Here’s How to Feed the Eclectus Parrot in Human Care

(from Q2 2017 issue of In Your Flock pet bird magazine)

With Dr. Rob Marshall

Owners of Eclectus parrots (Eclectus roratus) know these precious birds have different dietary needs than have African greys (Psittacus erithacus), cockatoos (Cacatuidae), conures (Aratinga/Pyrrhura) or other parrots. One of the well-known reasons for the specialized diet conversation is the “different” gastro-intestinal system Eclectus parrots have when compared to other psittacines. Rob Marshall B.V.Sc., M.A.C.V.Sc. (Avian Health) at Carlingford Animal Hospital in New South Wales, Australia, shared the key features of Eclectus digestion:

Eclectus parrot pet bird magazine
Rocco Jr is a two-year-old Eclectus. His meals consist of 80 percent fresh vegetables and fruit, and 20 percent mix of high quality pellets, seed mix and nut treats. The chopped mix his owner, Sarah Juarez, has made for him here includes apples, pears, blueberries, spinach, kale, grapes, strawberries, sweet peppers, Serrano peppers, home grown sprouts, mellon, chia, hulled hemp, bee pollen granules, and Volkman Eclectus mix. Photo courtesy Sarah Juarez
  • a large crop size
  • a wide thoracic esophagus
  • a highly elastic and spacious proventriculus, which allows food much time to linger in it
  • short food-passage time in the gizzard
  • rapid movement of food through the small intestine after leaving the gizzard, and
  • highly regulated crop emptying.

Gastric function is key to healthy digestion in these parrots, so we’ll take a look at the physical and chemical disintegration of food as it goes through the three stages of protein digestion. This will show the science behind the field observations supporting Marshall’s recommendations for feeding the Eclectus in human care.

As Branson Ritchie, DVM, PhD, Dipl ABVP, Dipl ECAMS, professor at UGA® College of Veterinary Medicine, Georgia, shared with the audience at Ziggy’s Haven Bird Sanctuary, Inverness, Florida, April 2, 2017, observing the wild population of a given parrot species offers the perfect clues for feeding that species in human care. “The best thing you can do for your bird is look at where it occurs naturally, and supplement its high-quality food with foods from that habitat,” Ritchie counseled us.

Marshall’s research of wild Eclectus offers valuable observations of behavior that not only reveal tips for what to feed the Eclectus in human care, the observations also reveal tips for how to offer these foods. It all makes even more sense when we look inside the bird.

Inside the Ekkie

First, Marshall points out, food goes through the cephalic phase. As food enters the proventriculus from the crop, the proventriculus fills with peptic enzymes to help break down protein molecules before sending food to the gizzard. One of Marshall’s presentations shows Pepsin and food filling the proventriculus together.

Second, Marshall points out, food goes through the gastric phase. As food enters the ventriculus—also called the gizzard or hind stomach—the ventriculus fills with hydrochloric acid (HCL) to denature the protein bonds in the food.

One of the intriguing habits Marshall and his colleagues witnessed in the field, and something Eclectus parrot owners have commented on, is the manner in which these parrots consume seeds. The astute owner will notice the Eclectus spending considerable time munching and crunching seeds and arils before consuming them.

Marshall explained to In Your Flock magazine readers what we’re seeing: “They break the seed into smaller pieces, better exposing them to stomach acids, which reduces the workload of the gizzard. The gizzard in Eclectus is prone to overload because it has evolved on a soft food wild diet of fruit pulp.”

Third, food goes through the intestinal phase. Fast transit time and advanced protein digestion indicate a healthy digestive system. Marshall pointed out: “In clinical practice, functional digestive problems are encountered far more frequently in Eclectus than other parrot species.”

watery droppings Eclectus parrot
This picture shows watery droppings from a female Eclectus. Photo courtesy Editor Sandy Lender

Eclectus parrot owners can tell their birds may be experiencing digestive problems when they see the typical health clues. Look for changes in droppings and dropping consistency. If the first morning dropping has bubbles and/or extra water, it’s time to make a veterinary appointment. Marshall states that feather stress bars, feather discoloration and feather loss are signs of chronic digestive dysfunction. If your Eclectus parrot is plucking and barbering his or her feathers, don’t assume the problem is mere stress or boredom. Look at digestive health. Take your bird to the vet and discuss real Eclectus dietary needs.

