Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Converting Birds to a Healthy Diet (Guest Post)

The six original flavors!
We all want our birds to eat well in order to be healthy. But what is a healthy diet? Certified avian vets all agree: parrots need a varied diet. Momma's Birdie Bread is a great part of that diet, as it is also healthy and varied in its ingredients.

Despite some pet food manufacturer’s claims, there is no such thing as a “total diet” for a parrot- be it pellets or seed based mixtures. A healthy psitticine diet must include fresh foods (vegetables, greens, fruit, and proteins. Momma Bird's bread contains fruits, veggies, seed, and grain and is a great base from which to start. Formulated diets (a.k.a. “pellets”) are a handy shortcut to a varied diet- but are not the “be all and end all”. There is no substitute for the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that occur in fresh food.

Conversion to a new diet requires that you watch your bird for signs of weight loss or ill health. Even after your bird appears to be converted, continue to watch his weight for at least a month after the apparent conversion. In most birds, the color of his dropping may change (typically from green to a brown if he has been converted to a pellet based diet, and more liquid-y as fresh foods are consumed).

An all too common scenario for many parrot owners is getting a bird that is eating an unhealthy diet and having to persuade that (usually stubborn) bird to eat better- especially in a rescue situation. So, how does one get a parrot (who is, of course, a prey animal and therefore naturally suspicious of new things) to eat better? The key is persistence, daily efforts on the part of the human caregiver, and a few tips and tricks along the way that use the bird’s instinctive behavior in the process. Conversion will without a doubt be the most difficult part of feeding your bird a healthy diet, but proper nutrition is important. Remember, this is a long-term project, one that needs to be worked on daily with your companion parrot.

Parrots tend to eat twice daily -an AM and a PM meal (with a bit of grazing here and there during the day). They are also social flock eaters, and are happiest when their “flock” (that’s you and the members of your household- human and avian) eats together.  Use these two facts to your advantage when trying to get the bird to eat better.

Tip #1: Eating as a Flock

Foraging from a plate on the table.
This is hands-down the best tip I can give you. I have brought foster parrots out of quarantine and within a week of eating with my flock, they are eating anything that I give them using this method. Even birds that have eaten only one (terrible) thing for their entire lives!

Quite simply, birds want to eat what you are eating. They are more likely to try something that others in their flock are eating. If you don’t already do so, eat meals with your parrot, and keep that routine. If you have one adventurous bird, introduce that bird to the new food first- with the others watching. In my house, that bird is Tallulah. She will eat anything- on the first try!

Not only will eating as a flock help you with diet conversion, but it has other behavioral benefits, too. It will reinforce flock bonds with everyone at that meal- a bonus if you have a parrot that is overly bonded with one family member and aggressive to another! Another bonus is introducing a new flock member is easier if they share meal and bath time (yet another flock activity).

When eating a meal together, be sure the parrot has a place that they are comfortable- like an eating stand from Sandy Perch. Why do I like them in particular? You can use two different sized detachable cups, they are better balanced for many sized birds using the same stand (unlike the cheaper brand that shall remain nameless), it is natural wood coated in Sandy Perch material (as opposed to concrete in a dowel shape)- which is better for feet, and Sandy Perch material is great for sloughing beaks as they wipe them clean after eating! (By the way, that was NOT a paid advertisement!)

Mine love to grip the mini-muffins.
So I prepare my birdie bread this way
to encourage good nutrition.
Many parrots love to forage “on the ground” so if you are OK with that, they will love to walk the table picking at food there. If you are not cool with a parrot walking all over your food, set up rules that are lovingly and consistently enforced right away. It helps to give them their own shallow crock at the table to forage from.

Be sure that you have one or two choices on your plate that is healthy for the bird to eat, in addition to “bird food” that you are attempting to get the parrot to try. (And be sure and thank your parrot for finally getting you to eat better!)

And if you tend to linger at meals (as we do) and want to continue to enjoy them, be sure and have foot toys, small play areas, etc. set up so that your bird can stay and enjoy that time, too. Atmy home we have a play area near the table for birds that finish early.

Tip #2: Weaning Method (from Seed to Pellets as the Base of a Cage Diet)

For birds that have more cage time than free time, most meals are taken in the cage. This makes for a harder conversion process, as this way of eating (not eating meals as a flock) is less natural and instinctive for the bird, and they tend to take comfort in the familiar when forced to eat this way.

