No-Nonsense Bird Nutrition

Last Updated June. 17, 2019
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Some people fail to understand just how much a pet bird can bond with its owner. The relationship differs from the kind that people develop with dogs or cats, but make no mistake birds make for wonderful pets that will enrich your life.

The bond you form will last for years, but it comes with many challenges. Unlike dogs and cats, birds won’t always let you know when they need food or water. You must remain vigilant in your efforts to keep them properly fed.

Additionally, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can just give your bird a handful of birdseed and call it a day. Since they will spend most of their time in a cage, they will have no ability to seek out additional forms of sustenance, so you will have to provide everything that they need. In some ways, bird nutrition is more complicated than that of other pets, but don’t let that scare you. With this guide, you’ll learn how to make sure that your companion bird gets all the nutrition that they need.

If you’re up to the challenge, pet birds will bond with you in a way that most animals won’t! The relationship between you and your bird will grow daily, and you will undoubtedly find it incredibly rewarding. Though they come with challenges that you won’t find with other pets, birds will bring companionship that you won’t find with other animals. All they ask in return is that you see to all their dietary needs.


A note about different species

As you consider the best food for your feathered friend, keep in mind that the various species that we keep as pets have different dietary needs. We keep a lot of different companion birds, and they come from different habitats. This means that they have different natural diets. Some birds eat omnivorous diets, including foods from multiple sources. Others are florivores, who get almost all of their nutrition from plants.

Within the florivore group, you’ll find granivores who eat seeds, grains and nuts, frugivores, who eat fruit-based diets, and nectarivores, who have diets that are made up of mainly nectar. You’ll find a wide variety of companion birds out in the world, and a wide variety of foods for them!

The diet that you feed your companion birds will vary depending on their natural diet, so after reading this guide, follow up by researching the specific diet for the particular species of bird that you own or plan to bring home.

Feeding granivores, or seed-eating birds

It sounds simple enough — feed seed-eating birds seeds, right? The truth is, however, that a diet based solely on seeds won’t provide all the nutrition that your seed-eating birds require — the seeds we feed birds don’t have the same nutritional value as the seeds that these birds would locate and eat in their natural habitat. The birdseed that we feed companion birds often lacks protein or has fewer vitamins and minerals.

Our pet birds also expend a lot less energy than their wild cousins, so they don’t need the same amount of calories in their diet. By offering foods that have the same amount of calories but fewer nutrients, we risk creating nutrient deficiencies in our birds.

Exacerbating this problem, birds tend to eat like children — they will focus on their favorites and ignore other seeds that may provide necessary nutrients! This means that even when you provide a wide variety of seeds, your bird will need additional food sources to ensure that they have a healthy diet.

Instead of feeding your seed-eating bird a simple diet of seed, look for a proper formulated food and supplement it with vegetables and a small amount of fruit.

What is formulated food?

Formulated foods combine the different foods that your bird needs, baked into pellets or nuggets. Typically you’ll find various grains, proteins, seeds, vegetables, fruits, and some essential vitamins and minerals on the list of ingredients. Because the components are all mixed together, your bird can’t pick and choose any particular seed or fruit to eat to the detriment of their health.

Almost every species of bird that you can keep as a companion will have a formulated food available. You will want to use the species-specific food to ensure proper nutrition for your birds, as different birds will have different needs. Macaws, for example require food with higher fat content because their diets require more calories. Cockatoos, on the other hand, need less fat but more protein. Whatever kind of bird you bring home, make sure that you have the right food formulated food for them!

Fruits and vegetables

Just like you, your bird will benefit from a large amount of vegetables. They’ll get healthy carbohydrates, as well as needed vitamins and minerals from some of the same veggies that you love. Fruits also give them necessary nutrients, but since they also provide sugar, you will want to make sure not to over do it. Depending on the species, vegetables should make up roughly 15% to 30% of your bird’s diet, while fruits should only comprise roughly 5%.

Variety is the spice of life, and this also true for your bird. Vary the vegetables and fruits that you feed your companion to ensure that they get all the nutrients they require, and to make sure that they enjoy their diet. Some vegetables and fruits that many birds enjoy include:

– Apples
– Corn
– Carrots
– Kale
– Green beans
– Mango
– Cherries
– Pineapple

When feeding your bird fruits and vegetables, make sure to wash them thoroughly first, and prepare them properly — remove seeds and pits, and use creativity with presentation. Birds select foods based on sight as well as taste, and some even have preferences in textures. Try to offer a variety of options, hang them at the top of the cage, or weave them into the bars on the side. You can even buy toys that have spaces in them for stuffing food!

