Advice from the Experts

Creating healthy food for your pet bird

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By Marc Marone
Tribune Media Services

Q: I just returned from a week-long vacation and left my two cockatiels with a friend. She fed the birds well but did not clean the cage out as I do but I really could not fault her for. As soon as I got the birds home I noticed them at the bottom of the cage eating something with gusto and when I looked closely I saw it was seeds that fell to the bottom and got wet and had started to germinate. I immediately cleaned out the cage so there were no more germinated seeds to eat and I am wondering if eating these seeds could have caused the birds any harm as the bottom of the cage was very dirty. -- Sandra Mitchell, Orlando, FL

A: Seeds that have just started to sprout are actually a bird delicacy and one of the most nutritious items you can feed any pet bird. The sprouting process releases many vitamins and minerals trapped in the seeds that are otherwise not available to the bird when the seed is eaten in its dormant state.

However, they are certainly not very good dietary supplement when eaten off the bottom of a cage with among weeks' worth of uncleaned skank. So if you want to feed your bird sprouted seeds as a nutritious addition to their diet that you cannot buy in any store then sprouted seeds are a great thing to do especially if children are involved in the care of the bird as the sprouting of the seeds is a lesson in the natural world in itself.

There are many fancy seeds spouting kits sold out there but if you are just sprouting a few seeds for a pet bird or two then it is easier to get a shallow cookie sheet of pie pan and line it with flat newspaper.

Wet the paper and then sprinkle a seed mix on it that is appropriate for that particular species of bird. Be sure that the seed mix contains just seeds -- many seed mixes sold for birds contain seeds and pellets and if you try to sprout such a mix then the pellets will just rot.

After you sprinkle the seeds on the newspaper, lay a sheet of plastic wrap over them and just watch. The next day the seeds will plump up and the day after that there will be little roots popping out of them and some green sprouts. Seeing how each seed looks a bit different in its sprouting is fascinating. You can then peel off the plastic wrap and shake the seeds and rinse them off under running water and then offer them to your bird.

Some birds will see the sprouted seeds and instinctively gorge themselves on them as your two cockatiels did. It seems that the sight of the sprouted seeds triggers something in their brains or unlocks some long lost knowledge in there of what foods are better than others.

Some birds are cautious and pick them up and drop them for a while gradually getting used to them and others just view sprouted seeds in horror and refuse them no matter what and if your bird does that then there is not much we can do about it. However, if your bird does like them then this is a fun project to do that provides your bird with a better diet and lots of natural environmental enrichment.

Q: I have set up a bird feeder in my backyard now for the past 10 years and now something has happened that I never saw before. Every afternoon there is a little hawk that zooms up to the feeder and snatches one of the birds feeding on the seed that is on the ground under it. He or she then flies up into a tree and pulls out the poor little bird's feathers and proceeds to eat it in full view of everybody. The birds all scatter when this happens but a half hour later they are all back at the feeder as if nothing happened. I am really conflicted by this situation. I know the hawk has to eat but am I doing a disservice to the little birds by encouraging them to congregate in my yard around the feeder as easy targets for the hawk? I enjoy reading your column as you seem to have so much common sense and would appreciate your thoughts on this matter. -- Grace Robertson, Allentown, PA

A: Well the hawk that you have been seeing is most likely a sharp shinned hawk or a coopers hawk and they evolved to catch and eat little birds and have been doing so since the beginning of time.

That hawk that you have been watching will catch and eat a little bird every day whether you feed the other birds in your yard. However, if you do not have the bird feeder set up then you will not see the hawk. Nonetheless, the hawk be catching birds in other parts of your neighborhood.

What to do is up to you. There are those who would welcome to see a bit of the natural world play out like this in their backyard and there are those that feel uncomfortable with it -- everyone is different.

If it bothers you, then I would suggest you take down the feeder for a week or 10 days. The little birds that frequent it will then disperse to other feeders in the neighborhood and the hawk will move on when it realizes the birds are no longer congregating in your backyard. Then when that happens you can put the feeder back up and the little birds will go back to it as if nothing happened.

Q: How many toys should a parrot have? My wife has a sun conure and the cage has so many toys in it that when they swing around I am afraid the bird will get hit in the head. She says that the bird needs "environmental enrichment" since it is alone all day, but it seems to me that there must be some kind of rule of thumb or guide in this issue. -- John Shay, Fort Lauderdale, FL

A: Well many people buy toys for their pets as an expression of their love for them and no rule of thumb that I express will ever change that.

However, in a perfect world the best way to ensure environment enrichment for a bird would be to have an assortment of toys on hand. Then, every morning put a different one or two in the birds cage and then take them out at night so when the bird wakes up there are no toys in the cage at all.

Then before you go to work you put two toys in the cage that are different from those the day before and the bird has something different and unexpected to look forward to each day. This is the very best way to keep your bird stimulated and entertained if it is alone while you are at work.

(Marc Morrone has kept almost every kind of animal as a pet for the last half-century and he is happy to share his knowledge with others. Although he cannot answer every question, he will publish many of those that have a general interest. You can contact him at; please include your name, city and state.)