By Carolyn Swicegood
Good nutrition is the single most important factor in determining the health, vitality and longevity of our parrots. Because we have taken them from their natural environment, and because they are unable to forage and choose their own foods, it is imperative that we provide them a nutritionally complete diet. It is my belief that we also owe them an interesting and varied selection of foods from which to choose. I could not in good conscience offer such a curious and intelligent creature only one food, such as pellets, day after day. Another very good reason to feed a variety of foods is that we can use foods as a natural preventative to health problems and many foods can be used as natural remedies once health problems have developed. The following are only a few of the many foods that can be used as natural medicine for our birds.
CHERRIES--One of the greatest success stories of using a natural food to clear up health problems is that of using cherries to cure gout! Gout is a form of arthritis and occurs when crystals of uric acid form in the fluid surrounding a joint. The sharp, painful crystals form when blood levels of uric acid become too high and crystallize in the joints, just as sugar crystals pile up at the bottom of a glass of iced tea when you add too much sugar. Gout in birds is associated with the kidney's inability to remove nitrogen waste products from the bloodstream. As a result, uric acid accumulates and begins to abnormally collect in different sites within the body. There are two distinct form of this disease in parrots. Articular gout usually affects the joints of the lower legs. It's most common in budgies where it appears as multiple cream-colored shiny swellings bulging up through the skin. It is very painful and the bird becomes progressively crippled. Visceral gout affects the internal organs and is very difficult to diagnose. The first course of action is to correct the diet, thereby eliminating the cause. Meanwhile, try this simple but effective remedy, which I think most parrots find enjoyable too. Cherries, fresh, frozen, or even canned, should eliminate the gout problem quickly. If you cannot find cherries, all health food stores sell small bottles of black cherry juice concentrate which can be added to the drinking water. Otherwise, if the parrot has a favorite dry food, simply soak that in the concentrate. Although fresh cherries are ideal when they are in season, it seems that any form of cherries works to clear up the painful problem of gout.
PAPAYA-- This is a juicy peach-like tropical fruit valued for its powerful digestive enzyme called papain and the high beta carotene content which is readily convertible to useable vitamin A. Parrots seem to consider papaya a natural part of their diet, and depending on the birds' country of origin, sometimes it is! Unless our parrots are able to digest their food properly, all our good feeding intentions and efforts are wasted. Proper digestion is a requirement not only for their optimum health but we also must consider that incomplete or disordered digestion can be a major contributor to the development of disease. The problem is not only that ingestion of foods and nutritional substances are of little benefit when breakdown and assimilation are inadequate, but also that incompletely digested food molecules can be inappropriately absorbed into the systemic circulation! Papaya is an enzyme-rich food that we would do well to offer our birds daily, in order to help them assimilate the most nutrients from their diet. Some people do not feed papaya seeds, but parrots love the seeds for their peppery taste. Many islanders use them medicinally as an anti-parasitic agent, and judging by the way my parrots relish those little black seeds, perhaps they instinctively know that they serve a purpose in their diet as well. I have fed them to my birds for many years with no ill effects.
ORANGES--How would you like to squeeze the juice of a readily available fruit onto your birds' food to keep it from spoiling during the day, and at the same time offer them a complete package of every class of natural cancer inhibitors--carotenoids, terpenes and flavonoids? At the same time you could give them calcium, phosphorus, iron, sodium, potassium, Vitamin A, niacin, B-complex vitamins, traces of Boron, and lots of Vitamin C. Parrots also enjoy the taste of this versatile fruit while it keeps their fresh food offering free of pathogens for many hours, providing of course that we take precautions such as screening to keep flies off their food. This method of keeping our birds' food fresh is a godsend in warmer climates where birds are kept outside. Some of the healthiest looking and most beautifully feathered parrots that I know have been eating oranges daily for years so obviously the idea that they are too acidic is not a valid concern.
APPLES--Not only are they high in fiber and pectin, they contain anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-inflammatory agents. Most parrots will eat apples daily and you know what they say about an apple a day! For keepers of Amazon parrots (that are known for becoming "pleasingly plump"), apples can be one of your weapons against high cholesterol. In many animal tests, the pectin in apples has significantly lowered or normalized cholesterol and triglycerides.
BEANS--An excellent food for parrots, beans regulate blood sugar levels, reduce cholesterol, and are high in fiber. Combined with brown rice, they are a complete protein. In humans, beans have been linked to lower rates of cancer so perhaps this benefit extends to our feathered friends too.
BROWN RICE--Of all grains and cereals, rice is the least likely to cause digestive problems. Not only is it one of the most easily-digested foods, but it is anti-diarrheal and it contains anti-cancer protease inhibitors. Parrots will eat rice in any form, even sprouted! As a weaning food, there is no equal. Most "soak and cook" mixes include this nourishing food. The Macrobiotic Diet, practiced worldwide for the purpose of healing, is based on brown rice and vegetables.
NUTS--Nuts are a natural source of fats for our parrots. Fats are the most concentrated energy source, providing more than twice as much energy per unit as either proteins or carbohydrates. They help to insulate and store food for the body and are necessary for the normal utilization of the fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K). The more sedentary life your parrots live, the less fats are needed so one must feed nuts with that in mind. Nuts are an excellent food for cold days outside when birds need extra energy to maintain their body temperature. As an anti-cancer and heart protective food, nuts are a valuable part of your parrots' diet.
SWEET POTATOES--Also popularly called yams, they are a blockbuster source of the antioxidant beta carotene, (one half cup contains 23,000 IUs) linked to preventing heart disease, cataracts, and numerous cancers. When you have reason to be concerned about the health of a parrot's eyes, this is the perfect nutritional boost for eye health. If a parrot has rough or dry skin, the high beta carotene of sweet potatoes will have a positive effect here too. This is considered to be one of the most nutritious foods in nature, and parrots of all ages love the taste, color and texture. It also is an excellent source of fiber.
GRAPE SEEDS--Give your parrots a grape with seeds and watch what they eat first! Without fail, they first dig out the seeds and devour them with a look that lets you know they think they have found a food treasure! And they are right. Just ask the price of the newest and most expensive new anti-oxidant at your health food store. Grape Seed Extract (or OPC, oligomeric procyanidins) is one of the most potent antioxidants known--fifty times as powerful as Vitamin E, according to some tests. This is a completely non-toxic material which has been used in Europe for forty years. In France, it is the foremost drug used to treat varicose veins. It is also used in Europe, and now here, to treat eye problems, arthritis, hay fever and other allergies, nosebleeds, and even Attention Deficit Disorder. According to Doane & Qualkinbush, authors of MY PARROT, MY FRIEND, feather plucking in parrots has been successfully treated with a similar anti-oxidant called Pycnogenol, pronounced pik-NOD-ja-nol, which is the same material as grapeseed extract, but taken from the bark of a French maritime pine tree. The anti-oxidant qualities of Pycnogenol and Grape Seed Extract are the same but Grape Seed Extract is less expensive. Not only the seeds of grapes are healing but the fruit of grapes also is a very versatile remedy. It has been used effectively in the treatment of herpes viruses and heart conditions, among others.
These are but a few of the foods that we can use as preventative and curative remedies in the care of our parrots. Ultimately, their health and the quality of their lives are in our hands. It is up to us to choose their foods wisely.