While the ideal diet for specific species of pet birds has been poorly studied and is a bit controversial, it is clear that an all-seed diet is poorly balanced and unhealthy for most types of pet birds, especially parrot species because they pick out what they want and don't eat the rest. Formulated diets are increasingly available and are now being designed for specific species. Ideally, this should make up part (but not all) of the diet for most pet birds.
Technically, the term "formulated diets" is more accurate than the term "pellets" since these diets are available in many forms, including pellets, crumbles, nuggets, and more. The terms are often used interchangeably to refer to the spectrum of complete and balanced foods now on the market for pet birds and both terms will be used here.
Many birds are less than enthusiastic about switching to pellets, but with patience and persistence, almost any bird will eventually accept a formulated diet. The transition to pellets may take a few weeks or a few months, and some or all of the following strategies may be used.
Most importantly, never try to starve your bird into eating pellets, as this could be dangerous to your bird and very stressful. If at all possible, you should monitor your bird's body weight throughout the conversion period to make sure weight loss is not occurring.
Tips for Converting a Bird to Pellets
- Ideally, start young birds on pellets since young birds are usually much more willing to try new foods than older birds who may be "set in their ways."
- Never starve a bird into trying a new food.
- Don't attempt to convert a sick bird.
- Experiment with different kinds of pellets. Some birds have strong preferences for different shapes or sizes of pellets, textures, or flavors.
- Try to choose a pellet with few or no artificial colors or flavors, if possible.
- See if your pet store offers small samples of different pellets.
- Mix some pellets in with the seeds.
- Finely grind some of the pellets and sprinkle over your bird's normal seeds or a favorite treat with the aim of getting the bird to taste the pellets.
- Try moistening the pellets, perhaps with warm water. Remove any moistened pellets after a couple of hours though, due to the risk of spoilage.
- Try hand feeding the pellets so your bird thinks they are a treat.
- Let your bird see you eat some of the new food if you can. They don't taste all that bad, and your bird might be tempted to try something he/she thinks is a special human treat!
- If your bird is not used to a variety of foods, you might want to work on introducing some new vegetables and other foods before introducing pellets. Getting your bird used to new flavors and textures may help the transition to a formulated diet. It is possible to introduce other new foods along with pellets but to avoid overwhelming a bird with too many new things at one time. You may at least want to start the transition to a formulated diet a few weeks before or after introducing other new foods.
- If your bird is reluctant about switching to pellets, carefully monitor the number of droppings and the bird's body weight. If the number of droppings is diminishing and the bird's body weight goes down by more than 10% in a week, back off on the new foods and offer more of the old diet.
- Remember, there might be a change in the droppings (color, texture) when you feed pellets.
Measure How Much Your Bird Eats in a Day
- Measure how much your bird eats in a whole day (amount given less the amount left at end of 24 hours)
- Add up the amounts eaten every day for seven days then divide by seven to get the average daily intake
- The average daily intake determines the total amount of seeds and pellets (combined) to feed each day. During the switch you will gradually reduce the amount of seed fed, and make up the average daily intake with pellets.
Schedule for the Transition
Ideally, your bird will readily accept the new pellets and you could make the switch quickly using a schedule such as this:
- Week one: feed 75% of the calculated daily intake in seeds and substitute pellets for the other 25%.
- Week two: feed 50% of the daily intake as seeds and 50% as pellets.
- Week three: feed 25% of the daily intake as seeds and 75% as pellets.
- Week four: reduce the seed component even more for larger parrots.
For many birds, however, the switch may need to be much more gradual. For the average bird who is not used to eating pellets, you may need to try the following:
- Offer a dish with pellets first thing in the morning.
- A couple of hours later, offer the seed mix, but substitute a formulated diet for only 10% of the seeds. Mix the pellets with the seed so your bird has to work around the pellets to get to the seed. You may want to grind some of the pellets and sprinkle them over the seed so the bird can get accustomed to the taste of the formulated diet.
- Once you are sure your bird has at least tried the pellets, start to decrease the seed and increase the pellets in small increments until you get to the desired amount of seeds fed.
- If your bird is still reluctant to try the pellets, you can offer the seed mix for only an hour or two a couple of times a day, with a dish of the pellets available all the time.
- Be patient - for really stubborn birds, the gradual shift may take months rather than weeks.
- If your bird is in the stubborn category, keep a close eye on his or her weight (invest in a small gram scale and weigh regularly).
Success is Possible
For smaller parrots such as budgies and cockatiels, once you achieve a diet that is just 25% seeds (25% seed, 50% pellets, and 25% fresh foods) you have succeeded! For larger parrots, continue to decrease the seeds a bit more so that the diet is only about 10% seeds overall (with about 50-60% pellets and the rest made up of fresh foods and treats). See "Parrot Nutrition 101" for more detailed dietary advice. "New Foods and Picky Birds" offers more tips on introducing new foods to fussy eaters too.
Making the switch may be difficult, discouraging, and time consuming (not to mention the wasted pellets until your bird accepts them). Just remember, your effort is really worth it and you will be rewarded with a healthy bird on a well balanced and nutritious diet.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT