My Philosophy on Pellets

June 3, 2011 § 8 Comments

Probably the most baffling and intimidating part of being a parrot owner for me is feeding my parrots.  There is so little research on what our parrots are actually eating in the wild, and even less so on what are the necessary or appropriate nutritional profiles of their meals.  With some parrots, you can find basic information– Cape Parrots, for example, normally feed almost exclusively off of the fruit of the yellowwood tree (although due to habitat destruction they now also feed off of pecan trees, plum trees, and some other crops, but this is not believed to be an ideal diet and may also be one of the contributing factors to the widespread PBFD outbreaks among the wild populations).  Budgies, of course, feed mostly off of grasses, sprouted or germinated seeds, and the occasional wheat crop; Hyacinth Macaws predominantly feed off of two species of palm nuts.  But what is the nutritional content of these foods, and what kinds of protein and fat and sugar levels are we looking at?  That information is nearly impossible to find, which makes it exceedingly difficult to design an appropriate diet in captivity, being that we have no access to their natural diets nor to the nutritional makeup of them.

For me, this is the number one argument against any pellet-based or majority pellet diet.  (No, I don’t believe in seed-based either; that’s an entirely different story.)  I don’t care what it says on the package– formulated specifically for macaws, or formulated with lower protein levels for birds prone to gout– the fact of the matter is, if our wildlife conservationists and avian nutrition researchers cannot figure out exactly what type of nutritional profile is appropriate for a bird in the wild let alone a bird in captivity, then corporate pet food manufacturers certainly can’t.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a single formula pellet in different sizes or species-specific pellet; there is no be all end all recipe.

Besides, if you look at the vast majority of pellets on the market, you’ll see that the main ingredients are corn, soy, and wheat, then a bunch of synthetic vitamins.  These companies fool bird owners into thinking that they are providing a “complete diet” because they’ve injected an artificial multivitamin into their pellet.  Well, let’s apply this logic to our own bodies: if we ate corn on the cob and pasta everyday as the majority of our diet for the rest of our lives but took a daily “complete” multivitamin… what kind of state of health do you think we’d be in?  Not so good.  Not so good at all.

What about the fact that I switched my bird to almost exclusively pellets and his feathers have never looked better?  Well, in the short term, pellets can dramatically increase health.  If you switched your parrot from a seed diet to a pellet diet, of course you’d probably see a dramatic change.  Why?  Well let’s apply the same logic to our own bodies.  If we ate fatty nuts and seeds all day, exclusively, for an extended period of time, then began taking a multivitamin and some corn and wheat, wouldn’t you expect to see some great changes?  The increase in diversity of diet alone would help, as would the decreased fat and oil content, and the synthetic vitamins would surely help in the short term.  Notice that the pellet manufacturers that make claims about nutrition will only show photos of “six months later!” or studies that have been conducted in the short term.

It’s the long term, however, that I’m worried about.  Over time, those synthetic vitamins can build up and cause potential problems with vitamin toxicity, and the daily diet of simply corn/soy/wheat will take its toll.  There are several long term studies that show that in small birds, namely budgies, cockatiels, parrotlets, and even lovebirds, a long term all pellet or majority pellet diet is incredibly tough on their liver and leads to gout and other problems.  I suspect– and obviously this is simply my own theory, not backed by any evidence or experimentation– that the only reason we hear about these problems only in small birds is because their life spans are short enough that we have actually been able to do these types of studies.  I would venture to guess that we’d see these problems arise in most species of parrots, if we had the ability to see how they affect the health of the longer lived parrots as well.

Do I think that pellets, then, are inherently bad?  Well, it’s complicated.  I do believe that if you feed a high quality pellet, then pellets can very well be a part of a complete and healthy diet.  But that statement is complicated, because I honestly feel that there are very few high quality pellets on the market.  To me, a high quality pellet is at minimum human grade– which knocks out nearly all of them, including Zupreem and Roudybush despite their reputations as superior for whatever reason.  These pellets all contain menadione, a synthetic form of Vitamin K that I feel is very dangerous (you can read more about it here), and otherwise they are all simply some concoction of corn/soy/wheat/synthetic vitamins, which to me does not sound healthful by any means.  The only three human grade pellets are Harrison’s, Goldn’obles, and Totally Organics.  But are they high quality?  I feel somewhat unsure about Harrison’s since it is also mostly corn, soy, and wheat, as well as peanuts which I choose not to feed; I feel similarly about Goldn’obles, which contain corn and soy, and also two sources of added sugar if I am not mistaken.  (Somebody I know, in fact, tasted them and said they do indeed taste rather sweet.)

