Diet Interviews

Interviews with Mike Owens and David Poole

  • Interview with Mike Owen
  • Interview with David Poole

    Interview with Mike Owen

    Would you would be willing to share with us what you feed your birds?

    Mike: Seed of course! Along with plenty of fresh food. I never use pellets, which have never found favor in Australia, and a very small minority of breeders here (<1%) would use pellets. Even less pet owners would use them. I sold some pellets in my shop today for the first time in about 3 months!

    Australian aviculturalists have had great success with breeding birds on a seed diet for decades and see no reason to change, and see no long term problems, provided fresh food is also given. One of the things that we have noticed is that a breeding pairs’ choice of food changes through the cycle of breeding season, moult and off season. When I was breeding Neophemas I noticed that sunflower was only eaten during breeding – during the off-season none was consumed. My kakarikis don’t eat apple except when babies are to be fed. On the other hand, my Alexandrines will eat wood at any time of the year! Wild parrots also show this seasonal change in diet to cope with the extra demands of breeding. I believe that parrots have an inbuilt instinct for the types of foods they need at certain times of the year, and adjust their diet themselves (if given a suitable range of foods) to suite the season.

    The importance with seed is to get a good mix of different types, and most importantly to get good quality seed. Seed that is dead (i.e. doesn’t sprout) is nutritionally almost useless. I do regular sprouting tests on seed mixes, and my mix from a good seed merchant has typically over 90% sprout rate. Some cheap supermarket mixes have below 50%.

    My small parrot mix, which I use for neophemas to galahs and Corellas is as follows – with the fat content of each seed type shown in brackets, since high fat seems to be one of the gripes against seed:-

    40% canary seed (3% fat) 20% white millet (2% fat) 20% Japanese millet (4% fat) 15% panicum (4% fat) 5% sunflower (40% fat)

    This mix would give a fat content of about 5.4%. However, since the bird would also be getting plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, which have negligable fat, the actual fat intake of the bird over a day would be down below 3% if the fresh food is half its intake. With my birds it is probably around 60% of their food. It is also quite similar, apart from the sunflower, to some canary mixes. Just make sure that the sunflower content (which is needed to provide certain amino acids not found in non-oil seeds) is not more than 5%. The sunflower also needs to be grey striped and not black sunflower. I find most cockatiels, and many other parrots, including galahs, especially enjoy canary seed, many preferring it to sunflower.

    My budgie mix is formed of

    40% canary,  20% white millet,  20% Jap. millet,  20% panicum and has a total fat content of 3.1%.

    Again with a good fresh food intake their likely fat intake is around 1.5 to 2%. By comparison Roudybush pellets state their fat content to be “not less than 3%”. Why they can’t say just what it really is I leave to your imagination. Thus the myth of seed diets being rich in fats is just that, a myth.

    The fresh foods I feed are celery leaves (but not stalk), endive, kale, silver beet (which I think is similar to swiss chard in the USA -maybe someone can confirm this for me), broccoli, cos lettuce (outer leaves only), peas, beans, capsicum, apple, paw paw, mango, grapes rarely, corn occasionally, carrot (including green tops when possible), dandelion, milk thistle, chickweed, green seeding grasses, flowers and leaves from acacia, eucalypt, grevillea and bottle brush, and some others when opportunity presents itself. They don’t get this range everyday!

    Apple, endive and silver beet are the most common, and usually we try to give three different ones each day. Each pair will get about a quarter slice of multigrain bread each day, and more when babies are to be fed. I give them enough most days so that there is as much as they want for the day – I expect to see some uneaten at the end of the day. I also sprout seed during the breeding season, starting when some interest in courtship is shown and continuing until they have finished breeding for the year, and the weaned babies have been removed – at the end they are gradually cut down on it, but will still get some sprouted seed while moulting. A pair of Alexandrines would get a cup full, a pair of cockatiels maybe half a cup. At times during the off season they may not get any fresh food on a occasional day, but most days they get as much as they want to eat.

    The other thing our birds, and almost all Australian parrots have access to, is grit! Probably horrify all you North Americans. But before you get me up before the animal cruelty groups, we NEVER, I repeat, NEVER,see any problems with grit. My vet, President of the Australian chapter of AAV, has only ever seen two instances of impacted crops in 15 years of practice.

