ZIGGY (the emperor parrot) & GEORGE (his companion human)





So: your parrot won't eat the "good" food--i.e., pellets--the vet recommends, and it's impossible not to give in to his begging. Here's what you can do:
Hint: parrots have taste receptors on their tongues, just as you and I do, only not as many.  What entices their taste buds (and ours) are salt, fat, sugar, spice, and texture.  The unhealthy triumvirate of salt, fat and sugar is what food makers normally manipulate in order to make food palatable. Unlike elsewhere in the world, spice is only a small part of traditional American cuisine, so you find only a bare minimum in American cooking.  (Although birds do not seem to be sensitive to capsaicin--from hot peppers--they are sensitive to that same molecule only slightly modified, but, technically, sensitivity to capsaicin is not taste per se but chemesthesis. If you've ever had to give your bird medicine, you know that they are sensitive to bitterness, also; the old human trick of having to mix something bitter with enough sugar works on birds.) We all know that low-fat versions of foods don't taste as good as the regular versions.  If you compare labels of a low-fat version of a food item with the regular version, what you will find is that food makers almost always increase the amount of sodium and/or sugar in the low-fat version to "make up" for the lowered fat.  Similarly, food makers will almost always increase the amount of fat and/or sugar in the low-sodium version of a food item in order to "make up" for the lowered sodium. 
But you won't have to worry about salt, fat and sugar if you make use of the main secret of healthy cooking: spice.  The spicier the food, the less of the unhealthy three is needed to make it palatable.  Traditional American cooking is often so lacking in spice that our food gets described as bland; many of our cooks do seem to be afraid of spices.  But spices benefit your health, not just by allowing you to reduce sodium and fat, but in their own right because they contain beneficial phytochemicals, such as the curcuminoids in turmeric that reduce your risk of cancer.
Variety is the law when feeding parrots; it's important psychologically and biochemically.  Variety is just as good for your diet as it is for theirs.  We are told that pellets are "better" for them, which might well be true, but think:  how could such an intelligent, inquisitive animal be satisfied with a pellet diet?  Would you be happy eating pellets for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day?
I've tasted pellets and I can understand why bird owners have so much difficulty getting their birds to adapt to a pellet diet:  pellets have a tendency to taste like dog food.  (Yes, I've had dogs, and I felt obligated to taste what I was feeding them also.)  I know, a parrot's sense of taste is not the same as a human's, but birds DO have a sense of taste, and, judging by the "bad" foods that we and they both like, it must not be that different from our own.  If Ziggy were starving, I'm sure he'd eat pellets, but when I do put pellets in his bowl, he has always made a big production out of picking them up and throwing them to the ground in what could only be described as exasperation, as if to say, "Why did you put these in my cup?  You know I don't like them." (Note: in late 2012 he did start eating some pellets, probably because of jealousy. He'd seen Buddy eating some, and parrots always think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, so he had to start eating some too, possibly simply to keep Buddy from eating them. That particular kind had just enough sugar in them to keep his interest.)
Until recently, Ziggy's main food consisted of Lafeber's Avi-cakes®, which are a 50/50 seed /pellet mixture--the only way to get pellets into his diet.   He doesn't like their Nutri-meals®, even though the Nutri-meals® are much more expensive--and Ziggy has an uncanny knack for preferring whatever is the most expensive.  I tried Ziggy on Harrison's® pellets, supposedly the best, but the only way I could keep from wasting it was to stir the Harrison's® into what eventually seemed to be an endless number of days worth of batches of our breakfast porridge.
An insightful observation that might change your mind about making pellets your bird's sole food can be found in a report by Merryl Elphick for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust of Australia:

At risk of raising the ire of pellet manufacturers we found that during necropsies performed on parrots that were maintained on an all pellet diet that their gizzards had lost muscular tone. A diet containing 1/3 seed would appear to be necessary to maintain a parrot’s intestines in optimum condition. (http://www.churchilltrust.com.au/site_media/fellows/Elphick_Merryl_1999.pdf.)

A comprehensive article on bird nutrition by Gloria Scholbe, dated February 2002, in the HolisticBirds Newsletter, now archived at holisticbirds.com, goes even further.  The rise of pelleted diets a few decades ago was a response to malnutrition among caged birds, but the switch to pellets created its own problems, she states, including--
  • nutrient excesses in some formulas for some species
  • long-term sustained nutrient load, which is neither normal or healthy
Soon the internal organs of some birds were becoming calcified and many began to die of visceral gout, kidney necrosis, arthritis, and other degenerative diseases directly attributable to an all pellet diet. It wasn't long before several pellet manufacturers changed their recommendation for owners to include 20% of fruits and vegetables in bird diets.

Even this did not solve all of the problems, and more nutritional disorders began to show up the longer that pellets were fed as the major diet. Feather plucking was seen more often than ever before. Nervous system disorders including toe-tapping and wing flipping became more prevalent. Polyuria, diabetes, fatty liver disease, elevated liver and protein levels, dry skin, behavior disorders, and a host of other health problems are all seen with an exclusive pellet diet.....

Regarding pellets, she concludes that--

Simply put, pellets do not contain the type of foods that birds evolved to forage in nature. Except for spirulina and/or dulse in three of the pellet brands and alfalfa in two of them, pellets completely lack green foods and other vegetation that in nature would comprise the major part of the diet of several species of parrots.

Although pellets are formulated to contain established percentages of protein, carbohydrates, and fats along with carefully calculated vitamins and minerals, these are based on the needs of poultry raised for slaughter or egg production. Such formulas are probably not even ideal for agricultural poultry.  