“Ninety-five percent of feather destruction behaviors in Eclectus have a physical base,” Marshall shared with In Your Flock. “Digestion dysfunction is the most common cause of feather destruction. This must be identified and resolved in the early stages before the destructive actions become habituated. They become habituated largely because the owners tell the birds to stop picking when they see the self-destruct, which causes an attention-seeking behavioral problem. Habituation occurs in birds that are sedentary and lack exercise so their focus is on feather picking, which becomes a habit. Therefore, the feather destruction problem has physical and behavioral aspects. Even so, the feather destruction behavior will persist if the underlying physical cause is not attended to. These behaviors are definitely not related to boredom or misdirected foraging behavior.”

Let’s look to the field research that both Ritchie and Marshall put a high value on to see naturally occurring foraging behavior, and to learn more about the wild population’s dietary practices.

Wild Ekkie Life

Eclectus Parrot Female
Bobo’s age is unknown, but her recent history is complex. She has recently discovered the tastiness of a chopped vegetable mix with fruit diced on top. She also enjoys pesticide-free hibiscus flowers. Photo courtesy Sandy Lender

The family tree is the focal point of Eclectus life with the female showing an urgent need to protect the nest. She will stay at the nest site while a group of males goes out to forage twice a day, and return with food for her. While studying Eclectus in the wild, Marshall and colleagues investigated the wild diet and feeding habits of a family group of three males and one female of the Australian subspecies (E. roratus macgillivray) found in the lowland rainforests of Iron Range on Cape York Peninsular, Australia.

They observed the three males leave the family’s Kajoolaboo tree (Tetrameles nudiflora) together at first light to forage along the Claudie River. One broke away from the mini group to forage near the shoreline while the other two flew ahead. All three returned within a reasonable timespan of one another to the family tree. In the afternoon, all three went foraging together again. The next morning, at first light, they were off again, soaring into the forest canopy to find breakfast.

Marshall states this wild feeding behavior is highly regular, intermittent and offers enhanced protein digestion for the Eclectus parrot’s unique digestive system. For healthy digestion, these birds in human care must follow a similar morning and afternoon mealtime routine.

He told In Your Flock: “In the wild, Eclectus will fill their crops with food over a period of an hour or so in the morning. They eat on an empty stomach. The food eaten during this time will fill up the stomach and stretch it to capacity, which is critical to the gastric secretion of Hydrochloric acid and pepsin. In the evening, the crop and stomach have emptied of food and the same process of digestion follows according to the principles of gastric secretion. Ultimately, this produces a fast transit time of food through the gut, which underpins their healthy digestive function.”

Where owners often go wrong, Marshall pointed out, is in feeding foods that “reduce the rate of food passage through the gut, which predisposes Eclectus to many complicated digestion disorders.”

parrot magazine definitions

“In our study, Eclectus parrots were seen eating succulent pulp from the fruit of Salacia chinensis and Leea indica. The textural qualities, water and nutrient content of these fruits are typical of canopy foods eaten by Eclectus parrots, which make up the bulk of their natural diet.” (See Sidebar “Wild Diet” at the end of this article.)

In our homes, Marshall pointed out, “Eclectus parrots are commonly fed according to granivory, which explains their high incidence of diet-induced digestive problems. Such problems are averted and remedied by adopting feeding schedules that better suit a digestion model weighted towards frugivory.”

Marshall told In Your Flock readers: “Cultivated fruits lack the nutritional richness of rainforest fruits. Therefore, we move towards cooked vegetables as a source of nutrients, and these are cooked to provide the functional requirements for healthy digestion in Eclectus. The foundation vegetables for Eclectus are cooked butternut pumpkin (squash), sweet potato, boiled rice and cooked legumes. On top of these we place fleshy commercially grown papaya, mango, passionfruit, pomegranate, kiwi fruit and dragonfruit. But these are sources of vitamins and microminerals rather than major nutrients and functional foods.

