“Help! My new parrot ONLY EATS SEEDS!”
This is one of the most common social media posts I see from new parrot owners. We all know that our parrots need a well-balanced diet to thrive and we really want to provide that but they turn up their beaks at the pellets and veggies preferring to starve and scream until we give in and bring them that horrible seed mix! Why? As a mom of humans as well as birds I can tell you both are pretty much the same when it comes to unhealthy food; they want what tastes good, not what keeps their insides functioning, and often they will choose the familiar over the new no matter how good the new thing tastes! So what do we do? Starve them until they give up? No. There are a lot of tricks I have used over the years to get the stubborn parrot (and occasional human child) to eat what they should, and I would love to share them with you.
Start with patience
If your new bird wasn’t introduced to a wide variety of healthy foods at the right time developmentally before being weaned, he will likely take a considerable amount of time to adjust to his new life and then even more time to figure out that carrots are food and not poison. Even well raised babies may choose to be picky eaters with the stress of transitioning to your home. Getting impatient will only stress you and the bird and lead to frustration that can make the whole thing take longer. Banish all feelings of guilt and do not compare yourself or your bird to anyone else or anyone else’s timeline.
You aren’t going to try one thing at a time and hope it works, you are going to try ALL THE THINGS and see which one works.
Keep sugar content in mind
It is tempting to go straight for the foods that we like best or that we think our parrot is most likely to go for, but we don’t want to end up with a sugar fiend any more than a seed junky. Many species of wild parrot do enjoy fruit on a regular basis, but those birds not only fly miles a day to find that fruit, but they also often partake in fruit that isn’t yet ripe and therefor has a much lower sugar content than the ripe fruit we buy in the store. This unripe fruit can cause digestive issues that parrots in cages are not equipped to deal with. Our companions can suffer health problems from too much fruit in their diet just like form too many seeds so it is best to save fruit for the occasional treat and focus on veggies and sprouts.
Start with the familiar
Parrots are extremely dependent on their sense of sight to let them know what is a threat and what is not. Because of this, often the fresh food they will most easily accept is the one that looks like their trusty seed mix! Check out our article http://silversageaviaries.com/sprouting-for-your-parrots/ here on how to sprout your parrot’s seed mix. For a stubborn seed eater start by just wetting the seed, then proceed to soaking, and finally on to sprouting. Usually we feed sprouts when the tail has just started to show, but when transitioning a bird onto a healthier diet it can be very helpful to feed them older sprouts as well just to reinforce the idea of eating funny looking things and even leafy things. Be extremely diligent to keep your sprouts rinsed and fresh to avoid any chance of bacteria growing in them. Always smell (or even taste!) your sprouts before feeding them to be sure they smell fresh and planty, never sour or spoiled. This is extremely important even if you have just wet the seed a little; be sure to switch it out often and never let it start to spoil! Do not wet seed mixes that include pellets or dried fruit.
Let them sit on it
When we think of feeding our birds fresh food we often think of “chop” aka fresh food diced up and served in a dish. Chop is great, but it is far from the only way to serve fresh food. The simplest trick that I use regularly is to wedge a full carrot or other veggie through the bars of the cage. Depending on the size of the bird they often use it as a perch, and we all know how eager they can be to destroy their perches! For larger birds that can’t really perch on the carrot I try to put the food right at beak level in front of their favorite perch or secure it to the perch itself. Using a vegetable as a perch is one of the most effective strategies that I have found for getting a bird to decide to try biting something.
Let them play with their food
When introducing new foods, I don’t necessarily want the bird to know that I’m trying to feed him new things, instead I prefer to pique his curiosity with a new toy that is secretly full of nutrition! The simplest form of this is just shoving a wedge through the top or side of the cage but you can also hang them from stainless steel kabobs or fill those little “hay balls” with veggie chunks for them to pull out. If you have time and energy you can use a spiralizer etc. to turn things like zucchini into long stringy or curly noodles and weave them through the bars or drape them down from the top of the cage.
Get in their way
Once your bird knows where the food and water are you can try setting the fresh food on the dishes just to get in the way. This probably won’t lead them to immediately chow down, but usually they will get annoyed and toss it out of the way or just eat around it. Either of these outcomes are positive steps toward actually eating the food.
Sit down near them and munch on the same food you just offered them. Parrots are flock creatures and love to eat together with their flock mates.
