Is Any Pellet Better Than No Pellet?

October 23, 2013 § 17 Comments

I very frequently get requests to continue working on the Pellet Project, which I discontinued a while back due to just getting very busy.  (You can read the only page I left standing from the Pellet Project, on Totally Organics Pellets, here.)  I had only gotten through a few pellets anyway, and the work ahead of me was quite staggering.  Well, I am toying with the idea of continuing it.  Slowly.  If you feel strongly that I should or should not, I would appreciate your feedback.

However, today, I wanted to tackle a slightly different question, raised in the title of this post.  (It could also be titled, how do I know if my pellet is any good?  If any of you remember my work on the Pellet Project, you will notice that this entry is almost a DIY-version of it.)  One of the most common and confusing mind sets that I see as quite a pervasive and dominant philosophy in the parrot world is that any pellet must be better than no pellet at all.  I’m not quite sure how this started or how people came to believe this so widely and so surely, as if it is fact.  But I’d like to question that belief.

If 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 you’re anybody that’s interested in parrots’ diets, or pellets in particular, please do keep reading.

Back on topic: where do we get this notion, that any pellet is better than no pellet?  Why do we inherently believe that pellets have some sort of secret, magical nutrition locked away in them?  First of all, wildlife researchers and ornithologists or even researchers specializing in avians and exotics don’t know what the daily nutritional profile of most parrot species looks like.  We have very little idea of exactly what kind of nutritional breakdown parrots are getting in the wild, so the notion that a pellet company can formulate a diet tailored specifically to pet birds’ needs is a bit ludicrous to me.

And then there’s the fact that these diets are specifically “tailored” to pet birds’ needs, yet the ingredients list of a macaw pellet is so often the same as a budgerigar pellet — that’s right, macaws, a type of parrot that is native to the rain forests of Central and South America, are being fed the same formula as budgies, a type of parrot that is native to the arid lands of Australia.  The only difference, in most cases, is size.  Something fishy, isn’t there?

I certainly think there is, and I think more parrot owners should, too.  I think that one of the most important things we can do as parrot owners is to educate ourselves about diet and nutrition for our birds’ sake.  And although I encourage everybody to research the wild diet of their parrots, this information is unavailable in a lot of cases, or rather unhelpful to the captive bird owner in terms of finding readily available local equivalents and substitutes– so at least research the diets that are available to you, and start by reading the ingredients in your pellets.

Pellet ingredient lists are very long and thus can seem quite daunting.  But if you know how to pull them apart, and what to look for, you can discern a lot about quality.

Getting Started: Base Ingredients

I like to look at the first five ingredients to get started.  These will be what I call the “base” ingredients of the pellet (it may differ from pellet to pellet; some pellets might only have 3 whereas others might have 7 or 8).  But usually, the first five or so ingredients will make up the majority of the content of the pellet, since manufacturers must list ingredients ranked in order of how much of the product each ingredient constitutes.  Usually, you will see something like wheat, corn, rice, or soy.  Because these ingredients will make up most of the pellet, these are very important in revealing the quality of the pellet.  As such, you want to see a good variety of healthy grains or seeds.  With the pervasiveness of GMO wheat, corn, and soy, I really don’t like to see those three ingredients in a pellet unless they are certified organic.  Some parrot owners actually don’t like to see those ingredients all together, because they are three of the most common allergens in birds.  Rice tends to be a healthier choice, but brown rice is an even better one.  But as someone actually wisely pointed out to me today, even rice has its problems, as it is often found to contain high levels of arsenic.

Furthermore, pay attention to how these ingredients appear.  Does it say “whole soybeans,” or does it say “ground soybean meal”?  Grain “meals” are often indicators of far lower quality ingredients, often reserved for pet foods only and in some cases not fit for human grade foods.

Remember, these first ingredients will make up the bulk of the pellet, and the rest of the ingredients will typically be flavor enhancers, preservatives, and vitamins.  So if you are feeding a majority-pellet diet, think to yourself: would you want to eat corn/wheat/soy/rice every single day, along with a multivitamin?  Do you think that’d be healthy?  Do you think you’d like it… everyday?  What if you had evolved to eat fruits and seeds normally, as many parrots have?  Do you think that some “ground corn meal” with a vitamin would be your ideal diet?