“In addition, you can add green beans, kale, carrot, and corn as foraging foods.”

 

——WILD DIET——

During Dr. Rob Marshall’s observations of the Eclectus family in September through November 2015, he and colleagues started with an unpublished list of 17 fruits that researcher Sarah Legge at Iron Range National Park on Cape York, Australia, had observed in the park between December 1996 and November 2003. During the study, Marshall and colleagues confirmed the use of 15 of those original 17 fruits, plus 13 plant parts that could be added to the list. In a paper presented to the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Marshall lists the following confirmed Eclectus foods:

Fruits with soft, fleshy skin

Canarium spp.

Black Sassafrass (Cinnamonum olivieri)

Cissus pentaclada

Cissus repens

Ficus spp.

Leea indica

Mackinlaya confuse

Acid Drop (Melodorum leichhardtii)

Lime berry (Micromelum minutum)

Solitaire Palm (Ptychosperma elegans)

Lolly Vine (Salacia chinensis)

Damson Plum (Terminalia sericocarpa)

Watery Rose-apple (Syzygium aqueum)

Lilly Pilly (Syzigium luehmannii)

Lady Apple (Syzygium suborbiculare)

 

Fruits that contain seeds surrounded by aril

Golden Guinea tree (Dillenia alata)

Tuckeroo (Cupaniopsis anacardioides)

Buttonwoods (Glochidion spp.)

Fire Vine (Tetracera nordtiana)

Brittlewood (Claoxylon spp.)

Northern Tamarind (Diploglottis diphyllosteia)

 

Fruits containing edible seeds

Black wattle (Acacia meloanoxylon)

Pink Ash (Alphitonia petrei)

White Ash (Alphitonia whitei)

Red Ash (Alphitonia excelsa)

Hopbush (Dodonea lanceolata var. subsessifolia)

Grewia (Grewia papuana)

Native Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstomera archeriana)

Blush Macaranga (Macaranga tanarius)

Macaranga (Macaranga involcrata)

Celerywood (Polyscias elegans)

Cape Tamarind (Toechima daemelianum)

 

How to Feed Your Baby Bird

Feeding Your New Grey Baby Doesn’t Have to be Scary

by Jean Pattison

Editor’s Note: Not all members of the avian community feel it’s appropriate to bring a new bird into your life before it’s weaned/fledged/eating solid food. Whatever the circumstances may be that have brought a very young bird into your life, there’s no judgment here. Congratulations on this extraordinary experience with a young and precious life! Let’s now learn from an extraordinary woman’s decades of experience in hand-feeding baby parrots so we all know how to do it right.

African Grey Jean Pattison Illustration Airway OpenHand-feeding a baby parrot was one of the scariest things I have ever done.

I grew up in the city of Chicago, but I spent my summers on my grandparent’s farm. My granddad taught me so much about animals, the love and respect he showed was a big influence in my life. He would come in and tell me “I have something to show you” and he would take my hand and we would go out to the pasture, or barn, or hedgerow. He would sit with me and taught me to be very still and just watch. I watched barn swallows build nest, and fed their young, I saw tadpoles hatching, and mommy bunny uncover her babies and get in their nest to feed. When my granddad came in and said, “Give me your hand, I have something to show you”, I knew I was about to see a miracle. The one thing I wanted more than anything was to raise a baby bird, but my grandparents always told me, “If you take it away from its parents, it will die. You just can’t do that”. One day I found a baby bird had fallen from a nest and I snuck it into the house and tried to feed it. It of course died and broke my heart, and I cried and cried. Naturally I had to confess, with all that crying after all. I also felt I disappointed my grandparents.

I wanted a farm when I grew up, but chances of that happening years later wasn’t something I could ever see happening. Well, many years later here I am, a farmer. Not with cows and pigs, but parrots.

My first bird was a Jenday conure. I had purchased her from a little hobby breeder close to my home. I went and visited a few times a week. The woman was meticulous with cleanliness, and sanitizing everything. I watched her syringe feed the tiny chick. She would tell my how easy it was to aspirate, and how everything had to be perfect, and how fragile they were. Such a scary experience. I was always worried something would go wrong if she made one tiny mistake.

