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)

 

The Plucking Series — Part 5

Winston’s Weight

By Sandy Lender

Eclectus feather plucking belly comparison
Here we can see Winston’s progress leaving some feathers in place from week 1 to the end of week 4/beginning of week 5.

To begin this week, Winston threw me for a loop with an odd weigh-in on Sunday. I think it was an anomaly with the scale. Monday brought a more reasonable weight of 507 grams. This means Winston has lost 11 grams since his vet appointment a few weeks ago, and that’s great. In other good news, he has more feathers that he’s leaving alone. I can see by the feathers on the tray liner each morning that he hasn’t stopped pulling feathers altogether, but he’s leaving more “in” his body. He has a follow-up with his vet this week to get the blood draw for his CBC that they were unable to perform last time.

What other feather-growth or feather-destructive experiences are going on out there?

The Plucking Series — Part 4

Here’s What We’re Doing for Winston

By Sandy Lender

Eclectus feather plucking breakfast week 4
Winston’s Week 4 breakfast example shows one dish of fresh veggies and two dishes of dry pellets that get spread around different locations in his cage.

Before we dive into this week’s update on Winston the Eclectus, I want to invite readers to share in the comments below their experiences with their feather-plucking birds. The point of this case study is to share information and educate one another on practices that have helped our birds. In the second post of this case study, titled “What Winston and I Have Tried So Far,” I listed the host of methods we’ve tried to date to interrupt his feather destructive habit. At that time, I began a new method.

Winston has just begun Week 4 of taking a new product called Bird Hemp by Hemp Well, Auburn Hills, Michigan. It is designed to calm his desire to munch on his feathers or skin. During Global Pet Expo (GPE) in Orlando in 2017, there were a handful of vendors promoting hemp-related products to help calm pets and alleviate anxiety. At GPE this year, you couldn’t turn around without seeing a banner or flyer for a company promoting a help-related product. They were everywhere. Those products were designed to calm dogs and cats. To use the products with birds, you have to scale down doses and do funky math. I’m not good with funky math. Luckily, the folks at Hemp Well have already scaled one of their products (with a second coming online soon) for pet birds.

I’m including information about the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the Q2 issue of In Your Flock, along with information on what does and does not cause a psychoactive effect in a pet. Rest assured, I’m not offering Winston a magic carpet ride. What I’m giving him is a fighting chance to calm anxiety if anxiety is the reason he continues this plucking habit. His veterinarian has read the information and is cool with watching these results as well.

As I shared in Post 3, “What’s Inside Winston,” the poor guy has some fat to lose. I’ve got him exercising and moving around more than usual on a daily basis. Winston Exercising Week4 He’s gone from 518 grams to 514 grams now, which is the right direction. A friend who came over Saturday commented that he has more green feathers on his chest than the last time she saw him. I’m not counting feathers, but I am noticing fewer feathers on the bottom of the cage during “poop tray liner change” each morning. That’s also the right direction.

Eclectus feather plucking belly comparison
Winston has lost 4 grams in four weeks, and seems to have at least slowed the feather destructive activity.

I’d like to hear/read what other bird owners have tried successfully, and what you have tried without success. You can share openly in the comments below, or you can contact me privately at publisher at inyourflock dot com to share ideas and methods.

Balance Beta-carotene for Your Bird

by Leslie Moran

Beta-carotene, an important antioxidant, belongs to a class of phytochemicals called carotenoids. They are fat soluble pigments found in yellow, red, green and orange vegetables and fruits. This family of antioxidants also includes alpha-carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin.

There are more than 500 different carotenoids in nature. Fifty of these, including beta-carotene, can be converted to vitamin A in a healthy liver.  Because of this, beta-carotene is considered a provitamin.  The body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A as needed, with any left over beta-carotene then acting as an antioxidant.

Antioxidants, also called free-radical scavengers, are the only way the body can successfully manage free-radicals. Numerous diseases, the effects of pollution, degenerative conditions and even the aging process itself has been attributed to free-radical damage. A free radical is a highly reactive molecule that can bind to and destroy other molecules. Also known as oxidative damage, free radical damage can irreversibly impair body cells and physiological processes.

In its role against free radicals, beta-carotene has been identified as being able to break down the chain reactions of these highly charged free radical molecules. When this occurs, this potent antioxidant prevents cholesterol oxidization and protects DNA from the harmful effects of oxidization. Beta-carotene has been seen to disable reactive oxygen species molecules caused from exposure to sunlight and air pollution, this helps prevent damage to eyes, lungs, and skin.

For these reasons, beta-carotene has become known for promoting eye health, good vision, helps postpone the effects of aging, helps prevent cancer, heart disease, heart attack, strokes and arteriosclerosis.

Any thorough discussion of this nutrient must clarify the relationship between beta-carotene and vitamin A.  Many articles and nutrition data sources use the term beta-carotene and vitamin A interchangeably. This gives the impression that they are the same nutrient, when in reality they are not.

As you learned above, beta-carotene is an antioxidant and is the precursor to vitamin A.  The nutrient vitamin A is also called rentinol. It is a fat soluble vitamin that is found in animal foods: whole eggs, liver, fatty fish, and cod liver oil.

When discussing beta-carotene and rentinol vitamin A you may see the letters: RE (rentinol equivalent). Over the past ten years research has been done showing that the body’s ability to convert beta-carotene to vitamin A rentinol will vary between individuals.  And when beta-carotene comes from common food sources only one twelfth of it can be converted to vitamin A. However, if the  beta-carotene has been dissolved in oil half of it can be converted.

Rentinol vitamin A is one of the few nutrients where minimum daily requirements for birds have been set by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).  People with diabetes and hypothyroidism (under active thyroid gland) cannot convert beta-carotene into vitamin A. Although avian veterinarians have not documented similar findings in parrots, if your bird is ever diagnosed with either of these conditions check to ensure that they have an adequate intake of vitamin A rentinol in their diet.  Although vitamin A has been identified as an essential avian nutrient, because it is a fat soluble vitamin, hypervitaminosis A (an overdose of vitamin A) can and has occurred in parrots.

For our birds to be healthy they must consume hundreds of nutrients everyday.  Nutritional research from the University of Maryland Medical center has shown that it’s best to get the full benefits of beta-carotene from foods sources, not nutritional supplements.  Their research shows that getting more antioxidants through diet helps boost the immune system, protects against free radical damage, and may lower the risk of two types of chronic illness- heart disease and cancer.

Foods rich in beta-carotene include apricots, beet greens, broccoli, cantaloupe, watermelon, carrots, collards, dandelion and mustard greens, kale, papayas, peaches, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, turnip greens, yellow squash and an assortment of select sprouts.

Leslie Moran uses food as medicine for creating health and wellness in parrots. Moran’s book, The Complete Guide to Successful Sprouting for Parrots, provides insight into the essential elements of her avian nutritional plan. She writes, teaches and provides consultations from her facility in Northern Nevada.