MAKING THE BIG SWITCH

By Linda Greeson

Ever since my teenage years I have been on and off weight reduction diets. While raising my family my attention was on providing a balanced diet for my growing youngsters. In the years I devoted to breeding St.Bernards I studied dog nutrition. This life long attention to the importance of diet to all living things continues. I am constantly seeking the perfect diet for my birds. If "You are what you eat." applies to humans it equally applies to the many parrots in our care.

Most breeders will agree with me that trying to provide our birds with perfectly balanced nutrients is an unending challenge. I long ago realized that we were defeating ourselves by being over zealous in our efforts toward this goal. Our birds were really overfed. Rarely did they empty their feeding dishes before a new supply of seed was placed before them. Examination of the discards showed that each was consuming only its favorites from the variety offered.

Because of the large number of birds we feed their wasteful habits were always a source of annoyance to me. It has been determined that seeds have a 75% waste factor because hulls are not consumed and many seeds in the mixture are not eaten at all. Feeding the wild birds who flock to our yard for their daily feast on the parrot's discards accounted for a considerable portion of our large feed bill! The very thought that perhaps our birds were not receiving an adequate diet was most disturbing to us. We never skimped by buying the cheaper seed mixtures - only the best and most expensive were good enough for our birds.

A crock pot full of beans, corn, peas, carrots, etc. is a permanent fixture on the kitchen counter. "Apples for birds" is a notation always on the shopping list and our citrus trees provide an unending supply of oranges. Dozens of additives, mineral and vitamin supplements, etc. were part of our supplies. Our motto has been "Nothing is too good for our birds." and we are justifiably proud of our beautiful, healthy birds and their wonderful babies. But, as with most breeders, we experience problems quite regularly. Avian veterinarians seem to universally agree that most of these problems, as well as most sickness in birds, have a nutritional basis.

We then began to question our methods. Are the egg eaters deficient in calcium? The rickets in a clutch of African Grays, in spite of our dietary supplements are definitely a nutritional problem. Were they somehow lacking in phosphorous and Vitamin D? Are the occasional feather pluckers suffering iodine deficiency? The problems with low fertility in pairs formerly very prolific are said to be related to inadequate protein and lysine. We had to realize that because we were feeding the same diet to a group of birds their selective habits meant that each was on a different diet dictated by their own likes and dislikes.

I long ago became convinced that food in pellet form, with each single pellet eaten a balanced combination of the required nutrients, was the solution to the problem. My St. Bernards had thrived on pelleted food for many years, why not the birds? I tried unsuccessfully several times to make the change, trying various brands, but each time gave up in despair. No matter how ideal the content of the pellets, they were of no value if the birds would not eat them.

About a year ago I became interested in a new type of extruded food; EXACT, manufactured by Kaytee. This time, I vowed, we were going to succeed in making the big switch. This experience has showed me that a variety of approaches is required. No one method has succeeded with all the birds. The usually suggested system of mixing a small and gradually increasing percentage of pellets with the regular seed diet worked quite well with many. Within a two week period this group had progressed painlessly to an all EXACT diet with only limited amounts of fruits and vegetables added. Many of the birds, however, did not cooperate quite so readily and other measures were required. The basic problem seemed to be that this strange new thing be recognized by the bird as food.

It is my habit in the late afternoon to walk around the aviary and "visit" with the birds. I offer each a nut or a piece of fruit from my hand, along with a little talk to maintain our relationship and to give me the opportunity to closely observe their conditions. When they see me approaching they come eagerly to my side of the cage for their treat. For two weeks I made my rounds with a pocket full of Exact and found that they were just as eager to take an Exact morsel as a treat as they were a peanut. When the morsels were then added in increasing quantities to their seed mixture it was familiar to these birds. It was not picked out of the dish and discarded but eaten with relish.

Friends have told me that when pellets are not accepted by the bird for a few days, taking them away and then waiting about a week before offering them again has been effective. Most who rejected them the first time accepted them well a week later. I have also observed that with a flock of birds if I can induce one or two to try the new food, the rest will quickly mimic the eaters and join them at the pellet bowl.

