Pet Connections

Unraveling Avian Nutrition

By Edward R. Moats

What are the best nutrient dense foods that I should feed my bird? A question that sparks much controversy in the Avian world. “Feed this.”, “ Don't feed that.” It can confuse any pet parent searching for the best foods to feed their companion. In this article, I will discuss this perplexing controversy with simple, and factual, information that the pet parent can utilize to sustain the health of their feathered companions.

Before I go any further, I would like to address one common misconception regarding a bird's diet. There are no processed and packaged diets that can truly claim complete nutrition. Only a varied diet that includes fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and plant-based proteins encompass a well-rounded nutrient dense diet for your bird. All to often when I discuss nutrition with bird families, they say that they solely feed a manufactured food because it claims, “complete nutrition” on the package.

So, that is all they need to feed. Right? That concept could not be further from the truth. Birds are opportunistic scavengers. Meaning, they forage throughout the jungles and rainforests for foods that are available within their habitat. Therefore, a wild bird's diet can vary considerably on a day to day basis. In our homes, birds are limited to what foods we offer. We essentially are the stewards to providing a healthy diet. However, it is possible to offer a well-balanced nutrient dense diet once you understand the fundamental principles of feeding your bird.

Selecting the proper diet

When making decisions regarding what foods to feed your bird, you first need to identify what type of bird you are keeping as a companion. Not all birds eat the same foods. Over years of evolving and adapting to their environments, birds have developed digestive enzymes that are capable of absorbing the nutrients found in food sources from their native habitats. These digestive enzymes differ in each species. For instance, granivores are birds with a diet that consists, in large part, of grass and seeds.

Frugivores are birds that mostly eat fruits. Omnivore eat seed, insects, fruit, and invertebrates.

Florivore’s eat seeds, nuts, roots and bark. And then some bird diets comprise mostly of nectar from flowers. These birds are called Nectarvores. Although the birds grouped in these diets tend to gravitate toward the predominate foods in that classification, some are interchangeable. It is important to understand what your bird would eat in the wild before you decide the best diet to feed in your home.

Feeding Seeds: The Myths and Facts

“Don't feed Sunflower seed because it is high in fat and can cause fatty liver and heart disease that will shorten the life of your bird.” This is only a half truth. Let me explain the facts about offering seeds to your birds. When it comes to companion birds in our homes, there is one undeniable fact. Birds in our homes do not get the exercise that they benefit from in the wild. The number one cause of avian illnesses in companion birds is a sedentary lifestyle and a nutrient deficient diet. On average, wild birds fly 50-75 miles per day. Companion birds in our homes cannot meet those distances. Even those of you that allow your birds free flight, your home cannot compare to the open air of the wild. Therefore, it can be said that companion birds that are kept in our homes are extremely limited to flight. Flight is the best form of exercise for a bird. Because of this lack of activity, muscles atrophy. But most important, birds are not able to burn off consumed calories. So, when someone says that feeding seeds is unhealthy due to the fat content, that is not a complete truth. It is the lack of exercise that causes these illnesses. Feeding foods that are high in fat in conjunction with lack of physical activity to burn the calories is the deciding factor in this equation.

Let's discuss the nutrients that are contained in seeds. Sunflower seed, what many revere as the villain in the avian diet; is actually a nutrient dense resource. These seeds are good sources of vitamins and minerals such as, Vitamin B1, B6, Magnesium, Potassium, Phosphorus, Copper, Manganese, Selenium, Iron, and Zinc. They are also a good source for Vitamin E. These nutrients are essential in maintaining body physiology such as cardiovascular and circulatory health. Boosting the immune system to fight off infection and illness. Aiding the blood in defense against anemia and insuring healthy bones. They also are a deciding factor in fertility.

There is another group of nutrients that are found in seeds such as sunflower. These nutrients are called phytophenols. They are essentially “living” plant-based nutrients that aid in strengthening the physiology of the body such as the (immune) system, and aiding in fertility. There is one way to offer phytophenols from sunflower without the high fat content. These essential nutrients can be freely offered in sprouting seed. Seed that is sprouted utilizes the fat content as energy to sprout these life-sustaining nutrients.

Thus, eliminating the fat content that can be found in sunflower. However, when sprouting seed, care must be taken to monitor against spoilage and fungus. What is the best type of seed to offer? Quality of seeds differ just as any other foods or products. However, there is one deciding factor that can determine if you are feeding a quality “product.” The term is “viability.” Meaning, the seed contains living nutrients (phytophenols) that can be sprouted and fed as a nutrient resource.

Not all seeds offered in the marketplace are viable. Many seeds offered for the avian diet are what I like to term “dead seed.” These seeds usually have been improperly stored or have weathered a long shelf life. They appear dull in color and can be dusty. But, they also lack water. Water is the life source for phytophenols. The best way to confirm quality of seed is by sprouting. Dead seed cannot sprout. For the best quality of seeds to sprout. I recommend “Human Consumption” grade. This insures that the seed has been stored properly and increases the sprouting potential of a viable product.