Ms. Scholbe is not alone in her sentiments; for a concurring opinion, see Pamela Clark's "Feeding the Companion Parrot," from the same HolisticBirds Newsletter, also archived at holisticbirds.com; a revised version of her article appears on the parrothouse.com website

In defense of the pellet manufacturers, most of their products are much better nutritionally now than when this article was published.   Despite the good intentions of the experts, however, the FACT is this:  we don't know all there is to know about human nutrition, let alone parrot nutrition.  Scientists regularly discover new aspects of nutrition that put their previous best guesses to shame. For example, there is limited evidence that gamma tocopherol, not alpha, has some protective benefit against prostate cancer. It is also now apparent that having an uncommon form of vitamin K, called vitamin K2, is important.

There are different forms of B12 also; the cyanocobalamin found in vitamin pills is not found in nature, and not everyone's body is equally adapt at utilizing it. Cyanocobalamin is converted in your body to active cobalamins, either methylcobalamin or adenosylcobalamin. In looking at individuals with certain genetic defects, doctors found that hydroxocobalamin but not cyanocobalamin, was effective at treating cobalamin C  disease. The differential absorption and effects of the vitamers could have implications for the etiology of some neurodegenerative disorders. In rats, megadoses of methylcobalamin promotes nerve regeneration in artificially induced neuropathy: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022510X15002622. The fact that methylcobalamin injections are strikingly effective at treating diabetic neuropathy in contrast to traditional dietary B12 would seem to support the idea that we should supplement with, at least, some methycobalamin

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PERFECT ARTIFICIAL DIET, EITHER FOR HUMANS OR FOR PARROTS.  If a manufacturer claims, as some do, that their diets satisfy 100% of the nutritional requirements of birds, remember this:  they are forgetting to add the disclaimer "that we know of." 

A good example of "that we know of" would be pyrroloquinoline quinone, PQQ. Unfortunately, the substance is mired in controversy due to an article published in Nature in 2003, in which the authors went so far as to call it a new "vitamin." The author of a 2005 article in Nature that debunked the 2003 article has a website at which he describes his views on the subject: (http://www.chris-anthony.co.uk/myresearch.html#pqqvit). The fact that it is not a "vitamin," does not, however, mean that it is without nutritional impact or that the addition of it to the human diet might not have some beneficial effects. Of course, it's already in our diets. It's present in almost all foods, even in beverages such as Cokes. Green pepper, kiwi, papaya, lots of foods contain decent amounts of it. Is it a reasonable notion to increase one's uptake of it, given the argument used by vendors of it that our bodily levels decline with age (which may or may not be meaningful)? We won't know for decades probably.

"Animal studies show that PQQ affects health markedly. Rucker and his colleagues found that depriving rats of PQQ compromised their immune systems and retarded their growth and reproductive rates. In contrast, restoring PQQ to their diets reversed these effects and returned them to good health. Moreover, PQQ stimulated nerve growth and counteracted aging in cultured cells.

How does this biofactor work? Rucker and his colleagues found that, like hydroxytyrosol, PQQ increases the number of mitochondria in cells. “It's also an extremely good antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent,” he says. “It decreases C-reactive protein, which is an anti-inflammatory marker that is high in, for example, rheumatoid arthritis.”

For all that, it is not clear whether or not PQQ is an essential nutrient — those that our bodies require but do not make, including vitamins, minerals, and some fatty acids and amino acids. “It's hard to say if PQQ is essential,” Rucker says. This is because even though it is clearly beneficial, other nutrients may play the same roles." (http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.edu/landingpage.cfm?article=ca.v065n03p104&fulltext=yes.)

Separate from the issue of how good the pellet diets really are, I have an inherent mistrust of food makers and food handlers that predates the 2007 pet food recalls caused by the intentional contamination of food with melamine.  I worry about the same kind of bacterial contamination (usually from e. coli, listeria or salmonella) as has led to so many human food recalls.  You ought to visit the excellent website of Safe Food International; they maintain a list of recent scientific articles (with abstracts and links) relating to food safety, such as "Fresh fruits and vegetables are increasingly recognized as a source of food poisoning outbreaks," or "Effects of packaging type and storage temperature on the growth of foodborne pathogens on shredded Romaine lettuce," or "Inhibitory effect of commercial green tea and rosemary leaf powders on the growth of foodborne pathogens in laboratory media and oriental-style rice cakes," or "New variants of diarrhea-causing toxins found in seafood."

In addition to the possibility of contamination at the source of the food, which would seem to be more likely with pet food due to lower grading standards, one must consider the possibility of contamination caused by improper handling and hygiene.  How conscientious do you think that food handlers are? 

This is not some paranoia that came to me out of the blue; actual studies reinforce my mistrust.  For example, the percentage of the general population who don't wash their hands after using the restroom is shocking--as many as 30% in a 2003 study at airport restrooms.  A similar 2007 study at public restrooms came up with a 23% figure.  Logic would dictate that people who don't minister to themselves properly are just as unlikely to take care of others properly.  (There are bound to be some who take better care of others than they do of themselves, but I am confident that those are in the minority.)  You would think that food handlers would be especially conscientious, but direct observation suggests otherwise:  actual observations of restaurant worker hand-washing practices were published in a 2006 article in the Journal of Food Protection cited on the CDC government website.  The problem is so bad that researchers at Kansas State University had to conduct a study to find out WHY restaurant workers don't wash their hands. 

