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 By Sally Blanchard 

I am still quite amazed when I hear that anyone still feeds their parrots a seed-only diet.  It has been obvious for many years now that a seed-only diet creates severe malnutrition in parrots and shortens their life considerably. People should know better by now with all that we know about the healthful advantages of feeding nutritious fresh vegetables, grains, fruits, and quality pelleted diets. One of the very first articles I wrote for Bird Talk in 1990 was about converting parrots from a seed only diet to a diet with fresh foods. Over twenty years later I am still asked how to get parrots to eat something else besides the ubiquitous seed mix. Despite the fact that some veterinarians push pellets to their clients, I also belief that dependence on a pelleted diet will eventually cause as many health problems as a seed-only diet. This is because so many of them are made from a sort of "chemical soup." 

I am also not a fan of a primarily pelleted diet ... especially the diets with food coloring and artificial preservatives. Most parrot foods on the market today are full of chemical supplements that I believe have no place in our parrots' diets. Most parrot foods contain Menadione Bisulfate Complex, which is banned in human foods. After doing in-depth research, the only food that I really recommend at this time is Totally Organics.

I believe that this is currently an important question because so many of the parrots that people had over 20 years ago have eaten seed or pellets as the base of their diet for so long.  Many of these birds are now in need of new homes. While behavioral issues with re-homed parrots are the major questions I am asked, questions about getting parrots to eat a better diet run a close second.

Although “food rigidity” is not often written about as a behavioral problem, it is a common problem with parrots that have been fed a narrow diet for many years. Food rigidity can also be a problem for parrots that have been weaned to a seed or pellet only diet.  Most parrots can be creatures of habit and will demand routine if we let them.  Since we are also creatures of habit, it can be fairly easy for the parrot/human relationship to get into a rut as far as what parrots are given to eat.

There are many opinions about feeding parrots properly. My perspective comes from a study of nutrition and food as enrichment in a parrot’s life. The fact is that in the wild the vast majority of parrots are ‘opportunistic omnivores’ and eat a wide variety of foods from their environment. They spend a large amount of their time each day foraging for and eating natural foods. These include buds, leaf matter, flower petals, berries, nuts, germinating and live seeds, fruits, grubs, insects, agricultural crops, and just about anything they can find that is edible. 

For our companion parrots, food is not just nutrition; it also needs to be a part of their lives that keeps them stimulated and curious. Pellets are much healthier than seed, but feeding pellets and nothing else doesn’t provide any behavioral enrichment or foraging opportunities. There is also absolute evidence that some parrots develop health problems on pelleted-only diets. Personally, I would never feed my parrots a diet limited to pellets and the one that I do feed has organic ingredients. Totally Organic has no artificial supplementation but depends on the actual food ingredients for its nutrition. 

The major reason most people don’t succeed in changing their birds’ diets is their lack of patience. If I had a dollar for every time I heard the words, “My bird won’t eat that”, I could start my own parrot sanctuary. People give up way too soon and decide just because their parrots won’t eat something right away; it means the bird doesn’t like it and will never eat it. Most parrots are somewhat neo-phobic, which means they can be wary of anything new in their lives, including new foods. Don’t expect miracles within a few days or even a few weeks. The most effective caregiver knows that he or she needs to make a lifetime change in the parrot’s diet. Parrots are creatures of habit and progress in changing their behaviors is usually one step at a time. Sometimes  Instead of thinking, “I want my bird to eat this right now or else,” think more realistically; “In six months my parrot will be eating healthier foods and every step I take to improve his diet from now until then will insure that this becomes true.”

Before starting any conversion process with a parrot, it is advisable to have his health checked by his avian vet. Have the veterinarian weigh him and ask what should be a healthy weight range for a parrot his size. (However, don't let the veterinarian talk you ito believing that you have to feed a pelleted diet as the major part of your parrot's diet!!) Going by a species weight chart may not accurately reflect your parrot’s ideal size. Keep track of his weight on a regular basis as you work to change his diet. Either weigh him on a scale or, less effectively, check his weight daily by feeling his keel bone. 

Don’t ever cold turkey a parrot to a new diet — instead, change the diet slowly by gradually replacing the less healthy foods with more healthy foods. Make changes gradually, especially if a parrot has been on a seriously deficient, seed-only diet. Depriving a nutritionally compromised bird of what he is used to eating can stress him and make him ill. 

Make sure your parrot is getting enough to eat during the conversion process. There is a “Catch 22” — a parrot who is suffering from malnutrition will have health problems that may be aggravated by changing his diet, but if you don’t change his diet, he will continue to have health problems. For example, a parrot with liver problems related to malnutrition will most likely become sicker if he does not get enough to eat but he will also become sicker on a diet lacking quality nutrition. The key is to gradually replace the unhealthy foods with healthier foods without compromising a parrot’s need for calories or nourishment.

