March 1998 Magazine
Eating organic food and drinking pure water can have profoundly beneficial effects on the health and longevity of parrots. If your parrot became ill due to the ingestion of pesticide residues, how much money would you spend to restore it to health? The cost of feeding organic foods is minimal in comparison to the cost of illness, and there are several favorite foods of parrots that are safe to buy even when not grown organically.
According to Consumer Reports, January 1998, there are 9,700 pesticides in existence, and in 1995, U.S. farmers applied 566 million pounds of pesticides to major fiber and food crops. Last summer, the U.S. Geological Survey announced the first results of a massive study of pesticides in 5,000 water samples from wells and rivers. Half the wells--and nearly all streams--contained at least one pesticide. Almost every pesticide legal for use in the United States, even when applied according to label directions, will kill birds. Carbamates and organophosphates kill insects (or birds) by disrupting the organism's nervous system. Although eating pesticide residues on foods will not kill a parrot instantly, long-term exposure will result in a slow but sure toxic buildup in the bird's system. Knowing the magnitude of the problem, it is imperative that we give our parrots the purest possible water and the least contaminated food that is available.
A recent article in the Journal of Applied Nutrition gave credence to the notion that organic foods have higher nutrient levels than non-organically grown food. In this study the mineral content of organic apples, pears, potatoes, wheat, and sweet corn were compared to commercial varieties. Overall the organic foods showed higher levels of nutrient minerals and lower levels of heavy metals.
Here are a few of the minerals that were found in higher levels in organic foods: CHROMIUM is a micro-nutrient that was found to be higher in organic foods by an average of 78%. SELENIUM is one of the antioxidant nutrients that protects us from damage by environmental chemicals. It was found to be an average of 390% higher in organic foods. CALCIUM averaged 63% higher in organic foods. BORON, which works along with calcium to keep bones strong, averaged 70% more. MAGNESIUM averaged 138% more.
When organic foods were tested for mineral levels, the researchers also looked for the amount of heavy metals--aluminum, cadmium, lead and mercury. Aluminum has been implicated for years in the development of Alzheimer's disease in humans. Its content in organic food averaged 40% less than in commercial foods. Lead toxicity often is a problem in parrots. Lead averaged 29% lower in organic foods. Mercury, which can cause neurological damage, averaged 25% lower in organic foods.
Other studies have looked at vitamin levels of food plants treated with certain pesticides. They showed that application of some pesticides lowered the vitamin levels in the plants they were applied to. This is not the same theory as that of plants raised with chemicals being low in nutrients because of soil depletion. Not all studies on the differences between organically-grown foods and conventionally-grown foods agree on the varying levels of vitamins, minerals, and even taste. Although some researchers have concluded that there is no difference in taste between food grown organically and conventionally, many gourmet chefs seek out organic ingredients for their special dishes because they believe the tastes to be more intense. This of course could have to do with the type of soil or other factors.
A more important question is whether or not the accumulation of pesticide residues in non-organically grown foods is a real health concern. Studies have never been able to conclusively show a direct correlation between residues in food and a decline in human health, but there are numerous problems in doing any such study. The first is that you would need a population of people who are free of chemical residues to compare to, and no one has been able to find such a group! According to an ongoing EPA study of fat samples taken from surgeries and autopsies across the country, we are all loaded with chemical residues. Similar studies done in other countries all show the same results.
The clearest studies that we have about pesticide residues and disease are those looking at breast cancer in humans. In the last few years there have been a series of studies looking at the level of DDT, DDE, and PCB in women. They have very clearly shown chemical residues of DDT in the serum and fat cells of women, and since we no longer use DDT to spray for mosquitoes, the only known route of exposure to DDT in this country is on foods that we have imported. We still manufacture DDT in the U.S. even though its use has been banned here. We export the DDT to other countries who use it on their produce and then we import their produce with the DDT, hence exposing ourselves and our parrots to its toxicity. We know from the lesson learned from the Bald Eagle problem years ago that DDT is devastating to the successful reproduction of some birds. It is imperative that we at least give our endangered parrots in captive breeding programs every advantage in the attempt to prevent their extinction, and that would include the elimination of hormone-altering pesticides from their diet.
Here is what the Consumer Report has to say about the effect of pesticides on children, which can be compared in some ways to the effects on parrots: "Whatever the health effects, children--with their fast-growing, small bodies, speedy metabolisms, and less varied diets--are especially vulnerable". This same report states: "Organic food guarantees you a diet as low in pesticide residues as possible".
Many of us are aware that like children, our parrots are especially sensitive to pesticides. But we like to provide our birds with a smorgasbord of fresh foods in hopes of covering all the bases of their nutritional needs. Unfortunately, produce is the food group with the highest incidence of pesticide and chemical residues which are linked with potential cancer, neurological problems, and hormonal imbalances.
Listed here are some foods that we can buy in our local markets and health food stores, secure in the knowledge that they are relatively free of pesticide residues. Following this list, there will be a list of foods that we should either avoid altogether or buy only if grown organically.
TOFU--In our supermarkets and in Asian specialty markets, much of the compressed soybean curd food called tofu is organic, and yet inexpensive, costing around two dollars per pound. Tofu is an excellent vegetarian source of protein, B vitamins, and it contains anti-cancer phytochemicals called isoflavones. You may be surprised at how much parrots enjoy the texture of tofu. It has very little taste but will take on the flavor of whatever food you choose to soak it in, such as fruit juice. If soaked in hot water with melted organic almond butter, it takes on an entirely different flavor with additional calcium and other nutrients. It can be crumbled into a soak and cook dish or a "mash" of fruits, vegetables, and other foods.