I feel the absolute safest using Totally Organics and it is currently the only pellet I’d feed my flock.  The ingredients list is spectacular and I do not feel unsure about a single ingredient on it.  Even still, my flock’s pellet intake is only about 10-20% of their daily diet, and we often have entirely pellet-free days when I am able to be home to keep their food offerings fresh.  I am often asked, which pellet would I feed if TOPs went off the market?  Well, the answer would probably be none, to be honest.  I do not feel that it is right as a parrot owner to “settle” when I know that I could do better.

So, that’s my take on pellets, finally all written up in one entry.  I know that the natural follow up question is, well, what is the other 80-90% of their diet?  (And no, it is not seed.)  That, however, I will have to tackle another day.  But I’ll leave you with a hint.

This week's lovely fresh produce offerings for the birds and for me

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§ 8 Responses to My Philosophy on Pellets

  • Meg says:

    You know I don’t feed any pellets here. When I first got parrots, pellets were pushed even stronger than they are today, so naturally I converted them form seed to pellets, and that was most of their diet until I got them eating more fresh food, but even then it was 30% or so. This was for, ohh, I don’t know, 6 months to a year, before I got so sensitive to soy I could not have them in the house at all. Anyway, I had 2 budgies and one tiel. All just improved dramatically when put on pellets, but when put on very diverse fresh food diets with balanced protein (saying this because a bowl of apples lettuce and corn doesn’t cut it) they really got a lot better still! They are all totally water resistant, and their feathers, even on the grey tiels, seem to reflect many colors. They get stellar vet checks, their nails and beaks don’t over grow, just very healthy over all. A small sampling, of course, but just my experience.

    The major problem with leaving out pellets is vitamin D. Fortunately you can get it just about year round in the south, since there are alwyas mild days even in January. It is more difficult in other places, though. I would love a D3 supplement, just for times when it has been cold for a while, etc, but I can’t seem to find a good one. I was talking to the the company about calciboost this week and was NOT impressed. No idea their sources for the vitamins, not interested in looking. Gee, thanks.

    • Coco's Flock says:

      Yes, the lack of a vitamin D3 supplement, that is what most people bring up when I make an argument for TOPs. But like you’ve found, there really aren’t any great sources of Vitamin D3, whether in separate supplements or directly in pellets. I have looked into the ones offered for birds and have yet to find one that seems to be high quality (or with competent sales/customer service representatives who can answer questions). D3 is also one of the vitamins you really do not want to overdose on by any means and it is risky with synthetics/supplements.

      I know this isn’t an option for everybody, especially in the coldest of areas, but when it is cold but not windy, or when the wind is blowing in a different direction, I will put my guys in a travel cage and set up a heat lamp or heat panel next to them, and open up the window for some sunlight. I try to do this once a week in the winter and I do think it is a better solution than any pellet or supplement.

      • Meg says:

        Exactly. Supplements for birds are even worse than those for humans- at least you usually can find a really good quality supplement for people, should you need one for some reason, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case with birds.

        Some people worry more about temperature than I do, I know, and of course it depends on what your individual birds are used to, but my birds seem just find in cooler weather for short periods. I have heard down to the 40s is ok for going outside for a bit for healthy birds, or playing an aviary during the day, etc. I am not sure I have gone quite that low, but usually I don’t have to. Moving to the Piedmont, though, I will have to see, going to be at least a little cooler than the not-quite-coastal flatlands of NC and VA!

      • Coco's Flock says:

        Ooh, well I’m not sure about the Piedmont region but here (not too far) gets pretty darn cold in the winter, down to the single digits sometimes. I’m not quite brave enough to take them out in that kind of weather!

      • Meg says:

        Oh I would never take them out when it is that cold! But year round, at least a few days each month, usually more, get to 50 or so. One week or two in January is always much warmer in Va/NC, at least, usually the second/third week. That is more what I meant. And I don’t know how long you have lived in Va. , but the last two winters have been extremely, extremely unusual. Climate change all the way!

  • HungryBird says:

    Love this article! I don’t feel that pellets make a big difference to my birds but they do enjoy eating them. They are really useful for foraging too. I have noticed an improvement in the feathering of my birds since I started giving them red palm oil. Squeaky is not growing any new feathers of course but their feathers look so clean and healthy.

  • chaoticzoo says:

    Very nice article. I find pellets to be a good between step for getting birds on an overall better diet, and I offer them as a very small part of my birds’ current diet. I also only feed TOPs for the same reasons you mentioned. I’m looking forward to hearing what the rest of your birds’ diet is.

  • […] you’re a frequent reader of my blog, you’ve probably already read my entry on my philosophy on pellets, so this discussion will probably be somewhat repetitive.  But if you haven’t read it, or if […]

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