Don’t leave uneaten fruits or vegetables in the cage for longer than a day. Otherwise they will spoil and can become harmful to your companion bird!

What to feed omnivores and frugivores
If you have a non-seed eating bird, you will provide them with a diet based mainly on commercially prepared foods, but with a similar emphasis on fruits and vegetables. Depending on the species, you will feed them their formulated food dry, moistened, or even as a nectar.

Non-seed eating birds will also require fruits such as apples, kiwi and grapes. Some will enjoy pollen and flowers as well! Nectarivores will require plenty of fruits, and specialized nectar foods, but even they cannot subsist on nectar alone! They will need protein and other nutrients — many of which manufacturers include in their food. If you have a non-seed eating bird companion, be sure to check with your veterinarian to ensure that you know their dietary needs.

Foods to avoid
Your companion bird has much different dietary needs than we do, and some foods that we enjoy can make them ill or damage their digestive system. As tempting as it may be to slip your bird human food, you need to avoid giving them foods that negatively impact their health. Avoid any high-fat junk food, and processed food in general, including chocolate and candy. Never give your bird alcohol or caffeine, as they can cause a great deal of harm to your companion bird.

Other foods to avoid include:
– Fruit pits or seeds
– Onions
– Mushrooms
– Table salt
– Dried beans

How to feed your bird
In the wild, birds don’t get fed in dishes! They spend at least a third of their day in search of food. You should try to emulate this for your companion birds so that they will have some mental and physical stimulation. You can buy foraging toys and feeders that require effort and problem solving for you birds. This will help ensure that they get exercise, as well as relieve boredom. Boredom and lack of physical activity can lead to obesity in birds, which can have incredibly negative effects on their health.

While you can have formulated food available for your birds at all times you should consider giving fresh vegetables and fruits at natural feeding times; roughly an hour past sunrise and between 5 and 6 PM. You can leave any foraging toys or feeders throughout the day, but always remember to discard any remaining vegetables or fruit within a few hours. If left too long, they will start to spoil or attract insects, both of which can be detrimental to your bird’s health.

Avoid overfeeding
While it may seem positive, treating your bird too often can cause health problems. Likewise, overfeeding in general can cause a number of issues, including obesity, fatty tumors, difficulty breathing and reproductive problems. Additionally, overfeeding can drastically shorten your companion bird’s lifespan.

Follow the recommended feeding volume for your bird’s formulated food, and then add the appropriate amount of fruits and vegetables. Remember formulated food should make up approximately 65 to 80% of your bird’s diet and vegetables should account for 15 to 30%. Fruits and seeds can make up what’s left.

Once you have the right amount figured out, only feed your bird what it can easily eat in one day. This will help you avoid overfeeding, will help ensure proper nutrition, and will make it easy to see if your bird’s appetite decreases — an early indicator of illness.

Dietary supplements
Many of us humans take vitamins and supplements to help make sure that we get all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients that we require for our health. Likewise, you’ll find several vitamins and supplements available for your companion birds. While many bird owners worry if they should feed their pets additional supplements, they probably have no cause for concern. Most formulated bird feeds contain plenty of vitamins and minerals, and fresh fruits and vegetables will provide the rest that your bird needs.

If you feed your pet a proper diet, you will have no reason to give your bird a vitamin supplement. Only use these products if recommended by your veterinarian. Improper usage could actually do more harm than good, resulting in vitamin overdoses. There really is such a thing as too much of a good thing!

Snacks and treats for your bird
Although birds in the wild don’t think of treats and snacks the way that humans do, you may find it enjoyable to give your pet bird a healthy snack or treat every now and then. So long as you opt for healthy choices, snacks and treats can be a great supplement to your bird’s diet!

Keep in mind that you should avoid junk foods high in salt, fat or sugar, opting instead for enjoyable healthy snacks for your feathered friend. Many birds enjoy rice cakes, whole wheat bread, or nuts. Some birds enjoy cooked beans, but remember to never give your bird uncooked beans, as they can be toxic!

Sprouts, pasta, popcorn and peppers all make great healthy snacks for companion birds. Snacks should, at most, make up no more than 10% of your bird’s diet! If you find yourself treating too often, make a conscientious effort to stick to a set schedule or plan for feeding your bird.

Making your own bird treats
Many bird owners and do-it-yourself types enjoy making their own treats for their companion birds. This can provide enjoyment for you just as readily as it can provide tasty treats for your bird! Think you’d like to give it a try? Here are a few healthy treat ideas to help get you started.

