Do Parrotlets Need Pellets?

Mutation Parrotlets & Pellets: Something To Think About

When you’ve been raising birds for as long as I have, you’ve seen a lot of changes in the aviculture sector. I recall when there were no avian veterinarians, the only birds available were captured out in the wild and there was no such thing as a bird “toy”. Thank god, things have improved a lot in the previous 20 years!

Human nature, on the other hand, has not altered. It might be tough to have an open mind regarding fresh developments once we have learned something. This is nowhere more evident in aviculture than in the realm of avian nutrition. It also brings back memories of when pellets were originally produced and sold as a complete diet for your bird. The only “parrot food” available at the time was a mixture of sunflower seeds, maize, peanuts, and dried jalapeño peppers. It was considered that feeding fruits and vegetables to your birds might induce diarrhea! Of course, we all know that the “original” parrot diet was extraordinarily heavy in fat and included absolutely little nutritional value except from the dried jalapeño peppers. Of course, we now know much more and have a far wider range of options for feeding our birds.

Many people nowadays assume that unless their birds consume pellets, they are not getting a nutritious diet. My view is that there are several methods to provide our birds with a good and diverse diet, and pellets may or may not be part of that program. That decision is entirely up to the individual breeder. However, it is important to understand that pellets are derived from seed, namely maize, which is not a natural meal for most parrots, including parrotlets, and is not a very healthy food. It’s basically pulverized seed with vitamins added.

In addition to a vast array of seeds and pellets, we now have an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, sprouts, and greens, as well as whole grain breads, cereals, rice, and pasta. Many firms, like LeAvian(tm) and Soak N’ Cook(tm), provide pre-cooked and frozen combinations of vegetables, fruits, grains, herbs, seeds, and nuts that may be thawed as needed. These meals, when mixed with or without seeds and/or pellets, provide a balanced and nutritious diet for any parrotlet.

However, if you have color mutation parrotlets, you should feed them natural meals instead of pellets. There have been several instances of mutant parrotlets, especially “red eyed” birds, experiencing high uric acid levels and/or renal issues, including kidney calcification, for several years. This issue has also been noted in several color mutation cockatiels and budgies. Veterinarians have seen these issues in their own operations, and veterinarians doing research and pathology have reported them.

Many parrotlet breeders feel that the difficulties are caused by problems with the birds’ protein absorption in predominantly pelleted diets. Many parrotlet owners have reported elevated uric acid levels in their color mutations that have been on a predominantly pelleted diet, frequently ending in renal failure. This is not to argue that there is anything wrong with pellets; the problem seems to be in how the birds absorb the protein. This has been confirmed by both private vets and veterinarians at research institutions who have also identified the issue with color mutations.

Mark Hagen of Hagen International provided me with some really fascinating information during the 2003 International Aviculturist Society meeting. Mr. Hagen’s family owns Hagen, which has one of the world’s biggest bird nutritional research labs. They are also among the few that employ parrotlets in their study. During his lecture on avian nutrition, Mr. Hagen remarked something that struck me as perhaps being one of the reasons why many mutant parrotlets seem to experience issues, and it has nothing to do with protein. It has something to do with fat.

A seed-based diet, especially when supplemented with fresh foods, is often richer in fat than a pelleted diet. And, other from making you fat, what does fat do? It holds water. Water is required for hydration and renal function. Most parrots who are transitioned from seed diets to extruded or pelleted diets begin eating massive quantities of water – frequently twice or even three times the amount they drank on the seed diet. Perhaps parrotlets, a genus that does not consume a lot of water in general, do not compensate for their lack of fat by drinking more water as other parrots do. Cockatiels and budgies, being desert-dwelling birds, do not drink much water either. Pacific parrotlets, the species with the greatest color alterations, are also from arid, desert-like locations and do not drink much water. This may not be a concern with regular green birds. However, because to their faulty genetic make-up, this shortage of water may express itself in renal difficulties in mutations. Mutations in parrotlets have not been bred for many generations, so possibly as time passes and the birds continue to develop by outcrossing to regular wild-types, this will be bred out.

After losing a male fallow Pacific to renal disease at six months, I no longer give pellets to my mutations in my own aviary. I don’t even feed pellets to my split mutant parrotlets. As with all of my birds, fresh items account for around 70% of their diet, with seed accounting for the remaining. I am continuously researching nutrition for my birds and may adjust my diet again, but for the time being, this protocol works great – I have lovely healthy birds that produce stunning bouncy chicks. I also have a number of elderly birds that I’ve kept for over 20 years, which tells me that what I’m doing is good for me – and them.

Of course, when I first began breeding birds, the Golden Rule was “What works for me may not work for you,” therefore I’m not suggesting that everyone feed their parrotlets the same way I do. This knowledge is based solely on my 20+ years of experience, study, and networking with numerous professionals at speaking engagements and conferences. Each individual must assess their own and their parrotlets’ requirements and, in collaboration with their physicians and doing their own research, choose the optimal diet for their own parrotlets.

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