Geophagy, a term used to describe the process of parrots eating clay, is an interesting phenomenon. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why parrots ingest clay, but there are many theories to explore.
Parrots eat clay to increase their sodium levels, especially when food is scarce. This is most common during the breeding season when parrots need clay to ingest extra minerals to feed their young. Clay helps eliminate toxins from the body, allowing parrots to eat toxic foods without becoming ill.
Clay 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. Clay is an alternative source of sodium.
Why Do Parrots Eat Clay?
As we’ve touched upon, the reason why parrots eat clay is a bit of a mystery for 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 a few possible explanations:
It’s thought that parrots ingest clay to protect against the effects of toxins in their diets. Parrots consume plant matter that’s toxic to other animals, especially when food availability is low during the dry seasons and they’re at risk of starvation.
Clay licks allow parrots to eat nutritionally rich, toxic foods, such as 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, this 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 roughly 60%.
This shows that clay has the potential to absorb potentially lethal compounds, allowing parrots to eat them without getting sick or dying.
Reduce 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. This causes pain and discomfort, leading to appetite loss.
When birds are sick, clay can help settle their stomachs. Some clays contain kaolin, which is a soft, white clay that helps cure diarrhea and related sickness. It’s not 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 from occurring.
A popular theory on why parrots eat clay is that it provides them with the essential minerals lacking from 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. The area is well-known for lacking in salt.
While most parrots get all the sodium they need from fruits and vegetables found in their natural habitat, salt licks boost sodium levels when food is scarce, particularly in rainforest areas when it’s dry.
Similar to providing a mineral supplement, a study by the International Journal of Avian Science (IBIS) found that ingesting clay gives parrots the supplemental nutrients they need 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 eggs. They also need enough nutrients to feed both themselves and their chicks. During this time, wild parrots lack the sodium they need, so they lick clay to improve their mineral levels.
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. Food moves between the two and gets 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 help with the process, pulverizing the food, allowing it to pass through the digestive system.
Some parrots also consume fine clay to improve the digestive process. It’s more refined than grit, so it works more efficiently and sits more 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 help improve mineral levels and protects against lethal toxins.
However, like all things, too much clay can be harmful to parrots. Sodium overload is caused by the consumption of excess amounts of clay. Too much sodium leads to:
- Fluid and electrolyte imbalance
- Excessive thirst
- Kidney failure
Captive parrots don’t naturally eat clay and are less likely to need it as long as their owners provide them with a healthy, balanced diet that incorporates pellets, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts.
That being said, clay rarely causes health problems, so there’s no harm in providing clay blocks to domestic parrots.
However, clay-eating is sometimes a sign that something’s wrong. If parrots eat high amounts of clay, they could have stomach or digestive problems. If your parrot has diarrhea, clay can help them fix the problem.
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, and other tropical birds often join them.
You’re most likely to see macaws, Amazon parrots, and parakeets at clay licks, as they’re native to the regions that harbor them. 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, it could be beneficial to provide a clay block for parrots to detoxify their bodies. Clay blocks offer the following health benefits for domestic parrots:
Source of Calcium
Providing your parrot with a healthy clay lick can help increase its calcium levels. Many parrots are deficient in calcium because seeds and nuts are low in it, and they’re rarely substituted with other foods.
Similarly, parrots struggle to eat dairy products because they don’t have the enzyme responsible for digesting lactose. Calcium deficiencies are responsible for:
- Strong, healthy bones
- Muscle movement
- Nerve transmission
- Heart disorders
- Muscular pain and contractions
- High cholesterol
- Feather plucking
- Lack of co-ordination
- 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.
Pesticides are found on many fruits and vegetables, as most have come from farms that use chemicals on their crops. Even washing the food beforehand isn’t always enough to remove all pesticide traces, especially if the fruit and vegetables aren’t organic.
As a result, your parrot could be at risk of pesticide poisoning, which causes:
- Abdominal pain
- Labored breathing
- Dilated pupils
- Loss of appetite
- Head tilt
- Incoordination and unsteadiness
In severe cases, when parrots have been exposed to pesticides for prolonged periods, pesticide poisoning can be fatal. The chances are increased if you regularly buy food from farms that use chemicals.
Clay licks help reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning by binding to the toxins and preventing them from being digested. They get excreted out before they can cause health issues.
Every time you feed your parrot fruit and vegetables, provide it with a clay lick to minimize the risk of poisoning. Similarly, if you haven’t already, switch to organic brands.
What Is The Best Clay For Parrots?
The safest clay for captive birds is bentonite clay for parrots. It’s a clay that’s derived from nature and is highly absorbent. The best-known brand is Clay Cal Bentonite, and it can help to:
- Provide supplemental minerals
- Absorb toxic secondary compounds
- Protect the gastrointestinal tract from chemical irritation
- Increase the digestive system’s pH balance, promoting good health
- Provide higher levels of calcium to the diet
- Protect parrots from harmful bacteria and fungus found in wooden shedding toys and perches
- Provide a healthier alternative to gravel-grit for improved digestion
Most owners provide bentonite clay by sprinkling a teaspoon onto their bird’s favorite fruits, vegetables, and greens. 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.
While this isn’t a substitute for a veterinary examination, it can help with minor cuts and scrapes. It can also help prevent bumblefoot if the foot wound is discovered early enough.
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 that the mud sinks to the bottom, leaving a milky substance known as “clay milk” at the top. Feed this to your bird in a shallow dish and change the water daily.
While studies are still ongoing, it’s clear that clay provides many parrot health benefits. The main one is that it tops up their sodium levels, especially during breeding seasons, when parrots require extra nutrients to raise their young.
It also prevents them from eating harmful toxins that could kill them. It’s unnecessary to provide clay licks for captive birds, but it can help them stay healthier.