from protein deficiencies because they are lacking the essential amino acids for a complete protein. Quinoa has become a wonderful source of a plant-based complete protein. I have fed it for years in my parrots veggie/grain mixes.

Seed mixes do not provide the proper balance of amino acids which combine to create high-quality proteins. The finicky "seed junkie" will usually pick out the seeds highest in carbohydrates and fats such as sunflower and safflower. I've worked with many obese Amazon parrots that slim down very well on a nutritionally balanced diet. In the rainforest, an Amazon parrot flies many miles each day in search of food. In captivity, even domestically-raised parrots seem to have an "instinctual craving" for high energy foods. However, their activity level is so compromised that even the most active pet parrot cannot possibly expend the amount of energy needed to utilize the caloric intake of the high-fat seed-only diet.


For long, healthy life, cage birds need a nutritionally complete diet that includes the proper balance of protein, vitamins, minerals, trace elements, fiber, fat, and carbohydrate. High-quality protein, vitamin A, vitamin K, and calcium are the most serious deficiencies in a seed diet. To make up for their nutritional shortcomings, many seed mixes are vitamin-enriched or coated. Several vitamin supplements instruct the bird owner to put their product on the bird's seed. This is basically nonsense. Coating seed with vitamins makes as much sense to me as putting vitamins on a candy-bar wrapper. As the bird works the seed with his beak, the hull with its vitamin coating is discarded to the bottom of the cage. Since parrots have "little rubber eraser" tongues and the beak area is dry, they must swallow food to derive the necessary nutritional benefit. Adding vitamins to the drinking water is another ineffective way of providing nutrition to pet birds and the water can develop bacterial growth quickly with the supplement in it. Recently I've seen "vitamin-enriched" wooden toys on the market. The toys may be fun to chew but there is no way that a pet bird will derive any nutritional benefit from them. Nutrients are only effective if the bird consumes them. I think that fresh foods combined with TOPS Parrot Food, the ONLY really organic pellet on the market is the most effective ways of making sure your bird receives the nutrition that he needs for a long and healthy life.


The best way to get good nutrition into your pet is to feed a balanced diet. Although there is a vast difference in the nutritional quality of the many manufactured diets on the market today, most are not any healthier to a seed only diet. They are highly processed, and contain many highly questionable human banned chemical ingredients that parrots shouldn't be eating (please see other articled on this website). My other concern as a behavior consultant is that many of these diets ignore the psychological benefits of a varied diet. The majority of a wild parrot's daytime is spent in food-related activities. Much of their behavior and courtship is based on food gathering and mutual feeding. My extensive work with captive bird behavior has convinced me that it is essential to provide our companions and breeding parrots with a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and textures in their food. I believe that there is no such thing as a total diet. There is no one food, with its uniform shape, size, texture or color that can satisfy both the nutritional and psychological food needs of caged birds. A manufactured diet may be superior to a seed diet but we need to read the labels because so many of them are loaded with chemical additives. One that is common it almost all pelleted diets is Menadione, which is banned in human food. However, I wouldn't recommend feeding any pelleted food or any one food as a total diet no matter how nutritionally sound it is. I do NOT recommend any manufactured diets with food coloring or other chemical ingredients to make them smell "good" or as a preservative. I believe that all of these foods will eventually cause some serious health problems with captive parrots. 


Generally speaking, the foods that are good for us are good for our birds. The high vitamin A vegetables and fruits are essential in a cage birds diet. These include the orange and green foods such as sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, winter squash, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, kale, broccoli. peppers, apricots, peaches, nectarines, cantaloupe, mango, and papaya. Toasted whole grain breads, brown rice, enriched pasta, tofu, nuts, hard-cooked egg, yogurt, bananas, oranges, berries, small amounts of reduced-salt cheese, fresh well-cooked chicken or turkey, beans, beets, corn and quality breakfast cereals without sugar are all foods that can be a part of a balanced and enjoyable diet for your birds.


