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Avian Nutrition: Pellet-Based Diets for Budgies, Macaws, Cockatoos, Cockatiels and other Parrots, Finches and Canaries


Although people have been raising and breeding granivorous birds on seeds for decades, it is now well-established that pellets offer a more reliable method of assuring that a balanced diet is consumed.

Pellet-based diets are more important for some types of birds than for others.  Finches, for example, tend to eat most of the ingredients contained in leading finch seed mixesParrots, on the other hand, can be quite picky, going through their food cups with a fine-toothed comb, as it were, and selecting only their favorites.

Using Seeds and Switching to Pellets

For all birds on a seed-based diet, the key to maintaining good health lies in assuring that a wide variety of seeds are consumed in appropriate amounts, and in providing supplemental foods (vegetables, fruits, sprouts, etc.) on a regular basis.  Pellets take the guesswork out of feeding birds, and have been embraced by most zoos and commercial aviaries.

The switch from a seed-based to pellet-based diet should be made gradually…even if your bird readily accepts pellets, it is not a good idea to shock its digestive system with a sudden change.  Rather, introduce the pellets over a period of 2-3 weeks.  Some birds, especially older parrots, may resist mightily, and may take several months before settling in to their new diet.

Tricks to Ease the Transition

One of the easiest ways of introducing pellets to your bird is to make use of Lafeber Avicakes  and NutriberriesBoth products contain nutritious pellets set within a tasty mix of molasses, seeds and other universal favorites.  Mixing pellets with fruits, vegetables, Eggfood  and other treats will also encourage acceptance.

“Pulsed feeding”, or the offering of many small meals daily, has long been used by poultry breeders to encourage birds to take in additional calories (it seems that the presentation of a food dish sparks a feeding impulse, even in a bird that might be rather “full”).  Removing and re-introducing your pet’s dish, loaded at times mainly with pellets, is worth a try.

The Role of Seeds in a Pellet-Based Diet

Seeds do have their place in parrot and finch diets, of course.  In addition to their nutritional value, birds benefit greatly from physically manipulating and opening seeds and nuts.

Once your birds have accepted pellets, continue to provide a moderate amount of seeds of many varieties – hiding or lodging them in difficult-to-reach areas is a great way to keep your birds entertained and active.  Bird Foraging Toys  are an excellent means of providing both seeds and exercise opportunities to your pets.

Please check out the pellet-based diets that we offer for finches, canaries, budgies, cockatiels, macaws, cockatoos and other parrotsFor a look at how I provided dietary variety to the Bronx Zoo’s huge bird collection many years ago, please see my article Alternative Bird Foods – Yesterday and Today.


Product Review: Alternative Bird Foods – Yesterday and Today, Part I

Eggsnack Bird Food

The nutritional needs of some of our most colorful and interesting pet birds are not met by seed-based diets. Lories and lorikeets, for example, require a soupy mix of fruits and nectars. Many gorgeous softbills, such as the shama thrush (Copsychus malabaricus) and Peking robin (Leiothrix lutea) subsist largely upon insects, and require a high-protein diet if they are to thrive in captivity.

Dietary Specialists
Such birds were, in earlier times, considered to be “delicate” captives, and hence were largely ignored by aviculturists, or left to well-heeled experts.Providing them with a balanced diet required painstaking daily efforts, and usually involved gathering a variety of uncommon ingredients and a good deal of cooking.

I well remember preparing, twice daily, meals for the Bronx Zoo’s rare Tahitian lories (Vini peruviana).Breakfast was put together at 5:30 AM, and consisted of a blended shake containing fresh papaya, blueberries, nectar (apricot, pear, peach and guava), yogurt, vitamins and mineral powder.Their second meal was comprised of several types of commercial nectars (designed for hummingbirds and sunbirds), each containing several ingredients and mixed separately, as well as various tropical fruits and insects.

Commercial Diets for Picky Birds
In time we learned that many birds formerly thought to be difficult captives were actually quite hearty and long-lived, given the proper diet. Commercial, pre-mixed diets evolved, and now we are in the happy situation of being able to keep a wide variety of interesting species in our homes. Pretty Bird Species Specific Food for Lories and Goldenfeast NectarGold for Lories and Lorikeets serve well as basic diets for the specialized lories and lorikeets. Pretty Bird Softbill Select and Higgins Egg Food are of great value in maintaining toucans, barbets, tanagers, bulbuls and a host of others.

Many seed eating birds, especially the various finches, consume insects and fruit in the wild, and nearly all will benefit from a bit of Softbill Diet and Egg Food from time to time. When such birds are rearing chicks, these foods are vital.

Live, Canned and Collected Insects

Live crickets, mealworms, waxworms and other insects will be appreciated by nearly all softbills. A very useful innovation to appear recently has been the Canned Insects (marketed for reptile pets) by Exo-Terra and ZooMed.

ZooMed Bug NapperI urge you to give these a try for finches and other softbills. Zoo Med’s Bug Napper Insect Trap provides an easy (and interesting!) means of collecting wild insects – trust me, your birds will consider moths, beetles and the like a very special treat indeed.

Next week I’ll describe what was involved in feeding the Bronx Zoo’s huge collection of insectivorous birds before the advent of commercially-prepared diets.

Please see my article Providing Insects to Pet Birds…Useful Products Designed for Reptiles, on this blog, for more information on feeding softbills and other birds.

Caution: Some Common Plants are Toxic to Birds

Pet birds of all types can benefit from the branches, leaves and stems of wild plants and trees.  Stripping bark, chewing wood and searching the leaves for hidden treats is very good for their well-being.  In fact, I have long provided cut native browse to captives ranging from ants to ostriches to elephants, and most zoos consider such a valuable form of “behavioral enrichment” and, in some cases, an adjunct to captive diets.

Be sure that all plants provided to birds have been well-washed, so as to remove insecticides.  When cutting natural perches, stay with branches from almond, citrus fruit, apple, dogwood, ash, elm and Manzanita trees, or grapevine.

Many plants that birds might encounter in your home or garden can, however, sicken or kill your pet.  The following list was adapted from that provided by the ASPCA, with additions garnered from my own experience.  Please keep your birds (and other pets) away from these – when in doubt, err on the side of caution:

Aloe Vera
Apple (seeds)
Andromeda japonica
Apricot (pit)
Asparagus Fern
Avocado (fruit, pit)
Baby Doll
Baby’s Breath
Bird of paradise
Branching Ivy
Buddhist Pine
Calla Lily
Castor Bean
Cherry (leaves, seeds)
China Doll
Chinese Evergreen
Christmas Cactus
Christmas Rose
Corn Plant (all Dracena)
Crown Vetch

There’s quite a few more…I’ll cover the balance next week.

Bird emergencies can take many forms….for an overview, please see:



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