    One was a tiel with a crop full of human hair from over preening his owner, and the other a lorikeet which had gone crazy with mango (understandable) and had a crop full of mango fibres. It is one of the great mysteries of aviculture why North American parrots are apparently so willing to get their crops full of grit and suffer impaction, while Australian birds never get this problem. My own theory is that our birds are just more intelligent! I do know that every parrot I have autopsied has had some grit in its gizzard, and I believe that grit does help the bird to more efficiently grind up the seed in the gizzard, thus reducing physiological stress. Also all wild parrots apparently have been found to have some grit in their gizzard, and I don’t think they would swallow it if they didn’t find it useful. I do acknowledge that grit is not essential, but I do believe it is useful. So, grit is a mystery, even RHH comment on the paradox, and the latest edition of Australia’s text on bird health, “Everybird” 1994 edition, still recommends that grit be made available, which we do without problem.

    So that’s about it, our diets work, have worked over a long period of time, we see little in the way of psychological feather plucking, and our birds breed and live long and happy lives.  cheers,

    Mike Owen Queensland

    Interview with David Poole

    Hi Dave, what is your background?

    I’ve done work with phyto-toxins and gained an honours degree in botany. Also I’ve been a professional horticulturist for nearly 30 years retaining a keen interest in plant toxins. However, I choose not to suffix my name with a string of letters because I feel it unnecessary. We tend to view such things rather differently over here.

    I have a great dislike of including risky ingredients in bird’s diets.

    1. Excessive calcium levels in the diets of certain species such as the Tiels and many of the Australian parakeets. No truly qualified avian vet will recommend that calcium preparations be used with any parrot on an ad hoc basis – they should only be used under strict veterinary supervision.

    2. Problems with pancreatic enlargement caused by the soy bean chymo-trypsin inhibitor. This has been well demonstrated in a wide range of poultry and chicks. This is a very real threat to all young parrots. Black bean agglutinins another fly in the ointment that can really upset even the most well balanced of diets because of its ability to severely impair D3 function, thereby causing calcium/phophorous imbalances. Of course all of these take time to be exhibited and some people tend to believe that if they see no ill effects after 6 or 12 months, there are no ill effects. Like us, parrots are long lived, like us it can take 10, 15 or 20 years of ‘abuse’ for problems to show. And like us, when they do finally surface, the situation is very grave indeed.

    I do use some pellets as part of my own birds’ diets. I look upon them as an insurance against certain vitamin deficiencies since there is never a guarantee of the levels even in the highest quality fresh foods. I work on a basis of about 30% pellets, 20%seed, 30% mash (with a main base of orange sweet potato to which a wide range of greens, peas, cooked beans, ground almonds etc, have been added) plus 20% fresh green vegetables and quality, high carbohydrate fruits such as mangos, bananas etc.

    I think the important thing to emphasize is that when mention is made of cooked foods, I mean lightly cooked in the case of most vegetables – this way the least amount of nutrients is lost. When cooking with dried beans such as kidney, haricot, garbanzo etc. they must be cooked thoroughly until tender – in most cases this means a good 40 minutes. I think I’ve pointed this out, but just to be sure.

    There are strong similarities between humans and birds in the major functions of how foodstuffs are processed and metabolized, however it is when we nibble it down to the requirements that the differences start to emerge. Take protein, carbohydrate and fat requirements for instance. The major requirement for parrots is carbohydrate by a long way, whereas they only require about a third or less of the protein by ratio of an average mammalian. Vitamin and mineral requirements are also different and not just because of the proportional difference in body weight/size to a given mammal.

    This is where a good deal of variation needs to be brought in when considering species differences. A Grey’s needs are different to a Too’s and an Amazon’s needs are different to an Eclectus. It goes on and on. The difficulty is how and where you make recommendations that everyone can understand and apply. Whenever anyone asks me nowadays I always try to emphasize that whatever is suggested is only a starting point and really you need to study the individual species to make the fine adjustments.

    Just musing here: I’ve noted that birds given a new diet will turn right around and improve in health for awhile. Then as time goes on, different nutritional problems occur until another new diet is introduced. The second new diet might clear up the present nutritional problems but create new ones of its own over time.