Even if your birds do eat meals with you, they also will eat a bit in their cages/on their gyms during the day as well. So, how to wean them off a seed based diet at those times?

This destruction is natural and normal.
Be prepared!
DO NOT mix seed in with pellets in a dish and expect the bird to eat the pellets. This will not happen. The bird will simply pick out the seed, leave the pellets and see pellets as the non-food item in their dish that is an obstacle to getting their food (you are inadvertently creating a foraging opportunity, as if the seed was hidden by pebbles or marbles!). You must wean the bird off of seed gradually.

Taking advantage of the AM/PM meal schedule most birds keep, offer a small amount of seed for an hour twice daily. Take the seed away after an hour, and in the same familiar dish, put the pellets instead for the rest of the day.

Gradually, as you observe that the bird is starting to eat the pellets, lessen the amount of seed offered and the amount of time it is offered each day until conversion is complete. Using this method, I have converted birds in a week or less.

NOTE: Place the pellet dish near the highest perch in the cage. This increases the possibilities of eating this food.

Tip #3: Familiarity Helps

If you are trying to get your bird to eat vegetables or pellets and they do have a food that they love, use a piggybacking method to get them to try new things.

For example, if your bird loves bread, bake birdie bread with veggies inside (if your bird objects to large chunks, puree the veggies!). Or use pellet “mash” as a substitute for a part of the flour. Birdie bread freezes well, and I bake mine in mini muffin (bird sized portions!) tins and freeze in a zipper freezer bag.

If your bird loves pasta, serve veggie ravioli. You can even make your own easily using wonton wrappers from the supermarket. Spoon the filling mixture (which you pureed in a food processor) onto one wrapper and fold over. Use water as “glue” to seal the edges. You can store wonton skins in the fridge for a couple weeks, and freeze the filling so you can have an easy batch ready to go!

If your bird likes dried corn (or another dried fruit or veggie), get a high quality mix that has this ingredient in it. (Goldenfeast and Hagen Tropimix are wonderful human grade brands to try).

If your bird gets those “treat sticks” (which are seeds with a sugar binder- only good as a treat, not in the cage permanently, okay?), try something that looks similar, but with healthier ingredients.  You can make it in your oven using granola recipes as a basis- cook at a low temp (say 200 F) for a longer period- so that your oven is acting more as a dehydrator than an oven.

Tip #4: Sweeten the Deal

Know your bird's preferences!
This is my birds' fave flavor.
Another method of pellet conversion is to serve pellets in a slightly different form.

For example, soaking it in water or apple juice and creating a mash out of it. (If you try this, please note that this food cannot be left all day, since they start to spoil quickly. Maximum: 2 hours.) Many birds might try this, but here’s the catch: not all pellets are in a mashed form. You will have to crush them with a rolling pin or buy a ready-made mash, such as the Harrison’s brand, however, does have a mashed form made primarily for finches that is also good for converting picky birds if you find this is the only way to get your bird to try pellets.

Cookie Dough Method: Another way to convert a bird is to mix Harrison’s Fine Grind and your bird’s seed, cover with water & wait 5 minutes. Stir with a fork until the mix has a cookie-dough consistency. Feed this (with perhaps a few seeds pressed into the top to get the bird started) daily. Only make as much as the bird can eat for two days, max. Store in fridge. This is much better than mixing pellets and seed together dry, as the bird will eat crushed pellets and get used to the taste.

Combine cooked pasta, a favorite strained baby food flavor (like carrots or applesauce) & stir in the pellets.

Pulverize pellets & add to favorite soft foods.

Push pellets into soft cooked beans, a piece of cheese, sweet potato, cooked carrot, or bread.

Make a tiny peanut butter & pellet sandwich.

Hope these tips inspired you to take the plunge. Cooking for your birds and eating together is really satisfying, so I highly encourage it. There are umpteen ways to convert birds to a healthier diet. The only limit is your imagination!

This post was written by the founder of Squawk and Howl. She is a parrot behaviorist, rescuer, companion, and friend. 

Now through 10/11, enter code healthyishappy and get a bag of birdie bread free when you buy $50 in toys.

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