I had my first pair of Senegals go to nest, and I asked her to feed them for me when I took them from the parents. I was so scared when I took the chicks from their nest; I was shaking like a leaf. I kept hearing my grandparent’s warnings about taking baby birds from the parents.

My dream was to have a pair of greys. As the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for”. Anyway, this breeder also fed those babies for me, and a few clutches after that. As I obtained more pairs of greys, my best friend opened a bird only store, so she took over the hand-feeding. I now had to take chicks and drive them for over an hour away. More stress.

Five years later, having never fed a chick, my best friend was closing her store and no more hand-feeding. I thought I was going to faint. I had about 30 baby African greys coming into the nursery in about two weeks. Her answer to me was, “that’s why I am giving you a two week notice, but I will be there if you need me”, and she was, as well as many other breeders when I needed them. In the late evening I gathered my 30 some babies into my nursery. They had been fed by the parents and would be hungry in the morning, as well as me getting good nights sleep. I threw up most of the night terrified at my daunting task, so very little sleep. In the morning I mixed food, got syringes ready. The babies were hungry and they pumped like crazy, but with my shaking so bad, it was hit or miss. It took me three hours and multiple making of new food trying to keep it warm, but I did it.

Fast forward 34 years, and 100s of babies through those years, I sure learned a lot in a very short time especially dealing with only the African parrots. Many things with that many of a single species quickly falls into place. I must note, all my chicks are parent-fed in outside aviaries, so they have a pretty well developed immune system. They are completely different than dealing with incubator hatched chicks.

handfeeding instrumentsSince I learned to feed with a syringe, this is what I still use. I have used every other instrument available since I started, as distasteful as they may seem.

I had taken a Q-tip with a bit of warm water to clean a chick’s mouth. While doing so, I found I had to hold on to it. There seemed to be a pulling motion trying to pull it out of my fingers. I kind of played with the experience and found that if I relaxed it a bit, it felt like the bird would swallow it while the chick was pumping. When a chick pumps the head rapidly bobs up and down. This motion works in unison with the parent’s pumping while they are feeding the chick.

So what have I learned?

  1. Baby birds are not nearly as fragile as we all think, and they are very resilient!
  2. The opening of a parrot’s airway is in their tongue, and not in the back of their throat.
  3. Lots of other things, maybe for another article some day.
African Grey Parrot Papillae Airway
Note the papillae inside the bird’s mouth. These are the little points on each side of the back of the mouth. Learn to look at these and know what they should look like in your species of bird. Many health issues can be seen by how healthy the papillae are. Next time you visit your veterinarian, ask her to show them to you and what to look for.

When a bird is breathing through the nares (nostrils), the tongue is resting against the roof of the mouth. Air is traveling through the nares, through the hole in the tongue, to the trachea in the throat, (not the back of the mouth), and then into the internal airways.

When a chick has its mouth open and starts to pump the hole in the tongue closes and anything beyond that point is like a funnel to the esophagus. A hand-feeder in reality can feed from the left or right or even in the middle. Most have learned the bird’s left to bird’s right method, and it is an easy, comfortable position anyway. Many hand-feeders feeding day ones or macaws will often feed from both sides to prevent any beak misalignment. With day ones, hand-feeders will stretch their necks straight and insert a small feeding tip and go right down the middle into the esophagus. But, even tiny day one babies pump and while pumping the airway is closed so food can be just drizzled into their mouths.

So, when we use any of the instruments that go into the crop, we are not working around a maze of trachea and esophagus. Once past the closed hole in the tongue, the rest is open to any food or object inserted, leading to the crop. If someone uses latex or catheter tubing, or metal gavage, once the baby starts to pump its head the object slides right in, or is pulled in. There is nothing forceful using this technique. The pulling motion is more muscle contractions than it is actual swallowing. After all how could a bird “swallow” a Q-tip?

If you ever decide to hand-feed find a mentor and DON’T be scared.