I am asked quite often what can I feed my bird to supplement her diet to help cut cost on their bird food bill as well as what is safe or okay to eat? Creating a list of foods considered dangerous or toxic to birds is not as easy as it seems for these few reasons.
- First, the term “bird” is fairly vague. Just like us humans we all have our own allergies, aversions or discomforts when we eat certain foods. For example, I’m Asian and we don’t do dairy! We are lactose intolerant generally speaking. I can’t speak on behalf of all Asian right!? I do know this is common in our culture. Just like in “birds”, there are many differences between the anatomy and physiology of birds belonging to the large, diverse group known as Class Aves so different species will demonstrate different sensitivities to toxins from food. Size matters of course!
- Second, although there are reports of toxicity in birds, many descriptions are based on personal stories that have not been verified. So in other words, the unofficial stories of who ate what when cannot be confirmed and reported as official.
- Third, ‘the dose determines the poison’. This means that certain food can be eaten in small amounts or in moderation without problems, but can cause illness or even death in birds when fed in large quantities.
- Finally, some of the toxicology information used by avian veterinarians, I have been told, is borrowed from dog and cat medicine. Let’s face it, there are more of them and lots more data than on birds.
Better safe than sorry
I’d always say and I’m sure any veterinarian will agree with me that we should always err on the side of caution. So for simplification, let’s divide this list of potentially dangerous foods into three categories:
- Foods that most veterinarians agree should never be fed to your bird under any circumstances,
- Foods that are not recommended but are sometimes fed without incident, and
- Food items that can be fed with caution.
List #1: Do NOT Feed Your Bird…
- Chocolate: Theobromine and caffeine, which are both classified as methylxanthines, can cause hyperactivity, increased heart rate, tremors, possibly seizures, and potentially death when chocolate is ingested at a toxic dose. As a general rule of thumb, the darker and more bitter the chocolate, the more potentially toxic.
- Avocado: All parts of the avocado plant contain the toxic principle, persin, and have been reported to be a cardiac toxin to birds. Small birds such as canaries and budgies are considered to be more susceptible so they might die within an hour or two, but did you know, clinical signs have been observed in other species like ostriches, signs like respiratory distress developing up to 12 hours after ingestion; death can occur within 1 to 2 days. Just a factoid, not that ANY exotic bird compares to the size of an ostrich but my point is size and dose matters.
- Onion, garlic: Onion and garlic toxicity is well recognized in dogs and cats. Concentrated forms, like garlic powder or onion soup mix, are more potent than raw vegetables. One incident was reported that fatal toxicity occurred in a geese that was fed large amounts of green onions as well as one conure fed large amounts of garlic.
- Comfrey: This green leaf herb is popular with some canary breeders, but studies in human medicine have shown it can cause liver damage.
- Stone fruit pits or apple seeds: Apple seeds and fruit pits from cherry, plums, apricots, and peaches contain cyanide.
- Foods high in fat, salt, and sugar: Although not technically toxic, unhealthy table foods can cause serious health problems in birds not to mention humans too. Strive for the comment, “you eat like a bird”!
- Sugar-free candies: The sugar alternative, xylitol, has been associated with dangerously low blood sugar and liver damage in dogs.
#2: PROBABLY Should Not Be Fed to Your Bird…
- Dairy products: Although not technically toxic, bird species that have been tested cannot digest lactose. Maybe they’re part Asian? Hmmmm! As I was saying, as the amount of dairy in the diet increases, birds can develop diarrhea.
List #3: Can Be Fed to Your Bird with CAUTION
- Peanuts: Moldy peanuts or peanut products (as well as corn and other cereal grains) can be contaminated by a toxin-producing fungus. Aspergillus can kill your bird. We have been asked for bulk peanuts for years and I just won’t carry that kind of liability. It’s an inexpensive nut but people don’t realize that the vet visits, yes I mean plural, will not be inexpensive.
- Certain plants: Birds can eat green tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant, however these plants are all members of the nightshade family. This means that the fruits are safe to eat, but the plants themselves are toxic. By the same token, the leaves of the rhubarb plant contain oxalate crystals, which can cause kidney problems. I say rhubarb here in Florida and I get strange looks, I’m a Northern Idaho girl, we ate rhubard pie! But as I was saying no rhubarb leaves.
- Grit: Grit can aid digestion in species that consume whole seeds, like pigeons and doves, however grit is not absolutely necessary for normal digestion in birds that crack seed hulls, like parrots. Some birds will actually overeat grit when ill, which can potentially lead to intestinal blockage.
A special note on mushrooms: Mushrooms are occasionally listed on toxic food lists. Of course there are a few toxic species, however mushrooms that can be eaten by humans are also considered safe for pets. Do NOT offer false morel (Gyromitra) mushrooms. Cooking can render these mushrooms less toxic, but does not completely eliminate the potential danger of death.
And that’s it, but remember it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you don’t know or recall if it’s safe please don’t give it to your companion birds. It is always good to ask first or look it up but just because your bird is pining for something you are eating think twice because their little hearts, livers and other organs can’t take much toxins before it does irreversible damage. The prior owner of my bird must have shared coffee with him and he still asks for it but I resist that cute little voice and I offer him something healthy instead.