Birds Don't REALLY "Eat Like Birds" and Other Nutrition Myths Dispelled
MYTH: BIRDS "EAT LIKE BIRDS"A thin person who picks at her food is often described by jealous flatterers as someone who "eats like a bird." This comparison, however, is not truly accurate, nor is it a compliment. Birds like cockatiels and budgies have evolved with high metabolic rates to meet the incredible energy demands of flight. Their need for food "fuel" is so high that they cannot afford to politely "eat like birds," they have to eat like pigs!
For example, studies have determined that budgerigars need between 12 and 16 kilocalories (kcal) per day.1 We usually call kcal "Calories" when referring to our own food intake. One kcal is the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 liter of water 1øC. While 12-16 kcal per day may not seem like much to us, a 150 lb. human would have to consume approximately 23,000-31,000 kcal per day if he or she had the same metabolic rate as the average 35g American budgie!
MYTH: BIRDS WILL CHOOSE THE FOODS THEIR BODIES NEED AND KNOW THEIR LIMIT WHEN GIVEN A VARIETYAlthough their energy needs are relatively high, this does not mean that birds cannot eat too much food, or eat too much of some foods and too little of others. Most budgies and cockatiels do not even have the option to eat properly due to a lack of education or laziness on the part of their owners. As a result, they are not provided with a varied, nutritious diet. Because they evolved in an arid, sparse habitat with irregular food supplies, budgies and cockatiels are more equipped than species from richer jungle habitats to survive nutritional challenges.1 They are, however, far from indestructible.
A bird fed only one type of food is in a constant state of nutritional distress. An all-seed diet, for example, provides too much fat and too little of certain amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), vitamins, and minerals a bird needs. To compound the problem, there is evidence that birds may overeat a single fat-rich, protein-poor food like seed in an attempt to meet their protein requirement.2 Such nutritional deficiencies and excesses shorten birds' lives by compromising their organs and immune systems. Obesity, for example, is one of the most common health problems suffered by budgies and cockatiels, resulting from a high-fat, low-protein, all-seed diet and lack of exercise.
Of the lucky few pet cockatiels and budgies that do have access to all the nutrients they need, few will choose a varied diet without a little help. They stick to favorites just like many people do. Some are "seed junkies," eating all of their seeds before reluctantly nibbling on other available foods. Some prefer foods with certain colors. Some like the crunch of pellets, while others finish all of their broccoli before trying anything else. Foods can be chosen on the basis of color, texture, size, shape, taste, smell, entertainment value, or natural instinct.
Instinct, ironically, may lead birds to make unhealthy food choices in captivity since it is next to impossible for us to duplicate their natural diets. The substitutes we are able to provide do not necessarily resemble the foods they would instinctually seek out. In addition, their nutritional and psychological needs as pets are very different from their needs in the wild, making these instinctual choices inappropriate.
One way to help your birds eat properly is to provide them with a sequence of meals instead of a single "buffet" every day. If your birds only eat their favorites when offered a selection, feed nutritious, but least favorite foods in the morning when they are most hungry. Serve their favorites later in the day after they have sampled other foods.
Because they are flock-oriented birds, single budgies and cockatiels who are timid about trying new foods may be less apprehensive if you allow them to eat with you. Pretending to eat and enjoy some "yummy" pellets or vegetables may be all it takes to entice your bird to try them too. You might also let them eat healthy foods from your plate, but never let them take food directly from your mouth. Your saliva contains organisms that may make your bird sick.
You can leave favorite foods in the cage all day only if you are certain your birds are eating the proper proportion of other foods as well. Remember that moist foods must be changed at least every four hours or bacteria and fungi could grow to dangerous levels,1 especially in a hot, humid environment.
MYTH: THERE ARE "COMPLETE" DIETS AVAILABLE FOR BIRDSAlthough much valuable research has been done on psittacine (parrot) nutrition, the results are still inconclusive. The "complete" foods on the market, usually pellets or seeds "enriched" with a vitamin coating or additional pellets, vary greatly in their nutrient content. All you need to do is compare the labels of the various brands and note the wide range among their nutrient levels to see that there is not yet a consensus. In addition, what is nutritionally sound for one species, or even one individual, may not be for another.
To complicate things even further, there is often a difference between the total nutrients included in a product and those that your birds actually can utilize. Vitamins are usually wasted in enriched seed mixes because the vitamin coated seed hulls are discarded and the supplemental pellets ignored. Both pellets and enriched seed mixes may list nutrients that are not available for a bird's use due to complex biochemical reactions. These foods are a great start, but by no means "complete."
Since we do not yet fully understand our birds' needs, it is important to hit as many nutritional bases as possible by serving a wide variety of healthy foods. Variety is not just the spice of our birds' lives, it is the meat and potatoes! Serving a combination diet of pellets, seeds, vegetables, and nutritious "people foods" like rice, beans, pasta, and bread is the best alternative until more research is done on avian nutrition.
MYTH: "I DON'T FEED A SEED-ONLY DIET. TWEETY GETS SPRAY MILLET AND HONEY STICKS..."There are many products on the market that are just seeds in disguise. Spray millet is nothing more than millet seed in its natural form before it has been removed from the stem and mixed with other seeds. Honey sticks, or "treat sticks," are mostly seeds stuck to a rigid form with honey or another sticky syrup. Like enriched seed mixes, they may also contain some vitamins or pellets, but these are usually discarded and consequently offer little additional nutrition.
Spray millet and honey sticks do provide more psychological benefit than plain seed mixes, however, because they make your birds "work" for their food. Spray millet is actually a good seed treat choice because millet is lower in fat than sunflower, safflower, and some other common seeds. As long as you consider spray millet and honey sticks to be only part of the limited seed portion of your birds' varied diet, these treats are fine.