Feeding Pet Lovebirds

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Knowledge of bird nutrition is constantly evolving. This is due both to heightened awareness of the importance of nutrition and to increased research into birds’ different needs. As with all other animals, birds need a proper balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. Different species of birds often require different foods.

Should I be concerned about what my lovebird eats?

Nutrition is commonly neglected with pet birds. You should discuss your bird's nutrition with your veterinarian. Too often, owners assume they are feeding a proper diet to their lovebird when, in fact, they are not.

"Poor nutrition is a common reason for many health problems in birds."

Poor nutrition is a common reason for many health problems in birds. You should continually strive to improve your bird's diet by constantly educating yourself about new concepts in bird nutrition, as well as by applying a certain degree of common sense. Birds need to consume more than seed and water to stay healthy. Your bird's health depends on how well it is fed.

What do wild lovebirds naturally eat?

Wild lovebirds eat a variety of seeds (grass seeds), fruits, berries, and vegetation. What they eat varies with food availability during different seasons.

What should I feed my lovebird?

Lovebirds are vulnerable to vitamin A deficiency, insufficient dietary calcium, egg-binding, and other nutrition-related problems. A well-balanced and varied diet must be maintained at all times for these birds to stay healthy.

Wild lovebirds eat a great variety of seed types as different plants come into season. Commercial seed mixes generally contain from 4-10 different kinds of seeds and nuts. However, these mixes tend to be high in fat and provide a limited or imbalanced source of many nutrients if fed as the only food, which ultimately could lead to ill health and potentially shortened lifespan. A lovebird will often selectively eat only 1 or 2 of its favorite types of seed. Bird owners commonly offer millet seed, or millet spray/branches, but these seeds are deficient in many nutrients. Birds also love honey sticks, but once again, these are simply seeds that are stuck together on a stick with sugar and honey and are similarly nutrient-deficient. Molting foods, song foods, and conditioning foods, also available for lovebirds, but are simply different combinations of more seeds that are nutritionally incomplete. Healthy molts, disease resistance, and long lifespan are typically achieved in birds fed a balanced diet year-round.

"Healthy molts, disease resistance, and long lifespan are typically achieved in birds fed a balanced diet year-round."

Seeds are highly palatable and preferred by birds, but nutritionally they are incomplete, lacking vitamins, minerals, and protein. Seeds should only be a very small part of a balanced diet but should never be the entire diet.

If you gradually offer your bird fewer seeds, replacing them with healthier options, such as fortified bird pellets and a limited amount of fresh table food, your bird will eventually consume a more properly balanced diet.

Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits, vegetables, and greens should account for no more than 20-25% of the daily diet. Pale vegetables, with a high-water composition (i.e., iceberg or head lettuce, celery), offer very little nutritional value. Avocado is potentially toxic and should never be offered to a bird.

Fruits and vegetables must be washed thoroughly to remove chemicals and should be cut into small pieces appropriate to the size of the bird. It is not necessary to take the skin off. Offer fruits and vegetables in a separate dish. If your bird appears to develop a particular fancy for only one food item, reduce its volume, or stop feeding it temporarily, to promote consumption of other foods. Fruits and vegetables should be left in the cage for no more than a couple of hours, particularly in warm climates, or they may spoil.

Fresh clean water must be available at all times. Depending on the quality of your tap water, you might consider using bottled water. Dishes must be cleaned thoroughly every day with soap and water.

Pelleted Diets
The recommended diet for lovebirds is pelleted food formulated for birds. Several brands of pellets are available commercially in different shapes, sizes, and colors.

"Slowly wean seed-eating birds on to a pelleted diet."

Pellets have been developed to meet all your bird's nutritional needs. Hand-raised babies should be started on pelleted diets. Mature lovebirds may be difficult to convert to pelleted diets. Different formulations are available for different life stages. Pellets are the ideal diet. Therefore, seed-eating birds should be slowly weaned off seeds onto a pelleted diet. Pellets should ideally represent approximately 75-80% of the bird's diet.

How do I convert my bird to a pelleted diet?

