Challenges of feeding companion birds
Feeding companion birds has been one of the most challenging aspects of their care, primarily because of limited nutritional research on all species. Based on studies of poultry and other animals, generalizations can be made on adequate feeding practices for companion birds. The formulation of appropriate diets for budgies is based on wild feeding ecology, digestive anatomy and physiology, and nutritional requirements of related species. While there are substantial differences between production species and companion bird species, the dietary requirements of poultry remain the standard for estimating the needs of companion birds.
In the wild, budgies primarily feed on a variety of seeds, fruits, and vegetation. Their diet varies depending on their location and the availability of food. In their natural habitat, budgies have access to a diverse range of grasses, weeds, and shrubs that produce seeds, including millet, sorghum, and canary grass. They also consume different types of fruits, such as figs, berries, and melons, when they are in season. Additionally, budgies may also eat insects, such as termites and ants, which provide them with additional protein and nutrients. This is particularly important during the breeding season, as budgies require high amounts of protein to feed their young. The diet of wild budgies is much more varied than the diet of captive budgies, which are typically fed a combination of pellets, vegetables, fruits, and seeds.
Budgies in the wild photo by Richard Waring
In the wild, they use a variety of strategies to find food. They are social birds that often feed in flocks, and their feeding behavior is influenced by environmental factors such as the availability of food and water. One of the primary ways that budgies find food is by foraging on the ground. They use their beaks to search for seeds, grasses, and insects, and they may use their feet to hold onto the stems of plants while they feed. They also use their keen sense of sight to locate food from a distance, scanning the surrounding areas for patches of vegetation and sources of water. Budgies are also known to feed on trees and shrubs, where they can find a variety of seeds and fruits. They may use their beaks to crack open seeds, or they may use their claws to cling to branches while they eat. Another way that budgies find food is through social learning. Young budgies learn from their parents and other members of their flock about where to find food and what types of food are safe to eat. This helps them to develop the necessary skills to forage for food on their own and to survive in the wild.
Budgies are incredibly picky when it comes to food and have food preferences. One of the most challenging aspects of keeping budgies is getting them to accept a new food. It may take months or a year for them to even try a certain type of food. I couldn’t get them to accept pellets even though I patiently tried for half a year. They like their veggies and fruits cut into either tiny pieces or thinly sliced. They won’t accept them otherwise. When offered seeds, they will pick the grains they like the best and ignore anything that does not interest them, which means that the healthiest seeds may be left untouched, while the fattest grains will be eaten. Budgies are attracted to brightly colored foods with different textures, and offering a variety of different vegetables as part of their diet will be beneficial to their long-term health.
Modifying a budgie’s diet is one of the biggest behavioral challenges. Most issues can be overcome with lots of patience and perseverance. Feeding the new dietary items early in the morning when the birds are most hungry is beneficial, but dietary changes should be undertaken gradually. If budgies continue to have problems with the acceptance of new dietary items, placement near birds that are already feeding on similar foods is beneficial as birds usually mimic the feeding habits of other birds.
What do my budgies eat in a day?
My boys eat a varied diet daily. They get seed mix, fresh vegetables (either of these: baby spinach, carrot, lettuce, cucumber, chicory ), nuts (walnut, cashews, pine seeds), and herbs (either of these: basil, thyme, chickweed, dandelion leaf), treats (sometimes: boiled eggs, millet spray) and rarely fruit (strawberry, blueberry). Seed mixes comprise the most significant portion of the budgie diet, approximately 60-70%. Mine don't eat pellets, they don't accept pellets as food even though I tried to convince them to eat some for half a year. I gave up because I was wasting food. I'm in Germany at the moment, so I buy their food from a less-known premium German supplier which I'm really pleased with as they offer a wide range of good quality food and accessories (made from natural wood). I feed them a seed mix that contains seasonal herbs and seeds.
Their current seed mix contains: canary seed, silver millet, Japanese millet, La Plata millet, Senegal millet, meadow grass, red millet, mohair red, mohair yellow, teff dwarf millet light, teff dwarf millet dark, clover seed, leek seed, elderflower, nettle herb, dandelion herb, sorrel, buckhorn, chickweed, yarrow herb, daisies, dandelion blossoms, chamomile blossoms, chives, elderberries, cornflower blossoms blue.
