WHY WHOLE FOODS
It is my heartfelt belief, based on long years of experience, that a completely fresh, home-prepared, organic, and entirely natural diet is the very best diet for parrots in captivity. Since parrots live such long lives, they appear to tolerate commercial foods, but we are finding that over time, these foods substantially contribute to debilitating chronic diseases. We see the end result of improper diets after many years, sometimes decades. But at the point that nutritional problems manifest themselves, it is often very difficult to correct them, and most birds suffer terribly for long periods of time after they develop malnutrition-based diseases.
It is certainly not convenient to feed parrots fresh organic foods prepared daily; in addition, most parrots would prefer to eat commercial foods because they contain sweeteners and other ingredients to enhance taste. So a fresh diet is always a challenge. But I believe that this feeding system is the most humane way to care for captive parrots, and I think it ultimately affects their happiness and comfort level in every possible way.
It has been definitively proven that diets based exclusively on dry seeds cause malnutrition in parrots, often within just a few years. Unsupplemented dry seed diets are simply not an option. Most people have turned to pellets in place of dry seeds. However, I feel strongly that there are numerous significant problems with pelleted diets for birds. My primary concern about using pelleted diets is that I continually hear reports of organ failure with parrots on primarily-pellet diets. Heart disease, kidney disease and liver disease have all been reported to me as the result of primarily-pellet diets. My vet confirmed this and said that he sees these diseases in birds on pellet diets “all the time”.
All pellets are non-living. In the wild all foods are living or at least were living very recently (fallen nuts, seeds and fruits). This means that they provide extraordinarily healthful enzymes and nutrients all of which are fresh and vibrant. Almost all pellets are made from inexpensive, genetically modified corn, soy and wheat, to which is added substantial amounts of refined sugar (for taste and “energy”) plus chemical nutrients in the form of laboratory created vitamins and minerals. Artificial colors, flavors and preservatives are commonly added as well. When I think of parrots foraging in living tree branches with rainwater soaked leaves, nuts and fruits, and then I see them in cages with bowls of pellets, I feel profoundly sad because of the stress this places on their bodies and spirits. It is already hard enough for them to adjust to their captive lives as it is.
SPROUT BASED DIET:
The organic, whole foods diet that I feed my flock of approximately 150 birds is based on sprouted seeds and grains. I believe that feeding sprouts is the best way to provide living food to our birds: each sprout is a living plant! In addition to the sparse use of a human grade vitamin/mineral supplement, I rely on a number of natural supplements to balance my birds’ diet, including a green powder mix and the daily use of oils.
Obviously it is important to select a group of seeds and grains for sprouting that each individual bird will eat. Every bird species and every individual bird will have different taste preferences for their seed mix. I like to experiment with each bird or group of birds by offering seeds one at a time and observing the response before formulating a mix for those birds. The fussiest birds in my experience are cockatiels and budgies. For these species, I often have to use a plain commercial parakeet or cockatiel blend mixed into the list of seeds below. In some cases I will have to use a commercial parakeet or cockatiel blend as the entire base for the whole foods diet for a particular bird or group.
Regardless of specific modifications/additions I may have to make for a given bird, I always sprout a basic mix each morning that most of my birds accept. To make this basic sprouted seed mix, I purchase the following organic seeds and grains, which I choose simply because the majority of my birds will eat them:
– sunflower seeds with hulls
– safflower seeds with hulls
– sesame seeds with hulls
– canary seeds
– whole oats (oat groats)
– spray millet shredded off the stalk (my birds won’t eat human-food millet)
I usually mix all the seeds together in roughly equal portions in a bucket with an airtight seal and then scoop out enough of the seed mix for a one day ration each morning. This daily ration will be divided into two meals.
NOTE: I feel that the most nutritious and palatable way to feed sprouted seeds is during the germination phase, therefore my sprout process is really more of a soak or germination process. Sometimes I see a chit (little sprout) on the seeds, but often there is nothing visible. With the fresh seeds and grains that I choose to feed, germination generally occurs quickly during the soaking phase.