"My bird won't eat that!" "My bird won't eat anything green." "She won't eat any food that's mushy." "He hates vegetables!". "None of my parrots will eat anything crunchy.". "He just throws anything new on the floor of his cage!" "I'd rather have my bird eat seed/pellets than get sick and die." "She hates me when I don't give her seed.". These are all statements that I hear over and over from bird owners. Without realizing, these owners are telling me that their bird is in control of its own life and manipulating them into feeding what it wants. Some birds switch to a better diet immediately. Some take a tremendous amount of patience and time. I am convinced that any companion bird, no matter how stubborn, can be switched to a quality nutritionally sound diet if the proper techniques are used. When an owner tells me that his bird hates vegetables, I ask them "do you like vegetables?". It is interesting that the majority say "No, I don't like them or even that they hate vegetables!". Since parrots are so empathetic, mirroring our moods, they usually can tell when we're trying to "con" them. The owner must realize how important it is for their bird to eat well and must commit themselves to work with their companion parrot/s until the bird/s are on a good diet and on their way to being as healthy as possible.


For several years on a small scale, I was a bird rescuer. Much of my parrot knowledge came from working with these birds. I would bring 0ne or two at a time into my house, keeping them separate from my own pets, gentle them into accepting my attention, help them become healthy, convert them to a better diet and then find a good home for them. I never made a penny doing this but the experience was invaluable in the work that I do today. Often these parrots were sick. Their bodies were run down from diets lacking the raw materials needed to keep them functioning well. On a sunflower seed only diet, the birds just couldn't fight the infections. One of the most hard-core seed junkies that I ever worked with was Jupiter, a large wild-caught male Moluccan cockatoo. When he was surrendered to me from a sort of “hippy drug house” he reeked of marijuana and it seemed he had every curable disease that birds get with malnutrition, bacterial infection, and psittacosis being at the top of the list. I had to medicate him for several weeks and he did not appreciate the routine of injections and oral medications. Jupiter wanted nothing to do with me and all he would eat was sunflower seed. After months of unsuccessful manipulation, coercion, and cajoling, I was ready to give up. I had tried every technique and method I knew at the time. With a big bird like Jupiter, one day was the longest I would ever let him go without eating anything and he had taken his one day a few separate times. Cold turkey is NOT the way to convert a parrot to a better diet. One day I threw his broccoli and other healthy goodies in his food bowl and stormed out of the room proclaiming, "I don't care if you ever eat anything but sunflower seed!" I heard him climb down to his dish and suddenly I heard crunching noises. From then on, he started eating his new foods. I doubt that it was my little temper tantrum that did it, although it might have helped. I think it just took him that long to become familiar with the new objects as food. For several years now, I have received reports that Jupiter is living a happy life. He eats lots of good nutritious foods and is quite tame and bonded to his new owner.


Many birds that have been on seed-only diets have chronic infections and other health problems caused by nutritional abuse. It's a vicious circle, to help them become healthy they must be on a better diet but to switch them over may cause stress which may make them sicker. Your avian veterinarian can help your bird with injectable vitamins or minerals and by treating it's health problems. Once it is stable, the conversion process can begin. First, check your bird's weight and keep track of it during the changeover.

The most accurate way is with a gram scale, weighing and keeping track of your bird's weight on a daily basis. You can also check the "meat" around the keel bone frequently. The keel bone runs down the center of the chest. Although you should be able to feel the front of the bone, it should be well-padded on the sides. The chest of the bird should be U shaped, not V-shaped. If the bone is sharp and protrusive, the bird is too thin. Although most birds that have good weight may lose some weight, if the weight loss becomes noticeable, you may need to slow down the conversion process. If you can't find the bone, your bird needs to lose some weight. Many birds, particularly Amazons, cockatoos, and budgies, become obese on a seed diet and will naturally lose weight on a nutritionally sound diet.