Step Two: Look at the  Vitamins

After tackling the base ingredients, the next step is  to try to discern where the vitamins are coming from.  Most of these will be listed under obvious names, like “Vitamin D3 Supplement,” Vitamin E Supplement,” “Calcium Carbonate,” etcetera.  Some will be less obvious, such as “Menadione Sodium Bisulfate Complex,” which is a type of Vitamin K.  And some will be even less obvious, because they’ll be embedded in other ingredients like carrot powder as a source of all natural Vitamin A.  But these are also important to think about.  For one, some vitamins are downright dangerous– menadione, for example, is banned from human food and I would not feed it to my birds under any circumstances.  (I wrote an entry on it here.)  Another thing to consider is that while in synthetic form, some vitamins can be overdosed on.  All natural sources of vitamins, however, from whole foods (like carrots, to use the example above) cannot be overdosed on, as the body will use that which it needs and excrete the rest naturally.  And finally, some consider the addition of Vitamin D3 to be extremely important for bone density and calcium absorption, in particular for parrots that do not get a lot of exposure to natural sunlight.

Step Three: Everything Else

The rest of the ingredients will likely fall under additives, flavor enhancers, or preservatives.  Take a good look at these and make sure you are comfortable with them.  Some are positive and/or benign, like fruit juices to add flavor and sometimes even natural color, or herbs to add flavor and health benefits.  Some are relatively uncontroversial preservatives like Mixed Tocopherols (unless your parrot has a soy allergy).  Some are things you’ve never heard of, and if you looked into, would probably not be happy about.  So don’t be complacent, and look into them!  Why should your parrot eat Canthaxanthin when you don’t know what it is?  Another consideration is peanuts.  Many of us also choose not to feed peanuts– but several pellets also contain peanuts.

Step Four: The Labeling

One last thing: is the product certified organic?  If so, then you know its ingredients are non-GMO, which for me means a lot.  What about human grade?  This is another indicator of quality.

Of course, this entire process will likely involve looking up a few things you’ve never heard of, but what’s an hour of research on the internet in comparison to the health of your companion parrot?  Once you know the ingredients in your pellet and can understand where the base of the pellet is coming from, what kinds of vitamins it contains, as well as what additives or preservatives, you will be able to develop an informed opinion on the quality of the pellet as well as develop your own opinion as to how comfortable you feel about feeding it.  I think that many of us will be surprised to learn that we are not comfortable with many of the pellets on the market.  As I’m sure you can tell, I have very strong opinions about food, diet, and nutrition.  But I hope that this entry will teach other parrot owners to arrive at their own conclusions, based on educated decisions.

So back to our original question: is any pellet better than no pellet?  That’s up for you to decide, but I think that in more cases than not, the answer is no.

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§ 17 Responses to Is Any Pellet Better Than No Pellet?

  • Carol says:

    In the interest of full disclosure, do you receive remuneration from TOPS?

    • Coco's Flock says:

      Oh, excellent question, thank you very much for raising it. I absolutely do not! I do not receive remuneration from any bird product manufacturers at all and all of my reviews and entries are strictly unsolicited. TOPs did, once, send me a free gift sample of a new product when it first came out, which you can read about here: https://cocosflock.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/a-gift-from-totally-organics/ So, you might think that that may have influenced my opinions. However, a lot of food companies have actually sent me free samples of things, as do toy makers from time to time, but I do my best only to report on those products that I truly feel meet high quality and safety standards. Of course, these are only my opinions, and you are welcome to disagree with me. I’d love to get a dialogue going with people who feel differently as I am always interested in learning more.

    • Coco's Flock says:

      I also wanted to clarify, that whereas I have made clear on my blog elsewhere that I do have a high opinion of TOPs, I am actually not a big fan of pellets (in particular as majority diets) in the first place. Lola I’ve actually really never gotten to take to pellets at all so she doesn’t really eat any, let alone TOPs.

      • natachag says:

        So I`m not the only one with a Cape who couldn’t care less for pellets! Still keep offering them, but, unlike the rest of the flock, she just doesn’t seem to want to try them.

  • Anneka says:

    Great post, Coco! I would also add that feeding pellets to our little birds who normally don’t drink much (such parrotlets and budgies for example) might be quite dangerous.

