including omega-rich foods in the diet

Most of us will be familiar with the term omega fatty acids. We are encouraged to eat particular foods because they are ‘rich in essential omegas-3s and 6s’. But why are they ‘essential’? Why are they important for good health? Which foods contain them? And what part should these play in your bird’s diet? 

Why are omega-3s and 6s termed ‘essential’?

Animals and birds all require certain levels of a wide range of nutrients to live, function, and, importantly, remain healthy. The majority of ingested nutrients are used as fuel to supply energy or used as building material for growth and repair of tissues. Most of these nutrients are broken down and then rebuilt into other biological compounds for specific tasks in the body. There are, however, a certain group of nutrients that are required by the body that cannot be built from scratch or by modifying other nutrients. These are termed ‘essential nutrients’ – ‘essential’ because without these specific nutrients many of the chemical pathways of the body would malfunction, affecting everyday metabolism and resulting in disease. Essential nutrients therefore need to be included in a balanced diet. We are familiar with the names of many of these essential nutrients; minerals, vitamins and certain amino acids for example, and omega fatty acids are another of these essential dietary nutrients.    

Why are they important for good health in both humans and birds?

Omegas are fats, and from a nutritional perspective ‘fats’ generally get a bad press. But ‘fats’ are an important and indispensable part of any diet – even cholesterol in moderation. Fats play a vital role in many crucial metabolic functions in all birds and mammals – the synthesis of hormones, the construction of the nervous system (including the brain), and the maintaining of integrity of the membranes which surround all cells, are dependent on fats. In birds, fats are the main component of egg yolk and provide the developing chick with not just an energy supply but fatty acids essential for good growth and development. General metabolism can assemble the vast majority of the principal fats needed for healthy living from the range of fats in the diet, with one proviso; manufacture requires a regular supply of two primary fat building-blocks which animals and birds are unable to synthesise. These fats which provide the foundation around which more complex molecules are built are the omega-3s and omega-6s.

The numbers 3 and 6 refer to the position along a fatty-chain where a chemical double bond occurs. There are then further slight variations in structure, producing different omega-3s and omega-6s (hence why they are plural), though each does a similar job within the body. 

Which foods contain good levels of the omegas?

Of the foods suitable for parrots, and similar birds, those which are rich in omega-3s include many of the commonly available seeds such as chia, linseed, flax and hemp, some fruits (figs and kiwi, for example), and some nuts (particularly walnuts).  

Nuts, cereals, and the majority of vegetable oils, are rich sources of omega-6s.  

Most foods which provide a good source of omega-3s also provide omega-6s (but not always vice versa). It is also believed that birds may have some limited capacity for conversion of omega-3s to omega-6s. There is therefore a greater emphasis on including omega-3-rich foods in a bird’s diet. 

Including these foods in your bird’s diet

Whilst the omegas are an essential part of a diet, be aware that a balanced intake is required. Dietary omegas do not come alone in food - they come as a larger ‘package of fats’, and these are fats that, in excess, can be harmful.  

Care therefore needs to be taken when feeding omega-rich foods. As with all aspects of a diet – both essential and non-essential elements alike – everything should be offered, and consumed, in balance and in moderation.  

Harrison’s recommend that the omega-rich foods should form up to 5% of the diet by volume, with 75-80% being Harrison’s, and 15-20% being fruit and vegetables. This ensures the right balance of all nutritional elements.  

As providing ‘treats’, and offering foods as ‘rewards’ for foraging behaviour, are an important part of avian enrichment, these omega-rich foods could be used in this context.

Why do you need to serve an additional source of omega-rich foods, rather than them being put in the Harrison’s foods?

In the decades since Dr Greg Harrison first developed these leading diets for pet birds, the Harrison’s company have continually worked to evolve their formulas to ensure that they provide as optimal a diet as possible for your feathered friends. Based on recent research Harrison’s believes there is an importance in providing omega fatty acids in the diet of pet birds, and they are working to find a method of incorporating into their formulated diets more omega-rich ingredients in a way which preserves the full nutritional benefits of the omega fatty acids. Until that is possible, they advise providing an additional source of omega-rich foods alongside the Harrison’s you feed, and this should make up approximately 5% in volume of their diet.