In our article Feeding Our Birds – Part I Nutritional Needs, we discussed both our research and experiences concerning a healthy diet for our avian friends. We have found that there is still much to be learned about a bird’s nutritional needs. Scientific information is just beginning to become available. Aviculturists are also realising that various species have different nutritional requirements. There are no easy answers.
A sensible diet and one that we use here for our macaws is a natural one that allows a bird to pick and choose. So far, it has worked for us. A general natural diet for most hookbills consists of: 1/3 whole grains, seeds, nuts and protein, 1/3 fresh vegetables (red, green, yellow, yellow and orange), and 1/3 fresh fruits.
Some good examples might include the following, offered in the raw form or cooked.
Beet greens are offered quite often because of the high vitamin content, closely followed by broccoli (Our birds love the flower heads from the garden). We also feed: carrot greens, kale, mustard greens, bok choy, cabbage (both green and red), Brussel sprouts, and celery.
We limit the use of celery to one or two times per week because of the salt content. But, we do add it to the diet. In the wild, birds have been seen eating salt grasses. Salt is one of the natural compounds found in the clays that birds eat at the “Mineral Cliff’s in Peru and on the ground in Australia.
We feed the red and orange/yellow colored vegetables heavily and regularly for the same reasons. They are higher in the vitamin and mineral content that birds require. Some examples are:
Sweet potatoes (ours prefer par boiled over raw), carrots (sticks, whole, sliced, grated, or cubed) and beets (par boiled, shredded, or chopped). BEWARE, of POOP COLOR CHANGE when feeding beets.
Hot peppers, (green, red, and yellow) are very high in vitamins, but should come with a WARNING! A bird has no saliva and therefore is not bothered by the blistering hot oils contained in these varieties of peppers. Humans however, can be made quite unpleasantly aware that they have offered such foods, if a foot or beak that has held or tasted such a good morsel touches us.
Squash (especially yellow and orange) as well as the flowers from squash, day lilies, and nasturtiums (both blossom and leaves) are relished and have been found to be high in vitamins (especially vitamin A).
I think all birds especially love Corn. Whether fresh on the cob, cut, dried, cooked, or raw, birds have a fascination with CORN! We wash it well (homegrown, no pesticides), pull the husks back and present the whole thing to the birds. It is a toy. It is food. It is something to fight over. And it is something to cherish.. CORN!
Green vegetables (raw, cooked, or fresh frozen) are also good choices. For the macaws, we often offer the green vegetables whole which serve both as a toy and something good to eat.
With green beans, some birds will first eat only the bean inside. But, some will come back and scrape the meat away, while others could care less.
Peas (in the pod or sprouted), green peppers and small zucchini (a good use for all the extra zucchini you have in the garden) are also good. Offer zucchini when sweet and tender or when very large and older, as the birds will fight for the seeds found inside. You now also know what to do with the seeds, when making stuffed squash for the family.
Okra is also relished not only as a toy, but also as a finger food.
Cut slices of any of the sweet peppers (bell family, green, red, yellow or orange) are relished and good choices.
Apples, oranges, pears, apricots and peaches (seed removed), bananas, mangos, watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya, coconut, plums, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, boysenberries and blackberries are loved by birds. It is good when the birds enjoy something that is also good for them. (Note: When picking apples, select green apples. They have been found to be healthier than the red.)
Take a stroll down the aisles of your grocery store and think VITAMINS! When feeding fruits leave the seeds (except for apples). They are highly prized by the birds. Watch as a wedge of watermelon, honeydew, musk melon or cantaloupe (remove rind) is relished, seed by seed, and THEN the flesh eaten.
A helpful tip. Since many of you have only one bird, pick things that can also be cooked, frozen and enjoyed by you. LEARN, to be creative. As the seasons change, so should the diet. You may find a wonderful thing. As you start to make healthy choices for your birds, your family will also start to eat healthier!
Protein comes in different forms. One form is found in plants such as beans, legumes, seeds, nuts or whole grains. Another form comes from animals such as meat, hard boiled eggs, cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt. Don’t forget bones! The marrow in bones is a special treat! What a sight to see your bird holding a drumstick! They will take chunks of the bone and discard it to get to the center of the bone. Hubby has often been heard muttering to the birds, “You are eating your cousins you know!”. They give him “that” look which says, “Yeah? Well you better not try to take our bone if you value your fingers!”.
In the wild, birds get a certain amount of their protein from eating fruit with insects in it. There is a growing belief that some animial protein is necessary to good health. It is a source for vitamin D precursors, a necessary vitamin for regulating calcium and phosphorous absorption.
A sampling of our dry mix for our birds may contain the following (remember, modify it to fit your bird’s needs): hulled oats, white millet, sunflower, safflower, buckwheat, pumpkin, hemp, whole, cracked and popping corn, canary, oat groats, dried red peppers, chunks of cuttlebone, manu crumbles, dry vegetable pasta, raisins, papaya, coconut, banana and zucchini chips, carrots, some pellets (if I feel like it) and nuts.
We offer the nuts in the shell as it is a healthy food, a toy and also helps to maintain good beak and nails. Here is a sampling of what we offer: Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds, pecans, peanuts, hazel nuts, pine nuts and macadamia nuts. We give a higher number of almonds, which are high in calcium
We most often will mix Zupreem primate biscuits into the nut mix which may but does not have to be offered in a separate bowl.
