One of the best ways to make sure you have fresh vegetables to feed your birds (and yourself!) is to grow your own. There’s nothing like walking outside and picking your own homegrown produce for dinner.
“Vegetables are a healthy addition to any bird’s menu, both decreasing the percentage of fat content in their diet and providing needed vitamins and minerals,” noted Missouri veterinarian and aviculturist, Julie Burge, DVM. Vegetables also provide birds with a source of entertainment and something to do to occupy their time, she added. Most parrots enjoy chewing, tearing and shredding up different types of vegetables. Freshly picked veggies that are raw or steamed generally provide the most nutrition and “chew appeal” for pet birds.
So what are you waiting for? Perhaps you’ve got some space in your back yard where you could put in a small garden. As a bird owner, you’re probably thinking about not only what veggies you like, but about your feathered companion as well. What are some vegetables that are favorites among pet birds?
In an informal survey of avian veterinarians and aviculturists, certain veggies came up over and over again as top favorites among pet birds. All are generally easy to grow, even for the novice gardener. To get started, here’s a brief nutritional profile for each of these six veggies, along with planting, harvesting and serving tips.
Donna Falconnier, University of Illinois nutrition and wellness educator, calls broccoli the “superhero of the vegetable kingdom.” It is rich in vitamins A and C, and offers substantial amounts of B vitamins, iron and calcium. It’s also low in calories and high in fiber.
Botanically, broccoli is really an edible flower. “Most broccoli varieties produce central ‘heads’ that are actually large, flat-topped clusters of tightly-closed, blue-green flower buds,” Falconnier said. In addition to the green varieties, there are also purple and creamy white broccolis, and the light-yellow green Romanesco.
Broccoli grows best in cool weather, with temperatures between 40 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. That means if you live in a temperate climate, plant your broccoli either in early spring (for a late spring harvest) or early fall. If you live in a state like Florida or California with mild winters and hot summers, it’s best to plant your broccoli in late fall or early winter.
“Broccoli doesn’t do well in hot weather,” noted University of Iowa Extension horticulturist Richard Jauron. “You want it to be able to have a chance to grow and mature before it gets too hot.”
Start your broccoli from seeds indoors, in peat pots, about 12 weeks before the average frost-free date, and then set out those plants five to six weeks later. Or, buy transplants from a garden center or nursery and plant those in your garden four to six weeks before the last frost.
Plant broccoli in full sun, in rich, moist but well-drained soil. Transplants should be planted 12 to 18 inches apart from each other. Jauron recommends an organic mulch to keep the soil cool and moist and to suppress weed growth. If it doesn’t rain, sprinkle the plants with about an inch of water per week.
If you plant your broccoli before it gets too hot, you’re probably not going to have an insect problem. Toward the end of the growing season, however, you may have a problem with cabbage worms, root maggots and aphids. If you see any of these insect pests on your broccoli plants, spray it with an organic pesticide that does not require you to wait any days between application and harvest, because at this stage your broccoli may be just about mature.
Most broccoli will be ready for picking 55 to 65 days after you’ve set out transplants. To harvest it, “cut the main head when it has reached full size but the flower buds are still tightly closed,” advised Sandy Mason, Extension Horticulture Educator with the University of Illinois. “If you notice the buds opening up and turning yellow, you’ve waited too long.” After the main head is harvested, smaller side shoots form a couple of weeks later, and these can be harvested as well.
Now you can serve some of your broccoli to your parrot. Most parrots prefer it raw. Just cut off broccoli florets or pieces of the stems (that have been sliced crossways) so your bird can hold it with its feet and chew it. Some parrots also like steamed or cooked broccoli.
“To have the maximum amount of nutrients, use the smallest amount of water possible and the shortest cooking time possible,” Falconnier noted. Cool the broccoli off slightly before serving it to your bird. Don’t leave cooked broccoli (or any cooked vegetable) in your bird’s cage for more than two hours because of the potential for bacteria.
Spinach is also super nutritious. It is loaded in vitamins A, C and K and is also a good source of iron, folic acid, magnesium and beta-carotene. It is very low in fat and high in dietary fiber.
