Author: Peter Wilson, Avian Vet

Parrots are 'hard-wired' to chew. In the course of a day, 50% of their chewing is for eating and 50% is for foraging Wild birds work hard for their food. In the wild, parrots search methodically for food items. They have to find tiny grass seeds, chew off the outer coating, husk the seed and finally eat it. They forage for seed pods, crack the pod, open the seed and eat the kernel. However, in captivity, we present them with a bowl of seed. They can eat all they need to keep them alive in 5 to 10 minutes. Then they have nothing to do. Many cages are filled with plastic junk toys, metal bells and doweling perches. There is nothing to chew on except their seed. So the birds eat more seed and become obese, cough potatoes with all of the associated health problems. Parrots in captivity need to chew on green leafy branches and 'wild foods' to satisfy their foraging instincts and keep them happy and healthy. Foraging opportunities for captive parrots are necessary to maintain their mental and physical health.

It is the owner's responsibility to provide foraging and chewing 'occupational therapy' opportunities for their pet parrots. Natural branch perches, green, leafy browse, seed pods and selected weeds are readily available to enrich the lives of captive parrots. The following ideas will provide ample chewing and foraging opportunities for pet birds.

Perches

Should be regarded as disposable. Provide branches that are wide enough for the bird's foot to be comfortably spread on top of the perch, rather than curled tightly around a narrow perch. Branches should be from Australian native trees as these are non-toxic to native birds. Rough bark is better than smooth as it can be chewed more easily and also provides 'Dr Scholl' massage for feet. The following trees make good bird perches:

  • Wattle

  • Bottle Brush

  • Paper Bark

  • Iron Bark

Browse

Green, leafy branches from Australian native trees. Avoid ornamental, exotic garden and house plants as they are often toxic. Fresh browse makes the cage look more attractive and provides plenty of occupational and foraging opportunities for captive parrots. Chewing the leaves and bark also provides some nutritional supplements. When collecting browse, leave the flowers for the wild honey-eaters and lorikeets. Wait until the flowers set seeds e.g. bottle brush, eucalyptus, grevillia nuts are full of seeds. These native seeds are bush tucker for pet parrots. Smaller birds, such as cockatiels and budgies, prefer smaller leaved trees. The following trees are good for 'chewing':-

  • Lemon scented ti-tree

  • Wattle and Eucalyptus

  • Melaleuca

  • Lilly Pilly

  • Grevillia

Grasses

Fresh, seasonal, seeding grasses are a natural and easily obtainable 'wild food' for pet parrots. Pet birds from budgerigars to cockatoos enjoy foraging through freshly picked grass seeds. The birds will let you know if they don't like the seeds (e.g. they won't eat setaria). Always pick seed a few metres from road verges to avoid exhaust fumes. Avoid black mould on seed heads after rain and don't pick seeds if they have obviously been sprayed with herbicides and are wilted and yellowish. If no fresh seeding grasses are available, plant some bird seed and let it grow into seed heads. Fresh green seed heads are the natural way for birds to eat seed. It is customary and convenient to feed birds pre-packaged, dry seed. However, in the wild they eat fresh, green seed.

Weeds

Watch what the wild birds eat. There are many nutritious and readily available weeds that make excellent dietary supplements and a foraging source for pet parrots. Some weeds that are non-toxic and nutritious include:-

  • Milk Thistle and other thistles

  • Tropical chick weed

  • Swamp Dock

  • Dandelions (whole plant and flowers)

  • Grevillia

Inclusion of wild food and foliage for nutritional and occupational therapy purposes will enrich your bird's life. Pet bird owners need to learn about plants and foliage. It is important to become environmentally aware and watch what the wild birds eat. When you go walking, take scissors, sectors and some plastic bags to collect bird friendly plants and foliage. Plant trees that your parrot likes to eat. Grow some bird seed. The wild food and browse will add an extra dimension to your parrot's physical and mental health.

Information supplied by (c) Currumbin Valley Vet Services August 2010