My mistrust of food handlers is based upon six decades of observing human nature as well as scientific studies.  People who handle food intended for animals are even less likely to be scrupulous when it comes to hygiene than those who handle food intended for humans.  I don't want someone who is thinking "they'll never know the difference" or "after all, it's just an animal" to have anything to do with the food I give Ziggy.  As a cancer survivor who had to avoid "opportunistic infections" during treatment, I have a more jaded view of the public food supply than most people. (See my article at Hints for Cancer Patients.)

The 2012 and 2013 recalls of Zupreem and Kaytee bird foods should convince you that I am right on this issue: you cannot be too paranoid when it comes to your bird's food. I like the idea of buying the food and waiting a while before using it, just to give it a decent amount of time to make sure that no recalls are going to happen. The problem with fresh food is that you can't do that unless you decide to freeze it. Even commercial frozen vegetables can be subject to a recall, which might surprise a lot of people: 2016 was a bad year for that.

Sign up to get notified of recalls from the FDA, USDA, and CDC, as well as browse the lists of current and past recalls: http://www.recalls.gov/food.html

I mentioned that I do taste Ziggy's food.  This habit of mine saved me recently from giving him some bad food:  I had received a complimentary sample of an "ultimate" bird food blend after buying something from an online parrot store, but the nuts in the blend were soft and smelled stale, and the dried fruit didn't taste like anything I would normally eat.  (I guess living in Houston with its diversity of food retailers has me spoiled.)  The parrot store in question advertises its food blend as "human grade," but I had a problem deciding whether it was even fit to give to the outside birds. 

I don't believe that manufacturers of commercial bird food are more paranoid about the safety of the food additives they use than are manufacturers of human food.  There are many "parrot" food treat mixtures that you couldn't pay me to give to Ziggy.  I will tolerate a bit of color or sulfite in an occasional treat, but I don't like the idea of having it in my food (or Ziggy's) every day, regardless of what the FDA might say or might allow.  To me, that's common sense. 

I'm not a nutjob who thinks that artificial colors are the invention of Satan, and that we'll all die in a few days if we consume any. Food colors have been used at least as long ago as 1500 BC (in Egypt), and, throughout that historical use, toxic colors were sometimes used. Highly poisonous copper arsenite, red lead, and mercuric sulfide, among other things, have all been used to color food, even into the late 1800s. Artificial colors are intended to be safer, but, surprisingly enough, questions as to their adverse effects linger to this very day. The European Food Safety Authority is much more paranoid about food safety than the FDA, and they have been re-evaluating the safety of food colors, a work scheduled to have been finished in 2015, but isn't done yet. A common contention you will find regarding such colors is that their usage is linked, in humans, to behavioral problems, such as ADHD. The EFSA does not find that the evidence supports that contention, but the fact that such questions continue to be raised, and the fact that the EFSA decided that it was important enough to re-evaluate the question, suggests that it would be prudent to minimize the amounts of such substances in our diets--and that of our birds. https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/foodcolours

I mentioned previously that Avi-cakes® were Ziggy's main food until recently:  1) My mother had given him Avi-cakes®, and 2) he wouldn't eat anything else except for the "bad" things, such as sunflower seeds in the commercial parrot mixes:  good enough for me!  I had been buying the Avi-cakes® in 20 pound boxes, but the last batch I got in late 2009 was unusually moist and mushy.  I was cursing Lafeber every time I cleaned the floor afterward because their Avi-cakes® were producing, not just more mess, but more mess in a wider area.  The problem was that the Avi-cakes® weren't sticking together like they used to:  they'd quickly break apart into tinier chunks and individual seeds, which ended up everywhere (as if I didn't already have enough of a mess to clean up.)  I don't know if the problem was due to a formula change or just a variation in batches, but it did make me start to keep an eye on Lafeber's products.

Then, a couple of months after that, Ziggy's vet prescribed Nutri-an® cakes--a prescription version of Avi-cakes®--for him; being more alert to Lafeber's products at that point, I looked closely at the label, and discovered that the supposedly healthier Nutri-an® cakes, although lower in fat, had a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids than the regular Avi-cakes®.  Regular Avicakes® are 1.44% omega-6 and .23% omega-3, at least according to the label, for an omega-6/omega-3 ratio of 6.3, but the Nutri-an® cakes are 1.7% omega-6 and .16% omega-3 for a ratio of 10.6. I'm not convinced these days that that ratio is as important as has been hyped for so many years, but the point is that the company was using that hype to tout their product, but their product's own make-up belies the hype. The product's protein content is too high for liver disease, though: Ziggy was supposed to be on a low-protein diet, and the Nutri-An cakes have about 50% more protein than the regular Avi-cakes. The vet originally thought it was more important for him to lose weight than to be on a low-protein diet, and the Nutri-An product was supposed to help with that, which it might have, since Ziggy hated it.

Lafeber's nutritional consultant stated that omega-3 fatty acids depress the immune system of sick birds. The bandwagon hype about omega-3s and omega-6s has, for the last few decades, been that "evil" omega-6s get converted into pro-inflammatory chemicals, whereas "good" omega-3s get converted into anti-inflammatory chemicals.  Well, a high omega-3 diet does seem to decrease the resistance of some animals, such as rats, to infections such as influenza. The actual answer to questions such as this can best be answered by getting rid of our intellectual myopia when it comes to individual nutrients, and looking instead at the entire food matrix that's consumed. Recent research has show opposite physiological effects from consuming "crude" fats, i.e., unrefined fats and oils, such as coconut oil and almond oil, compared with the refined oils, strongly suggesting that the phytonutrient content overwhelms the supposed "bad" effects of those oils. 

