By DeAnna (Dee) Hicks, RN – director of care at Marden’s Ark

(Dee is a registered nurse who currently works as a dialysis nurse in an in-center dialysis clinic. She is studying to become a certified master herbalist and strives to learn all she can about avian health and nutrition. She advocates for best practices in care for the avian companions in our lives and writes for this blog as well as being a contributing writer on Flockcall.com).

Someone recently sent me a link to a “blog” article on the Windy City Parrot store website that claimed bird owners were feeding chop at “too high of a ratio for most companion birds.”  Really? You mean our birds can get TOO MUCH much fresh and natural food – you know, the stuff that birds might eat IN THE WILD – that contains nutrients in their unchanged, unprocessed state? The article insinuates that “the pet owner” is not going to be smart enough to feed the proper amount of certain nutrients (amino acids are specifically mentioned, which the author of the ‘article’ clearly does not understand). It states “But there’s too much guesswork for the right combination of amino acids on the part of the pet owner to make a good protein base for a bird!!!” Really? What about the sprouted ingredients that are recommended as part of a “chop” diets? How about quinoa – a very popular grain among those who feed their birds fresh foods? It’s a “complete protein” (meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids).  From WebMD: http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/quinoa-the-gluten-free-super-food#1  “Quinoa is one of the most nutrient-dense carbs available today. It’s got a whopping six grams of protein per cup and is the only carb source that contains all nine essential amino acids. Plus, this seed is a complete protein! On top of that, quinoa is high in lysine, the chief amino acid that’s responsible for healing sore muscles after an intense workout.” (emphasis mine)

So, what were they claiming SHOULD be fed? Take a guess. I’ll wait.

You said “Pellets”? Yep! You are RIGHT! And can you guess why? Gee, maybe because they (and the “expert” they are quoting) SELL pellets? They aren’t going to make one thin dime if you shop for your birds at the local Farmer’s Market or the organic produce aisle of your local grocery store – or even your own, pesticide-free garden! Of course they don’t want your bird filling up on this “chop” stuff! They want you to take the “easy” route and dump a ‘pregurgitated,’ slurried, highly processed, preformed product in your birds bowl because obviously THEY know what’s best and it cannot possibly be the natural, wholesome, fresh food that they are not going to profit from!

The article goes on to quote a TWENTY YEAR OLD article published in (no surprise here) a FEED INDUSTRY PUBLICATION about setting AAFCO standards for “feed” for companion birds. In case you aren’t aware of the AFFCO, they are the fox watching the henhouse – a group comprised by representatives from the very animal-feed manufacturing companies which it oversees. (1) How unbiased do you think that makes them?  the fact that this article references a study done back in 1998, and overseen by the vice president of research and development at Kaytee products, inc. – a company that directly profits by selling pellets – and including Mark Hagen, Director of Research at Rolf C. Hagen, Inc. Hagen ALSO directly profits by selling formulated diets.

It’s no secret that I am not a fan of “formulated diets.” Most contain ingredients that are questionable and some that are downright harmful, like menadione. (2) (3) Yet the makers of these products claim they are optimal nutrition. They’ve taken offal (in some cases LITERALLY– the fifth ingredient in Kaytee Exact pellets is “wheat middlings” which is a polite and more savory term for what we used to call “mill floor sweepings.”(4)) and turned it into a pellet. Many of these ingredients are the very “seeds” such as sunflower seeds or peanuts that they tell us will KILL our birds if we feed them a “seed diet”! They then add in a chemical witches’ brew of “nutrients” and expect us all to believe that this somehow magically transforms these terrible seeds and grain waste into the “perfect” food for our beloved companions? I am SO. NOT. BUYING. THAT.

With that being said – I must throw in this caveat. IT TAKES A HUGE COMMITMENT IN TIME AND EXPENSE TO FEED YOUR BIRD WITHOUT RESORTING TO FORMULATED DIETS. For those who aren’t willing or able to do so, we do recommend finding a pelleted food – we recommend choosing TOPS, Harrison’s or Goldenfeast Golden’obles as none of those contain menadione. We do not routinely feed pellets here at Marden’s Ark. We have tried offering Goldn’obles but the birds here seem to prefer the fresh offerings to any pelleted-type foods. We do offer Harrison’s products occasionally to birds with serious nutritional deficiencies.

alex-maks
Alex (L) and Maks (R) in the “play room” where birds here are allowed unsupervised out of cage time.