Some birds are more difficult than others to transition on to pellets. Seek out the advice of a veterinarian familiar with birds to get tips on how to make this transition easier. Converting seed-eating birds onto a formulated diet is not always easy. Initially, birds may not even recognize pellets as food. Pellets should be offered straight, not mixed with seed, or your bird will simply pick around the pellets to get the seed.

Pellets should be offered first thing in the morning, before other food, when your bird is most hungry. Since lovebirds eat off the ground in the wild, you may mimic this behavior by spreading the pellets over a flat surface and encouraging the bird to walk through them. You can also flick each pellet between your thumb and pointer finger and tap on the table top as if your fingers were a beak investigating the pellets. You can also grind the pellets up into a fine powder that you can sprinkle on to a very small amount of any moist food (vegetables, fruit, cooked egg, pasta) that your bird likes to eat. If your bird eats the pellet-coated food, you can gradually grind the pellets into larger chunks, and mix them with smaller amounts of moist food over time so that ultimately you are offering nearly all pellets with minimal amounts of moist food mixed in.

"Pellets should be offered first thing in the morning, before other food,
when your bird is most hungry."

It may take days, weeks, or months to modify a bird's diet. If your bird is slow to take to pellets, you may offer a small amount of seed or fruits and vegetables later in the day. Seeds may be withdrawn completely only when you are sure the bird is eating the pellets, plus some fruits and vegetables. This can be a stressful time for you and your lovebird, but with patience, you can transition your bird from an unhealthy seed diet to a balanced, pellet-based diet. Remember to consult your veterinarian if you encounter any problems with this transition or with the health of your bird.

What about people food?

As a rule, any wholesome, nutritious food that you and your family eat your bird can eat, but in very small quantities (a thumbnail-sized portion for a lovebird is equivalent to a dinner plate-size portion for a person and is appropriate). Follow the general guidelines discussed above regarding fruits and vegetables. Some birds even enjoy a small amount of lean cooked meat, fish, cooked egg, or very small amounts of cheese, occasionally.

"Dairy products should be consumed in moderation,
as birds are lactose-intolerant."

Dairy products should be consumed in moderation, as birds are lactose-intolerant. Very salty foods (chips, pretzels, popcorn), chocolate, products containing caffeine (coffee, tea, soda), and alcoholic beverages should be avoided.

Some suggested food items include:

Will my bird have different dietary needs throughout its life?

Birds that are extremely young, stressed, injured, laying eggs, or raising young may have certain special nutritional requirements. There are specially formulated pelleted foods available for birds at different life stages. Consult your veterinarian regarding these situations.

Does my bird need extra vitamins, minerals or amino acids?

Your veterinarian can help you assess your bird's diet and its particular needs. In general, a bird that is eating 75-80% of its diet in the form of pelleted food does not need supplements. Specific vitamins or minerals may be more important at various times during a bird's life (e.g., egg-laying requires calcium supplementation). Various vitamin and mineral supplements, as well as omega fatty acid supplements, are available for birds and should only be given under the guidance of a veterinarian knowledgeable about birds.

Birds on all-seed diets may be given powdered supplements until they are transitioned to a pelleted diet. Placing these powders on the outside of seeds is of little value, since birds remove the outer hulls from seeds before ingesting them. Small amounts of powdered vitamin supplements may be administered on moist food but are not generally necessary once the bird has been converted to pellets.

Does my bird need gravel or grit?

Lovebirds do not need gravel or grit because they remove the outer hull of the seed before ingesting the kernel. Previously, it was believed that grit was necessary for the mechanical breakdown of food in the gizzard, as an aid to digestion. However, it is now known that only birds like pigeons and doves that consume seeds whole, without removing the outer hull need gravel to help them digest seeds. Some birds will overconsume grit when it is offered and develop gastrointestinal tract obstructions that are potentially life threatening.  Thus, grit and gravel should not be offered to lovebirds.

What pointers should I remember about feeding my lovebird?

  • Always monitor the amount of food eaten every day by each bird.
  • Offer fresh water every day.
  • Offer a variety of fresh foods, such as small amounts of fruits and vegetables, every day.
  • Clean all food and water dishes daily.
  • If your bird says no to a food item one day, it does not mean no forever - KEEP TRYING!
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