The Hookbill Hobbyist

Think green to improve your pet bird’s diet

Words and Photographs by EB Cravens

If you have ever observed parrots or other birds out feeding in the trees or bush, then you may be aware of the tremendous variety of greenery ingested by avian species. Leaves, growth buds, flowers, sprouts and shoots, twigs, bark—not to mention an assortment of 1ichens, fungi and other tiny organics which live on them—all become dinner fare for birds at large in nature. Yet in captivity, our bird diets frequently consist of 70, 90, even 100% dry vitamised and hard processed foods that are high in protein, carbohydrate and fat. Fortunately, most softbill owners know that their charges quite naturally take to fresh produce. And I have never met a canary or finch that did not like some kind of fresh, wet greens. However, owners of so-called ‘picky’-eating psittacines often claim that their parrots will not touch raw, green foodstuffs. It is the demanding ‘fussy’ parrots such as cockatoos, conures, Amazons and Grey Parrots brought up on diets of seeds, grains, biscuits and extruded pellets that often stubbornly refuse green vegetables and foods. (No, the green pellets in your rainbow mix do not qualify as a green diet!)

Years of experience have taught me that all birds can be taught to enjoy a greener diet. The determining factors are what is offered, how it is presented—and the persistence of the keeper.

First of all, parrots love texture—and that means ‘crunchiness’. Therefore 99% of the green edibles that I offer my birds are stems. (Fluffy, quick-to-wilt leaves and tops are cut off and used for my own salads or composted.) Any tops with pods or buds are, of course, used as well. Just a few of the stems that my flock has learned to masticate are celery, chard, spinach, carrot, parsley, broccoli, buckwheat, watercress and, the most favoured of all, beets (perhaps because they are so red?). I cut all stems with sharp scissors into 2.5cm lengths and mix them in with soaked, sprouted, and cooked grains and pulses, which are offered in the morning.

One of our newly adopted Cockatiels is drawn to explore the first greenery dish of its six-year life!

Secondly, fresh green seeds from the garden plot are offered to our psittacines whenever available. Immature sunflower, rape, buckwheat, millet, anise, dill, beans and peas all fall into this category. Many are sprouted from leftover birdseed mix which we throw into a large pot or garden bed. The number of sprouts produced also gives a good indication of how fresh and clean your seed is. Our birds love them! Incidentally some captive-raised pets need to be shown that there is a kernel inside the bean or pea pod.

Vegetables and sprouts are actually more important for non nectar-eating hookbills than are sweet ripe fruits.

Thirdly, flowers. Is it just happenstance that my Sun Conures love tiny yellow marigold buds? We have formed the habit of not weeding our lawn and gardens closely because of the harvest of buds to be gleaned from the dandelions, purslane, wild lettuce, etc. After all, most weeds are merely a type of wildflower. Cultivated flower buds include asters, daisies, cosmos, nasturtium, impatiens and geraniums to name a few. All may be grown at home indoors or out with a minimum of effort. Please avoid fertilisers and artificial potting soils, and start with plain old dirt when growing food for your pet birds.

Sprouts such as clover, alfalfa, radish, sunflower and mung bean may be gently mixed into a parrot’s food dish along with seeds, pellets and the like. Be careful not to bruise the living sprout or it may die and begin to decompose immediately. Most of these seeds are available at health food stores. Often a parrot will begin to munch them by habit after it gets used to them being in the dish. We have taken up to three months of offering greens to certain psittacines before they began to sample them. Consistency and perseverance pay off—give your birds some sort of greens every day. Many species accept greenfoods best in the spring or during the breeding season. It is not unusual to see a mother parrot rush to the food dish to chew green stems first thing when she is feeding one and two-day-old babies!

Wildcrafted foods such as these ripe palm fruits are a wonderful addition to the diets of our South American parrots.

If certain stems are left uneaten week after week, try another vegetable. We seldom feed the same one two days in a row. Avoid too much offering of spinach, chard and other greens with high oxalic acid content.

Some of the surprising items that our birds devour are aloe vera chunks from baby plants, tiny, immature hot chillies, hard green crabapples and thornapples, and new growth sepioles and petioles on early spring branches. I also classify fresh fruit pips as ‘greenfood’ since they are both living storehouses and a significant source of vitamins and minerals.

It may be helpful to keep a running list of which items are best accepted by your flock. For example, our Regent and King Parrots have very different preferences in greens than the Eclectus and Cape Parrots. It is not necessary to make up different feeding mixes for each cage as long as daily and weekly variety is maintained.

Fourthly, there are various surreptitious ways to sneak greenness into your pet bird’s diet without them realising it. A few tablespoons of fresh celery, carrot or wheatgrass juice added to a cooked food mix or poured into the clean drinking water does the trick very nicely! Mashed or grated vegetables and greens can also be added to food. This technique releases quantities of chlorophyll, enzymes and liquid micro-nutrients for the birds to ingest. It prevents fussy parrots from throwing out large chunks of vegetables to waste. When we do cut large pieces, we sprinkle them with an attractive tiny seed like canary or quinoi which sticks to the morsel and prompts birds to pick up the vegetables to nibble.

Pet toys designed to hold chunks of zucchini, capsicum and the like may prompt a lazy eater into destroying green things thus getting benefit from the juices. A steady addition of fresh-cut boughs offered to our birds will soon get them into the habit of chewing on greenery. Note that as soon as bark begins to dry and go brown, the nutrients within are beginning to break down and oxidise. It is not necessary to always provide new greenery as long as one rea1ises that those dead branches have less organic benefit.

Truly, once parrots are taught to enjoy chewing upon greenery, they quickly make the transition to munching formerly untouched green things in their food bowls. In fact some of my most active pairs—Hawkheaded and Derbyan Parrots—are so accustomed to having branches to play with and destroy that over the years they have completely lost interest in most of the plastic toys that they formerly played with.

Pet parrot owners will find that with just a little imagination, it is quite easy to get their birds to consume a significantly greener diet. Parrots that get used to having greens around regularly begin to explore and taste them. From experience, I believe that these natural foods work to keep healthy, disease-resistant immune systems in my psittacines. Whenever I walk through the aviary and see a recently weaned chick following its elders’ example and gorging its beak with bright green slickness, I am positive that this is the proper training that my hookbills deserve.

A Black Lory fledgling learns to extract pollen and other phytonutrients from living and cut flowers in the garden.

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