Why Your Bird Should Be Eating Pellets

15 AUGUST 2019

This article is written by our in-house veterinarian, Dr Kimberley Chainey BVSc

In the wild, birds have evolved to eat a large variety of natural foods that vary according to the season and availability - a diet that we cannot easily replicate in captivity. While feeding a seed-based diet is convenient and relatively cheap, birds will selectively pick out the parts of the food they like, including particular seeds which can lead to an array of health problems.

Offering seed-based diets to some bird species is considered a 'smorgasbord' way of feeding, and can result in an increased risk of disease, obesity, multi-vitamin and mineral deficiencies and ultimately a shortened lifespan. Seed diets are generally either carbohydrates (e.g. millet) and/or fat (e.g. sunflower seeds) and lack a number of vitamins, minerals and protein. It's important to note that some species do require seed in their base diet such as certain canary and finch species however, the psittacine species do not and seed should be fed only as a treat.

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What are the benefits of a pelleted diet?

In a pelleted diet, birds are unable to preferentially select certain foods such as a favourite type of seed. They are easy to feed, provide a 'nutritionally complete' diet for a range of species, and are also more economical to feed in the long term.

While pelleted diets have clear advantages, it's not as simple as placing a bowl of pellets in the cage and expecting your bird to start eating them, especially if they have been on a seed-based diet for a number of years. It's like feeding a child chicken nuggets for a year and then placing a bowl of vegetables in front of them and expecting them to happily eat it.

It's also important to note that birds are active foragers and in the wild they would spend a large proportion of their day foraging for food. We completely alter this natural behaviour when we place a bowl full of food in front of them, leaving a large proportion of their day free to get into mischief. This can lead to many of the behavioural problems we see in captive birds today. To replicate the behavioural needs of birds, we can offer a variety of foraging toys.

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What does a pelleted diet look like for different birds?

Cockatiels, Lovebirds, Budgies Other Parrot Species Canaries & Finches
50% good quality pellets, 30% budgie seed mix, 20% vegetables plus a small amount of fruit 90% good quality pellets, 10% vegetables plus a small amount of fruit and nuts 80% good quality pellets, 10% quality seed mix, 10% small chopped vegetables plus a small amount of fruit

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Recommended fruits and vegetables: corn, capsicum, zucchini, broccoli, squash, tomatoes, sweet potato, pumpkin, carrot, beans, peas, kiwi, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, small amounts of apple, melons, stone fruits (remove stone first). If you'd prefer a commercially available treat, try the Vetafarm Parrot Deli Treats or the Parrot Deli Stix Best Of Both Worlds.

Fruits and vegetables to avoid: celery stalks, iceberg lettuce, avocado, onion, garlic, rhubarb, chocolate.

How to safely transition birds to a pelleted diet

Similar to diet changes in humans, it's important not to blanket convert over to a pelleted diet as this can have serious health implications. Below is a step-by-step approach to ensure this conversion is done safely. If you have any questions or concerns, always seek advice from your avian veterinarian or contact one of our veterinarians. To find your closest avian veterinarian, check out the Association Of Avian Veterinarians Australasian Committee website.

1. Veterinary Examination

Before converting from a seed to a pelleted diet, have your bird examined by an avian veterinarian to ensure they are otherwise healthy. Dietary changes are not recommended in any sick or underweight bird, as the physiologic stress of changing may be too much for them.

2. Calculate the amount of seed your bird currently eats per day

To do this, ensure you have access to digital scales that weigh in 1 gram increments. Place a measured amount of seed in the food dish each morning. The next morning, measure the remaining seed and the difference is the daily seed consumption in grams. Repeat for 3 - 4 days and calculate the average seed consumption per day for your bird.

3. Introduce the pellets

As birds generally prefer to eat from a higher place, place the pellet container at the highest part of your bird's cage and the seed container much lower. You can also try:

  • Sprinkling a small amount of pellets over the top of the seed
  • Pretend to eat the pellets yourself before offering to your bird
  • Moisten the pellets into a paste with the previous food, gradually reducing the quantities of previous food and water added to the paste
  • For budgies and cockatiels, place a 'hall of mirrors' just above the pellet dish and place pellets on the mirrored shelf. This may 'trick' them into believing another bird is eating the pellets
  • Provide lots of praise when you observe your bird eating the pellets

4. Gradually remove the amount of seed provided

Once your bird has started to eat the pellets you can slowly reduce the amount of seed provided by 5-10% per day. It's important to closely monitor your bird's weight and dropping during the process.

Monitoring throughout the process is important

Throughout the conversion process, it's important to keep a close eye on your bird to make sure they are tolerating the new diet well. To do this, monitor at least one of the following:

  • Body weight: weigh your bird first thing every morning before feeding using digital scales and keep a daily record of this weight
  • Droppings: normal droppings should have volume and bulk with a small amount of urine. When birds are not eating well their droppings will be small and dark with increased urine and urates
  • Total food intake: Weigh the food before and after they have eaten to see how much has been eaten throughout the day

When to stop the conversion and seek veterinary assistance

If you notice your bird appears to be fluffed up or look unwell, the droppings become dark and small, their weight drops by more than 2% in a single day, or their weight drops by more than 5%, it's important to stop the conversion process immediately and speak with your avian veterinarian. In the meantime, place a bowl of seed in the cage and provide additional heat.

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