Mary Beth Voelker, Online Pet Consultant
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Diet may well be the most critical factor in keeping your
bird healthy. In the last couple decades we’ve learned a great deal about birds’ nutritional needs and a great deal about the way that a captive bird’s needs differ from a wild one’s. It has been proven that seed alone is definitely not a complete diet for a parrot. It is very high in fat and deficient in many vitamins — especially vitamin A. A diet of seed plus vegetables is better but is still high in fat and
can be very difficult to provide consistently.
Feed manufactures have responded to our growing knowledge by offering various fortified seed mixes which include dried fruits and vegetables, vitamins, and little nuggets of concentrated food supplements. This is better than the grocery store seeds and easier to use than seed plus vegetables but is still not as good as the manufacturers’ other offering — pellets. Bird pellets, like dog or cat foods, are formulated to provided all of the nutrition a bird needs in an easy to handle form that doesn’t permit a bird to pick and choose only its favorite foods at the expense of good nutrition.
Regardless of the manufacturers’ recommendations most owners feel that a pellet and water diet is too dull and may not actually contain everything that a natural diet does since research may not be complete. Current diet recommendations for cockatiels usually suggest that half the diet consist of pellets, and that the other half consist of things such as bird bread, bean mix, healthy people food, and not more than 10% seed. Babies who are weaned to this type of diet take to it readily but older birds have to be converted from their unhealthy, seed only habits. The benefits to be gained include better overall health, improved resistance to infection, and stronger, lovelier feathers, to name only a few. I do not know if their have been any definite studies on the last advantage that I’ll mention but I’ll mention it anyway — in older, pre-pellet books the average life span of a cockatiel is given as 10-12 years, in newer material the expected life span is given as 18 – 20 years and there are quite a few reports of tiels living into their early 30’s. Converting a stubborn bird to a better diet takes time, commitment, more stubbornness than the bird has, and the willingness to be a little hard-hearted for the bird’s greater good but there is a lot to be gained.
I’ve done this 3 times now and have come up with a sort of a system and a few guiding principles. First principle, a bird who is so abundantly fed that it is not at least a little hungry will only pick what it likes best out of the available food. You must begin by feeding a seed junkie only as much food as it will eat in one day with no leftovers. It may take a week or so to figure this out, but 2 of those blue scoops that come with the Kaytee pellets per day is a good starting point. During this figuring out time I put a small portion of pellets, on top of each dish of seed so that the bird can get used to the look and smell of pellets and begin to associate them with the food dish.
Next I very slightly cut down the amount of seed to a bit less than the bird has been eating so that the bird will be a little hungry. NOT starving, just a little hungry. I leave a dish with a generous amount of pellets in the cage at all times and I continue to put a layer of pellets on top of the seed. It may help if all of the dishes you use are identical so that the bird has a strong image to associate with food. I also offer dishes of bean mix or bird bread at convenient times during the day (beware spoilage!). If a slightly hungry bird begins eating the non-seed foods at all I start the serious conversion phase, if not I go to the next step of temporarily making the bird even hungrier.
During this phase I remove the seed dish at bedtime and don’t feed seed again until at least an hour later than normal in the morning. Birds are hungriest in the morning and thus are more likely to try something new. I leave the pellets in the cage at all times and offer a dish of either the bird bread or the bean mix. This is when you need to harden your heart a bit for the bird’s long-term good. At first the bird, a smart little thing who knows just how to bend you heart, will spend the entire hour begging for seed. Leave the room. If necessary leave the house so that you won’t be tempted to yield. Birds, like toddlers, are master manipulators and distance is the best defense. Without an audience the bird may just stop begging and eat the good food. When you put the seed back do it without making any fuss. After a week give the seed 2 hours later and cut the amount just a bit more. At some point you will find evidence that the bird has at least tasted the pellets. Once this happens you move to serious conversion.
Serious conversion time involves slowly reducing the amount of seed while still offering the other foods generously. My personal goal is to offer 1 tsp. of seed per bird each day and only 3-4 inches of spray millet once a week. For my own convenience I offer this seed at our dinnertime but any time of the day is fine. The second principle and a key point to remember during this time is that any bird who will eat pellets at all (not the ones who don’t recognize them as food — that’s what the previous steps have been teaching), will eat enough pellets to be healthy and well fed if bird junk food is not available. No normal creature will starve itself when food is available provided that it recognizes that what is available IS food.
My third principle is that this program takes time. Don’t give up. One of my birds took 2 weeks. He was a rescue case who had always had to fight for his share of the food in his overcrowded cage. Once he realized that there was a food source available without competition he dove right in and never looked back. Another took 2 months. He was VERY suspicious of anything that wasn’t seed but now has been introduced to all the good stuff and is the only 1 of my 5 who will eat chopped greens. I’d suspect that the other, who converted in about 1 month, is the typical case. I have personally worked only with younger birds, not much over a year. Chances are that older ones would take longer to convert but they will benefit just as much.
The hardest part is to not give in and give a little more seed because the bird seems hungry. They beg so convincingly that you’d think they’d never been fed in their entire lives. As I suggested, you sometimes just have to leave so you can’t see their act or you will weaken. If we didn’t love them we wouldn’t go to all the trouble. Think of it as being the same as teaching a small child to eat something other than cookies and candy. You have to be firm about not substituting garbage when they won’t eat the good stuff. If you are truly concerned that your bird is starving try weighing it weekly but don’t mistake a healthy slimming down from obesity for starvation. Your reward for all this work and self- restraint is a healthy happy bird who may be with you for 20 or 30 years.