Food for Thought: How Diet Impacts Your Parrot’s Behavior
Does your parrot ever engage in baffling behaviors? Some common examples that can be problematic for parrots and owners alike include:
- Overpreening and feather-plucking, and
- Undesired reproductive behavior, like egg laying.
These kinds of habits can be disruptive, unhealthy, and upsetting. Even more, it’s stressful to know that your parrot is uncomfortable or isn’t having their needs met, but it’s not always clear why they’re behaving in a certain way.
Parrot behaviors are complex, interwoven tapestries of causes and motivations. It’s often difficult to determine why, exactly, your bird has changed their habits or begun acting differently. However, after years of study encompassing many different species, scientists have uncovered compelling links between food and behavior. It seems that diet plays an extremely important (and easily overlooked!) role in governing how our parrots behave.
This connection between diet and behavior goes deeper than you might think. Let’s go over three surprising ways your parrot’s food could be influencing the way they act.
1.) A poorly balanced diet can wreak havoc on your parrot’s hormones
Diet can influence hormones, and hormones can influence behavior. This is a simplification, but being aware of this basic pathway can help us understand how the foods our parrots eat can play a role in the way they act.
Hormones play a particularly important role in reproduction. When parrots display certain reproductive behaviors like egg laying, territoriality, nesting, and becoming overly bonded to their owners, it can lead to significant health issues and disruption of daily life.
According to Pamela Clark, a parrot behavior consultant certified by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), diets too high in calories, fat, and/or simple carbohydrates can lead to increased sexual hormone production and bring about more (potentially problematic) reproductive behaviors, like those described above. Various studies support this link between dietary excess and reproductive behavior. Cockatiels have been observed laying more eggs when fed higher levels of protein, and research in chickens shows that low-fat diets can decrease egg laying.
So, should we just keep our parrots away from foods that are overly nutritionally dense? This is easier said than done. Parrots naturally opt for high-fat, high-energy, easily-accessible food when it’s available to them. Much like a human might find themselves mindlessly munching on potato chips, our parrots have a built-in love for food that packs a high-energy punch but doesn’t necessarily provide other essential nutrients.
Compounding the problem further, parrots aren’t always great at knowing when to stop eating. Although many parrots can alter their food intake to a degree, eating more when provided with low-calorie food and less when provided with high-calorie options, their powers of discrimination are far from perfect. Parrots fed very high-energy diets, like all-seed diets, are particularly prone to overeating.
For owners without a great deal of nutritional know-how, it’s easy to tip your parrot’s diet from “just right” to “too much,” leading to increased hormone production and problematic reproductive behavior. Because of this, it’s important to opt for a high-quality diet that’s been carefully balanced to provide the right amount of calories, fat, carbs, and protein.
2.) Nutritional deficiencies can cause once-outgoing parrots to “clam up”
Imagine this: it’s a Tuesday evening and you’ve been feeling sick all day. You ache all over, have a stuffy nose, and can’t move around without significant discomfort. Suddenly, one of your friends barges through the front door. Despite your protests, they insist it’s time to hang out! Would you be excited to spend time with them?
Just like sick people often want to be left alone, we can’t expect our parrots to want to spend time with us if they aren’t feeling well. An imbalanced diet can make parrots very ill. Certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies can lead to painful, irritating health conditions that can inhibit their ability and desire to interact with us, their toys, and their flockmates.
For example, biotin deficiency and both vitamin A deficiency and excess may lead to hyperkeratosis, a condition in which the uppermost keratin-containing dermal layer becomes excessively thickened. Parrots with hyperkeratosis often experience crusty overgrowth of the beak, nails, and feet. If the condition becomes severe enough, it can impede breathing, walking, and perching.
But keratin isn’t just found in a parrot’s beak and skin. Feathers are also made of this fibrous protein. Hyperkeratosis from nutrient deficiency can cause pinfeathers that fail to open up and cause pain during preening.
This is just one example of a health issue caused by malnutrition. An improper diet can lead to countless other problems, including dry, cracked skin, easily-bruised beaks and nails, and cysts due to feather deformation. All of these conditions can cause significant discomfort and may cause a once sociable, outgoing parrot to become moody, withdrawn, or aggressive.
It’s important to remember that it isn’t just nutrient deficiencies that cause illness, and we can’t fix an otherwise low-quality diet by loading our parrots up on supplements. Excess vitamins and minerals can cause equally severe health problems! This is why it’s important to provide a nutritionally-balanced diet that doesn’t contain too much or too little of any given nutrient.
3.) Subpar diets can damage your bird’s mental health
Though the habitats and behaviors of wild parrots vary greatly, all species are adapted to having to work for their meals. Many wild parrots spend hours and travel significant distances every day in search of sustenance. Even when they’ve found something to eat, there’s still work to do, as they must forage through leaves, crack hulls, and otherwise manipulate their food to render it edible.