    We need many more yrs of reliable and UNBIASED research done to show if pellets are indeed that good, as good as their manufacturers state. 😉

    Even the advice from the best avian vets who sell pellets and claim that Harrison’s brand is the best shouldn’t be enough to start your bird on a pelleted diet, simply because for any vet clinic selling products is easy money.

  • Anita says:

    Hmm, interesting read! I’m very curious to see how you feel about the use of commercial hand-feeding formulas for the raising of chicks.

    If you feel confident about the void of pellets in a parrot’s diet, would you have the same confidence that a baby bird would also thrive on a natural, home made mix from day 1 chicks to fully weaned bird? I mean after all, these baby formulas are concocted by pellet companies, contain the same questionable ingredients you mention, and for the most part, are one-formula-fits-all.

    There is an enormous amount of evidence that day even the most fragile day one chicks DO thrive on commercial handfeeding formulas until they wean, and turn out to be healthy, unstunted young birds. For the most part, this route is pretty fool proof, you can’t really go wrong. Do you feel that if breeders decided to go the natural, home made way, that each chick would turn out just as healthy if not healthier than one who has been fed a commercial formula? Would this home made formula hold the same near fool-proof degree of success as its counterpart? If so, why? 🙂

    • Coco's Flock says:

      Anita, excellent questions/points. Unfortunately my knowledge about hand feeding and raising chicks in captivity is really quite sparse, and as such, I can’t really answer your question, but rather would ask a few questions myself. Here are some of the questions your points raise for me, and some of my own thoughts as well:

      – You say that “fragile day one chicks DO thrive on commercial handfeeding formulas until they wean, and turn out to be healthy, unstunted young birds” and later say that there is a “near fool-proof degree of success.” I, admittedly, don’t know if this is true or if it is false. I’d like to know a little bit about the size of birds bred in captivity v. birds born in the wild. I’d also like to know information about the size of birds raised on handfeeding formula starting on day 1, v. birds raised on it starting later (a lot of breeders, for example, wait 3-4 weeks before starting a chick on handfeeding formula). You might absolutely be right, but I just don’t know enough about the topic to evaluate that claim.

      – Let’s assume that the above point was true. I think that one possible explanation, which I raised in my entry about my philosophy on pellets, is that in the short term, I really and truly do think that pellets can have a very beneficial effect, just like anybody who starts taking a multivitamin where before they were not will likely see a short term positive effect. My bigger concern about pellets is the constant and lifelong use of them as a majority diet– key words being lifelong, and majority. I’m not sure I always make this point as clearly as I would like to, but to clarify, I think that some pellets can have a place in a healthy diet when used as part of a healthy diet, and not as a complete diet. I also think that some pellets can be fed lifelong, but others, which use ingredients that are proven toxic in certain doses or banned from human food due to health concerns, are really not things that we should feed our birds for their entire lives. So bringing it back to handfeeding formulas, I would not be entirely surprised if in the short term we saw positive effects and good results on raising chicks on these formulas, because most parrots aren’t on these formulas for more than a few months (with some exceptions for the larger macaws I believe, and maybe cockatoos as well).

      – I also question why we have to separate “natural, home made” mixes from “commercial formulas.” I think there are some commercial products that are excellent, high quality, natural products that started out as home made. And my hope is that we can see more and more of these. I’m not saying that breeders should relinquish their handfeeding formulas for some experimental one they made up, but rather that it would be fantastic to see more companies creating commercial formulas that were more natural.

      – Translating this conversation to the adult parrot and pellet context, and the argument that so many people raise that studies have shown that parrots on pellets do “better,” I again want to ask, “do better than what?” If you look at some of the longer term studies it’s no surprise that parrots are doing “better,” because doing “better on pellets” means doing better than what they were feeding 20-30 years ago in aviculture, which for many was sunflower seeds, peanuts, and bread soaked in milk. Again, I think the question of whether pellets have a healthy place in a parrot’s diet is a very different question of whether pellets have a healthy place as the entirety of a parrot’s diet. It’s easy to say that an all pellet diet is better than an all seed/peanut/bread/milk diet, but I think it’s far less obvious and possibly false that an all pellet diet is better than a pellet/sprouts/cooked food/veggie chop/etcetera varied diet.