As you can see, there are benefits to adding seeds to a bird's diet. However, an all seed diet can be detrimental. If you were paying attention, you may have noticed that I did not mention a vitamin found in sunflower and other seeds. One of the most important vitamins that cannot be found in seed is Vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for vision. I have lost track of how many birds I have met over the years that were fed predominately an all seed diet throughout their lives that were now visually impaired or completely blind. So, in conclusion, seeds are a nutrient dense resource that should be offered sparingly due to high concentrations of fat. However, it is the lack of exercise and inability to burn off the calories from seed that is the true culprit when it comes to heart and liver disease. Offering sprouted seed can be an excellent alternative to feeding seed in its high fat content form.

Pellets as the Staple Diet:

Since the introduction of pellets to pet parents in the mid 1980's, a misconception offers a false sense of security regarding the avian diet. What do I mean? If a person approached you on the street and offered you a “vitamin capsule” and stated that you would never have to eat food again, just take this all-inclusive pill. Would you believe them? Is that not essentially what people are being led to believe regarding pelleted bird diets? Now consider this, pellets do not occur naturally. They are processed. What do physicians tell us about processed foods in the human diet? Are you starting to understand my concern?

How are pellets processed?

There are two forms of avian pellets, Extruded and Organic Cold Pressed. Extruded pellets are made by grinding ingredients (grains, seeds, etc.) into a powder and then adding water. The mixture is then heated over 300 degrees. And what happens to the nutrients once heated over this temperature? That's right, they diminish. The heated mixture is then sent through a molding process that shapes the pellet.

While pellets dry, (also at high heat), they are fortified with nutrients chemically. Over the last few decades, studies have shown that digestive enzymes in the body react differently to natural occurring nutrients than chemically enhanced, or fortified, diets. The absorption rates of natural to processed nutrients differ. And overtime, can be detrimental to the health of your bird. Today, these processed food sources are encouraged as a staple in the avian diet. Mostly due to the practicality of feeding an “all- inclusive' manufactured product. (I will explain the importance of the digestive tract below.)

There is one last point I would like for you to consider. There is one essential nutrient missing is Extruded pellets, WATER. Water is an essential nutrient that is the conduit in the absorption of all other nutrients. Without water, the absorption of nutrients is curtailed. Offering foods void of water will not insure quality absorption of necessary vitamins and minerals. Without water, “living” nutrients cannot exist. If a pet parent prefers to provide a pelleted diet to their feathered friend, consider Organic Cold Pressed pellets. Again, the process begins by grinding ingredients and adding water. However, Cold Pressed pellets are not heated. They are formed into pellets through a mechanical press.

Therefore, the nutrients are not destroyed by heat. There are a couple drawbacks to a Cold Pressed pellet. They are not as readily available as Extruded Pellets. And they tend to be a bit costlier. However, the benefits to feeding Cold Pressed pellets outweigh the disadvantages. After discussing the pros and cons of a pelleted diet, I dont want to give the impression that pellets do not have their place in the diet of some birds. However, I do not feel that feeding pellets solely ensures a well-balanced diet for our companions.

What do I recommend? A diet that consists of a variety of vegetables, limited fruits (unless a frugivore), whole grains (not corn), limited seeds, and a quality powder vitamin supplement offered over the fresh foods. Why offer a powdered vitamin? Even a diet that consists of the highest quality of nutrient dense foods requires vitamin supplementation to insure all necessary vitamins and minerals are being offered. In my home, fresh foods consist of the majority of my birds diet. I even prepare nutrient dense treats. Pellets consist of less than 20 percent of the diet I offer. I am a firm believer that offering a variety of naturally occurring nutrient dense foods is the best choice in providing a quality diet for a happy and long-lived life for our companion friends.

The Importance of the Digestive Tract

A few lines above, I mentioned how processed and naturally occurring foods differ in absorption rates in the digestive tract. Let me explain this even further. Approximately 75 percent of the immune system in an animal is supported through the digestive tract. In the tract is beneficial bacteria, or flora. These bacteria are known as pro-biotic or “Microbiomes.” These bacteria support the immune system and help fight off infection and disease.

Recent studies out of Italy substantiate the benefits of feeding a bio-diverse diet to support immune health in dogs. However, this science can also transfer over to birds. In this study, animals were fed two types of diets. The first group was offered solely a manufactured or packaged product (kibble.) The other group was offered a bio-diverse diet that included a large variety of nutrient dense foods and naturally occurring pro- biotics to enhance the Microbiome flora. In conclusion, researchers found that the animals fed a nutrient dense and biodiverse diet had a higher number and variety of Microbiomes in their digestive tract. Whereas the animals fed a manufactured diet (kibble) possessed less variety and numbers of Microbiomes.

What does this mean? The animals that were fed a bio-diverse diet that possess the high number of Microbiomes have a stronger capacity to fight off infection and disease. Thus, enhancing the health and longevity of the animal. In the avian diet, feeding a bio-diverse diet that includes nutrient dense food and naturally occurring pro-biotics will boost the immune system and aid in fighting off infection and disease. This greatly increases the chances for an extended lifespan. In closing, I hope this article opens your eyes to some of the myths and facts regarding avian nutrition.

Our birds rely solely on our care. When we decide to bring a feathered companion into
our homes, we also take on the responsibility of maintaining their health. Understanding
nutrition should be a priority when caring for these creatures that depend on their pet
parents to keep them happy and healthy.

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