Pellets & Mutations
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Mutation Parrotlets & Pellets
Something to Think About
 By: Sandee Molenda,  C.A.S.

When you have been breeding birds as long as I have, you have seen a lot of changes in the world of aviculture. I remember where there were no avian veterinarians, the only birds available were caught out in the jungle and there was no such thing as a bird "toy". Thank goodness that things have changed dramatically in the last 20 years!

One thing that has not changed is human nature. Once we learn something, it can be difficult to keep an open mind about new developments. Nowhere in aviculture is this so remarkably demonstrated than in the field of avian nutrition. In reminisce of yesterday, it also brings to mind when pellets were first invented and marketed as a complete food for your bird. At the time, the only "parrot food" was a mix of sunflower seed, corn, peanuts and dried chili peppers. Feeding fruit and vegetables to your birds was thought to cause diarrhea! Of course, we know the "first" parrot food was extremely high in fat and had almost no nutritional value other than the dried chili peppers. Now, of course, we know much better than that and certainly have a huge variety in what we should feed our birds. 

Many people today believe that unless their birds are eating pellets, they are not receiving a healthy diet. My belief is that there are many ways to supply a healthy and varied diet to our birds and pellets may or may not be a part of that program. It is up to the individual breeder to make that determination. However, one must remember that pellets are made from seed, namely corn, something that is not part of most parrots, including parrotlets' natural diet and is not a highly nutritious food at that. It is simply ground up seed with vitamins mixed in.  

Today, in addition to a huge variety of seeds and pellets, we have a limitless supply of fresh fruits, vegetables, sprouts and greens as well as whole grain breads, grains, rice and pasta. Many companies such as LeAvian(tm) and Soak N' Cook(tm) offer combinations of vegetables, fruits, grains, herbs, seeds and nuts which can be cooked and frozen then thawed as need be. These foods, combined with or without seeds and/or pellets, make up a healthful and complete diet for any parrotlet. 

However, if you have color mutation parrotlets, you would do well to feed these natural foods and avoid pellets altogether. For several years now, there have been numerous reports of mutation parrotlets - particularly the "red eyed" birds of developing high uric acid levels and/or kidney problems including calcification of the kidneys. This problem has also been reported in some of the color mutation cockatiels and budgies as well. Veterinarians have seen these problems in their own practices and it has been reported by veterinarians doing research and pathology.

It has been widely believed by many parrotlet breeders that the problems are due to possible problems with the birds' assimilation of protein in primarily pelleted diets. Many parrotlets owners have reported high uric acid levels often resulting in kidney failure in their color mutations that have been on a primarily pelleted diet. This is not to say there is ANYTHING wrong with pellets as it seems to be in the way the birds' process the protein. This has been borne out by private veterinarians as well as veterinarians at research universities that have also documented this problem in color mutations.

When I was at the 2003 International Aviculturist Society’s convention, I received some very interesting information from Mark Hagen of Hagen International. Mr. Hagen's family has owned Hagen, which has one of the largest avian nutritional research facilities in the world. They are also one of the few that actually uses parrotlets in their research. Mr. Hagen, during his presentation on avian nutrition, said something that struck me that could perhaps be one of the reasons that many mutation parrotlets seem to develop problems and it has nothing to do with protein. It has to do with fat.

A seed based diet, even one supplemented with fresh foods, is generally a higher fat diet than one that is pelleted. And what does fat do besides make you fat? It stores water. Water is needed for proper hydration and kidney function. Most parrots that are taken off seed diets and placed on extruded or pelleted diets, begin consuming mass amounts of water - often twice or even three times the amount of water they consumed when on the seed based diet. Perhaps parrotlets, a genus that normally does not drink a lot of water anyway, do not offset this lack of fat by consuming more water the way other parrots do. Interestingly, cockatiels and budgies, being  desert dwelling birds, also do not consume a lot of water. Pacific parrotlets, the species with the most color mutations, also come from dry, desert-like regions and also do not consume a lot of water anyway. In normal green birds, this may not be a problem. But perhaps in mutations, due to their abnormal genetic make up, this lack of water can manifest itself in kidney problems. Parrotlet mutations have not been bred for many generations so perhaps as time goes on and the birds' continue to improve by out crossing to normal wild-types, this will be bred out.

In my own aviary, I am no longer feeding pellets to my mutations after losing a male fallow Pacific at six months to kidney failure. In fact, I do not give pellets to my split mutation parrotlets either. As with all my birds, about 70% of their diet is fresh foods with the remainder being seed. I am constantly doing research on nutrition with my birds and I may again change my program, but for now, this protocol works well - I have beautiful healthy birds who produce gorgeous bouncing babies. I also have a lot of old birds that I have had for more than 20 years and that to me, let's me know that what I am doing is right for me - and them. 

Of course, the Golden Rule of breeding birds when I got started was "What works for me may not work for you" so I am certainly not advocating that anyone feed their parrotlets the same way I do. I only present this information based on my 20+ years of experience and my research and networking with various experts at speaking engagements and conventions. Each person must evaluate their own and their parrotlets' needs and, working with their own veterinarians as well as doing their own research, to make the appropriate decision for the best diet for their own parrotlets. 

 


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Last modified: February 24, 2006