      Again, I apologize that my knowledge about handfeeding formulas is really not a lot. I have a lot to learn! And even though I know that I express strong opinions in my posts, the absolute strongest opinion I have is that none of us have all the answers, and that I hope we all recognize that we each have more to learn, and never stop seeking answers to our questions. Anita, thank you for raising these points. They certainly make me think a lot harder about what I believe and I think you pointed out quite well that there is a lot left to learn.

      • Anita says:

        Love your answer! I’m sorry if your hands hurt from writing out that long reply because of me! I really do agree with you overall, that yes, pellets can be noticeably beneficial in the short term, but we do not know exactly what long term effects they may bring. You did bring up a lot of excellent questions in your reply, and really, only with time will we find out the answers. Thanks for the great discussion. 🙂

  • Bea Cazeneuve says:

    Yes, please do continue. Bird keepers need to realize that pellets are not good for birds.

    I´ve got my first rescue back in 1992 and none of my birds has ever gotten a single pellet. They eat homemade organic gloop, fresh produce and a small portion of seeds (mostly cereals with added roasted nuts for the larger species) for dinner. This regimen has not only kept the younger ones healthy and not getting hormonal (and that means no plucking, no screaming, no biting, etc), it has also kept alive birds that avian vets have suggested I put down due to the advanced degree of liver and/or kidney malfunction. Just one example: a 19 year old cockatiel with severe liver malfunction (polyuria, polydipsia, abdomen filled up with fluids, terrible plumage and not molting, severely underweight, not perching, not preening, bile acid test values more than three times the normal range, etc) came to me a year ago in August – vet said he would not last two months and should be put down but he is not only still alive 14 months later, he is now perching, preening, had a normal molt, at a normal weight and although he still drinks a bit more water than the others, he no longer retains fluids and the polyuria has all but dissapeared. And this was achieved without a single medicine but through a fresh food diet and herbal supplements.

    Pellets are not only too dry for a bird that eats plant material (85 to 95% water content versus the usual less than10 for pellets), they have man-made vitamins (lower bioavailability as well as lacking in the natural synergy of the ones acquired from fresh food), lower quality ingredients (animal feed versus human grade), none has a specific or a range protein value (HUGELY important with parrots), the wrong kind of fiber (and that means high cholesterol), they also have ZERO phytonutrients! You might as well feed them colored cardboard sprinkled with protein powder and vitamins!

    • Coco's Flock says:

      Bea, how exciting for me to see YOU responding about my opinions! I have huge respect for you and what you do and how you keep your flock. Thank you! Thank you for sharing your story about your cockatiel… wow. I don’t know if it can be attributed to your diet, the herbal supplements, or your care for and experience with and love of birds, but clearly, something is working 🙂

      Thanks for your comments about the water content of pellets as well. That’s another concern of mine for sure.

      If you don’t mind, above, Anita posted some really excellent questions that I don’t have the experience to answer. Do you have experience with handfeeding birds? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts about Anita’s points because I think they’re really good ones.

      • Bea Cazeneuve says:

        Thank you for your kind words. I also hold you in great respect and admire your devotion and dedication to enlightening bird keepers and, thus, bettering their birds lives.

        As to responding to Anita, it will be my pleasure. I also do not have any significant experience with handfeeding baby parrots as I am completely opposed to breeding them and, on the very few occasions that I have ended up with babies, I allowed the parents to raise them on their own without any interference from me. Just as clarification, only on one occasion the birds bred while under my care (a very wily pair of lovebirds that made sure I did not realize they were incubating in a nest they had made under the false bottom of a cabinet), the others resulted from pairs either sitting on fertile eggs when they came to me or with the babies already born. But I did have to handfeed a baby canary rejected by his mother and used a mixture of commercial formula and homemade formula. But I do use a homemade formula when I have to feed birds that either need extra nutrition or are unable to eat on their own (as in the case of birds with strokes, for example).