To prepare the sprouts, I place the daily ration of seeds into a mason jar with a plastic sprout top:
Flock staple mix and special cockatiel seed mix soaking:
I then add twice as much water as seeds, and 6 drops of grapefruit seed extract per cup of soak water (very important to prevent bacterial overgrowth). I leave the sprouts to soak on my kitchen counter for 24 hours, then rinse them thoroughly with clean water three or four times through the sprout top and drain them, at which point (24 hours) they are ready to serve. Before serving, I place half of the sprouts into a mixing bowl. The other half is left in the Mason jar on the counter, then rinsed and served in the afternoon as a second meal. With each sprout meal, I add supplements plus a number of fresh, organic vegetables and a little fruit – and to the second meal, I add a few additional fresh protein and calcium foods (see details below). I never leave sprouts in a bird’s cage overnight as this can cause serious illness due to bacterial overgrowth. Bacterial overgrowth can also occur if the sprouts are not properly prepared, if they sit out in extreme heat for more than a few hours, or if the seeds are of low quality before sprouting, so I always make sure to monitor all of these conditions.
1. Green Powder:
It is not possible to provide all the daily nutritional requirements for parrots without using some form of vitamin and mineral supplementation. I use a number of nutrient dense products to supplement my whole foods diet. I spent many months researching commercial parrot diets as well as wild parrot diets before committing myself to this form of supplementation, and my birds have done very well on it for many years. As a “green powder” supplement I add 1/3 teaspoon per cup of soft food (i.e. sprout/vegetable mix). This is the recipe for the green powder:
– 1/3 cup kelp powder
– 1/3 cup organic alfalfa powder
– 5 tablespoons organic eggshell powder
– 1 tablespoon Frontier organic garlic powder
This green powder needs to be kept in a sealed glass jar, and I think the refrigerator keeps it maximally fresh. The kelp and alfalfa powders are available thru http://www.mountainroseherbs.com; the “Hatched” brand eggshell powder I buy from http://www.ladygouldian.com; and the Frontier organic garlic powder I buy online in order to receive the freshest and most medicinal powder possible. It is important to store all the spare herbs in sealed glass jars in the dark to preserve their freshness, as well as their nutritional and medicinal value.
Note: while I have found that eggshells are a well-accepted and beneficial form of calcium for parrots, I have also found that calcium supplements need to be bolstered with calcium rich foods to ensure that all of a bird’s calcium and calcium co-nutrient requirements are fully met.
2. Garden of Life Primal Defense probiotic powder:
In addition to using the green powder with every meal, I also use 1/16 teaspoon of Primal Defense probiotic powder (the regular 81gram bottle of power – NOT the Ultra and not the tablets) per cup of soft food at each feeding.
3. Essential fatty acid oil and Bragg’s apple vinegar:
The green powder supplement that I feed is a concentrated source of vitamins and minerals, but it does not provide necessary fatty acids. With the morning sprout meal, three days per week, I serve organic flax oil, which requires refrigeration. I use approximately one half teaspoon flax oil per cup of food. To accompany the flax (three days per week) I add a teaspoon of raw, organic (Bragg’s) apple cider vinegar per cup of food. I use the raw vinegar for its enzymes and gentle antimicrobial properties.
4. Vitamin/Mineral powder:
Finally, I use 1/16 teaspoon of Zoo Med Avian Plus human grade vitamin/mineral powder per cup of softfood – but only twice per week (one meal twice per week). This supplement is synthetic and highly concentrated so should not be used more than twice weekly and I would not exceed the dose above. I use it because I have found a subtle difference between using it and eliminating it – and I find that birds do slightly better with the supplement added twice per week.
So to recap: the sprout meal receives green powder and Primal Defense probiotic every time it is served. Three times per week I add flax oil and organic apple cider vinegar to one of the meals. Twice per week I add Zoo Med Avian Plus to one of the meals.
FRESH ORGANIC VEGETABLES, FRUITS AND PROTEIN/CALCIUM FOODS:
Although sprouts contain a considerable number of enzymes and plant nutrients, I feel that the addition of produce and fresh protein/calcium foods is necessary for the wide array of nutrients these foods supply, as well as for the psychological pleasure they bring our captive birds. I mix these foods right into the sprouts. With very few exceptions, I always choose organic produce because non-organic foods contain toxins in the form of pesticides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers, petroleum waxes and other contaminants to which birds are particularly sensitive. In order to provide my birds with fresh, affordable organic foods, I am a member of a local food cooperative that receives monthly deliveries of organic grocery items as well as produce, delivered right to my neighborhood. You can also usually order organic foods at a discount from your local health food store by purchasing larger quantities through a pre-order system. I also drive to local farmer’s markets for about seven months of the year where organic farmers deliver freshly picked produce each week. Once you have purchased the produce, the challenge is to get the birds to eat it! Here’s what I have found to work the best with a wide variety of species:
Each morning I take 5 to 7 vegetables and 2 fruits plus a small amount of raw, organic nuts and place them into a food processor. I make a fine-ground mash that contains small pieces like a salsa. For the food processor, I do not use mushy foods like cooked squash, bananas, etc. and I do not use watery foods such as grapes, melon or oranges; if the processed mash is watery or wet, the birds won’t eat it well. For mushy and watery foods, these are chopped by hand into small pieces and added separately to the foods from the processor. The nuts really help here because little nut pieces coat all the vegetables, and make the birds think they taste good. I use about one part vegetable mash to one part sprouts.
