Protein is a macronutrient comprising 20 amino acids, of which 9 are classified as essential or indispensable. This means they must be acquired through diet, as the body can’t synthesize them.
Protein should comprise 7–12% of the diet of small parrots (like parrotlets and budgies), while large parrots (like macaws and cockatoos) need 10–15% protein.
A protein deficiency can lead to health concerns, including poor feather growth, physical development, and recovery. It’s vital for baby parrots (chicks), who are growing and developing rapidly.
Excessive protein is harmful to the liver and kidneys. In older parrots, too much protein can cause avian gout (a build-up of urates around the joints, causing perching and mobility problems).
Almost 90% of parrots’ feathers are made up of protein. Unsurprisingly, pet birds need extra protein when molting and replacing their old, worn-out feathers.
Feed parrots extra legumes, sprouted seeds, and scrambled eggs when protein needs are elevated.
Why Do Parrots Need Protein?
Proteins are biochemical molecules the avian body needs for muscle tissue, beaks, claws, feathers, and egg production. It also affects hormone regulation, metabolic function, and the immune system.
A bird’s body can produce 11 amino acids, but 9 others are deemed essential. These include:
There are complete and incomplete protein sources for birds. Foods like cooked eggs, legumes, sprouted seeds, and lean fish/meat are favored sources of complete proteins.
Birds’ feathers mostly comprise beta-keratin (β-keratin), a form of protein.
The epidermal appendages that comprise beta-keratin are waterproof and durable, ensuring the feathers remain strong enough to maintain flight while providing insulation during low temperatures.
A parrot will molt its feathers once or twice a year, shedding and replacing older, damaged feathers. Large psittacine birds mold less frequently, perhaps once every 12-18 months.
Sufficient dietary protein ensures this process unfolds smoothly, enabling parrots to develop robust, vibrant feathers. To this end, parrots require more dietary protein during the molting season.
Muscle and Tissue
Protein is essential for a parrot’s internal organs, muscles, and bodily tissue.
As cells contain and metabolize protein, this vital macronutrient enables a parrot’s body to recover from general wear and tear while allowing muscle growth and development.
Parrots have a higher metabolic rate than mammals. This is primarily because flying is a physically strenuous activity, requiring significant energy reserves that must be replaced.
Essentials of Medical Biochemistry explains how protein meets 3% of a human’s energy requirement for several minutes and up to 12% for prolonged activity over several hours.
Alongside calcium, protein is essential to the health of the egg and shell. Without the shell’s protein matrix, calcium carbonate would be too brittle for the egg to hold its shape.
Also, protein is needed for the internal health of the egg and embryo’s survival.
Critical Care Medicine explains that protein is vital to a bird’s immune response. A parrot requires protein to ward off harmful pathogens that would cause illness and disease.
What Happens If Parrots Get Too Little Protein?
A protein deficiency is called hypoproteinemia, which has the following symptoms:
A parrot with hypoproteinemia will have scruffy and unkempt wing feathers. If a molting parrot doesn’t consume enough protein, its new feathers will be dull, lifeless, and misshapen.
This can negatively affect parrots because wing feathers that haven’t formed correctly impede their ability to fly. They may also struggle to keep themselves warm after sunset.
Poor-quality feathers reduce a male parrot’s chances of finding a mate and breeding. The female considers a male with healthy feathers more likely to produce strong and healthy offspring.
According to the Australian Journal of Biological Sciences, a parrot’s beak is constructed almost entirely of protein-derived keratin. Hypoproteinemia can lead to a brittle, misaligned beak.
A misshapen beak can signify health conditions like fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis).
Physical activity can lead to microtears in a bird’s muscle tissue. If a parrot isn’t getting enough protein, damaged muscle tissue won’t be replaced, leaving it vulnerable.
The Journal of the Association of Avian Veterinarians explains how hypoproteinemia is also linked to Proventricular Dilatation Syndrome (PDS), a contagious disease that can cause muscle wasting.
PDS is an inflammatory concern that causes swelling in the bird’s abdomen, initially leading to issues with the gastric tract. Left untreated, it can lead to muscle weakness and paralysis.
As birds have a high metabolic rate, anemia is a constant risk. Anemia occurs when a lack of oxygenated blood circulates the body, reducing the production of red blood cells.
If a parrot is anemic, it may have short, gasping breaths (known as tachypnea) and struggle with an irregular heartbeat (tachycardia.)
A blood transfusion may be required if hypoproteinemia causes severe anemia.
Can Parrots Have Too Much Protein?
While protein is essential, too much can harm the health and development of parrots. The following risks are associated with parrots getting too much protein:
When a parrot consumes protein, amino acids are distributed around the body, metabolized, and converted into energy.
What remains is converted into uric acid. Unfortunately, this further strains the kidneys, requiring additional filtration and waste release.
If a parrot is urinating more, it’ll shed calcium from the body, which can lead to gout. According to the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, gout is more common as parrots age.
Excess protein strains the kidneys, leading to intraglomerular hypertension.
Skeletal Muscle Issues
While insufficient protein can lead to muscle atrophy, Nutrients warns that excessive protein causes hypertrophy, an unmanageable and unsustainable growth of muscle cells.
The Auk explains how birds developing hypertrophy increase their weight, which can make flight increasingly difficult to achieve and maintain.
If a parrot consumes excessive protein, it’s unlikely to get enough fiber, which can lead to constipation.
While a parrot will initially be uncomfortable, the inability to pass feces soon becomes a medical concern. Parrots release feces and urine and lay eggs from the same organ (the cloaca).
If the cloaca is blocked with unpassed waste, the parrot can’t poop.
What Are The Best Protein Sources for Parrots?
High-protein foods for parrots include:
- Cooked eggs (whites and yolks).
- Dark, leafy greens (spinach, kale, and broccoli).
- Bell peppers.
- Dandelion leaves.
- Meat (white and lean red meat).
While these foods are high in protein, not all contain all 9 essential amino acids. Provide a parrot with a varied diet of lean meat and plant-based proteins. Fatty red meats are high in cholesterol.
You can provide dietary supplements if concerned about a parrot’s protein intake.