I recently got a question about bird diets and what they can/should eat.
This question came from a Macaw owner, who read that you never give your birds “human snacks” suck as potato chips, French fries, or other highly salted foods. They were told that salt is extremely toxic to birds and could kill them. Was that true?
Well, my first thought was no, because if it were true I would have a whole lot of dead birds lying around our aviary. We always share our snacks with them, including salty snacks. I’m not talking about dumping a sack of chips into their food dish…just an occasional chip or two.
I thought about it some more……if salt kills birds how do sea birds that live around oceans survive? Obviously someone is wrong here.
And nearly every animal on earth needs salt! Why would such a vital mineral be highly toxic to birds?
I took a careful look at the formulated food products available for birds, and sure enough, right there in the ingredients is Natural Trace Mineral Salt and Sodium Selenite. Sodium Selenite is added to many poulty foods to promote growth and prevent selenium deficiency disease. But both of these salts are added to Harrison’s food diet, and this (it seems) is the de-facto diet to feed recommended by many bird enthusiasts.
So ok….salt is good, right?
Sea birds have evolved with a digestive system that combines their kidneys, GI tract, and special salt glands to regulate the amount of salt in their body. Their system is designed to maintain a total body fluid homeostasis, which allows them to live off the high sea salt diet native to their environment. Unfortunately, this is not the case with most tropical birds. Their system is dependant on their kidneys to remove any excess salt in their system. Too much salt will also increase the urination, resulting in hydration problems.
Well hey! That’s the same problem humans have, isn’t it? If you eat too much salty foods, your body craves for fluids, and your urination increase dramatically! But salt doesn’t kill humans….?
The problem lies with the birds kidneys, and their inability to produce hypertonic urine (urine with lots of sodium). In other words, they have more difficulty removing high amounts of salt, unlike Sea Birds which accomplish this with their salt glands. Therefore, too much salt will quickly dehydrate a bird.
So OK, am I now saying salt is bad? No!
Any time you eat a diet high in salt or sugar, you are going to have health problems. The same goes for birds! Too much will cause health issues, as I just discussed…..but not enough salt will cause a number of deficiencies also! A diet with little sodium will result in loss of weight, iodine deficiencies, and (for breeders) lower egg production and a higher loss in egg size and growth. There are also a number of skin diseases traced to salt deficiencies.
The problems begin when you start feeding diets with excessive amounts of salt! But what is “excessive”. Unfortunately, the folks sounding the warning bell are using terribly unrealistic diets. They point to work done in Illinois and Maryland, where studies were done on birds being fed diets containing 4% salt! Well Holy Cow! What do you expect from that sort of diet!!!
So the warnings went out…bird lovers heard the sirens and assumed that too much salt means “all salt” and they cut back on loads of food items. Bread? Well of course…we use salt to make bread. So now all bread products are bad. Processed food? Yup, more salt…gotta stop giving my birds that too!
You can feed your bird salty items without worrying about them dropping dead in their cage. Just keep in mind that heavily salted items must be given only occasionally.
If you gave your bird 3-4 potato chips, the salt content he is receiving is equivalent to a human eating 2 teaspoons of salt. Obviously any more then that would begin to have some serious dehydration problems. But that small amount isn’t going to hurt your bird.
It’s like I preach over and over…birds have the exact same nutritional requirements as humans do. You obviously are not going to eat 4-5 bags of potato chips or fatty snacks…but a small bowl is just fine. Therefore, 2-3 snack chips or crackers will not cause your bird problems either. And they will enjoy their occasional treat!
Use your common sense! Quit listening to these doomsday scientists who run test designed to find something wrong with any product. Once you look at the actual test results, and get past the doomsday news flashes, you will relax and give your birds their snacks.
I know that if I wanted to start a birdy-riot in my aviary, the sure way to do it would be to stop putting salt on their popcorn!
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