Q. I have a collection of larger cichlid fish species – Jack Dempseys, oscars and blue acaras – in a 240-gallon aquarium. I mostly feed my cichlids large pellet food. I was wondering what else, even if just for a treat, I could feed my large cichlid fish. Do you have any suggestions?
A. While it is generally considered a good idea, in order to ensure adequate nutrition, that one base a fish’s diet on a commercially-prepared fish food, there are plenty of other items that can be added to the menu of larger cichlid fish without going over the grocery budget. The first thing I’d suggest is to consider what each cichlid species might eat in the wild and then think of an alternative fish food you would be able to supply. None of the cichlid fish species you mention are particularly specialized in what food they feed on in the wild, so you could probably add a few generalized fish food items that would round out the diet of all your cichlids.
Given that your cichlid fish are large, I’ll assume you’ve had them for a while. Adding new items to the diet of established cichlid fish can be a bit tricky. Here are a few things to keep in mind while you attempt to expand your cichlids’ palate: New fish foods are often treated with skepticism at first, and that’s simply because it’s new or foreign to the cichlids. However, all it takes is one brave cichlid soul to finally try the fish food, and usually the rest of the cichlid fish will follow – assuming the first cichlid to try the fish food found it tasty.
Next, be observant. Just because a cichlid fish takes food into its mouth doesn’t mean it stays there. Sometimes with new fish foods – as well as with inappropriately sized food items – a cichlid will take the food into its mouth, chew the food for a while and then spit the fish food out (usually behind something where you can’t see it). Naturally, you assume the cichlid fish has eaten the new food item, when the food is actually slowly decomposing in your aquarium behind the filter, rock or plant.
Finally, offer the new fish food item to the cichlid fish as the first feeding of the day. Most cichlids are hungrier in the morning because the last feeding of the previous day is now a distant memory for them, and therefore, they tend to be a little more open-minded when it comes to new fish foods. Offer the new fish food, and whether the cichlid fish take the food or not, don’t give them any of their usual fare until later. If the cichlid fish don’t take it, let them go a little hungry for a while – they will come around to the new fish food a lot faster if you let them listen to their stomach rumblings than if you give in right away.
As for other food items, I’d suggest you occasionally offer your cichlid fish small live crickets – your oscars (Astronotus spp.) especially will love them! Every two weeks or so, take a trip to your local fish or pet store, and buy a dozen small- or medium-sized live crickets to feed your cichlids. You have the option of offering the crickets to your cichlids live, or you can choose to freeze the crickets and feed them to your cichlid fish once they have thawed. The downside to feeding your cichlid fish live crickets is that you or the people you live with will want to make sure they all get eaten and not end up surviving the ordeal to later take up residence in some hard-to-reach place in your home.
Another item you can feed your cichlid fish is shrimp. Plankton and krill are commonly sold either frozen or freeze-dried in fish or pet stores. However, if cost is an issue, you can also get raw shrimp (of the krill variety) in the supermarket. In the native habitats of most New World (North and South American) cichlids, crustaceans are common and provide a major source of nutrition. So, adding them to the diet of cichlids makes perfect sense. One of the major benefits to feeding your cichlid fish shrimp is that shrimp – as well as many crustaceans – contain natural color-enhancing compounds that will serve to bring out all of the natural color in your cichlid fish.
Another possibility is to make your own fish food for your cichlid fish. It is neither complicated, nor difficult, and you can tailor the composition to suit the cichlids you’re feeding. I suggest, however, that you avoid those that incorporate beef heart. Beef heart is a fatty meat that will ultimately lead to the fatty degeneration of the liver in long-lived cichlid fish.
Lastly, you could consider collecting your own cichlid fish food. Depending on where you live, there may be creeks, ponds and ditches with items edible for cichlid fish. Fairy shrimp, crayfish and bugs of all kinds can be collected easily and fed fresh to your cichlids. If you decide to collect food, remember to respect private property, consider any disease risks to your cichlid fish and don’t over-harvest the locals – it’s nice to be able to go back to a spot where you can count on a free lunch! Bon Appétit!