Additionally, food is rarely consistently available in the wild. The presence of nuts, seeds, and fruits all depend on conditions like rainfall, temperature, and season. Because of these tough conditions, wild parrots evolved to use their brains to figure out where and when food might be available.
The parrots in our homes aren’t domesticated like dogs or cats. They retain their wild instincts and biological adaptations to food scarcity. Although this doesn’t mean we should deprive our birds, it does mean that having round-the-clock access to nutrient-dense food can lead to behavioral problems.
Bored birds often exhibit repetitive, stress-related behavior, like feather plucking, pacing, and excessive vocalization. Ideally, your parrot’s diet should serve as a source of enrichment and mental stimulation. A 2008 study determined that using pipe feeders (special feeders that have to be manipulated to release food, increasing overall forage time) rapidly and dramatically decreased feather-plucking behavior in African grays.
You don’t need to buy a special feeder to encourage foraging! Making simple foraging toys (using things like egg cartons or paper cups) and providing a variety of fresh produce can keep your parrot’s mind working while they eat.
High-value foods like seeds and nuts shouldn’t constitute the bulk of your bird’s diet, but should be reserved for occasional rewards during training and bonding sessions. Providing these special treats only under select circumstances will make them feel more valuable to your parrot and can be powerful motivational tools.
What kind of diet is best for preventing behavioral problems?
We’ve established that all-seed diets are too high in overall energy and fat while lacking essential vitamins and minerals. While seeds can be used as occasional treats, making them the bulk of your parrot’s daily food intake can lead to serious behavioral issues stemming from boredom, disease, and excessive hormone production.
What about an all-in-one seed mix that includes small pellets and supplemental, sprayed-on vitamins? While these kinds of seed mixes are easy to find in pet stores, the most up-to-date science suggests that they aren’t a great option, either. Sprayed-on vitamin supplements are mostly lost when the parrot removes the hull of the seed, and the low-quality pellets are easy to pick around.
We can’t rely on water-based vitamin supplements, either, as many vitamins degrade in water, and it’s hard to know how much water your parrot will drink. Overdoing these kinds of supplements can easily lead to vitamin toxicity.
Current research suggests that the one of the best choices for supporting behavioral health is a formulated diet (a diet containing a mixture of foods, fortified with vitamins and minerals, and balanced to precisely meet a parrot’s nutritional needs) along with fresh produce. When fed in the right quantities, a high-quality formulated diet supplemented with produce can help
- limit unwanted reproductive behavior due to excessive hormone production,
- prevent illnesses that can lead to pain-related behavior, and
- help prevent stress-related behavior due to dietary boredom.
Of course, deciding on a formulated diet that works for you and your parrot is a highly individual process. What works for one bird might not work for another! If you’re looking for a good starting point, the Bird Street Bistro Tri-Pack Sampler is an economical way to try out several of our signature food blends.
All Bird Street Bistro parrot blends are crafted to provide the perfect channel for introducing fresh food and providing balanced nutrition, rigorously tested and tweaked for palatability, and made with organic ingredients you can recognize on the ingredient label. Our blends also contain wellness-boosting additions you might not find elsewhere, like kelp (to improve feather condition), Ceylon cinnamon (to combat high blood sugar and heart disease), and pineapple (to aid digestion).
Scientists are still working to puzzle out all the factors behind parrot behavior. Like humans, parrots are biologically and cognitively complex creatures, and their behavioral problems don’t always have easy, clear-cut answers. But providing your feathered friend with a wholesome, enriching, and nutritionally-balanced diet is one of the most important ways to build behavioral health and promote overall well-being.
Clark, P. (n.d.). Diet and behavior in companion parrots. The IAABC Journal. https://iaabcjournal.org/diet-and-behavior-in-companion-parrots/
Harrison, G. J., & McDonald, D. (2006). Nutritional considerations: Section II. Clinical avian medicine, 1, 108-140. Retrieved from: https://avianmedicine.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/04nutrition2.pdf
Koutsos, E. A., Matson, K. D., & Klasing, K. C. (2001). Nutrition of birds in the order Psittaciformes: a review. Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery, 15(4), 257-275. https://doi.org/10.1647/1082-6742(2001)015[0257:NOBITO]2.0.CO;2
Lumeij, J. T., & Hommers, C. J. (2008). Foraging ‘enrichment’ as treatment for pterotillomania. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 111(1-2), 85-94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2007.05.015
Péron, F., & Grosset, C. (2014). The diet of adult psittacids: veterinarian and ethological approaches. Journal of animal physiology and animal nutrition, 98(3), 403-416. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpn.12103
Scagnelli, A. M., & Tully, T. N. (2017). Reproductive disorders in parrots. Veterinary Clinics: Exotic Animal Practice, 20(2), 485-507. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cvex.2016.11.012
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