Pellets for birds - yes or no?
Americans frequently tell us that pellets are the only proper way to feed our birds. Yet even they use far fewer pellets than you would think.
By Malcolm Green BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences
The European Experience
North American pellets arrived in the UK in the early 1990s with great fanfare, big advertising budgets and extensive sampling campaigns. British breeders and pet owners were swept up in the frenzy. After all, the argument that pellets were complete foods was very persuasive. Yet within a couple of years British breeders had completely rejected pellets. Why was this? The answer is simple – breeding results plummeted. British parrot breeders reverted to their more conventional diets based on seed mixtures, fresh foods and supplements. Small bird breeders continued with their diets based on seeds, soft foods and supplements.
Many pet bird owners also tried pellets. Most rejected them for palatability reasons. Those that did convert and still use pellets mostly dilute them with seeds and human foods. The British experience was repeated on the Continent a few years later.
The American manufacturers who opened offices in Britain all those years ago have now shut up shop and rely on importers to service their small remaining pet market.
What happens in America?
What initially surprised me most was the small amount of pellets being used by breeders. Whilst there are a few breeders using 80% plus pellet diets they are in a clear minority. Most people "dilute" their pellets with seeds and fresh foods of some sort. The pellet manufacturers are correct - this is not the best thing to do. After all, pellets are only a very dilute supplement themselves. Dilute them again and their efficacy is substantially reduced. As the pellets are not concentrated they don't balance the nutritional deficiencies of the other foods. These diets are still far less than perfect.
While most American breeders don't use pellets as recommended by the manufacturers I have met a few who do. People breeding in the hot and humid areas like southern Florida, do report that they achieved productivity gains when they switched from seed to pelleted diets. But, when probed, the real benefits seem to have come from the elimination of easily spoilable fresh produce from the diet. The resultant health benefits, combined with an increase in vitamins etc improved results. The further north I travel in America the less relevant this argument becomes as spoilage is more easily controlled.
Unfortunately the US bird food industry has put its research effort into pellets not supplements. So Americans haven't had access to the sophisticated products now available in the UK. Fortunately that has changed in the last two years as enlightened breeders have experimented with imported products and they are now stocked in America and readily available over the Internet and through a growing number of bricks and mortar retailers.
Pet bird diets
Research carried out in New York in the mid 1990's (and reported at a pet bird symposium in Hannover) told us that 98% of the pet parrots surveyed were getting less than the recommended levels of selected key nutrients. This is terrible! What the authors did not report to the delegates was that about half of the sample where being fed pellets!
This is not a criticism of pellet formulations. But it does highlight the compliance problems pellets have. Most of the magazine articles on pellets go to great lengths to describe how to get your bird to eat them. Why? Because it can be difficult! Many owners fail and almost all owners allow their birds to dilute the pellets with un-supplemented "treats" like seed, fresh produce and table foods.
It would be an exaggeration to say that supplements don't have some compliance problems. But the difficulties are far less than trying to get birds to eat a monotonous and unnatural food.
I would always recommend that supplements be given on food whenever practical. It is both safer and increases the number and quality of ingredients that can be used. However there are some circumstances when the drinking water is the only option. One such is the proverbial "sunflower junkie". We now have the first in-water supplementation system that has solved the technical challenges involved in addressing the protein needs of these birds as well as all the other trace nutrients. And all this in a totally safe way which has worked wonders for the quality of life of many previously malnourished birds.
Nutritional change is one of the major influences over the breeding response. Wild birds breed when the food is good and captive birds respond to these changes in just the same way. But the needs of the parents are different from the needs of the chicks. And the nutritional needs of the chicks vary daily as they grow. Belgian research on racing pigeons tells us that before chicks hatch adult birds select a diet of about 15% protein. After hatching the adults select 19% protein. In Zimbabwe work on ostriches highlights the changing needs of growing chicks. The older they are the lower their protein needs.
A pellet diet of uniform nutritional value neither gives the adult birds the message that food is becoming suitable for breeding nor does it enable the parents to alter the amount of protein they feed to their chicks as the needs of those chicks change. Using supplements we can steadily increase the nutritional value of the food (so giving the parents a message that mimics nature). And, by supplementing a varied diet, the birds can (and do) select the balance of nutrients most suitable for their chicks' needs on that particular day.
