The Pellet Controversy: Feeding Finches

A long time ago, a few bird food manufacturers noticed that birds eating seed all the time was sort of like children eating candy constantly. Yes, they love it, yes it’s a favorite, and yes it’s an unhealthy way to eat. So these companies developed pellet food, blended from grains, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and proteins. The recipe is baked in most cases (TOPS is cold pressed) and formed into pellets, crumbles, or other shapes.

These foods caught on quickly as a convenient way to meet our birds’ nutritional needs. They’re sold at most big box pet stores, they are quick, convenient,and not too expensive. Most are fortified with vitamins. Veterinarians began recommending them to bird owners.

canary dumpster diving

And that’s where the controversy began. Ask any veterinarian how much pellet food we should provide, and the answer will vary anywhere from 10% to 80%. In fact, the Association of Avian Veterinarians says “… dietary needs for important vitamins, minerals without exceeding calorie requirements can be met with a diet of about 75% pellets and 25% carefully selected healthy low-fat table foods.”[1]

But if we give budgies or cockatiels 80% pellet food, we’re told that they may suffer, since they are considered “desert” birds and won’t drink enough water to properly digest them.[2] Other sources[3] suggest pellets are too high in protein, leading to gout. Furthermore, because pellets are based on corn and wheat, if they are stored by manufacturers, distributors, or retail settings in a damp place they can grow molds (aflatoxins) that poison our birds. [4]

Pros and Cons

Let’s break it down and see what the advantages of each type of diet might be. We already know that seed-only diets lead to deficiencies in calcium, B-12, A, D, and K, along with a host of minerals and essential amino acids. [5] But a diet of, say, 50% pellets can be deficient as well. For one thing, those pellets are designed to provide “all” the nutrition your bird needs… if it consumes the recommended amount. But since you have already decided to make pellets only 50% of the diet, we can assume the bird will obtain only 50% of the healthy part. What about the other 50%, will he remain deficient, or will you be able to define what he’s missing and supply it?

So for a 50% pellet diet, we have on the pro side: it’s less messy (just take my word for it), easy to obtain, and contains a balanced blend of grains, fruits, vegetables and seeds. One important argument for pellets is that the bird can’t choose his favorite and toss the rest (since they’re all the same).

And the negatives are: we might not be supplying 100% nutrition when using commercial feed, and it is a processed food, which means some of the nutritive value is lost in the processing. Commercial foods also may sit somewhere along the line for a long time, losing even more nutrition. And they might be over-filled with protein, leading to disease.

Even more important is what’s present in that other 50% of the bird’s diet. Is it human junk food? Are you simply replacing half his seed with pellets? Are you providing fresh vegetables, grains, and/or protein foods?

A seed-only diet is deficient in vitamins and minerals. In fact, you can tell by looking at a bird if he’s on seeds only. His feathers will appear dry and perhaps brittle. But at the same time, he’s probably overweight; that’s due to the fat content of the seeds. And the lack of nutrition can (and probably will) lead to all sorts of health problems.

The pros of feeding seeds? Um. Unless you’re doing that way “because my father did,” there is probably no positive of feeding seed-only. Even with that – well, dear old dad isn’t always right, you know.

Lastly, we have the more recent developments of raw whole-food diets for birds. Supporters of this approach say that there’s more nutrition in whole foods. The lack of processing means they’re getting all the bio-available nutrients. Many offer their own freeze-dried food blends.

The downside of the whole food diet is that it’s expensive. Plus, a lot of birds refuse to eat veggies if they haven’t tried them before. Many owners find it way too taxing to try to serve fresh foods on top of their busy schedules.

It’s bewildering. So what’s a bird owner to do?

First, consult with your avian veterinarian. If you don’t have one – find one right away! Too many people find out by taking a sick bird in that a veterinarian who isn’t Avian Certified knows next to nothing about birds.

Next, consider the pellets you’ve been using. Are they appropriate for your finch’s size? Are they devoid of sugar? Do they contain menadione, a substance that’s been banned by the FDA for humans but not pets?

How fresh is the pellet food you are serving? If purchasing at a big box store, remember how many bags they must have in storage…. And the subsequent breaking down of nutrients.

In addition, joining a group of bird enthusiasts can help owners to learn more about nutrition and improve their own birds’ quality of life. There’s the National Finch & Softbill Society, American Federation of AvicultureAvicultural Society of America, Organization of Professional Aviculturists, and many species-specific groups.   

Learn More

Become familiar with the experts in avian nutrition. A couple of them are:

Dr. Karen Becker – Mercola Healthy Pets

Dr. Jason Crean – www.beaksbirdhouse.com, biologist and aviculturist

Here are some books on Avian Nutrition you might enjoy:

By learning all that you can, it is possible to provide the best nutrition for your feathered friends.

My Suggestion

My own diet plan is a blend of all the above. I absolutely do not believe that a processed food could ever replace mother nature’s best – but then, we aren’t exactly keeping our birds in nature-like conditions, are we? Nonetheless, our family tries to eat as much whole food as we possibly can, so it’s easy to extend that to our feathered flock.

Finches, canaries, and cockatiels need seed. They don’t need 100% for reasons outlined earlier, but they need some.  I supply 10-25% seed mix.

There is no question that pellet food is convenient and has value. I do feed pellets, often soaked in warm water first (they love this), and dry in the evening. I often stir pellets into the….

Fresh food. This is the bulk of their diet, about 50%. Finches don’t enjoy some foods, like hot peppers, as much as bigger parrots so I don’t usually serve those. And carrots, no matter how small I cut them – they leave them if they’re raw, so I gently cook carrots. Broccoli, corn, kale, sweet potatoes (cooked) are all part of the mix. In addition, I purchase many freeze-dried components like greens, flower teas, and vegetable mixes. I sprinkle on kelp (because Gouldian finches need iodine) and vitamins or supplements. I might cook an egg to include or soak some quinoa.

Gouldian Finches Enjoying Chop
Gouldian Finches Enjoying Chop

I hope this gives you some idea of how to feed your birds. For more information, check out my book on parrot nutrition. (coming soon)


[1] https://www.aav.org/page/basiccare

[2] This Internet rumor persists in spite of the fact that Tom Roudybush studied cockatiels eating 70% protein for a year, and there was no sign of kidney damage.

[3] https://www.2ndchance.info/gout.htm

[4] https://www.roudybush.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.faqResults&group_id=5

[5] https://nagonline.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Palm-Cockatoo-Nutritional-Requirements.pdf

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