From the arid grasslands in Australian to the humid rain forests of South America, nearly every species of wild parrot incorporates native seed into their diet. Seed has fiber, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin B6. It is rich in omega-3 fats and vitamin E. Seed helps maintain brain function, nourish red blood cells and fights inflammation. It is important to the well-being of our bird’s eyes, skin and feathers.
So why is seed so vilified in the companion parrot diet? There are a few very good reasons:
1. You will notice that while the benefits listed above are major players in a parrot’s overall health, missing are key vitamins such as A and D3, but also crucial minerals such as calcium. Simply put, seed is not a complete diet for any bird, wild or captive.
A big part of the dietary problems with captive parrots is how much they love seed. Perhaps it is a combination of the taste and the act of hulling and eating them, which is a very natural foraging behavior and something I presume must be satisfying to them emotionally. But many parrots, given the choice, will select a seed diet over a fresh food diet.
2. Seeds are also very high in calories. Companion birds do not have a lifestyle which necessitates a high level of activity and therefore, do not burn off those calories. Try as we might to create ample opportunities for exercise, captive parrots become obese eating seeds in the quantities that wild birds do.
3. Finally, is the consideration of commercial seed quality – it is dubious and unregulated. It often arrives in the store already dry and brittle and too old to still retain nutritional quality. It is generally highly fortified with synthetic vitamins of suspicious nature, little nutritional value and is mostly unabsorbable by the body. Further, the types of seeds used most in commercial products are not found in the countries of origin of the most popularly kept species and, therefore, are not natural to the diets of many of our birds.
So there you have it: the good, the bad and the ugly of the relationship between seed and parrots. To put this all into a practical context, this is what I do with MY birds.
My small birds, the cockatiels and the Quaker, DO get daily seed in their diet. I have noticed over the years how very much more active the small birds are compared to the larger birds. Because they do burn off the excess calories (I monitor their weights), they can gain the benefits of seed without the worry of them becoming overweight. They receive their daily vegetables in the morning prior to being offered seed or pellets to ensure the veggies get eaten. This assures me that they are getting all the nutrients they need each day to keep them healthy and eliminates the need for vitamin supplements.
The best seed mix will be one that you make yourself from human grade grains.
For my cockatoos, I do things a bit differently. Theo, my goffins cockatoo, will eat most everything I give her. This is a huge advantage because I know that as long as I offer her the right foods, her health is within my control. But because she is such a voracious eater, I have to be careful to limit the amounts of calories and carbs she gets every day to help her keep her girlish figure. If I were to give her a handful of nuts or seeds (which are very similar in their benefits AND their disadvantages) she would eat them all.
Linus is the complete opposite. He was a very stubborn bird to bring around to a healthy diet and he is slow and methodical in his daily eating habits. He has no interest in seeds or nuts. So with him, I have to find ways of getting the valuable aspects of seeds and nuts met within his diet. I use ground flax seed mixed into his daily veggies in small and undetectable, but still beneficial, amounts.
This is also a helpful way to work with birds that were formerly on an all seed diet. It is often detrimental to keep ANY seed in the diet of a bird once it is successfully converted to pellets and a fresh produce diet. The presence of seeds will sometimes undo the conversion altogether. However, your bird should still have the nutritional benefits of seed in the diet and ground flax seed is a good way to accomplish that.
Because pet parrots can only eat from the menu we provide them, WE have to make the right choices on their behalf.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.