        Homemade formula is easily put together with a good blender or a food processor. It´s just a matter of putting together different flours (the kind you would use would depend on the amount of protein you want to end up with) with hardboiled eggs for extra protein (if at all needed) and fruit/vegetable purees for the vitamins and minerals. If you think about it, wild parent birds raise their chicks on the same food they eat. It might be richer and more plentiful than what they would eat the rest of the year because the breeding season always coincides with the growing season in nature but it´s not different in its composition. Just as an example, you would use whole grain flours like wheat, oat, rice, corn, etc; organic, all vegetarian, free-range cooked eggs and pureed carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, broccoli, kale, strawberries, etc. You can also add a bit of bee polen and royal jelly with propolis for an extra boost.

        As to babies thriving with commercial formula… well, (this will sound terrible but, in our defense, we did not know any better back then) my grandmother and I used to raise quaker chicks back on the 60s on white bread soaked with milk and thin pólenta – a diet so deficient by today´s standards that I wonder now how they survived at all! Furthermore, we kept them in the kitchen, in an open shoe box under the stove (they had legs back then) and fed them with a toothpick. Can you imagine?! And I don´t know whether one could say that they thrived or not but they did grow up to have a normal plumage, size, weight and behaviors – so much so that you couldn´t tell them apart from the wild ones when they became adults and joined a flock.

        The truth of the matter is that pellet manufacturers have been extremely efficient in making everybody believe that they are the only ones that know all there is to know about psittacine nutrition when the reality is that they do not know any more than any of us who has done research about it for the simple reason that there is VERY little scientific material on the subject. Why? Because the pet parrot industry is, historically, a very recent fad and parrots live very long lives – with their longevity working two ways against it: 1) because, as far as I know, we don´t have any domestically bred senior pet parrot of a large species which ate pellets all its life, and 2) because scientists want to be published while they are still alive and a long term study on large species of psittacine nutrition would take, at least, 50 years!

  • Melissa says:

    Thank you for this article. I think you should continue research as well.

    However, now I’m worried about feeding brown rice (or white rice) to my parrots due to the arsenic. Do you have any thoughts on this subject? It was my understanding that rice along with beans made a complete protein. Is quinoa truly a complete protein and therefore a good substitute? (I give my parrots both rice and quinoa.)

    Thanks,
    Melissa

    • Bea Cazeneuve says:

      Yes, that was a big concern a couple of years ago but recent studies (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/09/06/arsenic-rice-low-levels-fda/2771903/) show the levels are very low. Plus, white rice has less than brown (the arsenic apparently concentrates on the hull of the grain), California rice has lower levels than rice grown in other states and basmati and jazmine grown in India and Indonesia (http://www.greenchildmagazine.com/arsenic-in-rice/) have the lowest so, what I’ve been doing is using brown basmati from Indonesia or India mixed with wild rice (which is not rice at all but the birds love it) and some California white instead of all ‘regular’ brown rice.

      Hope this was of help to you.

    • Coco's Flock says:

      Bea, thanks for the awesome response! I don’t know what to make of the studies of actual levels but I thought that this article had a good and balanced discussion about the debate: http://chriskresser.com/arsenic-in-rice-how-concerned-should-you-be and it surprised me to learn that vegetables account for 24% of arsenic exposure. I definitely think it’s something to be aware of; I’m just not sure how worried I should be.

      As such I don’t really feed much rice to my guys except for what they get in TOPs (one note though is that it is brown rice, which as Bea notes, is higher in arsenic), and occasionally I’ll make a mash that has a small amount of rice in it (among other grains). Bea’s guidelines on what rice is the best rice to buy though are very helpful.

      • Melissa says:

        Bea and Coco, thank you both very much for the information and links. I knew about the California rice having less arsenic than other American grown rice. I never even gave ‘real’ wild rice a thought! What a great idea.

      • Bea Cazeneuve says:

        Yes, the article is very good but it was written in 2012, the recent studies I quoted were done late 2013 so they are more current in terms of actual levels. And, yes, arsenic is present in vegetables, too (especially in leafy greens because it’s in the soil and the plants, mistaking it for a nutrient, readily absorbs it) so there is no getting around it. Arsenic-based products were used in all agricultural states for a long time as pesticides and, unfortunately for us and the birds, the arsenic remains for many, many years after they stop using them (that’s the reason why rice grown in the Southern states has higher levels of it -it’s grown in ex-cotton fields and arsenic was used to control the something or another weevil that attacks cotton plants).

        I wish they would do studies on all other types of rice, like red, brown and black, just to have a point of comparison.

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