Why feed a formulated diet instead of other diets?

The majority of health problems in pet birds stem from malnutrition. The best way to ensure good health in pet birds is by ensuring that they eat a good diet.

It is important to keep in mind:

  • Feeding should not be confused with diet
  • Feeding is what is put into the bird's bowl; whereas diet is what the bird actually eats from the foods it is served
  • Nutrition is not another word for feeding
  • Nutrition comes from the assimilation of the nutrients from the bird's diet - the food it actually eats

The theory of good nutrition is to provide birds with a diet that will deliver adequate levels of macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), in an accessible, palatable and digestible form.

Many veterinary experts believe that good nutrition is best achieved through a diet based on formulated foods. This page will outline why you should feed formulated foods to the birds in your care, and the problems with other approaches to their diet.

The problems with Seed-based diets

A seed-based diet can lead to a number of nutritional problems. It is worth noting some key points...

  • Many seeds commonly fed to parrots are extremely high in fats which can adversely affect the bird’s health.
  • Seeds are not produced to be eaten and are not designed to be a complete diet. Most seeds are deficient in a wide range of the essential nutrients (over 30 have been identified) required to ensure the correct functioning of the bird’s metabolism.
  • As seeds are high in energy most pet birds do not eat sufficient volume of a seed-based diet to avoid further micro-nutrient deficiencies. When compared to wild bird, birds in captivity generally have:
    • a much lower energy requirement (they are more sedentary; there is a more constant ambient temperature)
    • a similar need for other essential micro-nutrients (and in some cases a higher need due to the stresses of a captive life)

Birds eat to satisfy energy needs above any other nutrient requirements. Eating a high energy (seed) diet will satisfy a captive bird very quickly, so they are likely to eat less than their wild counterparts.

Birds fed on a primarily-seed diet can therefore develop further micro-nutrient deficiencies as they fail to eat sufficient volume of food to obtain enough of any of the essential that seeds do contain.

The problems with Vitamin and mineral supplementation

If you recognise the deficiencies and imbalances of a seed-based diet you may try to rectify this by providing vitamin and mineral supplements.

Whilst these can halt a temporary decline in micro-nutrient reserves - so may be recommended by a vet when addressing a specific condition - supplements are generally ineffective at 'balancing' a deficient diet, and often unsuccessful in the longer term at preventing deficiency diseases.

Supplements are difficult to accurately administer - whether in the water, or added to the food, there can be little certainty how much of the supplement has been consumed, and whether it is too little or, equally importantly, too much. There is also the issue that aqueous solutions of vitamins and minerals are very unstable.

Also, remember that vitamin and minerals have no effect on the excessive intake of facts which can result from a diet which is predominantly seeds.

Dietary correction should not, and indeed cannot, be a top-up of presumed deficient nutrients within a bird's diet. It is always the right approach to provide a nutritionally complete diet, rather than one which is deficient and then try to correct it.

The problems with 'topping up' seeds with fruit, vegetables and more

Fruit and vegetables can be a worthwhile addition to a balanced diet. But fruit and vegetables alone cannot correct deficiencies in the main part of an inadequate diet.

Most fruit and vegetables are lacking many of the essential nutrients which the bird needs, and which are also missing from seeds. And if fed alongside other foods such as seed the bird will likely eat more energy-rich foods (as mentioned above they eat to satisfy their energy requirements, and not their nutrient needs), rather than the fruit and veg, thereby meaning they won't eat enough of those to meet their macro- and micro-nutrient requirements.

Fruit, vegetables, sprouted pulses, and certain 'human foods' can be good additions to a nutritionally complete diet, but cannot compensate for deficiencies in a predominantly seed-based diet.

The problems with trying to feed a balance of everything

There are some owners who have well-nourished birds by providing a wide range of foods, including seeds, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and more. But they are a rarer occurrence than might be realised due to a key factor - the bird itself.

It is important to appreciate that good nutrition comes from the nutrients in the food that the bird actually eats, and not from what they are served.

Whilst there are owners who manage to get their pets to eat the assorted elements that they serve, in the correct proportions, in the majority of instances the bird adopts a buffet-style feeding practice, eating some items to excess, and insufficient of others. The bird is eating to meet an energy requirement, selecting foods based on routine and 'favourites', and not with the knowledge of what you intend it to eat to create a nutritional balance. So even if what is served might be ideal, what is eaten is often far from optimal.

Even if a nutritious range of foods are provided, selective eating patterns can still put the bird at risk from nutritional disease.

The best approach is to feed a formulated diet

By feeding a formulated diet specially developed for pet parrots you can ensure that the bird's in your care receive an optimal diet. Leading avian veterinarians around the world agree that the feeding of formulated diets is the biggest advance in the health and welfare of pet birds in the last 40 years.

The benefits of feeding formulated diets are:

  • The bird receives the required levels of essential nutrients, in the correct proportions.
  • The energy levels in the foods are kept relatively low to ensure that eating is encouraged, and the necessary intake of micro-nutrients is achieved.
  • The nuggets are the same, so 'buffet feeding' is avoided. The bird is getting optimal nutrition in every bite, so there are no dietary deficiencies and excesses that often come from a bird eating only certain items from 'a mix'.
  • The nutrients are provided in a palatable and digestible form, in nuggets made from foods that would form part of the bird's natural diet.

Formulated foods should form the majority of the bird's diet - but not all. Fruit, vegetables, and certain other foods can be served, so long as the bird is eating enough of the formulated diet to gain the required levels of essential nutrients. These additions provide some nutritional benefit, and also add variety - though 'eating' should not be seen as a substitute for environmental enrichment and mental stimulation. See 'Feeding additional items' for more information on serving other items alongside Harrison's.

Which formulated range should you choose?

Although based on the fundamental principles above, all formulated diets are not the same, and vary considerably in composition, palatability and quality. When choosing a formulated diet you should therefore consider these key points:

  • Are they manufactured using high quality (human-grade) ingredients?
  • Are they certified organic and GMO-free? Agrochemicals and artificial additives (colourings, flavourings, preservatives) can adversely affect a bird's physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Are they manufactured using an extrusion process? An extrusion process enhances the digestibility of the ingredients, whilst preserving their nutritional content. It also breaks down many of the naturally occurring digestion inhibitors and reduces levels of potentially harmful myco-toxins.
  • Are they developed and endorsed by avian experts?  

If you choose Harrison's Bird Foods you can answer an emphatic yes to all these questions. For more information see the 'Why Harrison's' page.