I am adamant about using gradual methods to change a bird's diet. Just taking the preferred food away from a bird and demanding that he eat the new food or starve can be deadly. Many birds, particularly small birds like budgies, cockatiels, finches, and canaries, will starve themselves before immediately eating new food. If a bird does not starve, they can still become very sick. I've had several bird owners report to me that their birds became ill on the diet that I suggested to them. In all cases, it was not the diet but the conversion techniques when they didn't listen to my advice or follow it. As I have said, birds that have been on a predominantly seed diet for very long, usually have health problems due to malnutrition. One of the most serious side effects is a dysfunctional liver. A parrot with a liver functioning 20% below normal will develop serious problems if he is forced into a fast by an owner trying to convert him too quickly to a good diet. No matter how palatable and wonderful a new diet is, there are always going to be birds that reject it because it is not familiar to them as food. I have worked with many parrots and find that those owners who convert their birds too quickly either cause them problems or don't have lasting results. Many birds need time to adjust to the fact that the new food is not a treat but their new diet. A period of time from one week to six months is acceptable, with most birds starting to eat new foods successfully within two to four weeks. It is also important to realize that once the bird is eating a nutritionally sound diet, the owner may still have to work to maintain that diet. Some parrots seem to be doing fine and one day, out of the blue, reject everything that's good for them. It is usually temporary if the owner works with the bird again for a short time.


Understanding the normal behavior of a parrot, helps us to understand their needs in captivity. Most wild birds, including parrots and other so-called seed eaters, actually eat a varied diet. Leaf and flower buds, fruits and legumes, grubs, insects and other animal matter, nuts, and seeds may be consumed on a daily basis. Although finches, canaries, cockatiels, budgerigars and other grass parakeets do eat a higher percentage of seed, these are usually germinating seeds or green seeds still on the plant and not yet ready for dispersal. Both have a higher nutritional content than the seed mixes commercially available. It is unfair to require that opportunistic omnivores, birds that eat a varied diet, eat one food. They would normally eat a tremendous assortment of foods with different colors, shapes, sizes, and textures. It is only in captivity that birds become "fixated" on one food source – seed or pellets. The parrot digestive evolved to eat everything available to them as food in the wild. A dry pelleted diet is the absolute antithesis of this!


There is no reason to leave a full bowl of seed in a bird's cage free-choice all of the time. Seed is like "M&M's" to birds. "Seed junkies" will choose the seed over any other food in their cage. If the seed is there, why eat anything else? Empty the "seed bowl" and turn it into a "food bowl". Leave it in the location where your bird is used to finding his seed but fill it full of nutritious foods. Use another location for the "seed bowl" and in the beginning just put a Tablespoon or so of seed a few times a day. Leave some kind of nutritious food in his cage, free-choice all of the time. In the beginning, you may be wasting food. It may take a while for your pet bird to realize the new shapes in his cage are actually food. He may rip it apart and it around. At least he is experimenting with the new food. Don't let the waste stop you. Imagine all the money you'll be saving on future vet bills! Gradually reduce the amount of seed. Start out by letting them go half a day without seed, then a whole day, then a day and a half and then two days. Never let any bird, especially small birds, go more than 12 hours without eating. A large bird should not go more than 24 hours without eating. Once the bird starts trying new foods, watch him carefully and continue to decrease the amount of seed. If he stops eating the new food, give him a small amount of seed again and start the process over. Don't give him a huge bowl of seed. I was working with a 9-year old African grey on a seed-only diet and after two days without seed, the owners misunderstood my instructions and gave him a huge bowl full of seed. He gorged himself so severely that his crop became impacted and he had to go to the vet. The process of seed denial may have to be repeated many times before a bird is securely on a new diet. At that point, I do not recommend ever keeping seed free-choice in the cage again. However, it can be a special treat or a bribe/treat to get the bird to do something you want him to.