My opinion on pellets
I have fed my birds both seeds and pellets in the past. Nutritionists are telling us that it is better for us to eat whole fresh foods, vegetables, and fruits, and eat less (or none if possible) of manufactured or processed foods like bread, cakes, cookies etc. So if that applies to us, why wouldn't it apply to our birds? The pellets are manufactured in an attempt to provide "perfect" nutrition. Anything manufactured will have something "extra" as an additive including something to make it shelf stable and hold together in a pellet form. Maybe nature already makes the perfect nutrition in the optimum seed mixture and fresh veggies and herbs.
Pellets are made from a variety of ingredients such as grains, vegetables, fruits, minerals, and proteins that are formulated for companion birds. A diet that is solely based on seeds lacks certain essential nutrients and can lead to health problems such as obesity, vitamin deficiencies, and malnutrition. A diet solely based on pellets will have the same outcome. I feed my birds both seeds and fresh food, therefore there is no need for me to convert them to pellets. Feeding pellets will not replace the necessity of fresh food. If you ate pellets only, your health would deteriorate too.
For budgies (can be fed to other smaller parrot species too), I recommend High Potency Super Fine pellets by Harrison. Harrison's website has diet conversion guides.
Converting budgies to a new diet
It is imperative to immediately return a bird to its original diet if it refuses to eat the new diet. Small birds have a rapid metabolism and can starve to death in as little as 36-48 hours if they do not get enough food to eat. You may not harm the bird in the process!
Any dietary changes should be undertaken gradually. An important concern is the bird's refusal to eat "new" food, leading to significant weight loss. Weighing the bird (in grams) on a daily basis using a gram scale is the best method for monitoring adequate food consumption. Weight fluctuations greater than 10% are considered problematic. Even if provided with supplemental food, birds can starve to death while merely appearing to chew their food but not consuming it!!!! Grinding the food into a fine powder is not the same as eating the food.
Monitoring droppings is an excellent indication of the amount of food the bird is eating. Prior to the diet change, the number and character of the droppings (color, amount, liquid, form, shape, lack of odor, staining) should be noted. Any change in the volume or number of droppings (usually a dramatic decrease in amount) indicates insufficient food consumption.
How long can budgies go without food and water?
Budgies or parakeets can go 24-36 hours without food and up to 48 hours without water. However, if they go longer than this, they will quickly become malnourished and dehydrated and suffer adverse effects such as renal failure.
How much do budgies drink in a day?
Studies estimated that a budgie will drink approximately one teaspoon (4 ml) of water in a day, or about 5% of its body weight. However, I don’t believe that. In my experience, they drink less than 0.2 teaspoons (1 ml) of water daily. Budgies should be given mineral-rich store-bought spring water which is low in sodium. Never give them tap water as the harsh chemicals in tap water are harmful to budgies. Their water dish must be cleaned daily and filled with fresh water. The water dish can be cleaned safely with apple cider vinegar. Never use detergents to clean their dishes as those are harmful to them when ingested.
Nutritional supplementation of drinking water
Supplementation of vitamins and minerals via drinking water is not recommended. Water intake can vary and is influenced by environmental temperatures and diet. The high redox potentials of minerals, such as zinc, iron, and copper, can destroy vitamins, and some vitamins are light-sensitive. It is impossible to standardize the intake of vitamins via drinking water. Vitamin A and D toxicoses have been reported in macaws and conures being supplemented with liquid vitamins. Dehydration may result if the additives decrease water intake due to unpleasant taste or unfamiliar coloration. Vitamin D and A are fat-soluble vitamins and shouldn’t be put into water. Instead, I suggest sprinkling the vitamin powder on their vegetables.
What should budgies eat daily?
