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COL Tips on feeding your pet bird

Dr. Marty Becker

Knight Ridder Newspapers

The most important thing you can do to keep your companion bird healthy and content is to feed it right.

For centuries, it has been traditional for people to feed seeds to wild birds at backyard feeders. So when birds started to become popular as pets, this seemed to be the logical food, right? No, according to avian veterinarian, Greg Harrison from Green Acres, Fla., who is board-certified in Avian Practice in both the United States and Europe. Harrison says a diet of seeds alone lacks up to 32 essential nutrients, leading to malnutrition in captive birds. Malnutrition is the leading cause of over 90 percent of health problems and death in pet birds.

Often the signs of malnutrition in pet birds go completely overlooked by the owner simply because they are not recognized as such. Healthy, properly fed birds will exhibit certain features. The ideal pet bird is beautiful and brightly colored with sleek-looking feathers. Healthy birds like to sing, play, talk and be active. They are also affectionate with family members.

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Avian veterinarians have known for years that a bird's diet cannot be improved by home cooking, offering table foods or adding supplements to a basic seed mixture (even if the seeds are "vitamin-fortified," colored or pressed into cakes). Commonly fed cereal grains like sunflower, millet, oats, safflower, and corn are deficient in the basic requirements necessary to keep pet birds healthy. The only alternative that actually reverses and corrects signs of malnutrition is a high quality extruded bird food that is specifically formulated for a parrot or parakeet.

Although it is an effective bonding technique with family members, feeding the bird from the table is not a good idea. Birds should not be fed "people food."

Fun shapes and fancy colored pellets are part an effective selling strategy used by some pet food companies to appeal to the pet owner, but it has been proven that these features don't mean much to the birds themselves.

Choose a formulated diet made with organic ingredients. But it does take some patience and a few techniques to get your bird to eat a formulated diet if it's accustomed to seeing only seeds in its food bowl. The following are some tips:

Schedule an appointment with your avian veterinarian to make sure your bird is healthy enough to undergo a diet change.

Monitor total food consumption carefully so the bird does not starve to death with the new food in the cage.

Weigh the bird periodically on a gram scale.

Start by mixing half familiar seeds and half the new formulated diet in the food bowl. Over time, gradually increase the proportion of the formulated diet.

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Place a bowl of the new food near the highest perch. Most birds will eat from the highest bowl first.

Offer the new food at the same time that the bird is placed in a new cage or box without toys or perches.

For budgies, try placing a mirror on the bottom of the cage and place the new food on the mirror. The budgie will try to get to the food before this "stranger" in the mirror. Before you know it, the bird is eating the food.

Pour a small amount of fruit juice over the formulated diet.

If all else fails, you might want to board your bird at your veterinary clinic for the diet conversion. An online list of avian veterinarians in your area can be found at www.aav.org.

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