The birds that we commonly keep as pets have a less developed sense of taste and smell than we do. There was a treat on the market that had hot chilis and curry. My birds loved them because of their strong spicy flavor and the peppers are a good source of vitamin A. Occasionally my big dog, Dewey, ate one that a bird had dropped and seemed quite surprised. Some parrots like to soak their food in their water dish making a sort of messy soup. Soaking the food may intensify the flavor. Eyesight and tactile senses are keenly developed in parrots. They are strongly responsive to color. Flying over a rainforest clearing, a flock of parrots searches for color as a signal in their search for food. A cluster of red fruit stands out among all the green of the trees and vines. Shape and size are also significant to birds in their food preference. Researchers discovered that parrots preferred to hold long and narrow shapes that protruded from their foot when they firmly gripped part of the food. I've watched many parrots rip and shred different kinds of food until it is just the right size to hold firmly with a clenched foot. Ripping and tearing at food is an important part of food behavior. I've never done the definitive study but I am sure that if someone did, they would find out that caged parrots waste over half of the food they're given to eat. This is also a trait of wild parrots. They co-evolved with the plants that they eat in the wild. Their wastefulness is most likely a way of scattering the seeds of these plants and assuring their future generations of those preferred foods.


It is obvious that individual pet birds prefer different shapes, sizes, colors and textures in their foods. Whether these preferences are instinctive or learned, we can manipulate foods to try and find a way that our pets will eat them. Carrots, for example, can be cooked or fed raw. They can be sliced, diced, stripped, made into little flowers, cut into curly-q's, mashed, pureed, or fed whole in a food cup or hanging in the cage. Bongo Marie, my late great African grey, generally would eat anything, but she refused to eat diced or sliced carrots. She liked them peeled into little curls or cooked and mashed. She would not eat sliced sweet potato but she loved them mushy in the skin. She ate nothing but sunflower seeds when she came to live with me almost 45 years ago. When I first started to introduce vegetables and fruit to her, she seemed terrified, acting as if I was trying to poison her. It took about 6 months before she was comfortable eating almost all of the new foods I introduced into her diet. For several years, she wouldn't eat any green foods unless I poured tomato sauce on them and made them red. She had her food moods, like most parrots, when she wouldn't eat foods she normally liked. She also went on eating binges where she picked the same thing out day after day. Then suddenly she didn't want it anymore for a while. I love pizza but I don't want it all the time, either.


In the wild, food does not occur in cups strategically placed on the tree branches. Parrots have to reach, climb and explore for food. With a little imagination, the bird owner can have fun coming up with new ways to introduce foods to their birds. I weave greens in the cage bars and my birds seem to enjoy pulling them out. Sometimes they even eat them. Bongo Marie loved her collard greens sopping wet on the top of her cage. She rolled around in them, taking her bath and then ripped them apart, eating some in the process. Paco, my 43-year-old DYH Amazon has loved bathing in collard greens for most of her life. I hang all sorts of foods in the cages. When Brussels sprouts are in season, I buy a stalk of them and put it in Paco and Rascal's cage. The double-yellow heads delight in swinging from it as they rip off the leaves and devour them. Brandy, an African gray owned by one of my clients loves cooked artichokes. She sneaks little morsels of other foods into the leaves that Brandy loves to find. Many garden supply stores carry a fruit feeder meant for wild birds. It is a small flat piece of metal with a large blunt screw with a large wing-nut that grips the fruit slices. My amazons love to hang upside down in their cage to get to the fruit that I hang from the ceiling of their cage. The hanging food holders made by several companies are a marvelous idea. Frances Weaver has a wonderful idea that Picco, her pet yellow nape enjoys. She takes all sorts of nutritious foods and wraps them in corn tortillas and hangs them high in the middle of his cage. Picco has his own parrot pinata that he bats at until he gets to the food. Of course, the corn tortilla is edible too. Most cockatoos are ground feeders and may be more interested in new food placed in a large shallow crock on the bottom of their cage. There certainly is less waste when they start shoveling around and throwing everything out with their foot. Tricking cockatiels, another stubborn eater, into new foods can be relatively easy if you make them think it is their idea. I encourage my clients to take the new food and put it in little paper bags and tuck them into the bird's hang-out areas. Jennifer Scott's cockatiel, Pokey, spends much of his freedom time in a fichus tree next to the couch. Jennifer hung little bags of food, like ornaments, in the tree. Within just a few days, Pokey was carrying the tidbits of food back to his cage to soak in his water dish and eat.