For the processor mash, I select 1 or 2 foods from the following categories each day, and I try to rotate these to provide as much variety as possible:
a. Organic orange vegetables, which contain high amounts of vitamin A: carrots, yams (can be raw or lightly steamed), lightly steamed squash, red peppers
b. Organic dark green vegetables, which contain high amounts of vitamin A plus calcium and other essential minerals: kale, collards, dandelions, mustard greens, turnip greens, beet greens
c. Other organic vegetables which fill in gaps from the above categories: broccoli, mushrooms, lightly steamed beets, cauliflower, zucchini, celery, lightly steamed potatoes, onions, green beans, tomatoes, peas, corn (NOTE: peas and corn can be frozen/thawed)
d. Organic fruits (antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, enzymes): apples, oranges, mangos, all berries (very important to feed berries even if frozen and defrosted), bananas, kiwis, pomegranates, persimmons, nectarines, red grapes, pineapples, cantaloupe, apricots (with fruit, the darker the flesh color the more nutritious)
(NOTE: I leave the skins on all these foods, with the exception of things like oranges, melons and bananas – skins contain important nutrients)
e. Raw, organic nuts (protein, essential fats, vitamins, minerals and joy!): almonds, walnuts, roasted peanuts (raw peanuts are not easily digested), cashews, pecans, macadamias etc. The amounts to add to the food processor have to be calculated so as not to overfeed. I use the equivalent of about one almond per day for cockatiel-size birds, two or three almonds for grey- size per day, and four to six daily almonds for the larger parrots.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Rancid nuts (as well as rancid seeds and grains) are a significant health hazard for birds and can lead to the development of cancer. Organic nuts from stores are usually not refrigerated and often contain rancid pieces (I want to say most of the time in my experience). You know because they taste really bad – you want to spit them out. I only buy nuts that have been refrigerated or else I purchase nuts online (I like Tierra Farms.) As a last resort I will buy roasted nuts which are less prone to rancidity (though I have eaten plenty of rancid roasted nuts so do check even these). Nuts are a source of tremendous nutrition and pleasure for parrots, and I think they are a necessary food, but they absolutely cannot be served if they are rancid. Always store nuts in sealed containers in the refrigerator.
Once I have the mash in a bowl (processor foods plus hand cut wet foods), I remove half of it to store in the refrigerator for the day’s later meal. To the remainder in the bowl, I add the spouts and supplements. I use approximately 50% sprouted seeds to 50% chopped vegetables/fruit and nuts. To prepare the second daily meal, I simply mix the refrigerated leftover mash with freshly washed sprouts, then add supplements.
Here is a photo of the mash, first in the processor and then in the final served mixture:
PROTEIN AND CALCIUM FOODS:
In addition to sprouts and mash, my experience has led me to believe that most parrots need small amounts of additional protein and calcium rich foods. Each day, I select one or two of the following from my own organic, with-the-birds-in-mind prepared dinner, and make sure they get rotated so my birds get all of these foods once a week or so, mixed at dinnertime into their second sprout/mash meal. I offer reasonable amounts, like a teaspoon or so for smaller birds, maybe a tablespoon for larger birds – it’s really just common sense:
– organic tofu (WARNING: tofu must be cooked for birds as raw tofu can and will cause bacterial infections)
– soaked and cooked organic beans (in homemade soups, chilies, rice and beans, etc.)
– nonfat/low-fat organic yogurt or goat yogurt
– a small piece of organic cheddar cheese or goat cheese
– cooked egg with the shell crunched up into the egg (I leave the shell out of mine:)
– cooked organic chicken, organic lean beef, or fish such as salmon or halibut (I offer cooked chicken bones for the calcium, but they must be organic due to the presence of toxins in conventional chicken bones – cooked chicken bones are one of my birds’ favorite foods)
– dark greens (see choices above) lightly sauteed in olive oil (this saute is very important, extremely high in calcium, and can be fed every day or every other day if your birds like it, my birds LOVE this saute served warm)
NOTE: I often add cooked organic brown rice as a complement to the above foods; other whole, cooked organic grains to serve include barley, quinoa, buckwheat, polenta and amaranth.