For pet birds, know that spinach contains a fair amount of oxalic acid, which binds to calcium and pulls it from the body. “If your birds eat a lot of spinach, it’s important to make sure they’re getting plenty of calcium,” cautioned Gayle Soucek, an aviculturist and pet industry consultant in Illinois. But, she added, “Spinach is full of wonderful nutrients, so it shouldn’t be avoided, but it should be served as part of a balanced diet.”
There are two basic types of spinach: the savoyed variety with the crinkled leaves and the smooth-leaved variety. Like broccoli, spinach is a cool season crop, best planted four to six weeks before the average frost-free date. In the Midwest or Northeast, plant it in the spring or fall. In the Southwest or Southeast, spinach grows well during the winter months.
Plant spinach seeds directly in the garden, about an inch apart, in well-drained soil. Cover seeds with a one-half-inch of soil. “Spinach can be hard to germinate so you want to make sure it doesn’t get too dry,” Mason said. “You should lightly sprinkle it with water each day, to make sure the soil stays moist.” It takes from 3 to 10 days for the seedlings to emerge, depending on weather conditions. Once the seedlings become three to four inches tall, thin them to about five inches apart.
Fortunately, spinach is bothered by relatively few pests, although aphids and slugs sometimes are a problem. Normally tl1ese are easily treated with an organic pesticide.
Harvest can begin 40 to 50 days after planting. Rather than pull out the entire plant, Mason suggests you just pick the large, outer leaves. Leave the inner leaves, and they will continue to grow and produce more spinach.
Spinach can be served to your bird raw (by hanging it from the cage bars for little birds or giving whole spinach leaves to large parrots to chew on) or lightly cooked. “By lightly cooking spinach, you can actually make the vitamin A and beta-carotene more bio-available,” Falconnier said. Either steam spinach for two to three minutes in a vegetable steamer, or sautée with a little olive oil. Let it cool slightly before serving it to your bird. Don’t overcook or boil spinach, because that will decrease the nutrient value.
Another great garden choice is carrots. No other vegetable contains as much beta-carotene, from which the body makes vitamin A (a vitamin many birds lack). Carrots are also an excellent source of vitamins B and C, potassium, thiamine, folic acid and magnesium.
A range of varieties are available. Shorter varieties such as Thumbilina, Red-Cored Chantenay and Short and Sweet are better suited for heavy or dense soils. Longer carrot varieties like Pioneer and Spartan Bonus are ideal for sandy or loose soils. “It’s really hard to get a nice, long, straight carrot if your soil is really compacted or stony,” noted R. Allen Straw, assistant professor in the Plant Sciences Department at the University of Tennessee and an extension specialist in vegetables and small fruits.
Like broccoli and spinach, carrots are also planted early in the spring, however not quite as early in the season. Sow the seeds directly into the soil, two to four weeks before the average frost-free date. For a continuous summer harvest, make successive plantings every two weeks until midsummer. In warmer regions of the country, carrots grow best during the late fall and winter months.
Sprinkle the carrot seeds in rows spaced 12 to 18 inches apart. Sow the seeds one-quarter-inch deep, aiming for one seed every one-half to 1 inch. Carrot seeds are tiny and hard to handle, so to attain a more even distribution, Jauron recommends you put carrot seeds in a folded piece of paper and then tap them out gently with your finger. Not all the seeds will germinate, but most probably will.
Once the seedlings have emerged, thin them to 1 inch apart from each other. When the tops of the carrots become thicker, thin them some more: this time two to three inches apart. “When thinning, pull the carrots out carefully, to avoid disturbing the remaining carrots,” Mason said. She suggests using the thinnings as baby carrots.
Around 70 to 100 days after planting, your carrots will be ready to harvest. You’ll know they’re ready when they develop a bright orange color and the roots are three-quarters of an inch in diameter at the upper end. To harvest them, take hold of the stem at the base and pull gently. Twist or rock the carrot gently to loosen it. If your soil is heavy or compact, you may need to use a spade to help you pull up the carrots.
What are some good ways to serve carrots to your birds? “My parrots prefer raw carrots sliced into little sticks that they hold like hand toys,” noted Donna Garrou, an aviculturist and manager of a bird supply store and boarding facility in California. On the other hand, if your bird likes warm, soft foods, she suggests you boil and mash the carrots. You can also lightly steam or microwave your carrots to bring out some of the flavor. Your birds may especially appreciate warm veggies on cool days.
