Visitors to Paradise Meadows, home of Hawaii’s Local Buzz, often ask us what we feed our flock of 6 companion parrots and how we know what their dietary needs are. Our quick answer is that our birds eat better than we do, but the longer answer is that horrifyingly little is known about the dietary needs of companion parrots, and especially about how those dietary needs vary from species to species.
Most of what we “know” about parrot nutrition is really common sense, combined with research on other avian species like chickens and turkeys. Of course, the dietary research for chickens & turkeys focuses on birds that are being raised commercially for food, and therefore is primarily concerned with fattening them up in the most cost-effective way possible and keeping them healthy in the far-less-than-ideal living conditions typical of the commercial poultry industry, which has little or no utility for those of us living with companion parrots. There is a small amount of research on the dietary needs of budgerigars and cockatiels, and we try to extrapolate from that knowledge for our much larger birds.
Some people assume that, if we knew what these species of parrots eat in the wild, we’d have a good idea of what their “ideal” diet is. Unfortunately, that’s not really true for a number of reasons. First, wild parrots, and especially those living in South America and Africa where habitat destruction is rampant, have to rely on eating what they can find — which may or may not be what would be ideal for them to eat if food was abundantly available — so knowing what a Macaw living in the Amazon basin eats today may actually tell us very little about what they should be eating or about what they did eat before humans destroyed their habitat. Second, wild parrots have much higher caloric requirements than do our companion parrots, because they need to fly miles every day just to forage for their food, and would likely do so even if their habitats had not been so severely compromised. Companion parrots typically have their food handed to them in a confined space, and even the most active will burn many fewer calories in a day than their wild counterparts.
So how do we figure out what to feed our birds? Here at Paradise Meadows, we err on the side of caution and work hard to provide our birds with a very varied and generally very healthy diet covering all the essential nutrients we think they need. That includes food we prepare for them from all-natural ingredients that provide a wide range of nutrients (e.g., proteins, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, etc.), fruits & veggies grown on the farm, nuts in the shell, and a specially formulated commercial parrot diet.
Here’s what our birds eat every day:
In the morning, they get a cooked breakfast we make from ingredients we purchase at our local health food store, which includes several varieties of wild & white rice, several different types of grains (e.g., quinoa, freekeh, farro, & barley), a variety of beans & legumes (e.g., green, brown & red lentils, mung beans, adzuki beans), and pasta. We cook that in large batches, mix it with pureed raw carrots to add much-needed Vitamin A, and freeze it in daily serving sizes which we warm every morning. We also give them nuts in the shell — Buddy & Jericho (our macaws) get higher fat nuts like walnuts, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts, while Doc (our African Grey), Lani (our Moluccan cockatoo) and Byron & Gracie (the conures) get almonds which are high in calcium and lower in fat.
Mid-day their food is switched to a fruit-flavored, brightly colored pelleted diet made by Zupreem. We use the colored pellets to provide an opportunity for our birds to forage — they often select the specific colors they find most appealing that day, which is an exercise that allows them to make choices for themselves. Because each pellet is identical in terms of ingredients, this foraging behavior doesn’t compromise their overall nutrition.
In the evening (and sometimes throughout the day, depending on what fresh produce is available), they get treats, usually in the form of fresh fruits or veggies, and then finally a snack before bedtime that isn’t always “health food” but is something they look forward to and we believe they can have in small quantities without harming them.
Perhaps most importantly, we change our birds’ water at least twice/day, and more often if it is particularly hot outside. Hydration is critical to their well-being, and they often dunk their food in their water which, if left unchanged for a prolonged period of time, will create the perfect medium for harmful bacteria formation.
Truthfully, the challenge of feeding our companion parrots is similar to the challenge any parent faces when feeding their children. We use common sense, do the very best we can with the knowledge that’s available, and we try to provide foods that enrich their quality of life.
If you find yourself on the Big Island of Hawaii, please come visit us. We’d be happy to chat about (and introduce you to) our birds, all but one of whom is a rescued or re-homed bird. And if you’re thinking about getting a parrot, please read this before you do.