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.

Sucrose (Sugar) in Pellets v. in Fruits

July 16, 2011 § 2 Comments

In light of my labeling sucrose as a red (unhealthy / undesirable) ingredient in the Pellet Project, I received an excellent question the other day: doesn’t sucrose naturally occur in most fruits that we eat and feed our parrots?  Being the smart aleck that I am, I replied, of course not; sucrose is table sugar whereas fructose is fruit sugar.  Being the dumb … aleck that I am, I was, of course, wrong!  Well, technically table sugar is the common name for sucrose, but that does not mean that it does not naturally occur in fruits.  Actually, some of the healthiest fruits that we feed our parrots– mangoes, for example– are extremely high in sucrose.  So does that mean that it is good for our parrots?

I had to call in help to answer this one and consulted a friend who is a nutrition scientist to get a professional opinion because, alas, google was failing me.  In layman’s terms, as I understand it, the difference between the sucrose found in fruit v. the sucrose found in pellets or any food with added sucrose is actually how the sucrose is metabolized. 

Sucrose added to a pellet or food will be broken down by enzymes in the body relatively quickly.  In the large intestine, sucrose will be broken down into glucose and fructose, and released into the bloodstream. (The rapidity of it is often what causes spikes in blood sugar for people: you need insulin to accept it into your muscle or fat cells and use it as energy.) The broken down sucrose can either be converted into energy or be stored as fat. More often than not, when it is absorbed into the bloodstream so rapidly, it is stored as fat, especially when other sources of energy are available (such as the other carbohydrate components of a pellet… wheat, corn, soy, etc.). This is where elevated triglycerides come into play.

Sucrose in fruits, however, doesn’t come in the form of just pure sucrose– fruit contains fiber which the digestive system can’t break down, so it can really slow down the metabolization of sucrose, and the rate at which it will enter the bloodstream. So, the risk of a spike in blood sugar is less likely (although individuals with diabetes or other conditions should obviously be careful and consult a professional about diet), and fruit sucrose is less likely to be converted into triglycerides or contribute to other problems associated with added sucrose in foods.

It’s not that fruit sucrose is good for you, but that it is a safer or maybe healthier way to consume sucrose because it slows down the digestion, plus the fiber and other vitamin/mineral content of fruit has its own beneficial properties. In a pellet, the added sucrose really serves no purpose in terms of health benefits and is only added for taste, but can cause additional problems. In general, added sucrose to any food is not the healthiest for a body, parrot or person.

So, there you have it: despite the sucrose in fruits, sucrose is still something we don’t want added to pellets, or any sugar in general really, since we now know that if we are giving them healthy servings of fresh fruits and veggies daily, they are likely getting their fair share of sweetness as is.

Thanks to my friend for raising this question and reminding me that there is always more to read and to learn, and thanks to my nutrition scientist friend for her great explanation!

I don’t have much else for today so I will leave you with a cute photo of Charles, enjoying his Oliver’s Garden “Soapbox” platform perch!

Homemade, Organic “Nutri-Berry”-Type Recipe

June 30, 2011 § 10 Comments

I have been wanting to create an organic and healthier version of the Nutri-Berry for a long while now.  They look very tasty and fun for birds to eat, but the ingredient list contains a few things I’d rather not feed, so I’ve always stayed away from them.  I did some searches online for some recipes and have tried some in the past that required egg whites and baking, but those recipes never seemed to work very well as they don’t yield the softer texture that seems so appealing about the actual Nutri-Berry to so many parrots.  I finally found a very unique one that used molasses and no baking, and was intrigued.  I gathered all of my ingredients this weekend and finally got to work!  The molasses content isn’t overwhelming but it does make them pretty sweet; these snacks will be used as treats only among my flock, but they look pretty delectable if I may say so myself!  I threw together the ingredients at random so feel free to add, subtract, or substitute as you please.  I didn’t measure anything but used varying amounts… there are probably equal amounts of each puffed grain, but not quite as much in the way of sunflower seeds or cranberries as there are other ingredients.

