Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Feeding Your Flock: Part 4

So far, we’ve talked about pellets, grains, and “mash” diets, and why none of them are really very good for our feathered companions. In this post, we’re going to take a look at what Patricia Sund calls the “Chop” diet. Patricia is a fantastic blogger with lots to offer the avian community (she’s also the writer of BIRD TALK magazine’s “Memo to Parker and Pepper.”) Though I’ve never talked to Patricia, I must admit, it’s lovely to see someone who makes an educated effort to provide their birds with a healthy, whole-foods diet, and is so darned witty about it!

I’ve been feeding my birds some variation of what’s been termed the “chop” diet from the day I brough my first parrot (a baby weaned onto seeds and FruitBlend Zupreem) home. It seemed pretty intuitive to me, and I just assumed that everyone knew that parrots were built to eat real foods; that folks fed their birds these colored, fortified cereal-looking things as a treat or something. What a kick in the pants it was when I realized that pellets were being touted as “complete” diets by their manufacturers, or that it was recommended (by the manufacturers and vets alike) that our birds’ diets be comprised of almost nothing but these processed pieces that smelled like Froot Loops…and that people were listening to what they were being told. I wondered if anyone had ever actually read the ingredients on the packaging (even though I already knew from years working with dogs that most folks don’t bother to read the ingredients.)

Looking for information, I found “mash” diets. And they just didn’t seem right since, well, parrots can’t cook, and “mash” diets required a whole lotta’ cookin’ to create. After some searching, I found Pamela Clark’s Seven Layer Salad, which is essentially “chop” but put together in a much more formal fashion – by layering ingredients which are chopped or shredded by hand, and aren’t ever frozen. But it took me several hours each week to shop for, clean, chop, and layer the items “just so”….and I still ended up throwing a lot of it away, since it was stored in the fridge and got yucky in a few days.

So I just did my own thing with my little food processor, my freezer, and little to no cooking. And I got fantastic results. Then one day, I stumbled on Patricia’s blog and found that she – and loads of other folks – had been feeding what she refers to as a “chop” diet!

So what the heck is “chop”?

There’s no recipe. That scares a lot of people, mostly (I think) because people who care enough to be interested in “chop” tend to be people who want to do everything “right” by their birds. It’s a noble concept, but it’s one that I learned long ago to let go of. “Chop” is the avian diet equivalent of “going with the flow.”

Essentially, “chop” is made with whatever fresh foods you have available to you at the time that you make it. It’s limited only by your imagination (and your budget), so there’s no need for a recipe. It’s just crazy enough to be fantastically useful while at the same time driving some people mad.

Like Particia, I find recipes to be limiting and cumbersome. If a recipe calls for an ingredient that is out of season or otherwise unavailable, some folks may choose to substitute one item for another. Others may choose to not make the recipe at all. But for many of us, if you say “use what you have, and make the best of it”, we’ll take that and run!

Making “Chop”

Patricia does presentations on making “chop” and I’ll be the first to admit that they look like more fun than what I do in my kitchen once a month. That being said, making “chop” is cheap and easy, once you get the hang of it.

To make “chop”, you’ll need a food processor of some nature. Or, at the very least, one will come in incredibly handy. I have this KitchenAid 3-cup processor – it works well, but it can be a pain when making large batches.

The last batch that I made was sadly lacking variety, since it’s winter here in New England (albeit one of the warmest ones I can remember) and fresh, in-season produce is relatively scarce. (I went months without seeing dandelion greens in my local supermarket!) If I remember correctly, it contained some combination of kale, collards, parsely, beets (greens, too), carrots, broccoli, bell peppers, and a frozen mix of green peas, corn, and green beans. It sounds like a lot of food – and it is – but remember, it takes me an average of two hours to clean and process all this food, and then I’m done for the month! Plus, it costs me under $20! (If I factor in the sprouts, supplements, and other things I offer my birds, it comes out to about $35 a month to feed all four of my birds.)

It’s about time I made “chop” again, and if I’d had a little more forethought, I’d have planned this blog around making it so that I could have included pictures. Fortunately, Patricia has a lovely picture of a batch of her “chop”, which you can find here.

Along with the greens and veggies, I offer fresh sprouts every day, with several supplements (like ground flax seed, Fresh Addition, coconut oil, and palm oil) on alternate days. You’ll notice, however, that I don’t include fruits in my chop. Most folks don’t, simply because fresh fruits are very watery and make the thawed chop a little too mushy. But…I do dehydrate my own fruits, and I’ll add some of these to the mix to absorb some of the extra moisture, especially in the winter when fresh, organic fruits are pretty limited. Otherwise, fruits (along with some other fresh veggies) are skewered and hung in the cage for foraging opportunities.

Ample Opportunities for Enrichment

Some folks scoff at the idea of a diet that consists primarily of “wet” foods based on the reasoning that parrots “can’t” forage for these foods in their cage. And to that, I say…pfft! With a little creativity, our parrots can eat their delicious and nutritious “chop” from something (anything!) other than an open bowl.

Fugi – a Lesser Jardine’s parrot – was my first bird, and she taught me a lot (not the least of which was the value of stainless steel skewers!)  Hollowed fruits and veggies make great edible foraging vessels. I’ve used apples, cucumbers, zucchini, squashes, artichokes, just about anything that can be eaten raw, with no complaints from my parrots. The other upside is that I can shove things like pine nuts and shelled almonds into the flesh of many of these foods for added foraging.

