I rely heavily on my bird’s healthy diet. It has taken years to get some of my more difficult birds to eat the foods I want them to with consistency. However, it has proven to be the most worthwhile effort I have ever put into my birds. I have always firmly believed that proper diet will maintain the appropriate balance for a healthy bird. A good diet is the first line of defense against disease of any type.
However, I am not a fan of using dietary supplementation. Several years ago, when I was inquiring about supplementation for my birds, an avian vet told me that if I knew what was in most commercial supplements, I would never consider using them. Following that statement, the research I did on the topic showed me that many of the available supplements were not just ineffective in enhancing health, the ingredients were, in themselves, unhealthy.
Calcium supplementation is the one exception I make. This is because even with the best diet possible, there are other factors that interfere with a bird’s ability to absorb the calcium from their diet.
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a webinar with renowned avian veterinarian and researcher Scott Echols reviewing his progress on a groundbreaking project involving 3D imaging of parrot anatomy. It is technology that will be game changing for the avian sciences. In the webinar, bone density became a topic.
In an x-ray image, what shows up most vividly are those body parts which are most dense. That is why bones are very bright and the soft tissue around them is a faint outline by comparison. Dr. Echols showed several images of birds with frighteningly low bone density. It has been haunting me since the webinar.
Low bone density is very prevalent among not only captive birds, but all captive animals. An obvious concern is brittle bones, but calcium deficiency is especially worrisome for a species that lays eggs as they are made up almost entirely of calcium. When the body doesn’t have an adequate calcium supply, the shells can be soft and poorly formed and may not be easily expelled. Egg binding is likely and yolk peritonitis resulting from a broken unpassed egg is often fatal.
Most people think of a calcium deficiency as being a purely dietary issue. In fact, lack of sunlight is the main problem. Wild birds are exposed to the UV rays of the sun on a daily basis. This spectrum of light interacts with the oils that have been dispersed throughout their feathers during preening and causes their body to manufacture vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 plays a very big role in the body’s ability to absorb calcium from the diet.
So the equation is this: sunlight provides D3. D3 helps the body take in calcium. When you take away sunlight, calcium levels are affected and bone density drops.
For those of us with captive birds this remains an ongoing challenge. Many of us are not able to build outdoor aviaries and smaller cages that can be wheeled outside offer little protection from a determined predator are generally unsafe for that reason.
There are a few alternatives, however:
- Harness train your bird – Recent research shows that as little as 15-20 minutes of direct sunlight, twice a week, can make measurable differences in your parrot’s health. This can be accomplished with a walk through your neighborhood with your harnessed bird on your shoulder.
- Full spectrum lighting – FSL is not perfect, but is the best alternative for many people. Be sure to use bulbs that are intended for avian use – not reptiles. THIS is the bulb that I use the most, but they are all very similar in output and most other brands will also suffice. The bulb will start to lose effectiveness after about 6 months so be sure to replace it often.
- Add D3 to the diet – vitamin D3 is mainly manufactured by the body and is available through very few food sources, most of which are not an acceptable part of the avian diet – such as dairy products. But it is found in canned tuna and salmon which can be safely worked into the diet. You can give a tablespoon to medium and large birds, 1 teaspoon to small birds, of either fish twice a week. Be sure to chose only fish packed in water with no salt added.
- Calcium supplementation – Add a cuttlebone or calcium perch to the cage. The birds need all the help they can get.