Geophagy is a term used to describe the process of parrots eating clay. Scientists aren’t entirely sure why parrots ingest clay, but many theories exist.
Experts believe that parrots eat clay to increase their sodium levels, especially when food is scarce. This is common during the breeding season when parrots need clay to get extra nutrients to feed their young. Clay removes toxins from the body, allowing parrots to eat toxic foods without falling ill.
Clay also provides essential nutrients when parrots can’t get them through their diet. During the rainy season in the rainforest, minerals like sodium get washed away, and clay is an alternative source.
Why Do Parrots Eat Clay?
As discussed, why parrots eat clay is a bit of a mystery to scientists. There are many theories, but none have been definitively proven.
While more studies are needed to determine the exact reasoning behind parrots eating clay, current research suggests there are rational explanations:
1/ Toxin Protection
It’s thought that parrots ingest clay to protect against the effects of toxins in their diets. Parrots consume toxic plant matter, especially when food availability is low and they’re at risk of starvation.
Clay licks allow parrots to eat nutritionally rich, toxic foods like seeds and unripe fruits. This is because the consumed clay binds to alkaloid toxins before they’re digested and reduces the effects of quinidine. As PubChem explains, quinidine is a lethal alkaloid extracted from the bark of trees.
Similarly, the Journal of Chemical Ecology studied the effects of clay on captive parrots and discovered that orally administered clay reduced quinidine’s bioavailability by 60%.
2/ Sickness And Diarrhea
A wild parrot’s diet is mostly comprised of fruits, many of which are highly acidic.
After eating them for prolonged periods, parrots become sick from the acidity and sometimes develop stomach ulcers, which cause pain and discomfort, leading to appetite loss.
When birds are sick, clay can help settle their stomachs. Some clays contain kaolin, a soft, white clay that clears up diarrhea and related sicknesses. Kaolin isn’t absorbed into the bloodstream but absorbs toxins and makes diarrhea less watery.
Similarly, if parrots ingest clay for protection against toxins, they may eat clay after consuming them to prevent sickness and pain.
3/ Mineral Supplement
A popular theory on why parrots eat clay is that it provides them with the essential minerals lacking in their plant-based diets.
In tropical rainforests, sodium is washed from the ecosystem, especially during rainy seasons. However, it’s stored in hard clay, which parrots lick to increase their sodium intake.
Sodium is essential for a parrot’s:
- Nerve function
- Muscle contraction
- Body fluid regulation
Clay licks found in the western Amazon basin contain sodium levels that are 40% higher than some foods parrots eat. While most parrots get sodium from fruits and vegetables, salt licks boost sodium levels when food is scarce, particularly in rainforest areas when it’s dry.
4/ Reproductive Health
Similar to providing a mineral supplement, the International Journal of Avian Science (IBIS) found that ingesting clay gives parrots the supplemental nutrients needed to reproduce.
NPR explains how clay eating peaked during the breeding season, especially when parrots start feeding their young. Mother parrots need more energy to produce and lay healthy eggs and enough nutrients to feed themselves and their chicks.
5/ Grit for Grinding Food
Parrots lack teeth, so they can’t grind their food down as mammals do.
Instead, they have a two-chambered stomach consisting of the proventriculus and the gizzard, and food moves between the two and are broken down by acid, mucus, and other digestive juices.
When food reaches the gizzard, food is ground into smaller pieces by the stomach’s thick wall and tough muscles. Parrots regularly eat sand, grit, small pebbles, and stones to assist with the process of pulverizing the food and allowing it to pass through the digestive system.
Some parrots consume fine clay to improve the digestive process. Fine clay is more refined than grit, so it works more efficiently and sits comfortably in a parrot’s stomach.
Can Parrots Eat Clay?
Clay is safe for parrots to consume, which is why so many species practice geophagy (the act of eating soil) in the wild. It can improve mineral levels and protect against toxins.
However, like all things, too much clay can harm parrots. Sodium overload is caused by the consumption of excess amounts of clay, which leads to:
- Fluid and electrolyte imbalance
- Excessive thirst
- Kidney failure
Captive parrots don’t naturally eat clay and are less likely to need it if their owners provide them with a healthy, balanced diet that incorporates pellets, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts.
What Is A Parrot Clay Lick?
In the wild, clay licks are enormous walls of red clay that have appeared due to erosion along riverbanks. Many parrot species gather at them to consume the clay.
You’re most likely to see macaws, Amazon parrots, and parakeets at clay licks, as they’re native to these regions. The largest clay licks appear within the borders of Peru on the western Amazon basin.
The Peruvian government has made many efforts to preserve their clay licks to keep parrots healthy and enable them to act instinctively. As a result, these areas are protected as nature reserves.
Are Clay Blocks Good for Domestic Parrots?
Because captive parrots are exposed to the same plant-based diets as their wild counterparts, providing a clay block for parrots to detoxify their bodies could be beneficial.
Clay blocks offer the following health benefits for domestic parrots:
Source of Calcium
Providing your parrot with a healthy clay lick can increase its calcium levels. Many parrots are deficient in calcium because seeds and nuts contain little calcium.
Parrots struggle to eat dairy products because they don’t have the enzyme (lactase) responsible for digesting lactose. Calcium deficiencies are responsible for the following:
- Strong, healthy bones
- Muscle movement
- Nerve transmission
- Heart disorders
- Muscular pain and contractions
- High cholesterol
- Feather plucking
- Lack of coordination
- Poor eggshell formation
Larger parrots, like African grey parrots, macaws, and Amazons, need higher calcium levels. Therefore, they would benefit from a clay lick.
Parakeets also use clay licks in the wild, so it’s worth thinking about adding it to their diet, too. If your parrot needs a calcium boost, provide a clay block alongside a healthy, balanced diet.
Pesticide poisoning can be fatal when parrots have been exposed to pesticides for prolonged periods.
Clay licks reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning by binding to the toxins and preventing them from being digested. Then, they get excreted before they cause health issues.
What Is The Best Clay For Parrots?
The safest clay for captive birds is bentonite clay for parrots, which is a clay that’s derived from nature and is highly absorbent. The best-known brand is Clay Cal Bentonite, which has the following benefits:
- Source of supplemental minerals.
- Toxic secondary compound absorption.
- Protects the gastrointestinal tract from chemical irritation.
- Increases the digestive system’s pH balance, promoting good health.
- Higher levels of calcium in the diet.
- Protects against harmful bacteria and fungi found in wooden shedding toys and perches.
- A healthier alternative to gravel grit for improved digestion.
Most owners provide bentonite clay by sprinkling a teaspoon onto their food. It works better on moist foods because the water absorbs the clay, improving the likelihood of consumption.
When parrots are injured, you can also place bentonite clay onto the wound to draw out toxins, reducing the chances of infection. It can help with minor cuts and scrapes, including bumblefoot.
You can also turn bentonite clay into a detoxifying drink. Using a non-metallic spoon, mix one teaspoon of clay with 125 ml of water. Allow the mixture to settle overnight, so the mud sinks to the bottom, leaving a milky substance known as “clay milk” at the top.
Feed this to your parrot in a shallow dish and change the water daily.