A casual glance through PubMed will find that scientists are still using omega 3 fats--in birds, such as kites (Charles, et al, 2013)--to treat diseases such as arteriosclerosis, so, Lafeber's discoveries about the healing power of omega-6 oils have yet to be embraced by the rest of the world: balance, balance, balance. I don't think that 12:1 is a sane balance, certainly not for liver disease. (Their label shows 10.6:1, but the letter from their "consultant" claimed 12:1, so God only knows what it actually is.)

It so happens that, in order to increase the amount of omega-3s in chicken meat to be able to take advantage of the sales boost that comes from coinciding with a popular nutritional bandwagon, a number of studies have been conducted on the effects of supplementation with omega 3s on chickens. In order to get high levels into the meat, the chickens have to be supplemented with high levels of omega 3s themselves. A study published in January, 2012, found, "Dietary n-3 PUFA enrichment may improve the immune response and IBD [infectious bursal disease] resistance, but the optimum performance does not coincide with the optimum immune response. It seems that dietary n-3 PUFA modulates the broiler chicken performance and immune response in a dose-dependent manner. Thus, a moderate level of dietary n-3 PUFA enrichment may help to put together the efficiency of performance and relative immune response enhancement in broiler chickens." (Maroufyan, et al.) It could very well be that HIGH levels of omega-3s are detrimental to immune function. The question here is one of balance. We don't want to flood their systems with omega-3s, but we really don't want a diet that is flooded with omega-6s either. The keyword here is probably balance.

Now that I was thinking that Lafeber's formulations are somewhat bizarre, I noticed two more things:  I don't remember white sugar being one of the main ingredients when I first started buying Avi-cakes®, but, these days, there's more sugar than molasses in all 3 of the regular types of Avi-cakes®: the main sweetener is sugar, not molasses. (Lafeber's Nutri-An® cakes have no molasses, just sugar.)

I used to prefer Lafeber because they used molasses. Yes, sugar is sugar:  a sugar molecule is a sugar molecule, and your body doesn't care where that molecule originated. But I like the idea that, if I'm going to have a sweetener present, I should be able to benefit from the presence of whatever micronutrients are normally present in the unrefined form of that sweetener. In the case of molasses, that mainly means minerals.

The darker the sugar, the more such micronutrients are present:

"Dark brown sugars, at practical levels of use, may make a small contribution to the daily requirement for iron and calcium." ( http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-277X.1989.tb00009.x/full )

In the case of sugar beet molasses, the other micronutrients present can add considerable nutritional value to the food compared with plain sugar:

“The cookies prepared with molasses were significantly higher in potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, betaine, total phenolics and DPPH radical scavenging abilities. Molasses contributed to wider spectra of phenolic compounds. The dominating phenolic compounds in the molasses-enriched cookies were catechin, ferulic, syringic and vanillic acid. Molasses also contributed to the presence of p-hydroxybenzoic acid in the cookies." ( http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09637486.2016.1157140 )

I do add molasses or honey to almost every casserole and gravy.  For birds, though, I would worry about the iron content in the case of softbills.

On 10/16/09, Lafeber's website listed the Avi-cake® ingredients as "ground corn, canary grass seed, white proso millet, hulled oats, wheat flour, sugar, soybean meal, ground limestone,dicalcium phosphate, canola oil, whole egg, corn gluten meal, propylene glycol, cane molasses, gelatin, glycerine, iodized salt, L-lysine, L-methionine, choline chloride, citric acid, mixed tocopherols, manganese oxide, zinc oxide, vitamin A, vitamin D3, vitamin E, menadione, niacin, calcium dipantothenate, riboflavin, thiamine, pyridoxine, vitamin B12, folic acid, biotin, ascorbic acid, and selenium."

Avi-Cakes for Parrots contain crack corn (as the 3rd ingredient), and peanuts and red millet (as the 8th and 9th ingredients). Avi-Cakes for Cockatoos & Macaws contain cracked corn (#3), peanuts (#9), and red millet (#10). I was unable to find the ingredient information on their website two weeks after I copied that ingredient list.  I don't know if they are changing the ingredients so often that that they took the list down, or if they are afraid that the public might actually read the list, or what.

Several websites that sell Avi-cakes® still list ethoxyquin as an ingredient, but it is no longer listed as an ingredient on their recent product packages, so they deserve kudos for having apparently removed it, although one might wonder why they kept using it for so long.  Ethoxyquin is a preservative that is also a pesticide, and even the normally non-paranoid FDA has asked pet food manufacturers to voluntarily limit the amount of ethoxyquin in pet foods.  See the Wikipedia article.

The non-whole grain wheat flour as an ingredient doesn't surprise me; most people don't know any better regarding their own food.  What did surprise me, even more than the white sugar content, was propylene glycol.  Lafeber lists more propylene glycol than molasses in all three of its Avi-cake®varieties.  I could understand them using a trace amount, but to be pouring in more propylene glycol than molasses into your raw mixture seems bizarre to me.  (If they decide to claim that the propylene glycol is present in only trace amounts, then, since there is more of it than there is of molasses, that would imply that there is virtually no molasses in the products, which, if true, would make their advertising a sham, since they have been so proudly advertising the molasses feature all these years.)  Propylene glycol, in case you are wondering, is used in modern antifreezes because it is much less toxic than its chemical cousin, ethylene glycol.  As a human food additive, it is generally recognized as safe.  It requires very high doses to cause any ill effects.

