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What is the best diet for cockatiels? The truth is that nobody really knows. But time and experience indicate that the best diet is a varied diet including seeds, pellets, vegetables, and other nutritious foods.

There's no doubt whatsoever that an all-seed diet is unhealthy in the long run, and contributes to health problems like fatty liver disease. Because of this, some people think that seeds are unhealthy and pet birds shouldn't be allowed to eat them. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Seeds are an excellent high-nutrition food, and are particularly good for cockatiels because tiels are seed-eaters in the wild. But seeds are not nutritionally complete, so we need to encourage our birds to eat other types of food in addition to seeds so they can get important nutrients that seeds don't contain.

There's an important difference between seed-eating in the wild and seed-eating in captivity: wild birds have a wide range of options and can consume seeds in all stages of development, from unripe green seeds to mature dry seed. They also have access to other food sources, and cockatiels are known to chew on grass and plant stems and eat an unknown quantity of insects, as well as consuming grit and charcoal from burned areas. There's a thread on the feeding ecology of wild cockatiels at http://talkcockatiels.com/showthread.php?t=16205

Captive birds have fewer choices since they are limited to what we offer them, and what we tend to offer is mature dry seed. It's good stuff, but it doesn't contain everything that wild birds can get. That's why it's important to offer vegetables, to supply some of the nutrients that wild birds obtain from their favorite greenfoods. A variety of veggies is best since they vary in their nutritional content. Most cockatiels don't like fruit, and vegetables have more nutrients anyway, so it's OK to not bother with fruit.

Minerals are important to the diet too, and calcium is especially important for the health of breeding hens. Cuttlebone and mineral blocks are popular sources of calcium, but other nutrients are needed for the body to absorb the calcium, especially magnesium and vitamin D3. There's more information in the Calcium sticky at http://talkcockatiels.com/showthread.php?t=19866

Grit is another way to provide minerals, but this is a controversial subject because there have been cases where mineral-deficient birds overconsumed grit, impacted their crops, and died. The majority of advice on the internet is opposed to offering grit because of this. But there are respected experts who believe that grit is beneficial when used wisely. For example: http://www.parrots.org/pdfs/all_about_parrots/reference_library/health_and_nutrition/Minerals and Grit - of Vital Importance.pdf

Pellets are a processed manufactured food that is intended to be nutritionally complete, but it's not actually possible to have nutritional completeness in a single food. Although many parrot species have fairly similar nutritional needs, they are all a little different too. There are more than 300 parrot species and no one fully understands the nutritional needs of a single one of them, let alone all of them. Pellet formulas are based primarily on studies conducted for the poultry industry, which has very different goals for its birds than we have for our pets.

The problem doesn't end there. The nutritional needs of wild birds are very different than the needs of captive birds, who are much less active. There are many individual differences within a single species, depending on individual genetic makeup, age, sex, health, activity level, etc. There's no way to produce a pellet that provides perfect nutrition for every bird. Nonetheless, in the early days of pellets there was a push to give pet birds a 100% pellet diet, which led to the discovery that an all-pellet diet is as unhealthy as an all-seed diet.

Nowadays most pellet companies recommend a diet of 80-90% pellets, with the rest of the diet made up of vegetables and perhaps a small amount of seeds or nuts. Many veterinarians make similar recommendations, but there are good reasons to be skeptical about this advice. It's in the pellet companies' best interest to produce a quality product, since their future sales will suffer if they get a reputation for selling a food that makes birds die prematurely from nutritional problems. But profits are what matter the most so they want you to feed your bird the maximum amount of pellets, which may not be the optimal amount for your bird's health.

Most veterinarians have little education about avian nutrition, and depend on what pellet companies tell them and on what it says in their avian medicine textbooks. A major textbook on avian medicine was written by the veterinarian owner of a pellet company and there are anecdotal reports of other pellet companies having an influence on medical texts, so there's good reason to think that many vets are not receiving objective information about avian nutrition.