The dry ingredients, minus the pellets

Ingredients (All Organic):

  • Puffed Brown Rice
  • Puffed Buckwheat
  • Puffed Barley
  • Puffed Triticale
  • Flax Seed
  • Sesame Seed
  • Sunflower Seed (shelled)
  • Pumpkin Seed (shelled)
  • Unsweetened Cranberries
  • Unsweetened Papaya
  • Unsweetened Mango
  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Totally Organics Pellets (Crumplet Size)
  • Molasses
  • Coconut Oil


First I took any of the larger ingredients– papaya, mango, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seed– and chopped them in the food processor until they were uniform in size, and nice and small for the treats.  I left the rest in tact, but they can also be run through the food processor for smaller birds.  I then combined all ingredients except for the molasses and coconut oil in a large, non-reactive mixing bowl– see the photograph above.  (The first time around I forgot to add the pellets, but they were added shortly after I added the molasses.)

Next I poured some molasses into a small saucepan.  I’m not sure of exactly how much I used, but it was probably around 1/3 of a cup (there was also plenty of molasses left in the saucepan when I was done).  I put it on the stove over medium heat waiting for it to bubble.  In the mean time, I lined a few trays with waxed paper, and lightly coated a spatula with coconut oil to use for mixing.  When the molasses began to bubble, I quickly poured it over the dry ingredients and vigorously mixed them until there was just enough molasses to cat all of the ingredients and make them just sticky enough to form.

I then lightly coated my own hands with coconut oil and began to form them into little balls.  It took a few rounds to get it down correctly.  Too much oil and the balls don’t hold together, but not enough and the ingredients just stick to your hands.  You also have to re-coat your hands after every few treats (I ended up re-coating after every third treat).  As I’m sure you can guess… this is a very messy endeavor!  Be prepared to be coated in lots of oil and molasses and stickiness by the time you are done.

The finished product!

Some of them aren’t quite as nicely shaped as others, but I think they came out quite well!  My recipe made nearly three trays of treats.  Lola had just eaten and wasn’t hungry when I offered her one so unfortunately I have no idea if they’re any good or not just yet, but hopefully they will be a big hit.  I tasted one and it was quite good, kind of like a sticky trail mix treat.

The Pellet Project: Totally Organics Pellets

June 23, 2011 § 7 Comments

I’ve finally completed the very first pellet included in the Pellet Project, my glossary of pellet ingredients!  The first up is Totally Organics Pellets (TOPs).  You can read all about the individual ingredients on the glossary.  This entry will serve as a brief way of putting it all together and an analysis of the ingredients in conjunction with each other.  I am following the color coding on the Pellet Project page.

* * * * *

Certified Organic Ingredients: Rice, hulled millet, barley, alfalfa leaf, sunflower seed hulled, sesame seeds unhulled, quinoa whole, buckwheat hulled, dandelion leaf powder, carrot powder, spinach leaf powder, purple dulse, kelp, rose hips powder, rose hips crushed, orange peel powder, lemon peel powder, rosemary whole leaf, cayenne ground, crushed red chili peppers, nettle leaf.

Guaranteed Analysis: Protein min 13%, Crude Fiber min 12%, Fat min 7%

* * * * *

As the vast majority of green ingredients shows, Totally Organics Pellets have quite the impressive ingredients list.  Unlike the majority of pellets that are a concoction of wheat/corn/soy along with synthetic vitamins and preservatives, TOPs opts to use much healthier base ingredients derived from whole grains and seeds.  The rice is brown rice, and it even contains a number of healthful leafy green such as alfalfa, dandelion, and spinach. It also contains a number of healthy herbs associated with a number of healing properties, as well as antimicrobial ingredients that act as natural preservatives, and finally, appetite stimulants.  It has low levels of both protein and fat, which are often key problems with pellets in various species.

One of the most common complaints lodged against TOPs is that they do not add any vitamins.  A close analysis of the ingredients, however, would show that TOPs includes all vitamins (A, the B complex, C, D, E, and K) and rather than in the synthetic form, in the natural form, meaning that they cannot be overdosed on or lead to vitamin toxicity.

Finally, Totally Organics contains 100% organic and human grade ingredients indicating a high quality product, and they are cold-pressed rather than baked or heated to minimize nutrient loss.  The company also stresses on the packaging that TOPs are only a part of a healthy diet and that a variety of other foods are necessary for health.