Sweet potatoes are packed with calcium, potassium, beta-carotene, folate, and vitamins A, B, C and E. They are high in carbohydrates, mostly derived from starches and sugars. Still, it can be a much deserved taste-treat for your pet bird.
Two main varieties of sweet potatoes are available to home gardeners: the dark orange with a moist flesh and the pale yellow with a drier, slightly less sweet flesh. Sweet potatoes are a tropical crop, best suited for growing in warm weather. Plant them once the chance of frost is past and the soil has warmed up.
Normally, sweet potatoes are planted as “slips” (rather than seeds), which are small shoots (cuttings) that grow off the roots. Sweet potato slips can be purchased from mail order garden supply catalogs, nurseries and garden centers.
This vegetable grows best in loose, sandy soil that has some clay in it. If your soil is overworked or poor quality, you may want to add some compost or organic fertilizer to your soil before planting.
Because they are a vine, sweet potatoes need more space than most garden vegetables. Mason recommends you plant the slips 12 to 18 inches apart, on rows mounded 10 inches high and 12 inches wide, spaced three to four feet apart. For the first few weeks after planting, water the slips and make sure the soil doesn’t dry out.
“Sweet potatoes don’t have a lot of natural pests, but occasionally they become infested with the sweet potato weevil, aphids and nematodes,” Straw said. If any of these are observed, normally one or two applications of an organic pesticide is enough to get rid of them.
Harvest your sweet potatoes 90 to 110 days after planting, before the first frost. “Dig them up before the temperature gets below 55 degrees. If the soil temperature drops below 55 degrees, the roots won’t hold up,” Straw said. Carefully dig up the sweet potatoes with a spade or a large fork to minimize bruising. Take them inside for storage right away. If left in the sun for more than 30 minutes they can spoil.
After harvesting, sweet potatoes need to be “cured” for 10 to 14 days in a warm (around 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit), humid place, such as the garage, a greenhouse or patio. This heals over any small wounds in the potatoes from digging them up, and prepares them for winter storage. Once the sweet potatoes are cured, store them in a cool, dry location (between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal).
Most pet birds love chowing down on sweet potatoes. It can be prepared in a number of ways. Soucek puts raw slices of sweet potato on a skewer and gives those to her parrots. Garrou microwaves or boils sweet potatoes to firm or tenderize and then cuts them into small slices to offer her birds.
You can also cook and mash the sweet potatoes. If your bird has a sweet tooth, you might add some raisins and a little cinnamon to the mix. If your bird prefers spicy food, try sprinkling some cumin or cayenne pepper over the mashed sweet potatoes. Be ready for a major clean-up afterward; your bird is sure to do some food flinging while it’s zealously eating this food!
Another favorite vegetable among companion parrots is green (or snap) beans. Although not as nutritionally-dense as spinach and broccoli, green beans do have small amounts of vitamins A, C and K. They are also a good source of dietary fiber.
Many varieties exist, ranging from the standard 4-inch-long green bean to slender French filet beans, broad-podded Italian or Romano beans, yellow-podded wax varieties, and a variety with deep purple pods that turn green when they are cooked. Most of these come in climbing pole and shorter bush varieties.
Green beans are a warm-season crop and should be planted after danger of frost has passed. Sow seeds one to one-and-three-quarters inches deep, two inches apart for bush varieties and six to 12 inches apart for pole varieties. Provide pole beans with some kind of stake or trellis to grow on. Green beans need moist soil, especially when the plants are flowering and while pods are forming.
Green beans are prone to some insect problems, including Mexican bean beetles, aphids, leafhoppers and cucumber beetles. If your green bean plants become infested, apply an organic pesticide, following the directions on the label.
Most green bean varieties mature in 50 to 65 days after sowing, and that’s when you can start picking them. “Pick them just when the pods begin to swell before they get a lot of fiber in them,” Straw advised. “You want them to be full but you don’t want them to be tough.” Once your green beans start coming in, you need to pick them every other day to encourage growth of more beans. Harvest beans in the morning and when they are still tender.