Hand held treats were not the solution for the numbers of paired, wild, imported birds we have set up for breeding. For them we added the morsels to their daily vegetable mix. We at first mashed them in quite well, gradually doing less mixing with the formed morsels more and more obvious. This, combined with a very gradual increase in the amount in their seed mixture was a successful approach.

Converting our family pets was yet a different situation. Our greedy little pair of Gray Cheeks accepted the new food in a matter of a few days - no problem there. Willy, our talkative African Gray, quite regularly picked that strange looking stuff out of his food bowl, piece by piece, and threw it out on the floor. He didn't think much of it as a hand held treat either, being used to much more appetizing goodies several times a day. We persisted, however, and finally Willy is eating Exact instead of seeds.

Our little Sheltie dog misses picking Exact up from the floor. She has enjoyed them from the start! Gonzo, our Yellow Naped Amazon, who was our first pet, has been completely spoiled by all of us for years and is still a hold out. His perch, close to the kitchen, keeps him alert to any signs of human food. He then uses all his charms to beg a tidbit. If charm doesn't work, his loud calls of "Want some! Want some!" are always effective. Who can blame him for lack of interest in bird food when such things as scrambled eggs and bits of steak are so frequently available. We have not given up on him yet, but progress is very slow.

Shula, our equally spoiled Tritan Cockatoo, has been moved from the kitchen area out to the patio and is now in not quite such a good position for begging. He was first started with the addition of a few morsels to his all time favorite, mashed potatoes, and now accepts them very well as the major part  of his diet.

To my surprise, I have had a much more difficult time converting my husband to the idea of feeding Exact than I have the birds. In spite of reading the lengthy list of nutrients in this food, he is still reluctant to give up the old feeding habits. He becomes alarmed at any decrease in food consumption, even for a day. I know that he is still secretly convinced that birds were meant to eat bird seed and still mistrustful of any change. Converting him may take longer than the Yellow Nape!

Watching clutches of big, beautiful babies being produced by these birds on Exact is gradually winning my husband over. Since we have started using Exact as our handfeeding formula, we have had an incredibly trouble free breeding season. At first I too thought " This is just too easy!" We add hot tap water to the Exact Handfeeding formula and in just a few seconds there was fresh formula for each feeding! We were accustomed to the endless routine of preparing a long list of ingredients, worrying over its proper storage, and heating it to just the right temperature. I am delighted to report that we have now fed out more than three hundred babies on Exact Handfeeding formula with only one incidence of sour crop ( which quickly cleared up) and no problems with slow emptying. These have been our best babies ever! I am sure that the fact that they are hand fed the same food that the parent birds have been feeding them, with no trauma of change when taken from the nest, is an important factor.

When my children were young I thought more of their nutritional needs than to place a dish of carrots and a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table and allow them to make a choice. Parrots can no more be trusted to choose what is necessary to their health and well being over what tastes good than children. I confess that I have never had the courage to go "cold turkey" in converting any of our birds to Exact. I too cannot bear the thought of their going hungry, even for a day. I am convinced, however, that after they have been coaxed into eating just a few of the morsels they have become aware that this too is edible food, and it is time for a firm stand. With their usual ration of fruits and vegetables and a dish of Exact before them, they will not go hungry.

Our shelf full of additives and diet supplements is gathering dust. Our feed bills have markedly decreased. I feel confident that our birds are fed better now than they ever have been.

12/01/90 **** It has been almost a year since I wrote this article, and we are still feeding Exact. Gonzo, the Yellow Nape, finally gave up and converted. Now he LOVES his Exact.. and will not touch a seed!

Our birds are at least 25% larger now .. we get constant raves on their excellent condition. Their plumage is absolutely beautiful, with their colors strong and vibrant. They are bright eyed and absolutely glow! I can't imagine how I ever fed seeds before... I never imagined that this diet would make such a huge difference. We now convert new birds over to Exact in three to five days, and my husband tells everyone how to do it!

 

 

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