August 2002 Magazine
First-time parrot owners are sometimes baffled by the numerous decisions necessary to care for their new feathered companion. While they are confident of their ability to care for a dog or cat, they are surprised by the realization that much of their knowledge of pet care simply does not apply to birds. One ready source of help is the observation of nature. After all, Mother Nature kept her winged creatures happy and healthy long before we became birdkeepers.
The observation of nature can make healthcare choices for birds much less confusing for the new caregiver faced with conflicting information. One of the first issues to be decided about the parrot diet is whether or not to feed seeds. At one time, seeds were labeled junk food for birds but a look at the natural habitat of parrots yields an important clue. Mother Nature does provide seeds for many birds, but only a few parrot species depend primarily on seeds or nuts as the mainstay of their diet. Thick-billed parrots, Rhynchopsitta pachyrhynchus, of Mexico live mainly on the seeds of local pine trees (pine nuts) but this is the exception rather than the rule. Seeds are not a complete diet but they do add nutritional value to a varied diet of nutritious foods and most parrots enjoy working for their food by shelling seeds.
While many of us have never visited a tropical rainforest or other wild habitat of parrots, we do have some knowledge of their home in the wild from information garnered from books, magazines and the media. There are many excellent TV nature shows that are filmed in the natural habitat of parrots. With a little imagination and a lot of common sense, we can easily adapt Mother Nature's way of doing things to enhance our birds' lives and keep them safe and healthy.
The following questions have been asked by new parrot owners and the answers are based on Mother Nature's example.
Question: Does my parrot need supplemental vitamins and minerals?
Answer: Mother Nature provides the necessary vitamins and minerals for parrots in the form of whole foods. The diet of wild parrots includes a variety of plant foods, including seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, leaf shoots, buds, stems, sprouts, flowers, pollen, nectar and more. The parrot's digestive system is designed to extract nutrients from a diet that is high in fiber and low in nutrients, or "nutrient sparse." Vitamin preparations are exactly the opposite ( low in fiber and "nutrient dense." Parrots have the digestive tract of an herbivore, and nutrient-dense preparations are over-stimulating to many parrot species. This can cause hyperactive behaviors such as screaming, aggression such as biting, and self-destruction of feathers. At its worst, an extremely enriched parrot diet can cause self-mutilation of skin and flesh. Ignoring nature's plan in this way can literally place captive parrots in a life-and-death situation.
Question: Are natural food supplements good for my bird?
Answer: Although we cannot provide the exact foods that Mother Nature supplies for our birds in their natural habitat, we can simulate the overall diet by offering a large variety of fruits, vegetables, sprouts, greens, nuts, seeds, and protein foods. It can be argued with some degree of accuracy that much of our food is grown in depleted soil and therefore is lacking in the full complement of nutrients that it should contain. Also, finicky eaters are a problem for parrot owners, and no matter how nutritious and varied our food offerings are, they must be eaten before they can provide nutrition. Parrots can develop nutritional deficiencies in spite of being offered the best of diets if they choose to eat only their favorite foods (not always the best choices) instead of the balanced diet that is offered. In such cases, supplementing our birds' diet with concentrates of whole foods such as wheat grass powder is a safer and more natural way to provide nutrition than giving vitamin and mineral supplements created in a laboratory.
Other natural food supplements include barley grass powder, carrot powder, beet powder, wheat germ, cranberry juice concentrate, and a favorite of many parrots, fresh fruit and vegetable juices. Giving parrots straight vitamin A can cause problems from overgrown beaks to serious liver damage, but if we offer fresh-squeezed carrot juice, we are giving them a safe and natural beta-carotene cocktail that will be converted by their body into just the right amount of vitamin A. Green supplements like wheat grass or barley grass powder can be sprinkled lightly on a parrot's soft foods several times a week, but fresh, whole green foods should also be offered daily.
Question: Does my bird need fresh foods every day?
Parrots can survive, and indeed look healthy, for a long time on a substandard diet that is deficient in essential nutrients. Mother Nature has provided her winged creatures with reserve stores from which to draw in times of drought and disaster. However, on a long-term basis, deficiencies take their toll on overall health and appearance. We have much to learn about the effects of fresh, living food on avian health. We know that fresh, living foods are the mainstay of many parrot species. The glossy feather sheen, bright and shiny eyes, and noisy exuberance for life that one observes in wild parrot flocks are testaments to the positive effects of a diet of living foods. It is no wonder that so many caged birds lack the look of vibrant health seen in their wild counterparts when we consider how few parrots are fed greens or sprouts on a daily basis. Our birds should receive at least one green food daily (preferably more), and sprouts are a welcome addition to a caged bird's diet. Wild parrots consume plants in all stages of growth, from dry or newly sprouted seeds to mature plants, and we would do well to emulate Mother Nature's plan by "greening up" our companion birds' menu.