A budgie’s daily diet should primarily consist of grain and seed (around 75-80 percent) and fresh vegetables. This can be as a seed mix or in pellet (Harrison’s Pellets) form. A small amount of fresh vegetables, herbs, or fruit should be offered daily. A calcium source should also be readily available, either in the form of a mineral block or cuttlefish. Herbs can be offered once weekly and boiled eggs once in two weeks. I am personally against giving budgies fruits on a daily basis as fruit contains fructose (sugar) and it can wreak havoc in the bird’s sensitive intestines by leading to bacterial/ fungal overgrowth. Thus I suggest sticking to vegetables. In January 2022, my blue boy had come down with avian gastric yeast (megabacteria) and since then I have cut out sugar from their diet entirely. It is best to avoid sugar because yeast feeds on sugar. A yeast infection is caused by an overgrowth of any type of fungus, which is naturally present in the body. Consuming sugar can worsen the infection by providing more food for the yeast to grow and multiply, leading to more severe symptoms. I sometimes offer them strawberries as they are low in fructose.
Although thyme is effective at keeping harmful bacteria in check, it should be offered in moderation.
What is harmful to budgies?
Avocado is highly toxic to budgies and should never be offered. It contains the fatty acid persin, which is particularly harmful to budgies, even in the smallest quantities. Other foods that are harmful and should be avoided include spring onions, mushrooms, and garlic. Rhubarb leaves, raw potatoes, and unripe tomatoes are also not recommended. Dairy products, especially milk, and cheese should never be offered to budgies as they are lactose intolerant. They must be kept away from all types of houseplants.
- Avocado: Avocado contains a toxin called persin, which can be fatal to birds.
- Chocolate: Chocolate contains theobromine, which can be toxic to birds and cause vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures.
- Caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant that can cause cardiac problems and death in birds.
- Alcohol: Alcohol can cause liver damage and other health problems in birds.
- Fruit pits and seeds: Fruit pits and seeds contain cyanide, which can be toxic to birds.
- Rhubarb: Rhubarb contains oxalic acid, which can cause kidney damage in birds.
- Onions and garlic: Onions and garlic can cause anemia in birds.
- Salt: Too much salt can cause dehydration and other health problems in birds.
- Junk food: Foods high in fat, sugar, and salt should be avoided, as they can contribute to obesity and other health problems in birds.
- Pellets or seed mix with colored additives (e.g. colored pellets)
- Flavored seed sticks (too much sugar)
- Bread or any bakery products
Soluble grit sources, such as cuttlefish bone (Sepia spp.), oyster shell, limestone (calcium carbonate), marble (crystalline limestone), and gypsum (calcium sulfate), are used as calcium supplements and are usually completely digested by birds. Insoluble grit consists of items such as sand, quartz, and granite and can lead to health problems (eg, impaction of the crop, proventriculus, and gizzard) if it is over-consumed. In psittacine species, an occasional grit particle is harmless but it is not necessary for the healthy maintenance of pet parrots, macaws, parakeets, and similar species. I don’t offer mine grit in any form. Budgies don’t need grit to digest food because budgies remove the husks from their seeds before swallowing, there is very little indigestible material in their diet. For this reason, they do not need grit to grind and digest their food. The risk of giving them grit outweighs the benefit.
What do budgies eat for treats?
Sprays of millet are highly popular with pet budgies. Cashews, walnut, blueberries, strawberries, slices of apple, baby spinach, and basil leaf are some of the treats I give them.
How often do budgies eat?
Budgies constantly graze if a food supply is available. They will eat more just before going to bed in the evening. They will frequently visit to feed throughout daylight hours.
How much do budgies eat a day?
For budgies kept in captivity, a mix of around 1.5 to 2 tablespoons of seeds or pellets must be given each day. In addition, a daily portion of fresh fruit or vegetables is important. Regarding fruits, vegetables, and greens, you should only offer them as treats. Therefore, they should only make up 20-25% of what you feed your birds daily. This is because your birds may experience upset stomachs and diarrhea from overeating these budgie treats.
Can budgies eat herbs?
Budgies can eat various fresh herbs in small amounts and occasionally. They offer a range of health benefits to pet birds. Most herbs are fiber- and vitamin-rich making them excellent for your budgie’s digestion and bowel health. Additionally, herbs help support heart health while reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases in parakeets. This is because they are rich sources of antioxidants. Besides that, herbs pack anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-diabetic properties.
Hatchin eating parsley
What herbs can budgies eat?