– Make bird popsicles in the summer for your bird, using a combination of fruits that you know your bird enjoys! Just pop them in the blender, then pour them into ice cube trays and freeze. Your bird will love them on a hot summer day!
– Carving jack o’lanterns in October? Save those pumpkin seeds and toast them in the oven. Many birds love the taste of toasted pumpkin seeds, and they provide plenty of nutrients often lacking in store bought bird seed mixes.
– You already know that birds love fruit, so make your companion bird a nice mixed fruit and veggie platter with a dollop of yogurt. This will offer a variety of tastes and textures for your bird, with plenty of vitamins!

How to introduce a healthier diet
Many people start their birds out on an unhealthy seed-only diet. If you’ve made that mistake, don’t beat yourself up over it, just commit to helping your companion bird eat a healthier diet from now on. Of course, that can prove easier said than done. If you bird enjoys its current diet and resists change, you may have to do a little coaxing. If your bird needs a little help to try healthier foods, try these suggestions and before long your bird will enjoy a much more wholesome diet!

– Offer new foods at the morning feeding. Your bird will feel a little hungrier at this time, and many bird species forage for food first thing in the morning.
– Help your bird identify the new food. If your companion hasn’t had a particular food before, it may not even realize that the food is edible! Give it to your bird in a familiar dish or mixed with foods that you know your bird enjoys.
– Try placing some treats in a dish with the new food, encouraging your bird to dig through the food to get to them. This will lead to your bird getting at least a taste of the new food, and they may decide they like it.
– Experiment with different presentations. Some birds love raw vegetables, while others will only eat them cooked. Some will prefer the cooked veggies while still warm, but others won’t touch them until cooled. You may even have luck changing how you serve the food — if your bird refuses to eat a new food from a dish, try clipping it to the side of the cage, or weaving it through the bars. Some birds are just pickier than others, so don’t give up!
– In some instances, taking a bite of food in front of your bird may encourage them to enjoy the food as well. It sounds strange, but it works!
– Consider washing leafy greens and hanging them from the top of the cage. The dripping water can catch your bird’s attention and lure them into trying the greens.
– Brightly colored foods can help draw attention, so try using bright orange and yellow vegetables and fruits to catch your bird’s eye.

Whatever you do, keep at it until your bird begins eating a healthier diet. That said, never try to starve your bird into eating new foods. Always introduce them in a positive way, and get your bird’s eating habits squared away before removing their unhealthier sources of food.

What about grit?
In the past, many bird owners added grit to their pet’s food to aid digestion. Nowadays, however, most veterinarians advise against it in most cases. While many birds in the wild will need some degree of grit in their digestive system to help break down seed hulls and other indigestible matter, most birds kept in captivity don’t need this.

In fact, many birds, especially members of the parrot family have a tendency to eat too much grit when available. This irritates their digestive system, and may result in impactions. If you do need to feed your bird grit, do not have it always available, which can lead to overconsumption, or place it on the cage floor, where droppings will contaminate it.

In general, we recommend against offering your companion bird any grit, but always talk to your veterinarian about your bird’s dietary needs, including whether or not they will benefit from including grit in their diet.

Don’t forget fresh clean water
You want to make sure that your bird always has fresh water available. Many bird owners prefer using a water bottle, because they find it easier to keep it free from droppings. If you go this route, make sure to change the water every day, and always inspect the tip to ensure proper flow. If you change from giving your bird water from a dish to water from a bottle, observe to make sure that your bird understands how to get water from the bottle. Dehydration leads to serious health problems in as little as one or two days with insufficient water, so make sure that in addition to the right food, your bird has access to clean fresh water every day.

Taking care of your feathered friend
Proper feeding and providing the right nutrition may challenge the bird owner, but the reward is well worth the effort. A happy, healthy companion bird will bond with your for life, and bring you many hours of enjoyment and affection.

Just remember to feed the proper mix of formulated bird feed, vegetables, fruits, seeds and snacks. Avoid unhealthy snacks, and make sure that you companion bird gets plenty of fresh clean water to drink. Once you’ve taken care of those needs, your feathered friend will thank you in ways only a companion bird can! If you ever have any doubts about your bird’s health or nutrition, seek the advice of a veterinarian who specializes in companion birds.

Despite what some people think, companion birds make fulfilling friends who will happily share experiences and affection with you. Just make sure that all their needs are met, and they will repay you with years of companionship.