In addition to using fresh food as foraging devices, there are several acrylic and plastic foraging devices on the market that do the job well, along with the almighty stainless steel food skewer. Jungle Talk makes two of my favorites – the Find-a-Treat and the Carousel. Both of these toys are made of a tough polymer that even Miss Dolly the (Un)Cape hasn’t been able to break, and they’re washable and reusable. Caitec also has a whole line of acrylic foraging toys and we’ve used several of these (though Miss Dolly has been able to break several of these toys, so use caution – they’re pricy and could pose a threat if broken.)

With all of these “wet food foraging” options, there’s no excuse for offering our birds the “good stuff” in a dish and making them work only for the dry stuff!

“Chop” is a healthy, fresh, biologically appropriate diet that, with a little effort, can be foraged for. When done right, it provides a wide variety of nutrients, and plenty of enrichment. The ideal diet!

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Feeding Your Flock: Part 3

In our last few posts, we disected popular pelleted diets and examined why feeding a grain-based diet isn’t the best route to follow for your parrots’ health. In this post, we’ll take a look at the downfalls of “mash” diets.

“Mash” diets

So-called “mash” diets take many forms, but they all have one thing in common: they’re based on cooked legumes and grains. The typical mash diet is comprised of 30-50% cooked grains and legumes (usually recommended in a two parts grain to one part legume ration for a “complete protein”), 40-50% veggies and fruits, and the remainder is various amounts of pellets, dry or sprouted seeds, and supplements. They’re touted as healthier and in some cases, complete diets that provide birds with important enrichment that they’re just not going to get with monotonous pelleted diets. And it has always been recommended that mash diets be finely chopped – preferably in a food processor – so that birds can’t pick out their “favorite” bits.

We already know that grains aren’t the best choice for your parrot’s base diet, but what about cooked beans? And what’s all this about “complete proteins” and making sure our birds get them at every meal? What about monotony?!

It’s probably fresher, but it’s not necessarily healthier.

The first – though not the most obvious – problem with these “mash” diets are that they’re too high in phosphorus, especially if fed as the sole diet, the base of the diet, or as part of a diet based on grain-filled pellets. Parrots need a calcium to phosphorus ratio of 1:1 to 2:1. So if you’re feeding a “mash” diet comprised of 50% cooked mixed legumes and grains, 30% veggies, 10% fruits, and 10% pellets and supplements, you’ll have to convince your parrots to actually consume 1-2 times the amount of calcium rich foods for every bean they eat – if he eats a tablespoon of carb-rich beans, you need to make sure he actually consumes 1-2 tablespoons of calcium rich greens (or the equivalent of an avian calcium supplement.) Not an easy feat for the average bird owner.

The second problem – and by far the most obvious one – is that mash diets are based on cooked grains and legumes, and in case anyone didn’t notice, parrots don’t cook. They couldn’t even if they wanted to. Parrots can’t eat dry beans because of trypsin-inhibitors and other “anti-nutrients.” So why feed them a diet based on cooked foods that are wholly unnatural, and potentially toxic to them in their raw form?

Bean-based diets also have a skewed protein and carbohydate ratio, with an average of 8-12 grams of protein in every half cup cooked serving. A quarter cup of mixed cooked grains has an average of 4 grams of protein. So one cup of mixed cooked beans and grains contains about 14 grams of protein. If you mix equal portions of spinach, collards, broccoli, and green peas to make an a total of 2 cups, you’ll have added about another 7.5 grams of protein, for a grand total of about 11 grams of protein in a cup.

It’s my understanding that birds are capable of consuming 15-20% of their body weight daily, and it is generally accepted that parrots need 10-15% of their daily calories from protein, depending on a variety of factors including species, age, activity level, and reproductive status. As an example, a 400 gram African Grey will consume up to 80 grams, or just under 3 ounces, of food each day. That’s about 5.5 tablespoons. There are about 16 tablespoons in a cup, so this 400 gram Grey will consume about 1/3 of a cup of food each day. If half of that 1/3 cup is beans and grains, than 1/6 of a cup of our prepared bean/grain/veggie mix, there will be approximately 4 grams of protein.

We know from studying human nutrition that a gram of protein contains 4 calories, a gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories, and a gram of fat contains 9 calories. That 1/6 cup of cooked beans and grains is going to contain about 30 grams of carbohydrates or about 120 calories just from carbs, with a measley 12 calories coming from protein, and a whopping 36 calories from the 3 or so grams of fat contained in the bean/grain mix. Just to clarify, 3 grams of fat is about 5% of the recommended daily allowance for fat in a 2,000 calorie diet for an adult human. 30 grams of carbohydrates is about 10% of the recommended daily intake for an adult human on a 2,000 calorie diet.

A 150 pound human weighs approximately 67,950 grams.  Assuming that this human is an average 5’5″ female in her mid 20’s, she would need appriximately 2,000 calories to maintain this weight. See where I’m going with this?

Companion parrots – biologically designed to consume large amounts of raw foliage and fruits – rarely have the opportunity to fly in captivity, and even those that do have the opportunity don’t fly anywhere near as much as their wild counterparts, burning far fewer calories by default. And we, thinking that we’re doing the best by them, fill them with unnatural, carb and fat-rich cooked foods, clip their wings, and wonder why they “misbehave.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, an abundance of calorie-rich foods has been demonstrated to induce breeding behaviors, and since so many of us are in the habit of providing them with a no-work-required dish full of warm, calorie-dense food (far more than they could ever consume at once), we leave them in a constant state of arousal with a strong desire to find a mate.

Are you still wondering why so many companion parrots are fat and angry?

Now, cooked whole, human-grade foods are without a doubt fresher (and healthier) than highly processed pellets made from cheap fillers loaded with synthetic vitamins and table sugar. But they’re still not the diet that nature intended for parrots to consume every day.

In our next post, we’ll talk about feeding our birds the way they’re meant to eat – with whole, raw foods – on a budget!

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