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.
(Please note that our knowledge of avian nutrition is still growing and changing and that as I come across new research I will update the information here.)
As you know budgies in the wild feed 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, requiring a high level of energy and activity. So how do we replicate that budgie diet and lifestyle without sending them back to the Australian grasslands?
Budgies require the same basic nutrients that all animals need: protein, fats, carbohydrates and various micro-nutrients (vitamins, minerals etc.) 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 make up the majority of their natural diet. Wild budgies flourish and breed on what they find on the grasslands, so yours can too! However, you must 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 much more limited menu. This means a dry seed mix will lead to obesity, iodine deficiency, serious health issues and a shortened lifespan. They need to be eating plenty of fresh foods to provide the nutrition they need and have to be doing some sort of work to get it.
Dry, mature seeds contain protein, carbohydrates, fats and some micro nutrients, all necessary things. However, the live growing seed heads that wild budgies would be eating have a different make up that provides more nutrition. 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. Budgies require about 10% of their diet to be protein for maintenance (ie. not when breeding). A seed mix of canary seed and millet, with a few oats, will provide this amount of protein. Sprouted mung beans, or similar, will provide extra protein as well and make a great choice for soaking. The % of protein is not the end of the story though, we also need to think about amino acids.
The main issue is that seed and greens are all plants, and do not 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 needed 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.This is especially important when breeding, chicks raised with sufficient protein grow bigger and stronger than those with a lacking diet.
Protein from animal sources has the full range of amino acids and so are a vital part of our budgies 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 do eat animal protein in the wild vegetarian is not a more 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 and neighbours for the valuable nutrients). Eggs have a similar protein level to the basic canary seed and millet seed mix, but with a better supply of amino acids. The addition of egg is sufficient to balance out the protein needs of a budgie that is not breeding. If you are breeding then the protein level needs to be more like 20% which would require something like dried mealworms, or whey powder to be added. That is a discussion for another page though.
So, the plan is to provide a good base of seeds (dry and sprouted), 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 actually 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.
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 does 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:
I usually make enough for 3 or 4 days and start feeding a portion of it in the soft food mix immediately once it has been soaked. The first day it is just soaked, but by day 3 or 4 it has a small root and shoot 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 very ill, mould can kill birds very quickly. You can feed
the seed over a few days, but make sure to rinse thoroughly it at least once every 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
Vetafarm Aviclens, is a good idea, it can be added to the sprouting water,
rinse water 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 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 and even death, especially for baby birds.
If the seed does not begin to sprout at all then it is dead, find another source if possible!
Just as fresh leafy greens are good for us, they are also good for our birds. 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.
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 plant if possible, budgies often love to pick at the soil on the roots. Rinse the green tops if there is risk of chemicals and if it is hot as they love to bathe on wet leaves.
If you want to offer your bireds something new a quick search online will bring up lists of plants toxic to birds so you can check for safety.
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.
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 feed 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.
Having seed ad-lib like this only works health wise because I have a flock and they keep each other pretty active. If your birds begin to get overweight you will need to either make foraging for the food more difficult (there are some good ideas for foraging toys online) or limit the seed and increase the fresh food. One way to do this is work out how much they eat in a day, then make a mix of 50/50 seed and vegetables chopped into small pieces (the seed portion should be about half dry and half sprouted seed, or similar).
Provide this mixed together in a flat dish so the budgies can dig around and find what they like. As you only provide about a days worth at a time they will come back to the less preferred foods and finish them off also. You can work out how much they eat by offering a certain amount of food and seeing how much is left at the end of the day. Reduce the amount until they are almost eating it all each day, being sure that what is left is not just empty seed husks.
It is important to blow off the seed husks if you use a tube/jar type feeder, or a deep dish rather than a wide 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, if I can find a dust free source. 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 you throw a few oats into it every now and then it keeps them interested in hunting. If there is any water spillage, though, it needs to be cleaned up as mould growth is a significant 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.
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 strengthen 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!