    You are so right – I’ve seen this time and time again. I also think that we tend to overdo and provide too good a diet all of the time. My birds get one or two days of lean times’ about every couple of weeks. This does not mean they go for want of food, simply that they might miss out on the pellets and even the mash. The seed mix may then be bulked with millet, sorghum etc. and together with greens and fruit, nothing else of offered for a day or two. In the wild, there are times when they have to eat just greens and or fruit, while at other times they eat nothing but seed. I try to emulate this, while at the same time, ensuring they get ample carbohydrate to keep them going and feeling OK.

    Birds and other wild critters change their diets with the seasons. In captivity, many of them don’t get that change. I wonder if it is harmful for them to eat the same season after season?

    I wouldn’t mind betting that so many of the problems we see in parrots are caused by them eating the same old thing week in week out. A zoologist friend of mine has done a bit of study on Greys and Poicephalus. He’s found that at certain times, a given group will eat one type of fruit for several days and nothing else. Then they move on to a grain as soon as it becomes available – the one thing that is consistent about them is their inconsistency! I do feel we overdo it at times, but now how do we get this idea across to those who have difficulty in understanding the concept?

    Not everyone can sit down and say “that makes sense to me” and as a result, make well thought out logical alterations from time to time. I can look at a plant, its flower and leaf for a few minutes and even if I’ve never seen it before, can start to work out what family it belongs to and then by process of elimination come up with half a dozen names one of which is often correct. My best pal is an amazing mathematician who completely confuses me with the most simplest of problems. Yet he simply cannot understand how out of hundreds of thousand of possible variations, I can arrive at a near identity. We all have our strengths and abilities to absorb and utilize information within our chose fields of interest.

    Parrot nutrition is a case in point – to me a lot of it is logical, some falling in line with what we think we know, but we then have to make adjustments and indulge in a bit of fine tuning. To others who’s expertise may lie in other areas, nothing would seem logical. My difficulties in dealing with higher mathematics means that I have to follow ‘parrot fashion’ and have no natural flair in that area. My pal’s inability to understand much about any living things means he cannot even start to work with a set of rules that he can neither see nor understand. Those to whom parrot nutrition is a complete mystery have to rely upon recommendations at least for the first few years.

    The pellet makers have tried (admittedly for commercial and not altruistic reasons) to put together an all encompassing diet in order to make things easy for us. In my view, that is an impossible target. I think that the ideal is to change on a regular basis – and not to take our own concepts of what appears good for us too seriously. We’ve had ‘seed is all bad’, ‘fruit has no value’, ‘nuts can cause an o/d of selenium’ and many, many more. Currently, pelleted foods are taking the brunt. It goes on and on. All of those claims are true and untrue at the same time – it depends upon the interpretation and the concept in which they are used. Someone who has a hard time understanding that, could be forgiven for tearing their hair out in despair.

    Oops, I’ve rattled on! Sorry ’bout that – I have this dreadful tendency to think on my feet and jot it down at the same time.

    I enjoyed your ‘ramblings’, as you put it and was disappointed when you stopped. 🙂

    It made sense then? I know what I mean, I know what I mean it to mean, but does any one else see what I mean in the way that I mean it to be meant?

    I’d like to share some of that with my list in a couple of weeks. It really is good information that the list needs to look at in order to thoughtfully tailor their bird diets to individual >birds/species.

    No problems, I don’t think there’s really anything new although I’m always a bit wary about suggesting folks try ‘lean days’, just in case they take it too far. For my birds, lean days are not in anyway a hardship, just a temporary move to a far more simple and uncomplicated diet. Admittedly some of the vitamins may be lacking and the proteins and fats right at rock bottom, but for a day or two I personally cannot see any harm in this and feel it is a good way of blowing out any excesses that may build up. Of course, the birds must be perfectly fit and healthy. I even have the odd days when all they get is veg and fruit – loads and loads of it with nothing else. This would happen quite regularly in the wild and I see no great hardship providing as I’ve said before, the birds are in perfect condition.

    Would I recommend this on a list or web page – probably not, but only because I cannot be sure that others could gauge things in the same way. We all know the tendency for people to read something and then go off merrily taking it to excess.

    Thanks so much for your time and trouble.

    You’re very welcome.

    Regards Dave