Budgie Diet:
what to feed and why

The budgie diet you choose should be initially based around what they would naturally eat, then adapted to their more sedentary life. The closer to natural that you can get their lifestyle, the better off they will be.  A good diet will provide for them nutritionally, mentally stimulate them and work their beak and bodies. They will also be able to easily absorb nutrients and deal with the wastes more efficiently than if they were trying to process something alien to their digestive system.

As you know budgies in the wild feast on various seeding grasses, leaves, buds, fruit, bark and insects. This requires landing on the ground, on grass stems and branches. It means they need to climb and hunt for seeds, rummaging through leaves and seed heads to find the seeds. So how do we replicate that budgie diet and lifestyle without sending them back to the Australian grasslands?

Dietary basics

Your budgie diet should be made up of pretty even proportions of good quality seed and veggies/greens/fruit (with a quality protein source and additives as needed). Many people veer away from seed as it can, and often is, used to create an unhealthy bird, but if seed was not appropriate for your budgie then it would not be their natural diet. Wild budgies flourish and breed on what they find on the grasslands, so yours can too! You just have to adjust for the fact that your birds are doing only a fraction of the exercise that they would be doing in the wild whilst having a more limited menu. This means you really need to be providing plenty of fresh foods, not just a dry seed mix.

Dry, mature seeds contain protein, carbohydrates, fats and some micro nutrients, all necessary things. However, seed heads growing on the grasslands have a different make up with more vitamins and different types of protein etc. One way to mimic this is the regular feeding of soaked/sprouted seed. Once soaked the seed kicks into growth mode and begins transforming itself to provide everything a growing plant needs to survive. This increases the variety of nutrients available to our budgies.

So, seed, both dry and sprouted, and vegetables/greens is a good start but it is still not enough to provide for a healthy bird.

The main issue is that seed and greens are all plants, and so cannot provide the complete range of amino acids the birds need. Amino acids line up like strings on a bead to create proteins, each type of protein has its own recipe. If a certain amino acid is missing the birds cannot make any of the proteins that require it. Protein is required for all muscle, organs, feathers, to produce enzymes, hormones etc. There are many types of proteins and they all have important uses.  If your budgie lacks the nutrients to build a protein they will scavenge from their own body to get the necessary amino acids.  For this reason a poorly balanced diet results in weaker, less healthy birds.

Some amino acids are found in only low amounts in seeds, sprouted or otherwise. In an effort to get enough of this amino acid the bird will eat much more than they would otherwise do. This contributes to the obesity that can happen even when budgies are provided with regular vegetables. They will eat an unbalanced diet, even if provided with plenty of options, in an effort to get the amino acids they need. So, how can we easily provide them with all the amino acids?

Protein from animal sources has the full range of amino acids and so are a vital part of our budgies diet.  They provide the missing nutrients from an all plant diet.  If you wanted to achieve a balanced plant-only diet for your budgie it is possible, with a significant amount of research, but as they eat animal protein in the wild it is a less natural option.  Eggs are an easy and very nutritious source of high quality protein, and this is why you so often see mixes called egg food or egg biscuit for cage birds. In the wild your budgie would find insects and other available animal protein sources as needed (in an aviary situation a budgie that dies is often chewed on by the others as an easily available protein source, and a broken feather that bleeds will be chewed on by its owner).

So, the plan is to provide a good base of seeds and vegetables/greens, and an animal based protein source. You also need to think about supplements to balance out vitamin and mineral requirements. It is easy to get carried away with more than a pet budgie needs, so we will discuss that on the next page when I talk about what my budgies eat.  Firstly though lets talk about sprouting seed, leafy greens and our budgies natural foraging instinct.

Sprouting seed

mung bean sprouts

I use a specific sprouting mix that is made of locally grown live seeds (Topflite Soak and Sprout). Here in New Zealand we can only grow a portion of the bird seed needed, the rest has to be imported from overseas. To maintain hygiene and prevent the introduction of pathogens and pests the imported seed must be heat treated, and is effectively dead. This means that it will not sprout or grow.  I prefer to feed live seed as much as possible, so I sprout a mix of seeds and grains grown locally. Here's how I do it:

Place some of your seed mix in a container and cover with water, (add a small drop of Vetafarm Aviclense to kill any fungi etc.) and leave over night. Tip the seed into a sieve and rinse thoroughly under a running water. I leave the seed in the sieve in a cool place, it is rinsed each day and left to drain. I usually make enough for 3 or 4 days and start feeding a portion of it in the soft food mix immediately. The first day it is just soaked, but by day 3 or 4 it has a small root growing. Each stage of this provides different nutrients but I have found my birds prefer the seed before the main green shoot is out. The highest level of nutrients is just as the tip of the root first breaks out of the seed.

It is important that the sprouted seed doesn’t ferment or become mouldy as this may make your budgie ill. You can feed the seed over a few days, but make sure to rinse it each day and keep it in a cool place.  It may be necessary to keep the soaked seed it in the fridge in hot weather. Using a bird safe disinfectant such as Aviclense,  is a good idea, it can be added to the sprouting water, rinse and the birds general drinking water. It controls microbial growth (bacteria, yeasts etc.) but is quickly broken down in the digestive tract so does not harm the birds necessary gut flora and fauna. The sprouted seed will have a 'live' smell, but if it begins to smell fermented, alcoholic or mouldy then please throw it out. Bacteria or mould can cause serious health issues, especially for baby birds.