Although the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine has banned propylene glycol as an additive to cat food, there is no evidence that it is toxic to birds or other animals.  In searching the internet, there are many sites that try to scare you about the substance, but you will also find numerous sites that describe propylene glycol as "practically" non-toxic to birds, whatever "practically" means.  Propylene glycol IS safe enough that it is used as a carrier for medication that treats air sack mites in birds.  But Lafeber's own veterinary website--lafeberfvet.com--admited that propylene glycol is a "controversial" additive:  "Some pet food additives are considered controversial. Propylene glycol is a humectant used in semi-moist diets that has been prohibited in cat foods. Propylene glycol causes Heinz body formation in cat erythrocytes and it also reduces erythrocyte survival time and makes red cells more susceptible to oxidative damage." [That statement has been scrubbed from their present website, but, can still be found in some caches of it. One could easily speculate that it finally dawned on them that it was not wise to admit that their own products contain such "controversial" ingredients.] I see no reason for something like that to be present if it's even remotely questionable.

The greatest irony about Ziggy preferring Avi-cakes is that, looking at the detritus in the bowl at the end of the day, I can see that he picks out the pellets from the Avi-cakes. In other words, Avi-cakes are a sneaky way to get your bird to eat pellets. The bird will get some seeds and some pellet, the gusto for the pellet part being accelerated by its sugar content.

In looking for a prepared bird food to buy, other than making sure that it contains all the necessary vitamins and proper ratios of fat/carbohydrate/protein, I look for these signs of quality:  mixed natural tocopherols, not d-alpha or dl-alpha or "Vitamin E"; l-methionine, not methionine; a mixture of various types of vitamin K, not menadione; absence of ethoxyquin; minimal amounts of sugar; absence of food coloring.  I look for the same things I do in my own supplements: if I am going to get minerals, I want them chelated, not present as simple compounds such as zinc oxide or manganous oxide. Regarding my mistrust of menadione, I am not alone; Sally Blanchard has stated, "There are several ingredients in almost all the manufactured parrot diets that I would not want to feed my parrots. One of them is Menadione Sodium Bisulfite Complex, which seems to be in every manufactured diet except for three." Although there is no evidence that menadione is toxic to pets in the amount present in foods, it is demonstrably true that it has a MUCH worse therapeutic index than vitamins K1 or K2. "...Menadione can be considered as moderately toxic and phytomenadione as practically nontoxic," according to the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products, Veterinary Medicines Evaluation Unit. (See http://www.ema.europa.eu/docs/en_GB/document_library/Maximum_Residue_Limits_-_Report/2009/11/WC500015016.pdf.)

To me, it's a very simple question: you can choose between a substance that is virtually nontoxic and one that is toxic. In the case of birds, we don't know how toxic menadione is, but we do know that birds have very sensitive biochemical systems, much like cats. Would a sane person choose the more toxic substance? If there were no other additive available, we would go with menadione, and simply be careful, but why not go with a less toxic substance? Why take chances, especially knowing that the pet food manufacturer will eventually hire some idiot who will stub his or her toe while pouring the stuff into a vat? The SkeptVet doesn't go along with my view on this issue; see http://skeptvet.com/Blog/2011/07/vitamin-k3-menadione-in-pet-food-is-it-safe/.

I am equally concerned about levels being too high of certain nutrients, like selenium, because the pet food manufacturers may be like human supplement manufacturers in that every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to be adding it to everything they make these days, so I try to make sure that if there is, for example, selenium in the regular food, that it is not being added to their treats also. I'm always concerned about the possibility that the manufacturer may be employing idiots who don't know the difference between a microgram and a milligram, as in the human case recently exposed by DatelineNBC in which a weight loss supplement contained milligrams of selenium instead of micrograms. Kaytee did the same thing with vitamin D in a baby bird food formula recently, which I learned about on Facebook before the news showed up on Kaytee's site. How did this occur--did they decide to "save money" by hiring imbeciles to do their formulating for them? One can only speculate.

The recalls keep coming and coming; a recent Kaytee recall include some products with high levels of vitamin D and "exceedingly high" levels of calcium. It appears that they just don't learn. If their CEO is not affected by it, then it doesn't matter if our pets are harmed and perhaps die, as long as they make lots of money. Their money is much more important than our pets' safety, right? Duh. See https://www.avma.org/News/Issues/recalls-alerts/Pages/pet-food-safety-recalls-alerts.aspx?fvalue=Other.

There is one more argument to add to the anti-pellet view. Let me emphasize that, due to the limitations of birds living in a, for them, artificial environment, it is generally necessary to use pellets in their diet. But one of the things that the "experts" fail to consider is that pellets contain processed, cooked starches, such as from corn. I hate to tell you this, but, in the wild, parrots don't eat processed starches. There are many reasons for obesity among captive parrots, but one of those reasons would have to be the amount of processed starch in their diets--the same problem that is contributing to the epidemic of obesity in humans. Wild parrots consume nuts, fruits, leaves, and even some insects. Do you see parrots running grain mills in the Amazon? Do you see them consuming ANY processed starch in the wild? Other than the sugars in the fruits, there is precious little digestible starch at all in their diets. Yet the "experts" have the audacity to create "food" for us to feed them, "food" that is mostly processed starch--processed soy meal, corn meal, and so on. Duh....Not only are there few micronutrients in that kind of starch, its ease of digestion means that, compared to what the birds would eat in the wild, the birds expend much fewer calories in digesting the food. Regardless of the theoretical calorie content, gram for gram, the captive bird gets many more net calories out of the food it consumes than a wild bird. That, along with a sedentary lifestyle, accelerates the march toward obesity.


