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By Erna McCormick

Poor nutrition is a major cause of disease and other problems for cockatiels and other captive birds. A seed diet alone does not meet the nutritional requirements to allow the cockatiel to live a full life. Birds by nature hide the fact that they are sick or injured. In the wild a bird showing weakness is targeted by other animals as a meal.


Cockatiels need water, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals in order to live. The nutrients must be in the proper ratio for the bird to thrive.

A cockatiel will die more quickly from lack of water than through lack of food, like any living creature. Water must be clean and free from contamination. Water should be changed daily, especially in warm weather and when vitamins are added. Bacteria and algae will grow rapidly with these conditions. If you would not drink your birds’ water, you know it needs to be changed.


Proteins, carbohydrates and fats are the three major nutritional components of all foods. Protein is the nutrient that is most likely to be lacking in your cockatiel’s diet. Proteins are the building blocks for a bird’s body. Young growing chicks and breeding cockatiels have a higher need for protein than an adult bird.


All protein is comprised of amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids. It is very important that the food you feed your bird be comprised of the proper amino acids. Amino acids are divided into two groups: essential and non-essential. Amino acids that your bird can manufacture are called non-essential. There are 10 essential amino acids that your bird cannot manufacture. These are Arginine, Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lystine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan and Valine. These amino acids must be provided to your bird in the diet you provide.


When your bird consumes protein, it is broken down into individual amino acids or strands of amino acids called polypeptides. The liver stores the amino acids for a few hours and then reassembles the amino acids into the proteins that are needed for body functions. If the diet is deficient in amino acids, the construction of proteins is halted. Excess amino acids are used for energy. The by-products are sent to the kidneys and discarded in the form of uric acid.


If too little protein is provided, the bird’s body cannot build the proper proteins needed for health. If too much protein is provided, the excess by-products are sent to the kidneys in the form of uric acid. If the kidneys are overwhelmed with too much uric acid, permanent damage may result.

When you shop for bird food, the label on diets with seeds, will say “crude protein”. “Crude protein” is a worthless measurement. All protein is not usable. For example, your hair is made of protein, but it cannot be broken down by the body and used. The manufacturers of the food count the protein in the seed hull in the percentage. The hull is not eaten by the birds, and thus is not usable protein. Digestible protein in the bag of food may not contain all the essential amino acids needed by the bird for optimum health. Purchasing fortified seed does not provide your bird with anything extra. Fortified seed has the vitamins sprayed onto the seed. The bird removes the hull and the vitamins are discarded with the hull. Birds have dry tongues, and the vitamins stay attached to the hull. The protein level of food must also be balanced with the number of calories in the food. Eggs are a high quality source of protein as they contain high levels of essential amino acids.


Cockatiels are known to have problems with their liver and kidneys. A shortage of methionine, one of the essential amino acids, can cause fatty liver disease, resulting in the overgrowth of the beak. This does not mean that every bird with an overgrown beak has fatty liver disease. It may be caused by other factors. Methionine is found in egg whites, sesame seeds, seaweed, spirulina, and fish.


Carbohydrates function mainly as a source of heat and energy. They consist of simple sugars, starches and non-digestible fiber. The basic compound is glucose from which more complex compounds are synthesized.


The liver plays a major role in the metabolism of carbohydrates. It helps produce glucose from various sources as needed for energy and converting glucose into forms that can be stored in the body. All diets provide energy.


Fats, also called oils and lipids, have several important roles in avian nutrition. They are the most concentrated source of dietary energy. Fats provide over two times the amount of energy by weight than carbohydrates and proteins. Fats also act as solvents to aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and as a source of essential fatty acids. Essential fatty acids are those that cannot be synthesized in the body and must be supplied in the diet from plant sources. Linoleic and linolenic acids are the essential fatty acids that are required in the diet of birds. Essential fatty acids are the precursors of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins have a variety of hormone like effects, including lowering blood pressure, inducing smooth muscle contraction, and other functions. Smooth muscle contraction is responsible for sustained contractions in the blood vessels, gastrointestinal tract and other areas in the body.


Deficiencies of essential fatty acids results in slowed growth, and eventually death. Since essential fatty acids are derived from plants, most would not think that a deficiency could be found in a standard seed diet. But, fats, especially oils, tend to spoil quickly because of oxidation. Oxidation is the chemical process of oxygen interacting with a substance. Seeds highest in fats and oils tend to go rancid very quickly. They should be kept in a cool, dark place. Heat and light speed up the reaction, and the essential amino acids are lost at a faster rate.


Vitamins are organic compounds that are essential for normal body metabolism, reproduction and defense against disease. Vitamins are divided into two groups. They are fat soluble and water soluble. The fat soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E, and K. These vitamins are stored in the body.

Vitamin A deficiency is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies in pet birds. Vitamin A deficiency is responsible for most of the respiratory diseases in pet birds. Bacteria and fungi grow in lungs deficient in Vitamin A causing pneumonia. Birds can manufacture their own Vitamin A if they are provided beta-carotenes. Carrots are high in beta-carotenes. Vitamin A can be toxic to a bird’s liver if fed in excess. Excess beta-carotenes, the precursor for Vitamin A will not harm the bird. A precursor is a chemical that is transformed into another compound. Birds use beta-carotenes in manufacturing feather pigments and shunt the extra beta-carotenes to the feathers when there is an excess provided in the diet.


Vitamin D is important in the metabolism of calcium and phosphorus. It regulates the absorption of calcium in the digestive system and mediates bone calcium metabolism as well as the calcification of eggs. A diet too low in Vitamin D will cause the bird to suffer from calcium deficiency. A diet too high in Vitamin D will cause the bird to absorb too much calcium. The extra calcium is stored in the soft tissues, causing bone formation in the intestinal tract and kidneys, destroying these organs. Birds can manufacture Vitamin D when their skin is exposed to the correct frequencies of ultraviolet light or sunlight. Glass blocks the ultraviolet light in sunlight.


Vitamin E deficiency causes muscle, heart, brain, intestinal and pancreatic diseases. It also causes retarded growth. Good sources of Vitamin E are almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, sunflower oil and safflower oil.


Vitamin K is necessary for blood clotting. Vitamin K is provided by the bird’s diet and the normal bacterial flora in the intestines. Good sources of Vitamin K are kale, broccoli, spinach, Swiss chard, parsley, olive oil, soybean oil and canola oil.


The water soluble vitamins are not stored in the body in large amounts and therefore must be supplied constantly. Water soluble vitamins are readily excreted, and a toxic overdose is uncommon.


Minerals are also essential for avian health. They are essential to the structure of bone, play an important role in the transport of oxygen, and are required for the activation of many enzyme reactions.


Calcium is the mineral that is normally deficient in pet birds on a seed diet. It is essential for bone and egg formation, blood coagulation, muscle contraction, heart function and nerve function. Seeds are low in calcium, but medium to high in phosphorus. This results in osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is the taking of calcium from the bone to supply the metabolic needs.


Egg shells are composed of 40% calcium. Every egg that leaves a hen’s body represents a tremendous loss of body calcium. Eventually, a cockatiel on a seed only diet will produce an egg that has no hard shell. When the uterus contracts the soft egg responds like a water balloon. The harder the hen pushes the less the balloon-like egg moves. Eventually the pressure on the kidneys and abdominal organs results in necrosis and death. Low calcium diets are the number one cause of egg binding, and it is totally preventable. It is believed that .7% calcium is the correct percentage for cockatiels. For other types of birds, the percentage for calcium is .7% to .9%.


Feeding a balanced diet including all required nutrients will result in better health, more breeding success and longer lives for our flocks.

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