Your birds can eat the leaves and seeds of herbs like parsley, basil, watercress, purslane, cloves, chickweed, and dill. These herbs don’t contain any harmful compounds toxic to budgies. Budgies can also consume aromatic herbs like:
- Lemon balm
- Rosemary (tiny amount once monthly)
- Thyme (once in 1 week, antifungal and antimicrobial)
- Oregano (once in 2 weeks)
That said, herbs from the allium family are not safe for budgies to eat. These include chives, scallion (spring onions), and shallots. These herbs are loaded with organic sulfur compounds, which may induce symptoms like shortness of breath and renal failure. Additionally, chives contain fructans that may lead to upset stomach, constipation, and diarrhea in budgies.
I will dedicate a whole chapter to budgies and herbs; writing about holistic treatments for budgies was one of the major reasons why I started this blog. According to the American Holistic Veterinary Medicine Association, the word holistic means taking in the whole picture of the patient, the environment, and the disease pattern and developing a treatment protocol using a wide range of therapies for healing the patient. This includes integrating protocols that are the most efficacious, least invasive, least expensive, and least harmful paths to cure. Whenever my birds exhibit any type of symptoms and the avian vet has concluded the type of disease, I personally always turn to herbs to find a cure.
Growing millet and herbs
Can budgies eat insects?
Budgies are omnivores. Therefore, they can digest insects besides seeds, fruits, veggies, nuts, and herbs. After all, these parrot species eat flying insects and other bugs in the wild for protein and energy. You don’t have to feed insects to your captive budgies, I never gave them any mealworms or insects because I was afraid they’d catch some disease.
Can budgies eat bananas?
Budgies can eat bananas in moderation as they are safe for them. Bananas are a good source of vitamins and minerals, including potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin B6. However, as with any food, it's important to feed them in moderation, as too much of any fruit or food can cause health problems. I cut the banana into small pieces and remove the peel before giving it to your budgie. It's also important to remember that bananas should be given as a treat, and not as a substitute for a balanced diet of seeds, grains, and vegetables. Never feed them banana peel, as it might have pesticides and other toxins on it.
What do baby budgies eat?
Baby budgies typically eat a diet of regurgitated crop milk from their parents for the first few weeks of their life. This crop milk is a high-protein substance produced by adult budgies and is essential for the growth and development of young chicks. As the chicks grow older, their diet will gradually shift to solid food. This usually starts with soft foods such as millet and soaked seeds and then progresses to a wider variety of fruits, vegetables, and seeds as they get older. It's important to make sure that the baby budgies have access to fresh water and a variety of healthy foods to ensure that they receive all the necessary nutrients for proper growth and development.
Can budgies eat boiled eggs?
Budgies can eat boiled eggs, including the white part and the yolk. This budgie treat is rich in protein, providing an energy boost to your birds, especially when molting and nesting. However, your companion friends should only eat eggs or egg food once weekly as a snack. Overindulging in eggs will cause fatty liver disease and obesity.
Energetic costs of molting
Feather replacement requires energy and specific nutrients, as well as metabolic and physiological adaptations. Energy costs of the molt include the caloric content of the new feathers and feather sheath, the energy required in their synthesis, and the energy required to produce and maintain feather pulps. Approximately 3 to 10% of total body mass (20 to 30% of total lean body mass) of passerines is replaced during a complete molt. Increases in energy expenditure due to rapid molt can be partly offset by reductions in other activities such as locomotion or singing. Feathers grow throughout the day and night at similar rates, but the feather material deposited at night when most birds are fasting is of a slightly different quality. During the molting process, budgies may appear scruffy or have patches of missing feathers. They may also become more irritable or lethargic than usual. This is because growing new feathers requires a lot of energy and can be uncomfortable for the bird. To help your budgie through the molting process, you can provide them with a healthy and varied diet that includes plenty of protein and nutrients to support feather growth. You can also provide them with a comfortable and stress-free environment, and avoid handling them excessively during this time. When mine are molting, I sprinkle some vitamin supplement powder onto their food to help them get through it faster. I also use organic coconut oil to help them grow shiny and healthy feathers by putting some of it on their food (a slice of carrot or basil leaf covered with a layer of unnoticeably thin coconut oil).