Companion parrots can be very reactive and seem to reflect our food likes and dislikes. If you make an excited fuss about it every time you give your parrot a piece of pizza, he will probably love pizza. (What parrot won’t eat pizza?)  On the other hand, if you frown and make an “ugh” sound every time you try to get him to eat broccoli, it is doubtful that he will eat it no matter how often he is exposed to this nutritious vegetable. I always smile when I give my parrots a new food and they are often quite adventurous in trying them. I have had my double yellow-head Paco for over 36 years and because she has had such a variety of foods throughout her entire life, she will eat almost anything I put in her dish. Of course, she does have favorites.

Parrots should not be in control of what they eat. The idea that they will automatically eat what is good for them is a myth. There is truth to the belief that wild parrots seasonally eat what is available to them, and therefore eat a proper diet for them. However, companion parrots have to be exposed to healthy foods on a regular basis for them to be able to select what they need. Because parrots can’t whip up a nutritious meal for themselves, they need us to make intelligent dietary choices for them. We also must be vigilant that the nutritious foods we buy and prepare for our parrots actually get into their digestive system.

Starchy and/or sweet foods such as corn, grapes, and apples are not the healthiest fresh foods, but real seed junkies may learn to eat them more readily as a transition to broccoli, sweet potatoes, winter squash, carrots, collard greens, and healthier fresh foods. Once a parrot actually starts to try any new foods, it is much easier to continue to get him to eat anything new.

 Parrots have incredible color perception and can see in the ultraviolet range.  Color is important to them in fresh foods but so is the shape and texture of foods. But colored pelleted diets have artificial food coloring that is not healthy for parrots! Provide a variety of healthy foods in many different configurations until you find a way your parrots will eat them. For example, carrots can be fed raw, cooked, by themselves or in mashes, whole, diced, sliced, in strips, mashed, grated, pureed, juiced, and so on.

Have fun — make food into toys. Lace greens in the cage bars. Over thirty years ago, I got my seed junkie Cockatiel to eat carrot tops by weaving them in and out of the bars of his cage. Put veggies and fruits on hanging kabobs. Make birdie bread with chopped veggies in them, mashes and/or wrap foods in other foods. Put mashes in whole grain tortillas. Wrap a variety of nutritious greens around other foods that your parrots love like little dolmas (stuffed grape leaves). Place large leaves of sopping wet greens (collards, turnip, mustard, or kale) on the top of the cage. Many birds enjoy leaf bathing and may eat the greens at the same time.

When introducing manufactured diet, mix several quality pellet brands together in a bowl to give the parrot something to reject. I only feed the natural ones without artificial food coloring or preservatives. Food rejection seems to be important to parrots. If you’ve ever seen wild parrots devouring the fruit, leaf matter, seeds, or flowers in trees, you quickly realize that they are naturally wasteful when it comes to food.  Perhaps this is nature’s way of planting foods for the parrot’s future generations? 

Plan on wasting food! Parrots are messy eaters and will usually waste a lot of food, especially when you are trying to get them to eat new foods. I don’t ever feel guilty since my dogs have always eaten the leftover cooking mixes and veggies either when food falls to the floor or when they happily lick the bowls. Some parrots even call the family dogs over to their cage and purposefully feed them foods that they don’t want to eat. 

Parrots are social eaters. Sample nutritious foods as you feed them to your parrot. Smile and act like you genuinely love the food even if you don’t. A good actor can pull this off but parrots can tell if you are not sincere. If a parrot is bonded to you, he will usually eat what you eat or what someone feeds you in front of him. Use the Model/Rival technique — have another person feed you in front of your bird to intrigue him into eating nutritious foods. I had a client years ago with an African grey that had been weaned to a seed-only diet. The bird had started to have hypo-calcemia seizures. The grey was very bonded to the husband and tolerated the wife. I had her feed healthy vegetables to her husband in front of the parrot. Even though the couple though it was a bit silly, it took the parrot less than a week to start eating the healthy foods that the woman fed to her husband.  

Let your parrot eat healthy food with you. Some parrots are more likely to eat new foods if they are fed away from the cage in a social eating situation. A T-stand by the table works great. Some parrots are very well-behaved if they are given their own plate at the family table.

Pay attention to your parrot’s preference and habits. Feed the most nutritious foods when he is the hungriest. Some parrots eat best in the morning; others eat best in the early evening. Most are likely to try new foods when you are eating with them.

Patience is the greatest virtue in converting parrots to a healthy diet with fresh foods and whole grains. Be creative. It may take weeks or even months for your parrot to eating a nutritious diet with a variety of fresh foods! If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again!  

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