Health & Nutrition
So you've decided to convert your seed junkie to a healthier diet. This is a great decision that is likely to give you extra years with your bird. You've read the nutrition article, done some research on your bird's species, and decided what you want your bird to eat.
Typical instructions for converting from a seed diet to a pellet diet go something like this:"On day one, replace 20% of your bird's regular food with the new food. On day two, replace another 20% with the new food. And so on, until the conversion has been completed in just a few days
Don't believe it. It's not that easy. Some birds may change their diet readily but most will not, because their instincts tell them not to eat anything that they don't recognize. Many plants contain toxins, and in the wild there's no easy way to tell what's safe and what isn't. A bird that eats something unfamiliar could end up dead. Most birds learn about safe foods as fledglings by eating what their parents eat, and once they get past this young, impressionable stage they can be VERY reluctant to try something new. Birds have even been known to starve to death rather than eat an unfamiliar food that was sitting in their food cup. This wasn't stubbornness. They simply didn't understand that it was food.
It's obvious that diet conversions have to be made slowly and carefully. A healthy diet is important for your bird's long-term health. In the short run, a bad diet that gets eaten is a thousand times better than a good diet that isn't touched. It's important for your bird to get enough calories every single day, because failure to do so can trigger illness and even lead to death. Buy a scale that weighs in grams (a small postal meter or kitchen scale works well) and check your bird's weight frequently during a diet conversion to make sure it's maintaining a healthy weight. Checking the weight regularly is a good idea anyway, since many times weight loss is the only symptom of an illness.
It's a good idea to get a checkup from your avian vet before you start the conversion to make sure the bird is healthy.
It takes creativity and patience to entice a bird into trying a new food. So try several different approaches, and don't give up if it doesn't work the first time. It can take weeks, months, even years for a bird to accept a new food, and some items may never be accepted at all. But most birds can be persuaded to start eating at least some new and healthier foods.
Here are some techniques that may help:
Get a special food cup and put a small amount of the bird's very favorite treats in it, along with some new foods that you want him to try. At first he'll probably eat just the treats but eventually he may start eating some of the new foods too. It helps if you can half-bury the treats under the new food so he has to touch the new food to get at the treat.
It helps if the new foods don’t look too different from the seed diet he's used to. To get him used to moist foods, you can offer some cooked whole grains (from the local natural-foods grocery) then switch over to sprouted seeds and grains. Sprouts are easy to make and are an excellent source of nutrition. They’re best when the root is just barely starting to emerge, and they still look a lot like a seed at this point. Since sprouts are already moist, they’re a good vehicle for any liquid or powdered supplements that you want to add just before giving the sprouts to the bird. Here's an article on sprouting.
Sprinkling seed on top of moist food can be helpful. The seed sticks to the other food, making it harder for the bird to get the seed without at least tasting the other food.
It can be helpful to offer ONLY the new food first thing in the morning, when your bird is hungriest. Put it in a food cup that the bird is used to, to help send the message that this is food. But do NOT assume that when the bird gets hungry enough she will eat it, because you might be tragically wrong. NEVER try to starve a bird into submission because it's way too dangerous. Whether she eats any of the new food or not, put her regular food back in place after a couple of hours so she has plenty of time to meet her calorie needs for the day.
Teach your bird to take treats from your hand and occasionally offer a new food this way. She might decide to eat it! This is how some birds have learned to eat pellets. Handfed babies are especially responsive to this method since they already associate human hands with food.
Eating is a social activity for flocking birds. Some birds will be willing to try a new food if they see you eating it first (or pretending to eat it). Others might go for it if you tap your index finger in the food like a bird that's pecking and eating.
With some foods like fruits and veggies it pays to experiment with the presentation. Some birds like stuff cut up in chunks in a bowl, and others prefer to forage. Which means that they might like their veggies whole and hanging up, or spread out on a flat surface like a table top. They might prefer certain shapes too. It's definitely helpful to know the wild feeding habits of your bird's species, because the right presentation might get an instinctive reaction.
For example, wild cockatiels eat a lot of seed and also chew on the stems of grass and other plants to extract the juices. As a result, some tame cockatiels prefer vegetables that resemble either a seed or a stem. Stem-like vegetables include dandelion greens, carrot tops, thin asparagus, and cilantro. Clean, chemical-free lawn grass may be a big hit, and it's a bonus if there are unripe seed heads. Seed-like vegetables include corn kernels, peas, and broccoli (the florets look like unripe seed heads).
Birds that refuse to eat fresh fruits and vegetables might be willing to eat them in dehydrated form. You can buy them commercially or buy a dehydrator and make your own. But avoid dried fruit that contains sulfur, which includes most of the dried fruit (like raisins) at the grocery store. Many of the items at Just Tomatoes are suitable for small birds.
It might even help to hide the new food in a shredding toy or offer it in some other way that encourages playing. Playing sometimes turns into eating!