Green beans are best used as soon as possible after harvest, but may be stored in the refrigerator for a few days. Don’t wash them before you put them in the refrigerator for storing. “They tend to get moldy and deteriorate a lot quicker if they’re moist,” Falconnier said. “The best thing to do is just put them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator and then wash them really well right before you eat them.”
How should you serve green beans to your parrot? Most birds prefer them raw. Soucek’s smaller parrots enjoy digging the beans out from the pods. For her macaws and cockatoos, she will often stuff a bunch of raw green beans in an empty (unscented) toilet paper roll and hand that to the big macaws and cockatoos. “They get a kick out of tearing it up, and will eat them that way,” she said. Your bird may also enjoy steamed or boiled green beans.
Last, but probably tops on the list of veggie taste treats for most pet parrots, is sweet corn. Admittedly, corn doesn’t have a whole lot of nutritional value, although it does have a small amount of vitamin C and thiamin. Mostly corn is just enjoyable to eat. “It’s a favorite of many parrots and a good energy source,” said North Carolina avian veterinarian Gregory Burkett, DVM. “Also, most parrots love demolishing the corn and the cob.”
At Soucek’s house, sweet corn is, in her words, “birdie nirvana.” “Every bird I have adores it, so I actually use it as a treat or a bribe sometimes,” she said. Even the grumpiest psittacine will usually come around to a better disposition if given a few bites of corn.
There are more than 200 varieties of sweet corn, ranging from yellow to white to bi-color, each with varying intensities of sweetness and number of days to maturity. Most varieties mature in 70 to 80 days, but some are ready for harvest in just 60 days while others take 90 or 100 days to mature. “You can plant several different varieties at the same time — some that will mature early and others that will mature later — and you’ll have a consistent supply of corn,” Straw suggested.
Sweet corn is a warm-season crop, directly seeded into the soil after all danger of frost is past. Sow the seeds one to two inches deep and four to five inches apart. Later, when the corn plants are six inches high, thin them to 12 inches apart.
To make sure your sweet corn gets pollinated, plant several rows together in a block, rather than one long row. “Pollen from the male tassels needs to make contact with the female silks and close planting means more contact,” Jauron explained.
For an increased yield and larger ears, Straw suggests you put some nitrogen fertilizer or manure around the base of each plant when seedlings are 12 to 18 inches tall. “Water is also critical at this stage, so if you’re not getting rain you probably should irrigate,” he added.
Corn tends to attract aphids, flea beetles and worms. As a preventive measure, spray your corn plants with an organic pesticide early in the season. Later in the summer, if you actually see these pests on your corn, Straw recommends you spray it with an organic insecticide. “You can also use mineral oil. Just take a medicine dropper and drop it onto the silks,” he said. That’s often all it takes to get rid of the insect problems.
When is sweet corn ready for picking? “The best quality is usually 15 to 17 days after the silk first appears,” Straw replied. “Corn is sweeter a little immature than overmature.” When harvesting, break the ear from the stalk close to the base so as not to damage the ear or the stalk.
Corn can be served to your parrot either fresh (cut into one to two inch thick rounds), steamed or boiled. If you have a larger species such as a macaw or cockatoo, it may enjoy the challenge of peeling and eating a whole, unhusked ear of corn. Smaller birds such as lovebirds and conures may simply enjoy a few kernels of either raw or cooked corn in a bowl at the bottom of the cage.
With any of these veggies, vary your presentation from day to day: steam them, feed them raw, chop them in different shapes and cuts, grate them, etc. Try spicing up your vegetable concoctions with various herbs and seasonings. Put the veggies in a bowl, cut them in small pieces birds can hold with their feet, or weave long, skinny veggies in the cage bars. You can even mix raw or cooked veggies with pasta or scrambled eggs.
One final word: Give your bird time to get used to all the new vegetable dishes you are putting before it. “Birds will only eat what they recognize as food and they may have to see the food for a very long time before trying it,” Garrou said. It once took her a year of putting raw carrot in an imported severe macaw’s cage daily before he began to eat it. She added, however, “Once he got the concept, he loved all vegetables!”
Your birds, too, even if they’re not into veggies now, are sure to come around and love them, just as you yourself learned to like vegetables once you grew up. And when you finally do see your parrot scarfing down its spinach, you’ll know all that time you spent in the garden was worth it!