Cold Nutrition

Voice Card  -  Volume 19  -  Drury Card Number 33  -  Sun, Mar 17, 1991 11:26 PM

Drury R., DVM

1. Should there be changes in the specific seeds given birds who must weather the cold? I wonder if certain seeds help them keep warmer. I know we always gave horses barley, corn & molasses in the winter, and increased the grain when it was really cold.

A: In general, all animals have increased energy requirements when exercising, reproducing young, fighting illnesses, and when exposed to temperature extremes. In cold weather the energy is needed to maintain normal body temperature. Research in dogs shows there is 1.75 times increase in energy needs when the temperature drops to subfreezing conditions. The same research suggests the best way to increase dietary energy in dogs, is by gradually adding animal fats and highly digestible carbohydrates to the diet. Does this mean that we should do this for every animal species in cold weather? The answer is a definite MAYBE. It depends on the type of digestive system the animal has. Ruminants, such as cattle, and "hind-gut" fermenters, such as horses, rely on bacterial activity to ferment their diet and produce the energy the animal needs. If you were to increase the fat content of a cow's diet, the cow would probably get very ill and possibly die. The feeding program you describe for your horses, appears sound. In other words, you safely increased the energy in the diet, and the horse could live on it. If you were to offer the same diet to your dogs, however, they would probably do poorly. Barley, corn, most grains, and molasses would not provide enough usable energy for a dog in cold weather. I am using these examples to demonstrate the hazards of taking information or research and applying it across species lines without thinking about the differences between animals.

I do not know of any research that has looked specifically at the cold weather nutritional needs of our parrot-type birds. However, I will recommend some basic approaches that should be helpful. The first is to be sure your birds are on a well-balanced diet to begin with. A well-balanced diet means meeting the bird's energy needs, protein requirements, and essential vitamins and minerals. This is provided by eating a variety of foods from the basic food groups or offering a pelleted diet that is supplemented with a variety of foods. At this time, there are no pelleted diets that can make the claim of being nutritionally complete. That type of research is just starting, and it will be years before pelleted avian diets reach the stage of our dog, cat, horse, and cattle diets. This is why most avian veterinarians recommend your birds eat a variety of foods. Second; as the season changes, gradually offer more fatty seeds, nuts, and legumes to the basic diet. Be careful not to let the birds eat only these supplements because they are incomplete as a sole diet. Continue with these supplements throughout the winter. And lastly, provide the birds with protective shelter and be prepared to provide additional heat if needed. Remember, I am using a generic parrot-type bird for my recommendations. There are dietary differences even among psittacine birds. Please, learn all you can about the species you keep. Information about their natural diet and environment will help you provide the best care for your captive flock.