The more human food your parrot consumes, the more likely it is that he will have health nightmares when he gets older. Much of the severity of age-related ailments in western society is due to western diet, and if you impose this diet on a long-lived bird, the bird will suffer the same consequences.  What can you do?  How can you keep your bird happy and healthy at the same time?
This seems to be a common problem, but everyone seems to overlook one obvious way to help: make the "people" food that you share with your bird healthy.  Get rid of the salt and the "bad" fats.  You and your bird will both live longer.
Yes, salt is necessary for human life, and for parrot life as well. But evidence indicates that the geophagy (soil eating) we observe in the wild on the part of parrots and many other creatures is at least partly driven by a desire for salt. Although the most common explanation given for this is to detoxify the oddball chemical constituents of seeds and other plant materials, I believe that it is equally likely that they are obtaining trace minerals that way. The sane approach would be to say that "the" reason is "all the above." See http://www.macawproject.org/download/IOC%20Brazil%20poster%20Aug%202010.pdf.
That said, parrots do not have the same physiological systems in place to handle salt overload. They do not sweat as we do. You are not going to find one bird veterinarian on earth who will recommend that you feed your bird the salty diet typical of most humans.
What happens physiologically when you consume salt that you do not excrete? You may recall discussions of osmosis in your junior high school science classes. Your body will absorb water; you become bloated, and your heart and kidneys have to work harder, resulting in conditions such as hypertension and cardiomegaly. There has been recent controversy in the medical community about low-salt diets and their effectiveness, due to the increased mortality observed among patients who have the lowest sodium intake. Aside from the fact that you cannot argue with the physics involved, i.e., the increased systemic workload that results from too much salt, one of these days they are going to snap that maybe cutting your daily intake of an essential nutrient to near zero is not wise. I would expect greater mortality anyway since those patients are the sickest, and, in addition, you cannot measure only less salt. Other factors are involved such as sodium potassium ratios, and one might just as logically rationalize the mortality by blaming it on too much potassium. Other things can affect it: patients with low calcium levels are much more sensitive to the sodium/potassium ratio, for instance.
In birds, I would highly recommend looking at what happens to chickens when you add very low salt content to their drinking water: it leads to right ventricular hypertrophy, right ventricular failure and ascites. See http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03079458708436353.
So if you want your bird to die a horrible, painful, slow death, give him or her lots of salt.


Yes, we all love the taste of Uncle Ben's® and other processed foods, but even "lower salt" versions are too high in sodium.  You don't want to give up the convenience and the flavor; what can you do? Simple: you cheat.  You still buy the processed food (as long as there is NO partly hydrogenated anything listed on the label) but you DILUTE the sodium by mixing it with an unsalted version.
In the case of Uncle Ben's, for example, cook it with an equivalent (or larger) volume of, say, instant brown rice.  By not adding salt separately, the only sodium content will come from what's already in the Uncle Ben's spice mix, so that what you end up with will only have half the sodium per serving listed on the label.
You can add diced serranos or jalapenos to improve the flavor and make up for the fact that you are also diluting the other Uncle Ben spices.  If you put enough pepper in food, it won't "need" salt at all.   Remember, when you cook rice or pasta, do NOT add salt to the water. And also remember to put something salt-free, such as green peas, in it so that your parrot can have the pleasure of "discovering" a wonderful goodie in the food that you "share."

It all belongs to Ziggy....

While it is well meaning of the experts to try and eliminate fat from the parrot diet, you need to ask yourself this: Why is my bird not supposed to have any fats in his diet? Why am I supposed to cut down so much on nuts and seeds? Does it make sense, as we are now told, that we humans need more "good" fats in our diets and that we ought to be eating more unprocessed foods like raw nuts--but that we should deprive our birds of these same foods?  People who eat almonds regularly have less chance of heart attack. Would this not be similarly beneficial for long-lived birds?

Nuts and seeds are extremely good sources of the entire family of vitamin E compounds, not just the d-alpha tocopherol you may know about. I have a hunch that part of the reason for parrot longevity may lie in the fact that their diet is high in such compounds and related beneficial fats as well as the broad spectrum of antioxidants and other phytochemicals that would be found in a wholesome diet.

Necropsies of aged parrots have shown that they develop diseases of the cardiovascular system just as do humans. The fact is that we don't know everything there is to know about such diseases develop in humans, let alone how they develop in parrots. Parrots should have long lifetimes, and you don't want your bird to have an old age that is a nightmare of disease conditions. Yes, reduce fat, but don't eliminate the good fats.

The non-oil phytonutrients in seed oils and other plant oils account for significant biological activity. Give some rats fully refined coconut oil--i.e., oil lacking those micronutrients--and it has the effect you'd expect: it ups their rate of CVD and their mortality. But, if you put crude coconut oil in their diet, it has the opposite effect. Clearly, the oil has nothing to do with it. Evidence is growing that the supposed "benefit" of olive oil, for instance, has little to do with the oil itself: it's mostly the oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol, along with other phytonutrients.

One of the problem with a diet that's too processed is that it is so lacking in such phytonutrients. I’m not talking about “vitamins,” or even necessarily about conditionally necessary nutrients of some sort: I’m talking about substances, none of whose presence is "necessary" for human life, strictly speaking, yet which, when present, for various reasons and by various means, reduce the incidence of diseases and reduce mortality. Some among us take this to an extreme, and go gulping down mouthfuls of such isolated substances, which may be even more deleterious than not having them in one’s diet to begin with.

You've heard of the French so-called paradox. The French diet contains significant amounts of "bad" foods, yet their mortality seems to not be affected. The obvious explanation is one of balance: the presence of plant phytochemicals in their diet counteract the adverse effects of the "bad" parts of their diets, such as red meat.

