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Research Update: Carotenoids in Food are Important to the Health and Mating Success of Birds


Carotenoids are compounds that, in most birds, impart red, yellow and orange colors to the feathers.  They are obtained from the diet, and are most abundant in brightly-colored fruits and vegetables.  In theory, a bird with bright plumage is “advertising” the fact that it has been eating well, and is in prime health.  Until recently, however, this theory was largely unproven.

Health Benefits Conferred by Carotenoids

Findings released this month (Feb. 2009) by Arizona State University researchers indicate that carotenoids do indeed provide a great many health benefits to birds, and therefore the “advertisement value” of the plumage is quite significant.  These nutrients seem to enhance both vision (specifically color perception) and sperm quality.

The researchers theorize that a diet high in carotenoids leads to better color vision which in turn allows the bird to find foods of higher quality (brightly colored fruits, for example) and a more fit (again, brighter-hued) mate.

Carotenoids function as antioxidants in people, but it has not been determined if the same applies to birds.

Choosing Carotenoid-Rich Products for Your Pets

Here at ThatFishPlace/ThatPetPlace, we carry a wide variety of bird foods  that are packed with carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables.  There are a number of products available for most types of birds – for starters, please check out Wild and Spicy Avian Entrees, Fiesta Food for Canaries and Finches and Sunny Orchards Nutriberries.

I also recommend as additions to your pets’ diets those foods consisting entirely of carotenoid-rich items, such as Veggi-Crisp Delights  and Diced Blueberries, Raspberries and Papaya.

Of course, a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, with amounts and types tailored to the species of birds that you keep, should also be offered to your pets.

Further Reading

Goldenfeast Dried Sweet Potatoes are a great source of carotenoids and other valuable nutrients.  Please see my product review and notes concerning the many zoo animals which I have found to relish this healthy food: Goldenfeast Sweet Potatoes Bird Treat  


Parrot Color – parrots are found to have a novel method of acquiring their brilliant red feathers

African Grey Parrot
Over 80% of the world’s parrot species have some degree of red coloration, the intensity of which is only rarely found among other bird families. While most birds acquire their red coloration through carotenoids (naturally occurring compounds) ingested along with food, researchers at Arizona State University have shown that parrots utilize a previously unknown system.

Parrots manufacture red pigment internally. This pigment, a suite of 5 molecules, is found in all red-colored parrots, but, as far as we know, nowhere else on earth. Also unusual is the fact that the pigment seems to be synthesized at the site of each growing feather, and that it has anti-oxidant properties as well. This finding has very important implications for ornithologists, as it points to a very unique evolutionary history among parrots and their relatives (of course, parrot owners have long known how different parrots are from other birds!).

Once again, studies of a species’ natural history have given pet owners important insights as well. Pigment production is a drain on the parrot’s metabolism, and a vitally important process given its anti-oxidant properties. It is, therefore, vital that pet owners provide their parrots with a nutritious diet and proper care.

Zebra Finch, Taeniopygia guttata, Nutrition – the role of carotenoids and testosterone

Zebra Finch

While we are all aware of the importance of good nutrition to our pets, it is interesting to see just how complex this topic can be. Keeping this in mind will, I hope, prevent us from becoming lazy when it comes to feeding even relatively hardy birds such as the zebra finch.

As in most animals, male zebra finches utilize the hormone testosterone to help develop secondary sexual characteristics, such as their bright red bills. However, this comes at a cost, as testosterone has also been shown to weaken the immune system.

Carotenoids – compounds that impart yellow and orange colors to carrots and other foods – also help male finches to maintain their bright colors and, as a consequence, to attract females. The finches obtain carotenoids from their diet.

Recently, researchers at Arizona State University have shown that, in addition to imparting color, carotenoids also combat the negative influences of testosterone in zebra finches. Males deficient in carotenoids suffer depressed immune systems, while those with a sufficient intake benefit from testosterone by becoming more attractive to female finches.

This information reinforces the importance of a providing our birds with a well-balanced diet, and may have implications for human health as well. I suggest feeding your zebra finches a variety of nutritious foods, including such important basics as Goldenfeast Australian Blend Bird Food / Tropic Fruit Pudding and ZuPreem Fruit Blend, to assure a sufficient intake of carotenoids and other nutrients.


Interesting research concerning the effect of diet on zebra finch reproduction is posted at:

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