If the seed does not begin to sprout at all then it is dead! Find another source if possible!

Lets talk about greens

dandelion, budgie diet

Just as fresh leafy greens are good for us, they are good for our birds also! In spring you can gather small bunches of seeding grasses at various stages of development from still very green through to mature dry seeds still on the stalk. You can also feed various ‘weeds’ such as chickweed (Stellaria media) seen below, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) pictured on the right, and shepherds purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris). Of course in Australia budgies also chew on eucalyptus trees so if you can find a branch or two of that they will appreciate it.

chickweed, budgie greens

From your garden you can feed them silverbeet, broccoli, whole carrots including the green tops, apple, orange etc. The main thing is to make sure that the food is not sprayed with anything toxic, and not picked from a roadside where it can accumulate car fumes, and check what it is so you can be sure it is not poisonous! Also, feed the whole, unwashed plant if possible, budgies often love to pick at the soil on the roots.

Offer your bird something interesting each day and vary it so they learn to try out new foods. Sometimes they will ignore a new food, keep offering it until they give up and try some. You can also try sprinkling a few seeds onto it so they have a nibble. My budgies needed this to try out a piece of orange, but once they had they would clean up the orange every time. In fact, they liked it so much I could get them to try a new food by squeezing some orange juice onto it.

Foraging

Wild budgies foraging

In the wild your budgie would spend the majority of it's day traveling and searching for food and water. This involves exercise, curiosity and intelligence. They would fly long distances, investigate potential plants and learn through experience what to look for and how to get it. This foraging behaviour keeps both their body and mind active and healthy and we can replicate some of those benefits for our pets.

With my birds I place their seed in a low flat dish on the base of the cage. It needs to be placed away from their usual pooping spots to reduce the risk of spoiling. This way my birds need to fly down the the ground (the natural place for feeding) to get their main meal. It means that instead of just fluttering from perch to perch they need to exert effort to fly down and back up again a few times a day. 

Their seed mix doesn't easily spoil or need changing daily. This means I can fill the dish with several days worth, usually a weeks worth at a time. At first they can easily eat, but after a day or two the husks build up on top and they start to rummage about, digging with their beaks to find the seeds below. They can always find them but need to make a bit of an effort. By the end of the week they are down to the last few seeds, usually the ones they are less fond of, but they finish them up as that is what they can find. If I refilled the bowl before this point they would leave the seeds they liked the least, but I want them to eat the full range I offer.

It is important to blow off the seed husks if you use a tube/jar type feeder rather than an open dish. Your birds will starve if they can't get right in there and dig around to find seeds.

I also use horse chaff (chopped hay) on the floor of the cage. This may be a bit messy but if you have a system for containing seed husks then it should catch the chaff also. My budgies love to scurry about in the chaff searching for seed heads, chewing up stems and finding any seeds they kicked out of the feed bowl. They expend quite a lot of energy in these activities, keeping them fit. I replace this when I refill the seed dish, it stays fairly fresh as they turn it over and mix it up each day. If there is any water spillage, though, it needs to be cleaned up as mould growth is a danger to the birds.

Their greens get clipped to the side of the cage, or hung on a perch or toy so they can climb about to get to it. Seed heads are often lain on the top of the cage and they hang upside down pulling it through the mesh to eat it.

These foraging behaviours keep them active and mentally stimulated for much longer than they would otherwise be.  They require physical and mental gymnastics and encourage social interactions. I think that using our imagination to encourage foraging like this is one of the best things we can do for our budgies well-being.

What about water?

Obviously your budgie needs water. If they are eating a decent amount of fresh plants they will get much of their water from them but they still need access to fresh, clean water 24/7! Ensure that you water container minimises contamination, budgies seem to love getting food and faeces into their water...

I use the drip waters used for rodents etc. that they lick to get a drink. The ones with the ball loose in the metal tube, not spring loaded.  These types usually have a drip of water sitting on the end and it only took a week for my budgies to start using it. I then removed the other water source and watched carefully for any signs of thirst.  If you are worried you can put another water bowl in the cage each evening for a few days, they will be wanting a drink immediately if they have not worked out the new system.

I like these because the water can only come in contact with the budgies beak and tongue, nothing else can get into it. I use Aviclense in the water to kill micro-organisms and change the water every few days. This way it stays nice and clean and nothing grows in it. If you do not use something like Aviclense you need to thoroughly clean the water container more regularly to prevent slime  and bacterial growth. I am not one for extreme cleanliness, just like humans our budgies need to encounter micro-organisms to stregthen their immune systems, but I think that water is far too important to their well being to get slack about.

As my budgies can't get more than their tongues in contact with the water I also provide them with a dish to bathe in occasionally, regularly in summer. They tend to get messy faces from eating all the fresh foods otherwise, which shows that given the opportunity they will use the water dish to wash their faces in...not ideal for keeping water clean and fresh.

Now that you have an overview of what is required, take a look at a  real life example here!

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