Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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What's For the Birds?

Pet Column for the week of November 27, 2006

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brookelynn Nitzkin
Information Specialist

Birds make wonderful, interactive and affectionate pets. They are extremely intelligent and can bond very well with their owners. If you are considering getting a bird or already have one, here are some basic guidelines for feeding your pet and providing them with the optimal nutrition.

An avian diet can be a tricky thing to formulate, especially because eating behavior and food choice is so different from humans. Certain factors such as species, physiological state, environment and gender play a role in what types of food each bird will require. Kara Osterbur, third-year student and manager of the Wildlife Medical Clinic at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Urbana, Ill., says, "At the wildlife clinic we take all sorts of factors into consideration when formulating a diet for a patient. Not every bird is the same and most birds that come into our clinic require extra nutritional support."

Captive bird diets are a debatable subject and an incorrect diet can result in vitamin deficiency or obesity, among other things. Some may argue that a strict commercial pellet diet is the best thing to feed your bird. A high-quality commercial diet will provide balanced and complete nutrition in each pellet. However, since the needs of every bird are slightly different as far as calorie consumption and even vitamin consumption are concerned, a pelleted diet may result in over-supplementation. A pelleted diet is also probably the furthest from the diet that would be encountered in the wild.

A natural diet may be a good option for your bird, but it comes with its downfalls as well. Natural diets most closely resemble what the bird may have eaten in the wild but this can lead to a bird picking out the preferred foods and leaving the rest. This can lead to an imbalanced and incomplete diet. Most birds prefer seeds over other things, but too much seed is extremely unhealthy for a bird. Seeds are deficient in vitamins like B12, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, vitamin A, vitamin C, many essential amino acids, calcium, sodium, zinc, iodine and selenium. Seeds are important to maintain a physiologic balance, but are required in limited quantities.

Feeding birds a diet mainly consisting of seed is like giving your bird junk food all the time. Obesity can result, as well as a vitamin deficiency from the excess carbohydrates and fat.

For a general rule of thumb, yellow and orange vegetables like squash or sweet potato are excellent for providing vitamin A. Dark green vegetables are excellent for providing calcium, B vitamins, vitamin A and essential trace minerals. Veterinarians recommend a diet consisting of 50 percent pelleted feed, 20 percent grains (seeds, bread, cooked rice or pasta), 20 percent vegetables such as the ones mentioned above and 10 percent fruits, meats and cheese.

Birds develop a sense of what is correct to eat when they are young. They are foragers and are taught the correct diet by their parents or handlers, in the case of hand-fed birds. Once a bird is shown a specific diet it may be very difficult to change those eating habits and can require a great deal of patience. By slowly adding new foods into the diet, youll be able to wean your bird off of the older, preferred food. Any bird that is going to have its diet changed should have a health evaluation done by a veterinarian. Changing a diet could provide just enough stress to allow an infection to manifest itself clinically.

Good health is the basis for any companion we care for, and good health starts with a proper diet full of the essentials. If you consult your veterinarian and follow some of these tips, you are sure to have a healthy wonderful companion who will be with you for years to come.