The Pellet Project: A Glossary of Pellet Ingredients

June 23, 2011 § 8 Comments

One of the most common questions I read on forums is, “Is this brand of pellet any good?”  Regardless of the brand, the answers will usually run the gamut from “My vet highly recommends them,” to “That pellet killed my bird,” to ” The protein levels are way too high,” to “It’s the only pellet my bird will eat and therefore the best.”  Of course the opinions and advice of others are important (in fact, it’s the whole purpose of forums in general), but I would love to see more bird owners capable of making informed decisions about their parrots’ food on their own.  I always try to offer an objective analysis of the pellet by posting the ingredients list and nutritional analysis, then commenting on the quality and types of ingredients and the overall formulation.  It’s astounding to me how many people never bother to read the ingredients at all, but purchase a food solely based on the recommendation of a friend.  That said, reading the ingredients can be quite an ordeal in and of itself, and figuring out what exactly that scientific-sounding, chemical concoction is, isn’t always easy.  I hope that this glossary of ingredients will help parrot owners to be able to make a sound decision on their own.

Since it will obviously take me a while to get through every single pellet ingredient, this will be a living, breathing document that I will update constantly over time as I get through pellet by pellet.  I have created a separate page for it here, and I will update it as well as post to the blog every new pellet added.  I was thinking of doing a separate entry on each type of pellet individually, providing an analysis of each pellet on its own, but I would rather that parrot owners make their own decisions about the overall formulation with this glossary on individual ingredients to help them.  I will, however, include in each ingredients’ description, which pellets contain it.  Each ingredient will be given a category based on the role it typically plays: base ingredient (most pellets have grain bases but some include other vegetables or legumes), preservative or color/flavor additive, and finally vitamin (both synthetic and natural).  I will then describe it in terms of why it’s added to pellets, any safety concerns, or any other items of note for parrot owners.  I will post any updates to the blog, as well as keep a running list of all of the types of pellets accounted for at the bottom of the page itself.

The first pellet will be Totally Organics and hopefully will be all done tomorrow! 🙂

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

A Gift from Totally Organics!

April 26, 2011 § 13 Comments

I came home to an unidentified package, yesterday, and was VERY pleased upon opening it!  Gudrun, the owner of Totally Organics, was nice enough to send me a free sample of their new, smaller-size pellet, the Crumplet! And it wasn’t just a few ounces… it was this massive bag, along with a pound of the Totally Organics Napoleon’s Seed Mix, because she knows that my little guys just love it!  Thank you so much, Gudrun!!

My lovely gift from Totally Organics!

As some of you might know, I believe that Totally Organics makes the best pellet on the market.  You won’t find any artificial colors or flavors, any preservatives, any synthetic vitamins, or even any corn or soy in these high quality pellets.  They are 100% organic, and their healthy combination of vitamins and minerals comes from natural sources– alfalfa for natural Vitamin K rather than menadione, or carrot powder for beta carotene rather than synthetic Vitamin A.  Even Charles, my budgie, loved and used to be able to eat these excellent quality pellets in the normal size, because they are nice and crumbly.  You see, TOPs doesn’t cook or bake their pellets, but rather cold presses them, so that there is minimal nutrient loss in the process.  When he had his beak accident, however, he was no longer able to chew them because they are too big for the poor guy.  That is why I was so excited for these little Crumplets — they are the perfect size for him!

The normal size TOPs next to the Crumplets for a size comparison

According to their labels, the two of them share the same formula and excellent ingredients list.  There were, however, a few visual differences.  First is, obviously, size — the Crumplets are much easier to manage for the little ones, and much less likely to be picked up and dropped all over the cage, resulting in a lot of waste.  The little ones, at least in this package, also seemed to be more green in color.  The difference isn’t all that clear in the photo, but the smaller ones definitely have more of a deep green coloration.  Finally, they also smell much more vegetable-y (leafy green-y, to be exact), if that makes sense.

I served a small amount to Charles, to let him be the actual judge, and he happily chomped them down!!  He really loved his TOPs before, and I’m glad that he can finally have them again, in a more beak-friendly size.  Of course, Sabrina followed suit and happily gobbled them up as soon as she saw Charles eating them.  Yay!

Charles, Sabrina, and I highly recommend these pellets for the little guys.  Delicious!!  Thank you, Gudrun!!

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