May/June 2003 Magazine
Scientific knowledge about parrots, their evolution, care, breeding and nutritional requirements is well behind that of domesticated animals or other avian species such as chickens. The popularity of parrots as pets is relatively new, while a large number of species of parrots are now endangered in many parts of the world. As a result, interest in the aviculture of the 360+ species of parrots has increased, making it very apparent how little is known about them.
One of the areas of great importance is understanding parrots' nutritional and dietary requirements. Questions abound on what parrots eat, how much, what is harmful and what is required for both short term and long term health. There are also questions on whether there are differences in the dietary needs among the many species and what they are. Research is beginning to document that such differences do exist. Some have already been noted among the various species and, as knowledge increases, more will surely be found.
Poultry Research and Requirements
The greatest body of dietary knowledge in birds relates to poultry, where many studies have been performed on their nutritional requirements. It is very tempting to apply the information learned about poultry to parrots. However, existing research on parrots suggests that this is a very dangerous approach. Unlike parrots which can live for over 100 years, chickens are short lived and very different from parrots. Parrots eat a variety of foods, hull the seeds they eat and have different anatomies than chickens. Thus poultry research does not address the long term effects of various diets upon the body, nor account for the short term nutritional needs of parrots with very different digestive systems and life styles. Chickens are also raised for food and egg production, slanting the research on those facets of their husbandry.
Research and Requirements for Parrots
Over the past few decades, some studies on parrots have been performed. Most of the research however, has been done on cockatiels which have a shorter lifespan and are also easy to breed. There have also been some studies which exhibit requirements for or sensitivity to various nutrients, vitamins and minerals in other species such as macaws, budgies, African greys, eclectus and amazons. But the information, while growing, is currently sparse. As a result there has been a tendency to rely on the research done with cockatiels. Manufactured or pelleted diets for parrots have been developed based upon this existing research. However, most manufactured diets vary only in the size of the pellets produced, containing the same ingredients in each size with no variations for the species of parrot consuming the pellets.
Dietary Differences Due To Environment, Climate and Evolution
Even though research information is still lacking, there is a basis for concluding that the many parrot species have varying nutritional requirements. One needs only to look at the habitats of the wild parrots, identify the climates and the foods that are available in those climates, document the various feeding habits of the species in that environment and record the foods they eat and the nutrients they do and do not get. It will quickly become apparent that there are indeed differences in the diets of the many parrot species.
Birds have evolved all over the world under many different conditions and climates. As with other species, adaptations to the environment must have occurred. One need only to look at the evolution of finches in Hawaii or the Galapogos Islands to realize that birds, too, will change and adapt to different environments.
It is a matter of common sense and experience with other animal species, that the parrots living in various parts of the world, with their varying climates and conditions, would experience significant differences in the quality, quantity and types of food sources available to them. As a matter of survival, their bodies would have evolved to make best use of local conditions and the various species would have developed differences in their dietary requirements.
Birds which inhabit barren areas where food is scarce or not very nourishing would most likely also develop metabolisms which conserve nutrients, vitamins, minerals and water in the body and which are more efficient in metabolizing and making use of food.
Unsprouted seeds are not very nourishing, high in saturated fat and low in many vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Birds eating a high seed diet would need to efficiently use and conserve whatever nutrients the seeds contain.
Birds would also need to conserve nutrients in harsher climates which have cold or dry seasons and in which food is ripe and available only a few months of the year.
Parrots are prey for other animals. Groundfeeders, such as African Greys, expend a lot of their energy in watching for danger, especially while feeding on the ground, and in flying from it. It would seem reasonable, that birds in such environments would require higher energy foods.
In arid climates, birds would also need to conserve as much water as possible and may even evolve to take their water from the foods they eat.
Birds which dwell in climates such as rainforests where food is plentiful and varied and where water is abundant would not need to be as efficient in storing and retaining the nutrients they need in their body. Metbolism could be less efficient, excess vitamins and minerals could be eliminated along with other wastes. With food all around and in easy reach, the next meal with more nutrients would be easy to find.
Perhaps birds in such environments require less energy and thus fewer calories in the diet. In a relatively hot climate, less energy is needed to heat the body. And in an environment where food is plentiful, there is no need to expend much energy in flying long distances to gather food.
Perhaps we will also learn that birds have adapted to foods which are higher or lower in some nutrients. Over time their bodies have adapted to storing or eliminating the excess nutrients in these foods. Perhaps inefficiences in metabolism or some other differences explain why certain macaws do better on a higher fat diet.
Many of us have heard of the birds which eat clay in South America, such as macaws and conures. Yet these same species, in other areas, do not exhibit the same behavior. There are theories that something in that environment causes it and the birds have adapted.
Recognizing that there are nutritional and metabolic differences among the species, that some have already been identified by research and that additional research is likely to identfy more, it is only common sense that pet owners and aviculturists should not feed the same diet to every species of parrot.
Too much of a nutrient can be as dangerous as too little. If a bird with a metabolism built to conserve is given too much of a vitamin or mineral, it can result in toxicity or disease. If a diet, tailored for a conserving metabolism is fed to a non-conserving species, then that bird could suffer malnutrition or become ill from lack of a needed vitamin or mineral. If parrots are fed generalized manufactured diets, consider supplementing and adjusting with other foods.
Since there is still a lack of comprehensive research relating to the dietary requirements of the many species of parrots, learning about the habitat of each species, may give aviculturists clues and guidelines to providing a healthy diet for their birds.
Winged Wisdom Note: Carol and husband Kenneth have owned pet birds for over 15 years and are co-creators of the Birds n Ways, Winged Wisdom and Cockatoo Heaven websites.
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Last update: August 1, 2003