By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
We live in a land of fast food, fatty snacks, and junk food junkies. French fries dripping with grease, hamburgers packed with calories – most of us are painfully aware that our diets are less than ideal. Could our pets also be suffering from a similar situation? If that pet is a bird and it's on an all-seed diet, the answer's an emphatic “Yes!”
While nature lovers can safely supplement wild birds with feeders full of seed, too much seed for your pet bird can lead to serious problems.
Just ask Dr. Vanessa Rolfe, an avian veterinarian at Avian & Exotic Veterinary Services in Salem, Va. “Seventy to 80 percent of the problems I treat in birds are due directly or indirectly to inadequate diets – usually seed-based diets,'' Rolfe says. “Seeds are high in fat and deficient in many other nutrients, including amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. So an all-seed diet can be associated with a long list of medical problems.”
These problems range from respiratory diseases and reduced immune system function to obesity, fatty liver, bone deformities, and feather-picking. As expected, this plethora of related diseases means Tweetie's likely to bite the dust well before his time. Says Rolfe, “I see seed-fed budgies that are geriatric at 4 instead of 14 years of age, and most cockatiels only make it to 10 years instead of to their upper 20s.”
It seems odd that seeds could be responsible for a bird's early demise, since many household birds have wild counterparts that survive predominantly on seed. Dr. Kirk Klasing, professor of comparative nutrition at the University of California, Davis, and author of Comparative Avian Nutrition (CABI Publishing, 1998), sheds some light on the situation.
Says Klasing, “First, the types of seeds that we feed in captivity have a markedly different nutrient content from the seeds that birds in the wild eat. The seeds we feed have been domesticated. Since we've bred them for high yields and taste characteristics, they are high in starch, fat, and energy and low in amino acids and vitamins.” That means that while domesticated seeds provide lots of calories, they meet fewer of the avian nutrient requirements.
“Secondly,” Klasing adds, “birds in captivity expend less energy than birds in the wild. Since animals eat to meet their energy requirements, birds in captivity eat much less than those in the wild, which means they have less opportunity to get the nutrients they need.”
This phenomenon is easy to demonstrate. In one study, Klasing found that when he fed a low-protein seed to two groups of finches – one group that got its seed in bowls and one group that had to forage all day for the seeds – the foraging group did well on the diet, but the bowl-fed group developed severe protein deficiency. Even though the seeds were low in protein, because the foraging finches ate so much to satisfy their energy debts, they received enough grams of protein per day to meet their requirements.
So if bird seed is an imbalanced diet, what should you feed your bird? Tom Roudybush, avian nutritionist and owner of Roudybush bird feeds, says, “If the owners can supplement the bird enough so that the bird gets all of the required nutrients, then keeping it on seed is okay. The problem is that with a seed mix, the bird can take whatever it wants. It can pick out and eat only the sunflower seeds and throw away all of its vegetables and supplemental foods if it wants. Then it's as if you're feeding the bird an all-sunflower-seed diet.''
Rolfe agrees and adds, “A diet incorporating many food items could be used as an alternative for a formulated diet; however such a homemade diet is expensive, time-consuming, and there's a lot of room for error. This type of diet requires an exceptionally dedicated owner.”
As a result, Rolfe generally recommends owners use a pelleted diet formulated for birds and supplemented with a variety of healthy foods. However, when searching for supplemental foods, Klasing warns that we should beware of overdoing it on the fruits.
Says Klasing, “Fruits are not rich in anything but energy, which seeds are also enriched in. In fact, in terms of nutrient content, fruits are primarily an expensive source of water and sugar. Vegetables are a richer source of important nutrients such as amino acids and vitamins.”
All three experts emphasize that, unlike dogs, a group of animals comprising a single species, birds are comprised of thousands of species with varying nutritional needs. As a result, the types of supplements an owner gives should be tailored based on the species' generality and the individual's needs. In any case cutting back the seeds and balancing the diet with healthier foods will help ensure a longer, healthier life.
Modified from an article originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000.