Let them see that you are eating, that you enjoy your food, and then don’t offer to share it. Use possessive body language and enjoy that spinach! Let them come and check it out and TRY to get it. Pretend you won’t let them have it. Have I mentioned how similar feeding humans is to feeding parrots? I have used this on kids as well while my husband looked at me like I was insane for pushing my child’s hand away from a cucumber, but guess who loves cucumbers now?
Think of colors
Have you noticed that your bird has a favorite color? A least favorite? If you have noticed he is terrified of his red toy but loves his yellow perch, keep that in mind when choosing which color of pepper to buy this week.
Don’t forget your budget
With a parrot at home to feed the produce section at the grocery store can suddenly seem like a candy store! But remember that fresh food spoils and that the more times you cut something the faster it will go bad. A whole leaf of kale can be left in the cage all day, but kale shredded into a bunch of tiny pieces is likely to be a soft mushy mess that may even start to smell by the end of the day, and it is also more likely to draw bugs. Especially early on when you know your little one is not very likely to actually ingest much of what you offer, try not to burn yourself out with chopping, cleaning, and spending. Don’t be afraid to keep it simple while you wait for them to finally get interested enough to take a bite. Remember, if food isn’t fresh enough to look appetizing to you, it shouldn’t be in the bird cage, either.
Don’t stress the pellets
In my experience it is extremely difficult to move a bird straight from seeds to pellets, but relatively easy to add pellets to a fresh food diet for a parrot who loves to try new things. For this reason, I just wait until we have had at least some success with new foods before offering pellets. I generally start with the biggest size I can find because those seem more like toys, and then transition down to one size down from what the package recommends (so I would feed a cockatiel budgie size, etc). Remember that most commercial pellets are sold based on size not species and that they are not really complete nutrition no matter what the package says. Consider this; The bag has a picture of a lovebird from semi-desert Africa, a cockatiel from the grasslands of Australia, and a conure that lives in the rainforest canopy of South America. How could those three species possibly have all their nutritional needs met by one product when their natural diets have virtually nothing in common? Some companies have started producing species-specific pellets and I hope that trend continues but for now I focus heavily on fresh and live foods with pellets as a fun addition for variety and to fill in gaps.
Once your feathered buddy is finally eating all the good stuff, what is the best way to make sure his diet is balanced? Do you need to buy 100 fresh ingredients and spend a whole weekend slicing, chopping, portioning, and freezing veggies so that you can freeze his meals into single portions? Well, you can if you want! I prefer not to freeze my chop because once thawed it turns sour MUCH faster than fresh food, and some parrots don’t like the texture once it has been thawed. Since one or a few birds don’t eat much each week, it can seem like a waste to buy as many things as we want our birds eating unless we ourselves want to eat all the extra veggies (which is a GREAT idea!). Instead of buying everything every week, I follow this simple formula and rotate my ingredients in and out as often as possible.
1 colorful vegetable (such as carrot)
1 green vegetable (such as zucchini)
1 hot pepper
1 dark leafy green
1 healthy and safe spice optional
1 fruit optional and species dependent (for example good luck getting your Cockatiel to eat fruit AT ALL, but your Eclectus can benefit from fruit more often than your African Grey)
Nuts or seeds in small quantities depending on species (for example Budgies eat lots of grass seeds in the wild and should keep some in their diet, while Macaws need the fat from nuts)
I then leave the pieces quite large to be picked up in a foot and eaten rather than chopped up into tiny pieces unless I think I’m going to have the time to replace the food frequently or the weather is cool enough to keep it from spoiling. I like to try new shapes and sizes for cutting when I can just to keep them thinking and enjoying the new look.
A note on water
I’ve mentioned several times how important it is to keep the fresh food fresh as you feed it, but many parrots like to dunk their food in their water dish as well. As you transition your parrot to a fresh food diet remember to keep an extra close eye on the water dish to be sure it isn’t being turned into soup. Some people prefer to put two or more water dishes in the cage especially if they will be out of the home all day. By placing one dish very close to the food and another much farther away you can increase the chances of your bird having access to good fresh water all day even if they do like to dunk their food. Water bottles can be great for keeping water clean as well, just be sure you are able to sanitize the whole bottle and nozzle inside and out and keep an eye out for those clever birds trying to shove food up the spout!