The birds pictured here are my own boys, Maks the pied cockatiel and his cage mate, Alex. These birds have lived in my heart and home for about six years now at the time of this writing. Alex was weaned to pellets and was eating them at the Petsmart he came from. Maks has never seen a pellet. His breeder weaned to cheap seed because she believed people who buy “cheap birds” like cockatiels will feed them “cheap seed.” Both get regular vet exams with bloodwork and  are  in perfect plumage. In fact, we took them to the local bird club meeting recently and Maks ZOOMED around the room, and we got several compliments on what a gorgeous boy he is (in spite of his behaving badly). But this has NOT been easy. It takes a LOT of work to feed the birds here and NOT resort to just dumping pellets in their bowls. I have done TONS of nutritional research before finding other sources such as those mentioned below. I am a registered nurse with a good grasp on physiology and nutrition. I got straight A’s on all my science classes in nursing school – not to brag but to support that I studied hard and grasped what I was taught. I have managed diets for fragile human patients – including patients with diabetes, COPD, heart failure and other cardiovascular disease – for years.  I know what amino acids are and where to find them. I know what vitamins are, and what they do for an organism (human, bird or otherwise). I didn’t just start “guessing” what might be good to dump in the birds’ bowls. We feed sprouts and microgreens. We feed lots of fresh vegetables, some diced, some whole, and some in their entirety as browse and forage. We feed lots of greens. Not one bird here needs the toxin menadione in their food bowl, because their vitamin K intake is completely covered! I incorporate greens into grain bakes and breads for birds who might not like to nibble them. We “feed the rainbow” because colors MEAN something in nutrition. No, I am not talking about the FD&C dyes they put in fake rainbow-colored pellets. I am speaking of natural hues present in fresh produce. Every color is produced by components that also have nutritional benefits. Yellow and orange produce tends to have more vitamin A (beta carotene, among others),  bright colors – reds, oranges, yellows – along with greens pack more vitamin C. White and tan tends to be higher in electrolytes like magnesium and potassium. Feeding varied and seasonal means that your birds get something from the entire spectrum. And varying the diet also insures that if they don’t like something that is a source of a certain nutrient, then the next item offered to provide that nutrient may prove more appealing. Birds (and humans) tend to crave what they need, and will seek it out if not placated with things that are more appealing to the palate but less nutritious (aka junk food). If you consistently offer nutritionally dense food, your bird will eat what they need. And once your bird has good eating habits, it’s okay to slip in a treat now and then, that might be less than nutritionally-sound. But please make sure treats are a LOW percentage of their total intake!

So, who DO you believe in all the conflicting information? Look for those who have the best interest of the birds at heart – not those whose job is to bloviate nonsense in an attempt to proclaim or convince their audience that they are experts and be a shill for the products they will profit from. Look to those who aren’t trying to sell you something. A great place to start learning about what’s REALLY nutritionally best is the Facebook group “Avian Raw Whole Food Nutrition” (https://www.facebook.com/groups/AVIANRAW/).  The group is founded by and run by Dr. Jason Crean, a PhD biologist and aviculturist who has many years of experience in feeding a natural diet to produce optimum health. No one is making a profit from people joining the group and members include everyone from everyday people who share their life with a bird to avian veterinarians. It’s not about selling any nutritional product. In fact, rarely are products recommended as most of the discussion focuses on choosing, preparing and serving foods you would find in a garden, farmer’s market or produce aisle. The group is extremely focused and off topic posts are not approved by the moderators. You don’t have to sift through a ton of posts to get information on healthy food. There is a wealth of information on sprouting – which is a great way to get dense nutrition including amino acids into your birds! And there are a lot of true experts there who will help with answers to any questions you may have.

Another trusted source for good, natural nutrition that we rely on here is Christine’s Chop Shop (http://christineschopshop.com). (Disclaimer – Marden’s Ark does have a business relationship with Christine’s Chop Shop in that she donates 100% of the profits from “Marden’s Birdie Brittle” to our sanctuary, however, we have purchased and used her products long before this business relationship began because we are convinced of their quality and value to our flock). Christine’s Chop Shop was founded after she developed many of her “products” in cooperation with her avian veterinarian, simply as menu items for a dear little rescued Grey who was diagnosed with calcium deficiency and malnutrition. They worked so well that she decided to create a business selling them to like-minded people for their feathered family members.  Even though she does make a profit from the products she makes, she has proven she is a woman of integrity and supports what’s best for the BIRDS first! We highly recommend her products if you are looking for healthy but may not have the time to always prepare it yourself. Her products are natural, organically sourced whenever possible, and minimally processed through low-temperature dehydration to preserve without altering the nutritional profile.

Patricia Sund also has a blog devoted to birds, called Parrot Nation (https://parrotnation.com/). She has written an enormous amount of articles on her version of serving fresh food, a concept she calls “chop.” In many of the articles she goes into great detail on the concept so that even a beginner can do it. She’s travelled all over the country to promote this healthy form of feeding. She’s not selling anything, just writing, so she has nothing to gain if you decide to “make chop” to feed your birds. (7)  We don’t follow her exact methods — we don’t pre-make, package and freeze our but we do fresh batches and we dice larger instead of chopping fine. We did begin feeding the produce that we feed because we found the “chop” concept via her blog many years ago. We also learned about grain bakes – healthy casseroles that are so easy to make which we have modified to become one of our most popular dishes here! Grain bakes are a great way to get sprouted veggies and legumes and even supplements like bee pollen, turmeric and chamomile into birds who wouldn’t touch it otherwise.

If you truly desire to do the best for your birds, and feed them the best, it can be done without dumping – to paraphrase renowned expert EB Cravens – a dry cat-food like substance in their bowl. And the results in health and happiness for your bird will be worth it! Poor quality food killed my baby, Marden. I have been on a crusade to feed natural and healthy so that maybe other birds may be spared the same fate. This has become my focus and my passion. I  wish you the best in health and nutrition for your own feathered companions!

 

  1. Postins, Lucy. “What Is AAFCO?” Dogs Naturally Magazine. N.p., 24 June 2016. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
  2. Blanchard, Sally. “Menadione.” companionparrotonline. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
  3. Contreras , Sabine . “Menadione (Vitamin K3).” The Dog Food Project – Menadione (Vitamin K3). N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
  4. “Exact Rainbow Parrot and Conure Food | Kaytee.” Small Animal, Pet Bird, and Wild Bird Supplies: Pet Supplies | Kaytee Products. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. Click the “Ingredients” tab to open the list of ingredients.
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