When birds have been fed conventional diets with very few fresh foods, it can be difficult to convert them to a whole food diet. Any time I have problems converting birds from their old conventional foods to these new ones, I mix in their favorite old foods to the new foods and then slowly decrease the old foods until they have been phased out. If a bird loves apples or bird bread, I might puree the apples or crumble the bread so that when mixed together, the new foods are completely coated with the favorite old foods. Also, I always monitor a bird’s weight during the diet transition to avoid weight loss. Again, whenever there is a problem, I mix the old foods into the new.
So in summary, I feed two meals each day: in the morning my birds get sprouts, mash and supplements; in the afternoon, they get sprouts/mash/supplements again, and then during my dinner, I offer them a small amount of the protein/calcium foods listed above. It sounds complicated, but actually, this diet is fairly simple. The only time consuming part is making the fresh mash, which takes me about fifteen or twenty minutes each morning.
DRY SEED SNACK:
Before bed, I usually offer a small serving of dry seeds such as spray millet, or small amounts of safflower, sunflower, sesame etc. I use about a tablespoon for a one pound bird.
NOTE REGARDING GRASS PARAKEETS:
I feed my flock of grass parakeets (including budgies and cockatiels) about fifty percent of their diet as dry seeds, primarily millets and canary seed. Grass ‘keets are very sparse feeders from the Australian outback where they survive much of the year by feeding on dry grass seeds. The sprout/mash diet I outlined above is a bit too rich for the grass ‘keets, so I dilute the sprout diet by allowing them to self-serve dry organic seed. I have found that if they self-serve the dry seed, most of them will eat about fifty percent dry and fifty percent of the sprouted/mash diet. Sometimes budgies and stubborn cockatiels fight for 100% dry seed: this must be managed by limiting the amount of time they have access to dry seed and in severe cases, I have had to offer dry seed only before bed to prevent them from overindulging and developing fatty tumors from all the dry seed fat. Fatty tumors can also be controlled by encouraging large amounts of free flight time throughout the day.
I consider wild foods to be a necessary supplement food for birds. If you watch wild birds you see that their whole lives involve plants and trees; the relationship is inextricable. I feel that we as birdkeepers have an inherent obligation to allow our birds to connect with their instinctive habitat to whatever degree is possible. Watch your bird hold a bee balm flower in its foot and gently nibble each petal and you will know what I mean. It is not always easy to find wild foods, and they must be unsprayed, but even in winter, it is possible. I lavish these foods on my birds whenever I can, really there is no limit:
– unsprayed, bird-safe branches with buds and leaves on them (make sure to check the internet for which vegetation is bird-safe)
– wild fruits like apples, pears, quince, edible berries (no wild cherries)
– herbs and wild plants such as chickweed, clover, dandelion, seeding grasses, violet leaves- flowers including dandelion, bee balm, calendula, violet, red clover, nasturtium, squash blossoms
– pine boughs (no cedar)
– logs with bark (make sure they are not rotting or molded)
I use thoroughly tested well water for my birds, but as an alternative, I recommend using high-quality spring water. It is a good idea to check with the spring water company to make sure they test for contaminants such as heavy metals, giardia, cryptosporidium and other pollutants, all of which add to the toxic load our birds face daily just by living in our environment. Tap water is not a good option for parrots unless it has been determined by lab testing to be free of the above contaminants as well as chlorine. Water should be changed twice per day to avoid the buildup of bacteria from food that gets crusted on birds’ beaks.
When I first began feeding this sprout/mash diet, I had my vet run blood tests on my parrots regularly in order to make sure that all their nutrient levels were within the normal range. They did show normal blood results on this diet, and I have maintained a long term healthy flock on this diet for about twenty years.
Our captive parrots are primarily non-domesticated, which means that their instincts are still based on a life in the wild where the food is fresh, the water is clean, and they can choose which minerals, herbs and foods to consume for self-medication. They know instinctively how to maintain gleaming feathers, supple skin and healthy bodies. By providing them with an abundance of freshly germinated plant foods and brightly colored produce, we respect those instincts to the best of our ability, which is the least we can do in exchange for the privilege of bringing them into our homes.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, or by any veterinarian. All information, including any product or technique mentioned, is for educational purposes only. None of the information is intended to diagnose or treat any disease.