No pellet manufacturer is likely to claim that they have designed a product with the perfect protein to energy ratio for any particular species. When you consider the differences between individuals of the same species, the differences between species and the huge variation in the needs of birds at different stages of their life cycle it is obvious that pellets must make huge compromises. Can this be the best way to feed your birds?
One key breeder nutrient that is managed far better by supplements than pellets is calcium. Pellets all contain calcium sources with poor bio-availability. They have no choice as highly bio-available calcium should not be given daily. But carefully formulated liquid calcium supplements used correctly generated huge gains in clutch sizes, hen health, egg shell quality and chick development.
So are supplements better?
When pellets failed in Europe all those years ago the supplements that rebuffed them were relatively basic. Vitamins, crude minerals and probiotics were about all that were available. Some manufacturers still produce these products but a few modern European manufacturers are incorporating the very exciting range of ingredients that our "greener" food industry is developing. Antibiotic, hormone treated and genetically modified ingredients are shunned or banned in Europe forcing our technologists to develop far more natural and effective ways of feeding both farm animals and humans.
Bird keepers now have a range of options which include amino acids, complete protein, highly bio-available minerals (including calcium) and a range of herbal and health promoting ingredients that have an astounding effect on the productivity of their flocks or the health of their pets. Because many of these ingredients are combined in carefully formulated supplements which are used in different quantities at different times of the birds' life cycles they are both economical and highly effective.
Technical constraints on pellet manufacturers
Attempting to get all the nutrients into a homogenous pellet and getting all the nutrients to survive the manufacturing and distribution process is a huge technical challenge. Inevitably compromises are made. As a consumer you have a choice. Do you want a pellet with a long shelf life (which will inevitably contain chemical anti-oxidants)? Or would you prefer an un-stabilised product with a short life span? In Florida I met breeders who had terrible trouble getting reliable supplies of short shelf life pellets. Supplements don't have these problems as they have no need to contain more than tiny quantities of unstable oils and fats so they don't need chemical preservatives to give them a long shelf life. Most supplements have two year use by dates.
In addition supplement manufacturers have far more options with respect to the raw materials they can use. You can't put a liquid calcium supplement into a dry pellet. When liquids are the best technology supplements manufacturers can use them, pellet manufacturers cannot.
Supplements can use ingredients with lower heat stability as they are not heated during the manufacturing process. This enables a huge variety of herbs, essential oils and organic acids to be used. Probiotics are far more reliable in supplements for this reason.
Ingredients that shouldn't be given every day are difficult to use in pellets but easy in supplements. Probiotics and highly bio-available calcium come into this category.
Because of this supplements can more easily move beyond nutrition into the health promoting benefits of what the food industry calls nutricines. So modern supplements contain an array of natural products that help the digestive system, attack germs and stimulate the immune system. All of these mean healthier, better breeding stock, faster growing chicks and dramatically lower mortality rates.
Seed only, seed and supplements or pellets?
Have you noticed that pro-pellet articles always compare "complete foods" with seed only diets? If that was the only choice it would be a no-brainer in favour of pellets. But it isn't the only choice. After all a pellet is nothing but a supplemented grain (seed) product. Supplements don't have to be incorporated into a single homogenous food to work very well. As you can see I believe there are some strong benefits to supplemented seed diets. Cost, flexibility, health and breeding can all be better managed with supplements. Ask any British bird breeder.
My Views on Pelleted Food Diets
First of all, it must be understood that psittacines in the wild evolved over millions of years eating strictly raw, green and live foods supplemented with minerals, clay, bark and other organics.
To presume in captivity that we humans, regardless of our scientific expertise, do anything other than shallowly try to mimic the exacting, seasonally changing diets of wild parrot species, is naïve to say the least.
This given, it is only logical that the further keepers distance themselves from fresh bird diets, the move the necessary elements of nutrition which are present only in live foods that have never been processed, heated or dried will be lacking for our psittacines (ie. Delicate enzymes, phytonutrients, etc.)
I would like to make it plain that I have been providing some extruded and pelleted diets to my birds for 15 years or so. A few of my flock eat them. A few do not. A few crunch them up and waste them; a few prefer them only when babies are in the nest.
But the amount of processed food I give my birds hovers around five to ten per cent. The rest of my diet is cooked, sprouted and raw food and seeds offering the correct combinations of nutrients put there by Mother Nature, not the combinations formulated in the laboratory!
