Pet Bird Nutrition
By: Diane Burroughs
Calcium is a vital mineral along with phosphorous, magnesium and others. In fact, it is the most abundant mineral found in the body of birds. It helps to build and maintain the skeletal structure and in the metabolism of Vitamin D. It also has a role to play in the functioning of enzymes, egg shell formation, fat metabolism, blood clotting, nerve transmissions, muscle development and the secretion of hormones. Given the innumerable physiological functions of this mineral, a deficiency can create serious and conspicuous symptoms.
Hypercalcaemia, the term used for abnormally low calcium levels, can have a direct bearing on cardiac and cognitive functioning and on the passage and utilization of nutrients at the cellular level. In the bone structure of a bird, the calcium-phosphorous ratio is about 2.5:1. So, it is essential to maintain this balance through proper feeding. Birds with calcium deficiency and nervous behavior including feather plucking will often show other serious and sometimes life threatening signs.
Captive parrots, poultry and other aviary birds can all suffer from calcium deficiency. However, African Grey’s are exceptionally susceptible to the condition, probably because of the low synthesis or absorption of calcium from the diet. Also, these birds have greater bone density, which is evident from the weight of the chicks and the significant pumping action that can be felt when hand feeding the birds. The greater bone density calls for additional nutrient requirement, which when not met, is bound to create a deficiency.
What are the symptoms of a Hypercalcaemia?
• Heart disorders
• Increased blood cholesterol levels due to improper enzyme synthesis
• Tetany, intermittent muscular pain and contractions caused due to nerve weakening
• Rickets in young birds
• Difficulty in climbing cage walls and moving around due to muscle weakness
• Loss of balance
• Lack of co-ordination
• Muscular pain
• Improper skeletal formation in young chicks
• Plucking of feathers
Why Birds Are Prone To Calcium Deficiency
Calcium is not easily absorbed in the body of a bird, with most of the nutrient that is taken through food being purged out of the system. To add to this, while certain food items commonly given to our feathered friends are rich in calcium such as spinach, kale, almonds and soya beans, they also contain a compound known as oxalates. This substance binds with the free calcium in food and turns into an insoluble compound which cannot be processed through digestion. Hence, the calcium in these greens and nuts often goes unabsorbed.
In fact, oxalates also impede the absorption of other vital minerals. Phylates are another class of compounds which react similarly with calcium and other minerals. These are found in dry seeds, grains and pulses. So, if these foods are served excessively, they will hamper the synthesis and absorption of calcium in the body, even if supplements are used. Phosphates, fat, sugar, magnesium and protein also react with calcium, preventing its absorption in the digestive tract.
Apart from this, birds can also suffer from calcium deficiency and nervous behavior including feather plucking when subjected to undue stress and if they are allowed to be inactive for days on together. Drugs such as tetracycline are known to interfere with calcium processing as well. However, the most common reason for hypocalcaemia is inappropriate and calcium deficient dietary intake.
Typically, the condition is common in birds that are kept on an exclusive diet of peanuts and sunflowers seeds. Although rich in nutrients, these foods contain oxalates which interrupt the absorption of calcium. Add to this the fact that birds quickly get habituated to the diet and then refuse to eat anything else; this quickly compounds the problem of nutritional deficiency.
Actually, it can be exceptionally hard to get Grey’s to feed on anything else once they get used to sunflower seeds. Usually, calcium is supplemented in avian diets through the use of the grit of oyster shells, mineral blocks or cuttle fish bone. Unfortunately, most birds will not take a liking to these substances and will simply discard them without even considering the option of taking a bite. Those parrots that do get in some cuttlefish bone are no better since the calcium available in it is poorly digested and absorbed.
Dairy products such as milk and cheese can offer calcium in significant quantities and quickly. So, they can be used to address an acute deficiency of the mineral. However, continued usage of dairy, with its fat content and lactose sugars, will not be digested and will cause diarrhea. Supplements that can be used as food additives are only effective if your feathered pal is used to consuming sticky food items that the powdery preparation can stick to. If given in dry seeds, it will just fall off without actually being ingested.
Natural foods that can correct the Hypocalcaemia
The simplest way to keep calcium deficiency and nervous behavior including feather plucking and other such signs at bay is to serve your bird a diet that is rich in all the vital nutrients and minerals, without overdoing a specific food type. Also, it is imperative to never give calcium rich food items in inordinate amounts. The consumption of calcium that goes beyond 2.5% of the bird’s diet will negatively impact the kidneys and may even lead to a renal failure, which will prove fatal.
A thumb rule to stay on the safer side is to never offer your parrots more than 1% of their total dietary calcium intake for the day. If not sure, it would be best to consult with your veterinarian before making any radical changes to the bird’s meal. It is possible to increase the amount of calcium in avian diets with fresh foods. You can also try Cal-D Solve to get just the right mix of complimentary supplements for proper absorbtion. Some food items that will offer your parrots their daily dose of the mineral include:
Greens: Leafy vegetables like kale, mustard greens and collards and even green veggies such as okra, broccoli and zucchini can all offer a bird its daily requirement of calcium. Cabbage, celery, carrots, dandelion greens and peas are all a rich source of the mineral.
Nuts and beans: Birds love nuts and beans and the best part is that many of these will provide your feathered friend all of its nutritional requirements. You could typically include almonds, hazelnuts which are very low in oxalates, kidney beans, pinto beans (always cook these as raw beans have some poisons that can prove toxic for birds), sesame and sunflower seeds to introduce additional quantities of calcium in a bird’s diet.
Fruits: You won’t have to persuade your pets too hard to eat these sweet offerings; from figs to oranges and even apricots are known to have a significant amount of calcium in them.
Other calcium rich food items: Apart from these, brewer’s yeast, butter milk, kelp, yogurt, oats, cheese and even herbs such as parsley, chamomile, oat straw, comfrey, dandelion and alfalfa will up the amount of calcium in the bird’s diet.
It is imperative to ensure that along with calcium, the bird also gets the right amount of Vitamin D3, so that the calcium ingested can be absorbed in the body. The simplest way to get this nutrient is through sunlight exposure. So, make sure that your parrots get enough and the right kind of light to stay healthy.
Leave us a comment on how you help make sure that your parrot gets the proper amount of calcium.