Protein requirements of feather formation
Feathers comprise a large percentage of total body protein (28% budgies) with approximately 15% by mass contained in the sheath. Feathers are primarily made up of a protein called keratin. To grow healthy feathers, birds need to consume a diet that is high in protein. Protein is essential for the growth and maintenance of feathers, as well as for other important bodily functions such as muscle development and repair. The protein requirements of feathers can vary depending on the species of bird, their age, and other factors. Generally, a diet that contains around 12-16% protein is sufficient for most species of birds, including budgies. It's important to note that not all proteins are created equal. Birds require a variety of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to grow healthy feathers. Some of these amino acids, such as methionine and cysteine, are essential for feather growth and cannot be synthesized by the bird's body. A balanced diet that includes a variety of protein sources, such as seeds, nuts, and some insects, can help ensure that a bird is getting all of the amino acids they need for healthy feather growth. It's also important to provide fresh water and a variety of fruits and vegetables to help support overall health and well-being.
Important vitamins for budgies
Budgies require a variety of essential vitamins in their diet to maintain optimal health and well-being:
- Vitamin A: Essential for vision, skin health, and the immune system. It is found in leafy greens, yellow and orange vegetables, and fruits.
- Vitamin D: Important for calcium absorption and bone health. Birds can produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, or it can be provided through fortified foods or supplements.
- Vitamin E: An antioxidant that helps protect cells from damage. It is found in seeds, nuts, and leafy greens.
- Vitamin K: Essential for blood clotting and bone health. It is found in leafy greens and some vegetables.
- B vitamins: A group of vitamins that are important for energy metabolism, nervous system function, and immune system health. They are found in a variety of foods, including grains, leafy greens, and meats.
They only eat veggies and fruits if I thinly slice them.
Important minerals for budgies
Budgies require a variety of minerals in their diet to maintain optimal health and well-being:
- Calcium: Essential for bone health and proper muscle and nerve function. Calcium is found in fortified foods, such as pellets, as well as in leafy greens, cuttlebone, and mineral blocks.
- Phosphorus: Important for bone and tissue growth, energy metabolism, and DNA synthesis. Phosphorus is found in seeds, nuts, and legumes, as well as in fortified foods.
- Iron: Necessary for the production of hemoglobin in red blood cells, which carries oxygen throughout the body. Iron is found in leafy greens, whole grains, and meats.
- Zinc: Important for immune system function, wound healing, and the metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates. Zinc is found in seeds, nuts, and legumes, as well as in fortified foods.
- Magnesium: Essential for proper muscle and nerve function, as well as for bone health. Magnesium is found in leafy greens, nuts, and seeds.
- Iodine: It is a non-metallic mineral that is typically found in trace amounts in soil, water, and certain foods. In the body, iodine plays a crucial role in the production of thyroid hormones, which are necessary for normal growth and development, as well as for regulating metabolism and body temperature. Iodine deficiency can lead to a variety of health problems, including goiter (enlargement of the thyroid gland), hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), and intellectual disability.
The Improper Diet Cascade (IDC) and wrong feeding habits
Obesity in budgies
Obesity can lead to congestive heart failure or hepatic lipidosis and may predispose a bird to diabetes mellitus or exacerbate this illness. Body weight relative to a bird’s optimal weight has been used as a defining criterion for obesity because body weight is easier to measure than body fat. Body weight in excess of optimal body weight of 1 to 9% is acceptable, 10 to 19% is considered overweight, and greater than 20% is defined as obese. The ideal budgie weight is 30-40 grams (1.1–1.4 oz). English budgies are bigger than their Australian counterparts and might weigh a few grams more than 45-65 grams (1.6-2.2 oz). Budgies are prone to obesity because they have a tendency to overeat and are not as active as their wild counterparts.
To prevent or manage obesity in budgies, it is important to provide them with a balanced diet that is appropriate for their age, sex, and activity level. A diet that is too high in fat or seed-based can contribute to weight gain. Instead, feed your budgie a varied diet that includes pellets, grains, seeds, fresh vegetables, berries, and herbs. It's also important to monitor your budgie's food intake and avoid overfeeding. Use portion control to ensure that your bird is getting the appropriate amount of food for their size and activity level. Additionally, encourage your budgie to exercise by providing them with toys and perches that encourage movement, such as ladders, swings, and ropes.