A couple of times a week we offer vitamins, minerals and calcium in a dry form which we have mixed in a salt shaker (a great tip from our vet) and we “salt” the fresh foods. Our mix is not exact but I would say a good half is calcium, the balance either Super Preen or Nekton (brand name) vitamin and mineral supplements.
Many of us offer combinations of rice (brown or white), beans (assorted) and/or pasta and whole grains in the form of whole wheat or whole grain bread on a daily basis.
Be sure to cook legumes (beans), as some have been found to be toxic in the natural or dry form. They are also safe if offered in a sprouted form. You can sprout both beans and seeds. We sprout large and small seeds, chick peas, lentils and other beans, and even popping corn. Moreover, sprouting converts the fats in seeds to a healthier form. To be safe, do a little checking on which beans are all right to sprout before you offer them.
To be really safe, COOK THEM! It takes but a short time to cook a pot, cool, feed, bag up and freeze them into portions for additional feedings. Later it is quick and convenient to remove a bag from the freezer, thaw it and then add fresh veggies and fruit before serving.
We have found if you soak beans in hot water, soaking time can be reduced considerably. Then just rinse and cook until tender or almost tender. You can also add things like red peppers, garlic, rice, oats, pasta or a variety of ingredients.
Cranberries. We offer them fresh when in season. We also buy extra for the remainder of the year. Store unopened bags in the freezer. They are a great source of vitamins. Testing shows that cranberries aid the body by sloughing off uric acid both in humans and animals. Because it is of dual benefit, I also have been known to buy them dried (in health food stores). These may be added to your bean mix or offered in some of the baked goodies we make. There is no need to thaw them, if frozen. Our birds have been noted to enjoy some cold foods and in hot weather it helps keep the food fresher longer.
If you offer dried fruits or veggies, read the ingredients list on the package to make sure that sulfur has not been added in the drying process.
You also can mix many of these ingredients in a corn bread mix and serve slightly warm, which is a good way to get some birds to try new things. I always add extra eggs, including the crushed eggshells. They must be baked in the oven to avoid salmonella. The egg shells are made of calcium which is good for your birds and can even be used in your garden.
Remember to adjust the diet for various species. More on species differences is discussed in Part I Nutritional Needs.
Is your bird FAT???
The easy way to check this is by feel, especially around the breast area of a bird. There is a section of flesh on either side of the breastbone which is a good indication. But it takes some experience to know what is fat or normal.
Another way to check if a bird is fat, is to take a cotton swab dipped in slightly warm water and saturate a section of the breast area. This will allow you to look closely at the skin. IF the skin has a slight yellow cast, it is a good indication of fatty deposits. This will alert you of the need to modify the diet! My vet has been known to call overweight birds “A Foster Farm Candidate”. Continued overweight could turn into fatty liver problems. (NOTE! This may not hold true for species such as the Hyacinth Macaw whose skin will turn bright yellow when it is exposed to sunlight.)
If your bird is fat, modify the diet! Make the diet fit the need.
How? Limit the amount of seeds offered or sprout them, and increase the amount of fresh foods. Offer lots of green leafy vegetables, less corn, more squash, carrots, etc. Limit fruits, as they contain a lot of sugar. Offer a variety and, as an enticement, sprinkle chopped walnuts or almonds over the top to get the bird to eat the healthier foods. Remember to limit saturated fats in favor of unsaturated fats! Offer all of the food groups, with modifications for different species. Sesame seeds are a good choice as they are high in vitamin A and can be offered in the same way. They can be found in most health food stores in bulk.
General Tips On Feeding
We feed twice a day and check water more frequently. The wet and soft foods go into one bowl, dry foods in another. We try to use as wide a bowl as we can so the birds tend to toss out less when trying to see what is in the bottom of the bowl.
You should invite your birds to snack with you as well as offering them a bowl of their own when you sit down to eat. You will learn that birds love tacos, a little melted cheese, lettuce, tomato and meat served in a taco shell. A little pizza is always enjoyed by our feathered friends. And oh, ours will really give you a run for your money when it comes to spaghetti and/or meatloaf. Some things we have had to learn to spell around here, so that little bird ears do not get over-excited at the inappropriate times. Make eating and learning a fun experience for you, for your whole flock.
Once you have learned what your birds like and have taught them to like what they should, serve a wide variety in a bowl or on a skewer to allow the birds a choice of what they eat. What they choose to eat today, they may neglect to eat tomorrow.
One of the long skewers used with BBQs makes a great bird feeder. Just slip one end through a corner of the cage or flight wire, and attach a link to keep it from slipping through. Slip the other end out and push on a cork, a piece of plastic, or a bolt. The food is slipped onto the skewer and is in easy view to the birds. This saves a lot of sorting (instead of tossing food out of the bowls). I often wonder if natural instincts are telling the bird just which vitamins its body requires at the moment and is really the deciding factor on which tidbit get tossed or eaten.
Birds eat food in different ways. Some climb inside the bowl and if it is not warm enough they “nest” on it a bit. Some reach over the side and get picky. Others choose to sort through the whole dish, tossing items every which way, to see what is being offered. Then they climb down to the bottom to re-think the situation. Some birds must toss, beat, hang, or stomp a piece of food to make sure it is “dead” before it is allowed to pass the beak into the crop.
My best thoughts are to offer a wide variety and keep the changes coming so that the bird can fill its own needs.
Our birds are what they eat, which is what we serve them.