If you consume a properly balanced diet, you can, to a certain extent, eat whatever you want, since one thing in that diet will “balance out” whatever the adverse effects are of something else. And the main problem with a pellet diet for birds is that such a diet is so lacking in micronutrients--yes, it has all those that we know of, those that are "necessary," but it is almost totally lacking in those which, as I said, are not "vitamins" per se, but which, for various reasons and by various means, reduce the incidence of diseases and reduce mortality.


I don't worry about Ziggy gorging on grapes and getting a sugar overload.  Why not?  I buy grapes as they occur in nature--i.e., the kind with seeds--and nine times out of ten, he will only eat the seeds, not the grape!  I cut the grape open to expose the seeds, letting him yank the seeds out, leaving me with the (unhealthy) rest of the grape!

Grape skin still often contains high levels of pesticide residue according to Consumer Reports, so you want to limit access to grapes for that reason.  In early 2005, one of the most active topics of discussion at numerous parrot forums was multiple bird deaths associated with the consumption of grapes from Chile. I keep having to revise links to sites that discussed this issue, since they either close eventually, like fluffies.org, or clean up their archives. I haven't seen any scientific reports verifying the exact cause of those deaths. 
The tailfeathersnetwork forum still retains posts from that era, but if you look at it, you'll see why I'm puzzled. One member there posted this: 
"The necropsy is in, and it appears to be a natural toxin affecting the nervous system. The Toxin is caused by a mold growth in the meat of the grape."
The quote about the "natural toxin" uses the term "appears to be," which I find peculiar. A necropsy conducted by a competent pathologist would state the actual toxin if it were present in amounts large enough to be identified. And if it weren't present in amounts large enough to be identified, how could one even know that it was a toxin? It is rare that a particular pathological manifestation could only have one cause.
Yet another post, however, suggests a more alarming possibility:
"There is a rumor out on the listservs that the grapes may have been "tampered with" by a volunteer...which I assume means poisoned. I've seen no reason to believe that this is true and this hasn't come from any official sources." 
A different necropsy report is referred to in that forum, the original post of which I have located at mytoos.com, this one posted by the man who owned the original eight that died:  
"He[the vet] said the report lists the cause of death as organophosphate poisoning....the pesticides reside on the skin of the fruit/veg and its[sic] very possible that the grapes that were fed to the birds that lived did not have as high a concentration of the pesticide still on the grape skins even after washing. He feels that the grapes were the culprit in this horrible tragedy. I specifically asked him if any type of airborne contaminant or telfon[sic] could have been involved. I wanted to ask him this because of the rumors and innuendo's[sic] I have read on other boards and wanted to clear that up for everyone definitively. He said that the lab report came back negative on those but that he had already personally ruled them out anyway during the gross necropsy, as there would have been visual findings. He had already ruled out aflotoxin in his mind also, as did the report." (http://www.mytoos.com/forum/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=30315&page=4
The tailfeathersnetwork forum also has a post from someone who "heard" of a separate incident in which three other birds died after eating Chilean grapes.
There is a post by a veterinarian at the website "All Creatures Great and Small" which states that dog poisonings have been caused by the ingestion of raisins or grapes, but that the causative agent has not been identified; clinical symptoms, including renal failure, were similar to those in birds.  Grapes do naturally contain chemicals, anthranilic acid derivatives, especially methyl anthranilate, that stimulate the trigeminal ganglia of birds, causing pain; the amount of such chemicals in a normal grape would be extremely low.  However, these same chemicals are widely used as bird repellants in crop control, and even in grape horticulture, obviously in high concentration.
I continue to be puzzled about how, even with careful washing of the grapes, those birds all died. The pesticides reside predominantly on the skin, and if it were washed carefully, whatever toxins were on it could not possibly have caused the birds to start dying three minutes later, since the substances could not possibly have leached out that fast. It had to have been something in the pulp itself, something present in unusual concentrations. The speculation about intentional poisoning was mentioned in the tailfeathersnetwork forum, but it is also suggested by someone in the mytoos forum where the owner of the eight had been posting: 
"I can't help but wonder about the so-called volunteers that gave Sterling the grapes in the first place. Did you know them, Sterling, or were they strangers? There are so many crazy people in this world, I can't help but be a cynic. Sad, but true. Could the grapes have possibly been contaminated purposely? These over zealous individuals out there who have some kind of sick vendetta about whatever. I guess I'm very skeptical of people I don't know."
Regardless of how much pesticide is sprayed on the fruits, the majority of it ends up on the skin. It is difficult to imagine how these grapes could have been sprayed so much that there would have been such lethal concentrations in the pulp itself, although it is conceivable that the pesticides could have been applied during picking, storage and/or transportation. I'm not a conspiracy monger, but, considering the circumstances here, I would have given more likelihood to the intentional poisoning scenario than apparently was given.
I would suggest, based on all the evidence, avoiding grapes from Chile anyway. And, when you do have grapes, do what I do: don't just wash them, but, after you wash them, cut off and discard the top of the grape where the stem attaches. That's where liquids, including pesticides, would accumulate, and that's also where mold starts. Regardless, I don't worry about letting the birds grab seeds out of the grapes once those precautions are taken.
Grape seed extract is a popular health food item, and if you do some research, you will probably conclude that the seed is the healthiest part of the grape.

As far as sugar is concerned, I have no argument with the "too much sugar is bad" philosophy; I haven't purchased white sugar in decades.  But do you imagine that birds in the jungle are going to say no to some fresh, ripe fruit after taking just one or two bites?  I don't remember ever seeing any news reports about flocks of birds dying from fruit overdosage (although birds and other animals do sometimes get drunk on fermented fruit), so I am not fanatical about limiting fruit consumption.