BABY FOODS--Recently, even the big brand name manufacturers of baby foods, like Gerber and Beechnut, began marketing certified organic baby foods. There are dried mixes of whole grains and fruits and berries. Also there are many jar foods of tasty tropical fruit mixes, as well as vegetables, rice, and pasta. One jar of organic tropical fruit tossed with any one of the many shapes of pasta creates a healthy and tempting taste treat for parrots. Fettucini-style pasta with Gerber's Apple & Strawberry or Pear & Blueberry is one of many tasty "pastabilities".
SPROUTS--When you "grow your own", you can be sure that there is no pesticide contamination. Sprouting is as easy as buying a package of mung beans from your health food store, soaking a cupful overnight, spreading them in a collander, covering them with a paper towel, rinsing several times a day for a couple days, and voila! You have a food that is as fresh and alive as you possibly can get. Once you see how easy it is to make mung bean sprouts, you may want to try lentils, alfalfa, sunflower seeds, wheatberries, and other beans and peas. There are sprouting jars and mixes and anti-fungal preparations available, but it can be done very simply without any special equipment. If you fear that fungus will grow on the sprouts, you can purchase Nutribiotic Citricidal at your health food store and add it to the soak water of the sprouting food.
HEALTH FOOD STORE ITEMS--As any parrot lover who shops in health food stores will tell you, bring your check book! Although some items purchased in natural foods markets are a little more expensive, there is a virtual smorgasbord of items to tempt your feathered friends. One can purchase many organic items, including fresh produce, in the larger stores. One of my favorites items is the various flavored "nut butters", including almond, cashew, pistachio, and hazelnut butter. These are high in natural fats but can be utilized to make other dishes more taste tempting . Most weaning babies find a sandwich made of nut butter on whole grain bread irresistible. There are many whole grain breads available in health food stores, including those made from sprouted grains. The different types of whole grain pastas, including spelt, and other non-wheat grains, can be used for parrots with allergy problems. Organic juices of many flavors are a treat for parrots as well as humans. Some will be found in the freezer and can be defrosted one slice at a time as needed. Nearly all health food stores sell sprouts, mixes for sprouting, and sprouting jars and other types of equipment that one can use for growing their own sprouts. Also available is the Nutribiotic Citricidal mentioned earlier to prevent bacteria and molds from growing on the sprouting seeds, nuts and grains. Many herbal preparations that are used for parrots are available in health food stores, such as echinacea which is sometimes used as an immune system stimulator, Aloe Detox which can be a lifesaver in treating ill parrots, St. John's Wort, Pycnogenol, and other feather plucking remedies. At the direction of a naturopathic veterinarian, many homeopathic remedies from health food stores can be used with no danger of toxicity.
If you have only one or two parrots, you can easily afford to make your own organically-grown seed mix from the health food store by choosing shelled or unshelled sunflower seeds, whole millet, wheat berries, oats, buckwheat groats, unshelled sesame seeds, and many other nuts, grains and seeds tailored to the tastes and nutritional needs of your birds. For birds with obesity problems, one can choose from the products with lower levels of fats. By determining the protein levels of the available products, one can adjust this level for the breeding and molting phases of their birds. If you haven't yet visited your local health food market with your parrot friends in mind, you're in for a very special treat.
Other foods that we can buy from our local markets without concern for high levels of pesticides are:
CORN, SWEET POTATOES, BROCCOLI, BRUSSEL SPROUTS, CAULIFLOWER, U.S. GRAPES, BANANAS, PLUMS, IMPORTED CHERRIES, and WATERMELON.
Here is a list of foods that never should be given to our parrots unless they have been organically grown:
STRAWBERRIES, RED AND GREEN BELL PEPPERS, SPINACH, U.S. CHERRIES, PEACHES, MEXICAN CANTALOUPES, CELERY, APPLES, APRICOTS, GREEN BEANS, CHILEAN GRAPES, AND CUCUMBERS
A new set of nationwide organic standards is making its way over the final set of bureaucratic hurdles in Washington, D.C. at this writing. Once these rules are in place, the plethora of organic labels will be reduced to one: that of the U.S.D.A. The new national standards are not expected to vary much from the existing ones. Consumers can trust labels indicating that a food is organically-grown. Contrary to rumor, there has been only one recent major incident of known or suspected fraud: a Minnesota food company that repackaged conventional foods and sold them as organic. Organic farmers cannot take the risk of mis-labeling foods and losing their designation as a Certified Organic Farmer.
Here is information from AVIAN MEDICINE: PRINCIPLES AND APPLICATION by RITCHIE, HARRISON AND HARRISON, Wingers Publishing, Inc.
"Exposure to high concentrations of pesticides can lead to nonspecific signs of poisoning including gastro- intestinal problems, tremors, weakness, dyspnea, seizures or sudden death. Chronic low-grade exposure to pesticides may induce more subtle clinical signs that are more difficult to attribute to a toxin exposure. These exposures may cause immunosuppression and increased susceptibility to disease, decreased reproductive activity or generalized unthriftiness". And...... "Interestingly, free-ranging granivorous birds that are offered both organic (no pesticides) and pesticide-treated grains will preferentially consume the organic foods. Test birds would not eat the pesticide-treated foods until all of the organic grains were gone".
There is no question that pesticide-free foods are a better choice for our parrots. Although it may seem to be a lot of trouble to feed in this manner, once you get into a routine of feeding from the clean group of foods and avoiding the foods that are known to be problematic, it really is not difficult and it will prove rewarding for both you and your parrots. It can make a real difference in their health and longevity.
Winged Wisdom Note: Carolyn Swicegood is the owner of the LAND OF VOS, a small breeding establishment specializing in the Vosmaeri sub-species of Eclectus parrots. She has been "hooked on Vozzies" for ten years. Carolyn has also written a number of articles for a variety of magazines.
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