Bird Diets: Birds Need More Than Seeds

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By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

R.I.P. 1966-2014

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.

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10 responses to “Bird Diets: Birds Need More Than Seeds

  1. Birds are so beautiful. I like the birds very much. They need good seeds to eat. All kinds of seeds are not good for them. just careful about it. Thanks a lot.

  2. I am unclear after reading this article about wild bird seed. Does bird seed for wild birds, or suet for wild birds, need to contain vitamins and supplements or not? Thank you.

    1. Sorry for the confusion. The article isn’t about wild birds, it’s about feeding pet birds. “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.”

      Wild Bird seed doesn’t need supplements unless there is absolutely no other feed for them anywhere, then you might. The wild bird seed you get at your local supplier should be just fine for your local wild birds.

  3. My problem is that I have two parakeets that are unfriendly to me and one of them is lacking nutrients because the feathers around his face are kind of brown and the bridge of his nose is crusty and brown. But anytime I try to give him fruit or anything that is not bird seed, the parakeets throw them on the floor and let them rot down there. I don’t know how to make him eat anything to get better. We took him to the vet and had him get this special water that has extra nutrients in it but it does not seem to be working after using it for about a month. So what do I do now?

    1. I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble. Likewise I was too with my untamed budgie. Just keep trying and eventually they will get curious and have a taste. It took me 6 weeks every day to get my budgie to eat fresh veges instead of just seeds but it was worth the effort to do it. Good luck.

  4. Any tips on transitioning a picky bird onto pellets? My collared dove is very particular about the vegetables and fruits she likes and I am almost sure that she will reject pellets, but I really want her to have them in her diet.

  5. Can domesticated lovebirds eat safflowers seeds intended for cardinals & outside birds. If not, where can I get a bag of safflower seeds for my lovebirds without 98% seeds & fruit they will not eat? I have never requested this info before & am in need of your help!

  6. Fruit is a crucial part of an avian diet holding potent antioxidants, anti bacterial and anti fungal properties.
    Studying parrots in the wild they feed off of fruiting bud trees consume the seeds and disperse them. Fruit is not sugar and water but an important role in there diet. Go find study’s of one parrot in the wild eating a carrot or vegetable? Not observed! They feed off fruiting palm trees, green leaves that is there “veggies” bark, larvae, grass seeds and corn, corn is a fruit so are cucumbers, zucchinis and squashes.
    You can research the two year survey they performed in the Amazon what is recorded of what they consumed most fruit budding trees.
    Caged parrots need a balanced diet more green leaves from non toxic Organic non treated wood that is bird safe as guava wood is great start.
    All organic fresh green herbs, budding flowers, Harrison’s organic bird food, and yes Berry’s are crucial more than other fruit. Examples all organic only; Guava, Barbados cherry, blueberry, raspberry’s etc.

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