Instead of being fanatical about limiting fruit consumption, I'm fanatical about increasing consumption of some fruits, especially dark-colored berries.  You may notice that food labels now describe "fruit groups" by color.  Regarding the "blue/purple" fruit group, Dole claims that they help (1) slow changes that occur with normal aging, (2) maintain already normal cholesterol levels, and (3) promote heart health.  Dole also refers to blueberries as "superfood for your brain," and claims that blueberries "are a top source of antioxidant phytonutrients, such as anthocyanins, which support healthy brain function."  I've been on that bandwagon a lot longer than Dole, and I wholeheartedly support their claims and their good intentions.

When I buy citrus fruits, I try to get the seeded variety.  Ziggy is not as fond of citrus seeds, but he does eat them, especially tangerine seeds; he also eats the peel.  His "innate wisdom" triumphs again:  the peel is a good source of bioflavonoids.  One component of citrus peel combats cancer metastasis, and citrus peel use is associated with a lower risk of squamous cell carcinoma.  I have copied some of Ziggy's habits: I now eat the seeds and some of the peel myself.

Sunkist claims that its peels are safe, but I am very concerned about fruit from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.  I've seen shipping crate labels that list THREE strange fungicides or pesticides at the same time; since fruit is usually removed from the crates for display and sale, consumers are unlikely to notice the list.  I'm not too worried about the fruit itself, but I won't let him (or me!) have any peel from such fruits.  Pesticide residues are more likely to be found in the peel than in the fruit itself.

Just like grape seeds, grapefruit seeds contain beneficial biochemicals.  Although "grapefruit seed extract" (GSE) is a popular health food item, in reality most commercial versions of it are chemical modifications of the actual extract, but it can be used as an antiseptic (see commentary on my product recommendation page.)

Another good example of "innate wisdom" is this: when Ziggy eats corn, he bypasses the main part of the kernel and eats only the most nutritious part:  the germ.  It has always seemed kind of perverse to me that so many corn products, like corn meal, are usually made from degerminated corn, and I have yet to figure out why, if a label states "corn flour" (or "wheat flour" or any other flour), it can be degerminated.  I think it should be germinated unless otherwise specified.  (That said, corn oil is one of the worst oils you can consume because of its ungodly high content of omega 6 fats, but it does contain large amounts of vitamin E family micronutrients.)
Ziggy loves chili peppers also.  Like most parrots, he enjoys them straight--and doesn't need a drink afterward.  I share his enjoyment, although I prefer to cook with them instead of eating them straight (except for salsa.)  Chili peppers are exceptional sources of vitamin C, flavonoids and carotenoids.  You may have heard of the so-called "French paradox"--i.e., that Mediterranean mortality rates are much lower than what would be expected from a consideration of the unhealthy parts of the typical Mediterranean diet--but what you haven't heard of is the "Mexican paradox":  mortality rates in Mexico are lower than would be expected considering how high diets there are in sodium and saturated fat.  I would not be surprised if this lowered mortality were found to be due, at least in part, to the consumption of chili peppers. (Of course, as with almost anything health related, the issue would be controversial, since some contend that certain gastric cancers are actually more common among chili users, although that is debatable.)
When I use the term "innate wisdom," I don't mean anything magical or mystical.  Animals have evolved some fascinating mechanisms to obtain all the nutrients they require, such as the eating of bones by phosphorus-deficient cattle.  Other feeding mechanisms have evolved that seem to be medicinal, such as clay eating by many species, including macaws and Amazons.  The most common theory about clay eating is that it helps detoxify toxins found in seeds; the problem with that theory is that birds elsewhere have varied seed diets and do not eat clay.  It makes more sense to me that the clay eating is to get trace minerals in their diets.  I doubt that the artificial "manu" that the bird stores sell could possibly have the same efficacy as the real thing due to the lack of whatever trace minerals there are in the South American clay. A wonderful treatise on zoopharmacognosy--self-medication by animals--and other methods used by wild animals to stay healthy, including dietary choices, can be found in Wild Health, by Cindy Engel, a fascinating read that I recommend wholeheartedly.
Those who misunderstand evolutionary biology often make statements that imply that animals evolved such behaviors for a purpose, like the chrysanthemum plant creating pyrethins for the "purpose" of killing predatory insects.  The fact is, though, that in an environment that changes, and in which new threats emerge, only animals that possess enough variation in each generation genetically will survive.  In the case of the chyrsanthemum, for example, each generation produces plants that have some variation in the chemicals being produced by the plant, and at some time in the distant past, the plants were exposed to an insect pest that destroyed all the plants that did not manufacture pyrethins, so those plants today manufacture pyrethrins.  There is no intent to evolution:  it is purely a matter of survival. 



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All content on this site, including pictures, is copyrighted, ©2006 through 2016, by George A. Butel.  All rights are reserved; text may be quoted freely with attribution, but critical commentary must give me the opportunity to reply.

Visit our hints for cancer patients Google page, which tells you some of the things I learned during cancer treatment, including a few things that "they" forget to tell you, such as having to be a little bit "anal" about trying to prevent opportunistic infections. I never had any during my treatment, so I think my obsession paid off.


This site has tips and observations about dealing with parrots, and a few of my own views about human and parrot health concerns. I have a degree in biochemistry, so I am qualified to make some statements about foods, medicines and supplements, but I am neither a veterinarian nor a physician, and I do not practice human or veterinary medicine. You should certainly double-check any ideas you might get from me, or anything that you might construe as advice, by consulting with an appropriate legally licensed professional.  All content on this site ©2006 through 2014 by George A. Butel.  If you see any typos or any information that you feel is inaccurate or ambiguous, please contact me by clicking here.
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