I had to giggle at a letter written about processed diets, which said they take the guesswork out of parrot feeding. Excuse me, but I was feeding just such a diet not too many years ago when I worked with a large breeder who was doing product review for one of the companies making extruded food. One week a shipment of baby food came in with an unannounced factory switchover from rice-based nutrition to corn-based product (or was it the other way around?). Not only did the food smell different, but its consistency was different. The move played havoc with many breeders who were in the middle of a feeding period with baby macaws, greys, etc.
If you aviculturists and pet owners out there think the processed diet manufacturers are no longer 'guessing' at perfecting the various formulas for captive psittacine nutrition, then you are deluding yourselves!
Last spring April and I picked up a four-year-old male Yellow-fronted Amazon Parrot for our colony. We were informed by the owner that this was a beautiful psittacine with an unusual red and yellow hue to his chest feathers – perhaps a new sort of mutation possibility, she said. We were also told 'Buddy' was on a 100 per cent pelleted diet, one of those colored ones advertised in this magazine, and supplemented with fruits and veggies. Well, when we got this bird home, his droppings were yellowish.
Vet checks showed he was fine. We began feeding him an organic cooked grain and pulse diet with great amounts of grated green vegetables and homegrown fruits. He ravenously devoured everything. Then within 60 days, Buddy's colored chest feathers began to fade away. No molt, mine you. A year later they are gone! I believe he had been malnourished of microingredients present only in natural foods.
Not For Every Bird
One of the problems with feeding too much processed food in the domestic bird diet is that these foods are not formulated for every pet species. Show me a corporation which has done ten years of research on diets of Princess of Wales Parakeets or Golden Conures, or Hawk-headed Parrots or Yellow-collared Macaws etc. It is not possible to make a species-specific diet unless you study precisely what that species is eating in the wilds. Pellets are a general food. Not only that but they take the choice of what the body needs away from the parrots. This is a very dangerous concept if you have birds with unusual nutritional needs or who are raising babies in the nest.
Several years ago some processed diets were causing deadly iron storage disease in captive members of the Toucan family. Wrong lab formula I guess. Recently I have talked to Lorikeet breeders who are finding protein levels in processed lory diets too high for their breeder birds.
Dangers In Dryness
A classic problem with dry extruded diets is that they are extremely dessicating. That is, they change the natural drinking habits of our parrots. Keepers merely assume that their birds will drink enough extra water to make up for the dry ingredients, but this is not always so. Arid climate species who drink and bathe little, and inexperienced parent pairs who are feeding chicks in the nest, often do not increase their water intake enough to allow the pellets to moisten. End result can be a dry crop mix, and babies that grow slowly and beg less frequently. Worse case scenario is that parents stop feeding the day one or day two chicks. (This the time when fresh, moist and green food is critical to a clutch!)
I once did a consultation with an aviculturist trying to breed dryland Australian parakeet species on 100 per cent pellets! My gosh, I told him, these are seed eating species. Why would you put such a parrot type on a processed diet?
If you would like to do a little home test to see just how much water it takes to soften a teaspoon of pellets, put four to six times as much water by volume into a glass with them and observe what happens. When your pet bird carries his pellets over to the water dish and dunks them in, he is trying to tell you something!!! And think of the bacteria soup such water bowls can be...
According to Worden (1964), birds fed on dryer prey will often have better developed saliva glands. That suggests some serious considerations when jungle and rainforest psittacine species are subjected to dry diets.
A Bit of Pellet History
This brings up an interesting aspect of the bird food industry. In the 1980's when processed pelleted and extruded diets began to increasingly appear on pet and farm store shelves in all shapes and sizes, it was only logical that makers of these formulated bird foods would wish to compete against the large parrot seed manufacturers in order to secure a piece of this huge profitable dry diet pie. It made further sense to push pellets over seeds because from a balanced diet standpoint, many foolish birdkeepers had fallen into the lazy habit of feeding exclusively seed to their psittacines and hence were starving their birds of those ingredients not present in dry seeds.
Of course many expert aviculturists and zookeepers were wisely keeping their birds healthy by feeding green food, cooked food, eggfood, mealworms, fruit, veggies and powdered vitamin/mineral supplements. Still, with so many imported wild-trapped birds in the marketplace – Nanday Conures, Goffin's Cockatoos, Red-tailed Greys etc – who were too picky as eaters to accept anything other than seeds, unless forced – the stage was set.