Improper diet cascade (IDC)
Nutritional disorders can result from malabsorption, a deficient diet, over-supplementation or overeating. Deficiencies and excesses of nutrients can both be harmful to birds. Variations in lifestyle and breeding ecology result in differing nutritional requirements. From a clinical perspective, the majority of health problems in pet birds are correlated with nutritional disorders. Specific studies of companion and wild birds will be discussed.
Table from Clinical Avian Medicine (G.J. Harrison, VOL I, Chapter 4: Nutritional Considerations: Section 11)
Budgie food packaging
Many bird foods are packaged in plastic, cellophane, coated paper, or cardboard boxes. The latter two prevent exposure to light. Airtight containers (plastic, cellophane) prevent moisture from evaporating, but many do not stop oxygen from crossing into the food. The oxygen then breaks down essential nutrients or changes their biological activity. An advertised vitamin A content of 12,500 IU/kg may be reduced to as few as 1,500 IU/kg by inadequate packaging, with further deterioration once the package is opened. The lack of proper packaging and resulting rancidity will cancel the diet’s effectiveness.
Seed-only diets are deficient in nutrients !!!
A seed-only diet is not recommended for budgies or any other pet bird, as it can lead to a variety of health problems. Imagine if you only ate seeds for the rest of your life. While seeds are a natural and important part of a budgie's diet in the wild, they are not nutritionally complete and can be deficient in important vitamins and minerals. A diet consisting solely of seeds will lead to malnutrition, obesity, and a variety of other health problems, including liver disease, heart disease, renal failure, diabetes, and digestive problems.
Table 4.2.2b from Clinical Avian Medicine (G.J. Harrison, VOL I, Chapter 4: Nutritional Considerations: Section 11)
In order to ensure optimal health and nutrition, a balanced diet for budgies should include a variety of fruits, vegetables, and other foods, in addition to high-quality pellets specifically formulated for birds. Pellets can provide a more complete and balanced source of nutrition than seeds alone and can help to prevent deficiencies in essential nutrients.
Some types of seeds can actually be quite nutrient-dense. Many seeds are a good source of protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. For example, chia seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and antioxidants, while pumpkin seeds are a good source of protein, iron, magnesium, and zinc.
However, it's also true that some seeds may be less nutrient-dense than others, depending on factors such as the variety of the seed, the quality of the soil it was grown in, and how it was processed and stored. In some cases, seeds may also contain naturally occurring compounds that can interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients, such as phytic acid, which can bind to minerals like calcium and zinc and make them less available to the body. However, soaking, and sprouting can help to reduce the levels of these compounds and improve nutrient absorption.
You must include a variety of nutrient-dense foods in the budgie’s diet, including seeds, pellets, vegetables, herbs and some fruits can help to ensure that the bird is getting a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients.
Over-supplementation of vitamins in pet birds can be harmful and lead to health problems. While vitamins are important nutrients for birds, excessive amounts are toxic and cause various health issues. I don’t recommend putting any type of vitamin in a budgie’s water dish. During molting, I sprinkle some of the vitamin powder onto their vegetables for a few days to help them get through it faster.
Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, can accumulate in the body and become toxic if given in excessive amounts over time. For example, an excess of vitamin A can lead to a condition known as hypervitaminosis A, which can cause bone deformities, weight loss, and even death in severe cases. Excessive amounts of vitamin D can lead to hypercalcemia, a condition in which there is an excess of calcium in the blood, which can cause kidney damage and other health issues.
Water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C and B vitamins, are less likely to cause toxicity because they are excreted in the urine if consumed in excess. However, over-supplementation can still lead to health issues, such as diarrhea, dehydration, and disruption of the balance of other nutrients in the budgie’s diet.
Depraved eating habits
Birds that routinely eat inappropriate materials (eg, feces, enclosure substrate) should be examined by a veterinarian. This behavior may be associated with disease or nutritionally deficient diets and is often prevented by the feeding of a more balanced formulated food product.
Hatchin eating fresh grass seeds