By Dr. Laurie Hess, Dipl ABVP (Avian Practice)
As social eaters, wild birds feed in flocks of hundreds to even thousands in the wild. Pet birds, too, like to share mealtime with their flock-mates – either other birds in the house or their human caretakers. Eating with feathered companions is a great way to socialize them; however, there are some foods that humans love that should never be offered to pet birds because of potential toxicity.
Among the most common foods that are toxic to birds are:
While avocados are vegetables, and generally vegetables are good for birds, the leaves of the avocado plant contain persin, a fatty acid-like substance that kills fungus in the plant. When ingested by a bird, this substance may cause heart damage, respiratory difficulty, weakness, and even sudden death. While certain types of avocado have been safely consumed by some bird species, it’s hard to know which types of avocado will affect which species. It is also unclear how much avocado a pet bird would have to eat to be affected. Given the potential consequences, it’s best simply to avoid feeding avocado and avocado-containing foods (such as guacamole) to birds. Skip the dip, and offer your bird a carrot stick, pea pod, or other vegetable, instead.
We all love caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, tea, and soft drinks, because they taste great, stimulate us, and wake us up. We might think of offering sip of these tasty beverages to our pet birds, but even a sip or two of these drinks can be toxic to our feathered companions. Caffeine can increase heart rate, induce arrhythmias and hyperactivity, and even cause cardiac arrest in birds. So, avoid the caffeinated products, and opt for water or an occasional taste of fruit juice for your thirsty bird.
Like us, birds have a hard time resisting chocolate or chocolate-containing foods. However, even in very small amounts, chocolate can be toxic to birds. Chocolate contains both theobromine and caffeine which can cause vomiting and diarrhea, increase heart rate, result in hyperactivity, induce tremors and seizures, and even cause death in birds. So, the next time you’re tempted to share an M&M or Hershey’s Kiss with your birdie buddy, offer him a piece of sugary fruit, like a mango, papaya, or grape, instead.
A dash here and a dash there. Many of us casually add this loved condiment to all sorts of foods without thinking. We also love salty chips, popcorn, pretzels, and crackers. But, just as too much salt isn’t good for us, it also isn’t good for our birds, and even a little bit is potentially toxic to a small bird. Even one salty chip or pretzel can upset the electrolyte and fluid balance in a bird’s tiny body, leading to excessive thirst, dehydration, kidney failure, and death. So, the next time you want to offer your bird a salty treat, choose a bite or two of unsalted popcorn or pretzels or a low-salt cracker, instead.
We all know that consumption of high-fat foods, such as butter, oil, fatty meats, and nuts can result in build-up of cholesterol deposits in the walls of our arteries (known as atherosclerosis), predisposing to heart disease and stroke. Excessive ingestion of these foods also can lead to obesity and all the health problems that accompany this condition. The same processes occur in birds, and certain bird species, such as Amazon and Quaker parrots, are prone to developing high cholesterol and triglyceride levels and subsequent coronary artery disease. Therefore, just as we should limit consumption of high-fat foods, so should birds. Birds can have an occasional bite of lean, cooked meat, but they should not be offered heaping quantities of these fat-filled items, especially if they are small relative to the portion size. Birds love nuts, but one unsalted almond or walnut every day is plenty for a medium-sized bird such as an African gray parrot. Larger birds that eat more fat in the wild, such as macaws, may have a few nuts a day, while smaller ones, such as cockatiels and budgies, should be offered no more than a few slivers of almond or a piece of walnut every day. Encourage your bird to be a lean mean flying machine, and limit fatty snacks.
6. Fruit pits and apple seeds
While most fruit is safe and generally healthy for birds to consume in small amounts, certain fruits containing seeds (such as apples and pears) and pits (such as cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, and plums), should not be offered to birds without removing the seeds and pits first, as these seeds and pits contain small amounts of a cardiac-toxic cyanide compound. Without the seeds and pits, these fruits are completely safe for birds to consume. The seeds from other produce such as grapes, citrus fruits, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, melons, mango, pomegranate, and berries, all are safe for bird consumption and can be fed without worry.
7. Onions and garlic
Many people expect that onions and garlic, like other vegetables, are healthy for birds. However, while these spicy veggies have heart benefits in people, whether fed raw or cooked, they are toxic to many animals, including birds, cats, and dogs. Onions contain sulfur compounds that, when chewed, can irritate the lining of a bird’s mouth, esophagus, or crop, causing ulcers, and can induce rupture of red blood cells resulting in anemia. Garlic contains allicin, another chemical that can cause anemia and weakness in birds. So, spice up your bird’s life with a small piece of vitamin A-rich hot pepper instead of garlic and onions.
This common artificial sweetener, found in sugarless gum and many diet foods, causes hypoglycemia, liver damage, and possible death in dogs and other animals. While the effects of this sweetener haven’t been studied in detail in birds, birds have a faster metabolism than many other species and might therefore be very sensitive to the toxic effects of even tiny amounts of this chemical. Therefore, it’s best to avoid exposing birds to xylitol, altogether. Birds should not be offered chewing gum, as it can stick to their feathers and skin, and overweight birds should be fed low-fat fruits and vegetables, rather than diet products, to help them lose weight. Xylitol may be a sweet option in your weight loss plan but should be avoided in your bird’s diet.A big part of socializing a parrot is allowing your bird to come out of its cage at meal time, and offering him a very small amount of food while you’re eating can certainly make your bird feel that he’s part of the flock. Remember to share food that hasn’t been in your mouth (which contains bacteria and yeast foreign to birds) and that’s non-toxic to birds can be a great way to build trust with your pet and make him feel comfortable at home. If your bird should ingest any of these potentially toxic items, remember to contact your veterinarian immediately to see if treatment is warranted.