There is no doubt that pellets are beneficial when they are consumed in appropriate amounts, and many avian vets have seen dramatic improvements in their patients when pellets were added to the diet. The question is, how much is appropriate for cockatiels? No one knows for sure, but anecdotal evidence from veterinarians seems to point toward 30-35% of the diet. The percentage might be higher for other species; it makes sense that cockatiels, who are adapted to a harsh environment, would do best on a diet that's not as rich as what rain forest birds get.

There are several different brands of pellets on the market. Most are designed to be nutritionally complete, although some of the smaller brands may not be. Some people prefer to avoid pellets with artificial coloring, although many cockatiels prefer the colored pellets. Nutriberries are nutritionally equivalent to pellets but look like seed balls, so many cockatiels accept them more readily than they accept standard pellets.

How do you teach a cockatiel to eat pellets and vegetables? Frequently the answer is SLOWLY. Don't listen to recommendations to take away the bird's regular food in an attempt to force it to eat the new foods, because this sometimes ends with the bird starving to death. It's all right to offer only the new foods for a couple of hours in the morning to encourage the bird to eat them, but the bird's regular food should be available for most of the day. There are tips for encouraging a bird to eat new foods at http://www.littlefeatheredbuddies.com/info/nutrition-conversion.html

Birds that have learned to eat a variety of nutritious foods seem to display a sort of natural wisdom that leads them to eat the foods that they need at any given time. It might be necessary to limit certain foods that are beneficial in reasonable amounts, but are so delicious that your bird might want to overeat them.

Sunflower seeds are a good example. Sunflower has gotten a bad rap as birdie junk food, but this isn't true. Sunflower seed is actually very nutritious - see http://justcockatiels.weebly.com/sunflower-seeds.html for a list of nutrients. But sunflower is also higher in fat than some seeds, which can cause problems if your bird eats too many of them. It's fine to let your bird eat sunflower but not good to allow unlimited quantities unless your bird has a special situation that calls for plenty of calories.

Cooked egg is another good example. It's highly nutritious and very delicious, but should be limited to small amounts because the fat and protein content is so high. Excessive protein causes kidney damage over time, so it's important to keep the amount of protein in the diet to a healthy level.

There may be situations where vitamin supplements are useful, but most of the time it's better not to use them. Vitamin supplements should NOT be given to a bird that is eating pellets/nutriberries because this can lead to vitamin overdose aka vitamin toxicity. When vitamins are added to the water the dosage is unpredictable, since it depends on how much was added to the water and how much the bird drinks. But vitamins in the water help promote the growth of bacteria. Vitamin-fortified seed is basically useless, since the vitamins are sprayed on the hull which the bird doesn't eat; but if the bird somehow manages to consume the vitamins on these seeds, then feeding vitamin supplements in addition to the seed will once again put the bird at risk of an overdose.
 

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My vet is still advocating NO SEEDS AT ALL and trying get me to completely "ween" him of any seeds.
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Many vets that also sell pellets will advocate no seeds in the diet because it is in their best interests towards sales, and future vet visits when the bird has health issues related to just a pellet diet.

I would suggest to beware of a Vets motives and actual credibility when they advocate pellets. A diet should be varied, which includes seeds, pellets, and fresh foods/veggies.
 

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Discussion Starter #3
Another way to get information is to join the bird nutrition group at http://pets.groups.yahoo.com/group/FeedingFeathers/ and ask Shauna about the nutrition knowledge of the average vet. She's one of the owners of the board and has a lot of direct contact with veterinarians, including attending veterinary conferences.

The general advice that I have gotten from their avian specialists is a diet that is 30-40% seed, the rest a combination of pellets and fresh foods.
This is fairly consistent with what I've heard from other independent sources - that vets who are paying attention tend to think that the healthiest cockatiels they see are on a diet of roughly 30% pellets and the rest seeds and veggies. There's a lot of room to quibble about the ideal percentage of pellets of course, but there's a growing trend saying it should be less than 50% for cockatiels.
 

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Discussion Starter #4
Any vegetable provides beta carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A with no risk of overdose. Vitamin D is a more complicated issue, so please read the thread at http://talkcockatiels.com/showthread.php?t=27549 on this subject.

Most cockatiels don't like fruit so congratulations are in order if yours will eat it!
 
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