Most birds are social eaters, stimulated to eat when they see their flock eating. We are their flock. When you eat in front of your parrot make sure that the healthy foods are in his cage - not the seed. Although some people are not comfortable with birds at the table, it usually helps to give your pet bird a special dish of his own either at the table or on a T-stand near the table while you are eating. If you have another bird that is a good eater, let the new bird watch him eat the good foods. Hand feed your parrot new foods, saying "ummm, that's good". Say the name of the food and smile. Eat some of it yourself. Birds are very responsive to food pleasure noises. All of my parrots have unique little noises that they make when they really like something that they are eating. Bongo Marie actually said "that's good" when she buried her face in my various “glop” recipes. Spike, my black-headed Caique, made a guttural high-pitched purr when he enjoyed his favorite foods. He sounded like a mechanical cat when he went after a chunk of pomegranate.


Patterning is an important concept in parrot behavior. Most birds will not accept changes readily. But over a period of time, by gradually making consistent little changes they will begin to accept them as part of their routine. The first time a parrot sees a new food in his cage, it may appear that he will never eat it. But if he sees it several times, he will begin to accept the new shape. He may pick up the food and throw it down right away, but the next time he might touch it with his beak. Serve it again and he actually might take a bite. Once a bird tries any new foods, he often becomes more adventuresome. Corn, nuts, whole-grain low-salt crackers, beans, peas, apples, and grapes are usually good transition foods. Not very high in nutrition, they are foods that a parrot may eat more readily than highly nutritious foods like carrots and collard greens. Often if you can get him to eat some of these foods he will continue to experiment and eventually try the more nutritious foods. As an avian consultant, the biggest problem that I have with converting birds to better diets is the owner who gives up too soon. Getting your bird to eat a healthy, nutritious diet may take some time. It may actually be a life-long process.

Just because a bird likes a new food, doesn't mean it is good for him. Educate yourself to judge the quality of these new pet industry foods for parrots – Most of them are gimmick foods full of artificial ingredients that simply are not healthy for our parrots. The supermarket or produce store with its vast array of fruits, vegetables, and healthy people food (organic is best and now very available most places) is still one of the best places to shop for your bird's food cup. If you have a garden, grow your own organic foods!


If you were worried about poor Andy digging around in his empty seed cup forever, you can relax. The African grey is now on a nutritionally balanced diet and is doing very well. Seed is just a memory. He was a tough nut to crack, a real "seed junkie." Tony and Sarah spent a few weeks trying to get Andy to eat new foods with little progress. They were quite frustrated. I had to be creative to figure out how to get Andy to eat the right foods. I realized from my in-home consultation with the Quinns, that Andy was bonded to Tony. Sarah was only ok – only the tolerated person. Knowing this, I came up with a plan. I had the Quinns chop up a plate full of fruits and veggies and place them on the dining room table. Tony put Andy on his T-stand and moved the stubborn African grey so that he was at the corner of the table. Tony sat next to him at the head of the table. Sarah sat at the side near Tony with Andy between them. If Andy had been primarily bonded to Sarah instead of Tony, the roles would have been reversed. Sarah reached over and picked up a piece of fruit. Making a fuss over it, she hand-fed it to her husband. Tony opened his mouth wide and as he chewed, he proclaimed just how yummy the food was. This process was repeated until the food was gone. Andy didn't get anything. At first, he didn't seem to care. But as he watched Tony eating the food and enjoying it, he became more and more curious. The next night, the Quinns repeated the charade. Towards the last bite, Andy was leaning forward asking for the food. He still didn't get anything. The following evening, about halfway through the session, Tony took the bite from Sarah and held it up to Andy. Andy grabbed for it but threw it down. The fourth night, when Andy was given a piece of broccoli, he ate it and asked for more. By the end of the week, Andy was eating anything that Tony or Sarah handed him. Within a few more days, he was eating vegetables and some fruits from his food cup. This technique had succeeded with flying colors. A few weeks later, Tony Quinn called me with what he referred to as a serious problem. He asked, "What do I do? Now that Andy eats a healthy diet, my wife has stopped hand-feeding me?"




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