Question: Is it safe to feed greens to my bird even though green foods seem to cause loose droppings?
Answer: When birds consume foods high in water, like greens, they excrete the excess water when they urinate. Watery droppings should not be mistaken for diarrhea. Fresh, moist foods do not cause true diarrhea, but rather a harmless increase in clear, liquid urine output as the bird eliminates the excess water. Loose droppings that are mistaken for diarrhea is an outdated excuse for not feeding the green foods that are natural to the wild parrot's diet and essential for health. The nutrients most commonly deficient in the parrot diet are those found in abundance in leafy green foods. Greens contain phytochemicals which are substances found in plants that stimulate the immune system and help prevent disease. Fiber is important to the health of parrots and it can be found in generous amounts in green foods. Parrot owners might be surprised to learn that dark leafy greens are far richer in calcium, per calorie, than is cow's milk. Kale, turnip greens, mustard greens, broccoli, and bok choy are the greens richest in calcium. Darker greens have a higher beta-carotene content than lighter greens, so kale and collards are a good choice of greens for birds. In general, foods of deepest color contain the most nutrition.
Question: Are herbs and spices safe for my bird?
Answer: Not only are most herbs and spices safe, but many can be used as preventive and curative measures. Consult an herbalist or holistic veterinarian before giving your bird any unfamiliar herb. Here are a few of Mother Nature's finest offerings to keep our birds happy and healthy.
ALOE VERA is known as the medicine plant and is used for the treatment of wounds, burns, bites, cuts, abrasions and rashes. It helps to prevent infection in injured skin and it is an effective topical analgesic. Aloe can be used internally as a powerful detoxifying agent.
CAYENNE is also known as capsicum. It is an overall digestive aid containing Vitamins A, C, B-complex, calcium, phosphorous and iron. It is also anti-inflammatory and helps arthritic conditions. Parrots love the fiery taste of cayenne and will try new and unfamiliar foods, such as sprouts, when you sprinkle this healthful herb on their food.
CHAMOMILE flowers are tiny, daisy-like flowers that are especially helpful to parrots that need a calming influence. Chamomile is one of nature's safest and mildest sedatives, and it can be offered as flowers, fresh or dried, or as herbal tea to calm birds in stressful situations.
CINNAMON sticks can be used as a "food toy" for parrots. Ground cinnamon can be used on soft foods as a mild anti-fungal treatment for candida and other types of yeast, and aspergillus. Cinnamon also has a mild anti-bacterial effect against strep and staph bacteria. It can be sprinkled on fresh foods in hot weather to help prevent the growth of pathogens on bird food.
DANDELION flowers and greens are nutritious foods as well as liver cleansers. They are useful for restoring health to birds that have been maintained on a diet of processed foods. Used in their natural form as food, it is almost impossible to overdose.
GARLIC is rich in sulfur and potassium, and it kills fungus, bacteria, and intestinal parasites. Fresh garlic cloves can be offered to parrots in moderation. Measured by the drop, Kyolic liquid garlic is often used to treat fungal and bacterial problems of parrots. Garlic can cause anemia in some animals if given for long periods of time, but to date, there is no documented evidence of harm to parrots.
GINGER is an excellent motion sickness remedy for parrots that travel. A few slices of fresh ginger in the carrier can prevent regurgitation during car trips or airline flights in parrots prone to motion sickness.
HERB FLOWERS or the tiny flowering blooms of the following spices are edible and beneficial to the health of parrots: anise, basil, bee balm, chives, coriander (cilantro), dill, fennel, garlic, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme.
MILK THISTLE seeds contain silymarin, a flavonoid that is effective against liver disorders. Seeds are the most natural form of silymarin, but an alcohol-free extract can be used for specific treatments.
ROSE HIPS are a natural blood purifier and infection fighter. Although parrots manufacture their own vitamin C, the fruit of the rose benefits the immune system. There are many other flowers that can be given to parrots for specific treatment purposes and for enjoyment.
As new parrot owners attempt to learn all the right things to do for their feathered companions, they sometimes are perplexed to discover that even the experts cannot agree on all aspects of bird care. By observing Mother Nature, much knowledge can be gained to provide optimal care and promote avian health and happiness.
Winged Wisdom Note: Carolyn Swicegood is a devoted fan of Eclectus parrots. Her aviary, The Land of Vos, specializes in the Vosmaeri subspecies. Carolyn writes for a variety of magazines and currently serves as Associate Editor of "Watchbird" magazine published by the American Federation of Aviculture.
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