Veterinarians who were consistently seeing malnourished and dull, lethargic and overweight birds eating nothing but seed, joined the bandwagon and helped the pellet marketers with strongly-worded attacks. I am not saying this was bad; it just happened, and continues to this day. The net result was that dry birdseeds got a bad rap!
Make no mistake, psittacines are seedeaters. They all types of seed from guava seed through to lentils. Seeds are naturally-stored packages of live energy and they are prime reasons why so many parrots and parakeets have strong, durable hooked bills.
Not only that, but seeds are interesting to crack. A real peeve with processed pellet diets is they are supremely boring. How would you like to eat dry corn flakes every meal, every day, your whole life? Parrot diets can be a lot of things, but they should never be boring. Unexciting food bowls will mean your birds are only eating to assuage their hungers – a dangerous concept if you have a bird who is not feeling well, or one who does not know much about raising healthy babies in the nest.
It is notable that I have adopted some parrots from former sites where they were fed processed diets and many of these birds absolutely will not touch a single pellet in the dish even when I serve them on top of only cooked or soaked foods.
How Do They Taste?
Palatability is another factor in avian extruded diets. Or perhaps 'acceptability' is a better term. A poor tasting diet will be ignored or thrown out of the food dish by your parrot. A good example is those long greenish, alfalfa looking pieces with a slight fishy smell one used to find in large hookbill mixes. I wonder if any psittacine anywhere ever ate those things?
I seldom force my hookbills to do anything, especially eat a diet they do not like (there are just too many nutritious ways to feed). Therefore a pellet my birds do not like, I will not feed.
What about coloration? Well, it is my experience that the parrots in my flock that eat pellets, eat them whether they are colored or not. I suspect that making those rainbow colored things is more of a marketing ploy designed to attract human purchasers than to entice the birds.
More to the point for bird keepers is whether the source of that coloration is merely a cheap dosing of artificial food dyes No. #2, #6, #10 etc. There are plenty of natural coloring agents out there, such as beet and berry reds – and it seems to me that every bird diet maker should be seeking these out and using them. Processed diets are expensive enough to include such extra efforts and even if they are not, most conscientious parrot owners would be willing to pay a few extra pence to have natural colorings.
Texture, now there is an important facet for psittacines. Among the wide variety of textures on the market, some of them I will not use. Some are so rock hard that my weaker-jawed birds do not like eating them. Perfect would be that tortilla chip crunchiness or maybe the hardness of an almond kernel. The difficulty is that some of the softer pellets are practically useless for feeding in climates like Hawaii or Florida in summer. You put a dish out and in an hour they are spongy and have no crunch. I have watched many adult parrots eating nuts and kernels. They seem to masticate the meats in order to extract the oily portions. If I were to suggest an improvement for pelleted and extruded foods, it would be to change their texture to be more like a walnut and to increase the oil content to make them more nutlike. Certainly this would benefit the species such as macaws, greys, capes and amazons who are oil fruit and nut eaters in the wilds.
When working with the larger chunk and nugget diets, I have been astounded to notice large parrots holding some in the claw and actually chewing out the bits of corn and millet and seeds and shredding to waste all the rest of the nutritive batter. It struck me as a very inefficient way to feed. Even worse can be those nugget-type of pellets which are molded together with sweet material which becomes very sticky when humid.
In fact expensive waste is a major consideration in any processed diet feeding. Hence we feed only those amounts of pellets which are birds willingly eat (five per cent) and only offer them with wet and sprouted and cooked foods so they provide some crunch.
There is no single perfect way to feed captive parrots. Please do not think that the convenience of throwing a cat-food like product into the same dish every day is doing your bird any real favors. A quality vitamin-mineral powder sprinkled in tiny 'pepper-like' amounts on moist food and them well eaten by your pet is every bit as valuable as the daily vitamin pills taken by humans to complete their full range of nutritional needs.
All exotic bird diets are still in their fundamental and formative stages. Until we go out into the wilderness and analyze every seasonal item eaten by every individual species, we will still be making guesses.
And remember, nothing substitutes for those ingredients found in fresh, green, raw, organic LIVE foods. They carry the message of life itself….