We all know that protein plays a crucial role in building and maintaining muscle. But our parrots aren’t bodybuilders, so just how important can protein be?
Very! As it turns out, much of the microscopic machinery in an animal’s cells is made of, and depends upon, protein. Providing the right types and amounts of protein in your bird’s diet is essential to their wellbeing.
Learning how to properly balance your parrot’s protein sources will go a long way towards improving their health and diet.
1.) What is protein?
Proteins are composed of amino acids linked together in a chain.
There are twenty standard amino acids, which can come together in many different combinations and lengths. These amino acid chains are proteins, and they fold into specific shapes to perform different functions within our bodies. Proteins form many of the working parts of cells, and they play key roles in the body such as carrying oxygen, acting as hormones and as receptors, and much more.
2.) Essential amino acids
Of the twenty standard amino acids, nine are "essential."
This means that animals need these amino acids to function, but they can’t make them on their own. Therefore, they must be obtained through the diet. The “nonessential” amino acids can be made in an animal’s body using molecules from food, like glucose, and other amino acids.
3.) The protein requirement
All animals need protein, but the amount changes according to a variety of factors.
All animals have dietary protein requirements, as they need a certain amount of essential and nonessential amino acids to keep their cells intact and bodily processes running. Different animals in different life stages will have different requirements, depending on the types and intensities of their bodily functions. This is why it’s important to feed the correct pellet or diet to your budgie. A non-breeding bird that should be staying the same body weight (we call these animals at ‘maintenance’) would have a much lower protein requirement than a breeding budgie who is not only eating for themselves, but needs enough protein to form an egg or feed a rapidly growing chick.
4.) Amino acid profiles
Animals need the right variety and balance of amino acids in their diet.
Proteins are made of twenty different amino acids, nine of which are essential and cannot be made by the animal. It’s possible for an animal to eat enough total protein, but to not get enough of one or more essential amino acids. This imbalance can cause major nutritional deficiencies and metabolic illnesses. The composition of amino acids, not just the total amount of protein, is crucial in maintaining a healthy diet.
5.) The all-seed diet problem
All-seed diets typically don’t deliver the right variety of amino acids to keep your parrot healthy.
One of the main things wrong with low-quality seed mixes is the amino acid profile. These mixes typically use canary seed and millet, which provide adequate total protein. However, these seed types are extremely low in two essential amino acids, methionine and lysine. Remember, these essential amino acids can’t be made in the body, and must come from the diet. This is one of the reasons why birds eating exclusively these mixes tend to live shorter lives, die younger, and have chronic health problems due to nutritional deficiencies.
6.) Useful food items
Certain foods can bolster and round-out the roster of amino acids your parrot is eating.
Quinoa, sprouted amaranth, and sprouted buckwheat are all options with good amino acid profiles for parrot owners looking to improve their bird’s diet. Quinoa is currently the only “complete” plant protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. Amaranth is high in methionine and lysine. Buckwheat is high in lysine as well.
7.) Upgrading protein sources
You don’t need to do a sudden overhaul to improve the amino acid balance in your bird’s diet.
When I start a diet conversion for a bird that only recognizes seed, the first thing I do is upgrade them to Lafeber’s Nutriberries and Avicakes. This way, without making any huge changes, and by only using items very close to what they already recognize and are happy to eat, I can substantially improve that bird’s diet and hold them away from major nutritional deficiencies while we work on introducing other foods.
8.) Getting it right
A healthy diet strikes a balance between enough total protein and good variety of amino acids.
When thinking about protein in the parrot diet, we need to satisfy two requirements: one, enough protein to meet the animal’s needs, and two, a balanced profile of essential and nonessential amino acids. We can achieve this by mixing plant proteins with complementing amino acid profiles so that the different sources together are able to fill our pet’s protein requirements.
Protein is just one of many considerations we have to make in deciding how to feed our birds. If you’re looking to learn more about your parrot’s food, check out our articles on all-seed diets and the basics of diet conversion.