Today’s science lesson: because birds are small and have a high need for energy they can digest food rapidly. This is one reason young birds mature quickly and migrating birds are able to store fat which enables long flights. There are species of birds that are known to increase their weight 40% in 10 days.
Birds may break up their food or crush it with their bill, they don’t chew it. Parrots, birds of prey, and finches have short, thick, fleshy tongues which allow them to manipulate their food. Where humans swallow with our soft palates, birds have to tilt their heads back to get the food from inside their mouth (buccal cavity) to the first part of their throat (Oesophagus). The oesophagus continues to draw the bird’s food down into it’s body – where it stands at the Crop.
Parrots use their crop to store food eaten in a hurry so they don’t get caught by predators. From the crop food goes into the stomach where it finally begins to get digested. The stomach has two sections one of which produces the necessary digestive juices and enzymes which soak the food which is then passed to the gizzard. The gizzard has a lot of muscles that grind up the food – what we do with our teeth.
Digested food now moves to the first part of the small intestine which is divided into two parts and where most of the digestion and absorption of the food now occurs in the parrot’s gut. A bird’s pancreas is actually better developed than a mammal’s pancreas. This is probably to compensate for a lack of some saliva and chewing. It produces proteins, digesting enzymes, carbohydrates and fat which are delivered into the small intestine.
The food then moves into the large intestine which is really small compared to mammals and doesn’t really have a lot to do with digestion and birds. The food journey ends at the cloaca (which also serves as a reproductive organ) where waste materials are collected and expelled.
Soft billed birds like Finches and Canaries swallow their seeds whole. Parrots are able to remove the hulls from the seeds with their beaks. Now that we know about the gizzard, we should note that the soft billed birds could use a little help grinding down these whole seeds. This is why we introduce small amounts of grit they can swallow which will help grind up the seeds while in the gizzard.
That said a seed diet is okay, just be mindful that you need to supplement with some vitamins, minerals and amino acids. You can do this by supplementing with fresh fruits (no citrus) and vegetables. Halved walnuts for larger birds. Cracked walnuts and slivered almonds for smaller birds are good source of omega-3 fatty acids. You can also simply add a commercial supplement like Prime. Adding a powdered supplement to your bird’s food can be a challenge so here’s a couple of tips
And then there are all the brands. Why do we carry so many brands? We offer everything we can based upon what you, our customer asks for. Which brand is better, that’s up to you and your bird(s). To further complicate the issue, there are brands within brands Hagen offers Living World seed blends, Tropimix is an enrichment blend of hulled seeds fruits and nuts and other nutritious items, and Tropican their pellet blend. Higgins offers seven lines of food including Mayan Harvest, a natural gourmet blend of seeds fruits and legumes and exotic spices, Higgins Vita Seed, an economy seed mixture and Worldly Cuisines cooked bird food.
Volkman is a very popular and very clean bird seed coming in a variety of species specific blends. They even offer an Eclectus food (which can be eaten by other species) which is not vitamin fortified in accordance with the most recent avian nutritional research. Volkman has no chemical preservatives or artificial flavors if you’re looking to steer clear of them. Dr. Harvey’s bird food is an all-natural blend containing only human grade ingredients too, you may want some of it yourself.
Birds in the wild are scavengers, they have to be in order to survive. Mark Hagen says it well “Wild animals and birds are shown by their parents the right combination of sometimes very limited types of foods to meet their requirements for flight, growth, reproduction and living! These wild food items have been selected through thousands of years of evolution. In captivity they are under different conditions and eating different foods and we expect them to select the best combination immediately.
But it is not necessarily better to feed what birds eat in the wild to those in captivity. Many plants in the wild contain secondary plant compounds or are very low in many essential nutrients. Some Breeders have a romantic notion that captive diets which are complicated, labor intensive, using expensive ingredients are the most nutritious. Yet it is possible to feed easy to prepare, cost efficient diets which do not compromise proper levels of essential nutrients”.
This is one of the reasons that pellets were developed. Pellets combined all the “good stuff ” into one relatively neat package. We know parrots can be picky so a dish of food where everything looks the same offers less visual temptation to remove the contents. Zupreem makes pellets with colors and without. If your bird likes colorful food Zupreem Fruit Blend or Pretty Bird Daily Select offer colorful pellets that many birds find attractive.
LaFeber’s Nutriberries although considered just a bird treat offer a comprehensive nutritionally balanced diet for your bird consisting lots of human grade ingredients like pineapple, papaya, carrots and raisins all rolled up in neat balls. The ball design provides your bird with a variety of beak and tongue sensations while enabling foraging activities.
Harrison’s and TOPS offer organic bird food pellets. Goldenfeast bird food has no dyes or preservatives. There can be benefits to these organic bird foods but just like in the grocery stores you’ll find the cost of organic bird foods higher.
Scenic bird food although not as well-known as the others has been around for more than 25 years and is popular in zoos and animal themed parks as a daily diet. Their pellets are unique in that when wet they still hold their shape and can be held for ease of manipulation, and low waste. Roudybush offers pellets in several sizes and uses different fruits like dried peaches, apricots, plums, bell peppers and carrots in their California Blend as an example.
I do hope we made some headway in clarifying the options you have to feed your bird. Feel free to contact us with specific nutrition questions.
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written by Mitch Rezman CMO
approved by Catherine Tobsing President
He's handled a 1000 birds of numerous species when they visited monthly birdie brunches in the old Portage Park (Chicago, IL) facility. The one with the parrot playground.
Mitch has written and published more than 1100 articles on captive bird care.
He's met with the majority of CEO's and business owners for most brands in the pet bird space and does so on a regular basis.
He also constantly interacts with avian veterinarians and influencers globally.