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why do parrots eat clay?

Significance of Parrots Ingesting Clay (5 Theories)

Last Updated on February 13, 2024 by Carrie Stephens

Parrots, like macaws and Amazons, are frequently observed licking clay from the cliffs and riverbanks of the Amazon rainforest. This is called geophagy (earth-eating.)

Geophagy isn’t well understood by scientists, but there are some plausible hypotheses.

Parrots may eat clay for detoxification and gastrointestinal cytoprotection. The clay is thought to neutralize toxic substances in foods, enabling parrots to enjoy a diverse, nutritious diet.

Parrots may ingest clay to benefit from sodium. Although this is washed away during heavy rainfalls, sodium remains abundant in the sun-hardened clay on cliff faces.

Clay-licking activity increases during the breeding season. At this time, electrolytes like sodium are in high demand so that parrots can produce and lay healthy eggs.

Why Parrots Eat Clay

Research suggests there are five possible reasons for this behavior:

Dietary Toxin Protection

Some experts posit that parrots ingest clay to protect themselves against the adverse effects of dietary toxins. Parrots may consume toxic plant matter, especially when food availability is low.

Clay licks allow parrots to eat nutritionally rich, toxic foods like seeds and unripened fruits because clay binds to alkaloid toxins before they’re digested, reducing the effects of quinidine.

As PubChem explains, quinidine is a deadly alkaloid extracted from the bark of trees. 

Also, 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%.

Dietary Acidity

Another reason posited is the diet of wild parrots has a high pH level. Excessive acidity is harmful to the body, notably the liver. Parrots may eat clay to neutralize the effects and protect their well-being.

When sick, clay can settle parrots’ stomachs. Some clays contain kaolin, a soft, white clay that relieves diarrhea. Kaolin isn’t absorbed into the bloodstream. It absorbs toxins, making feces less watery.

best clay for parrots

Sodium Supplementation

Geophagy may occur due to a lack of sodium in the food, water, and air.

Some sodium is essential for:

  • Nerve function.
  • Muscle contractions.
  • Bodily fluid regulation.

Sodium is washed from the ecosystem in tropical rainforests, especially during the rainy season. However, it’s stored in hardened clay, which parrots lick to increase their sodium intake.

Clay licks in the western Amazon basin have sodium levels 40 times higher than the foods parrots eat.

The intake of sodium is essential for balancing out the effects of abundant plant-based potassium. Excessive dietary potassium reduces sodium absorption and increases sodium excretion.

Reproductive Health

The International Journal of Avian Science (IBIS) found that ingesting clay provides supplemental minerals and electrolytes for eggs, leading to healthier hatchlings more likely to reach adulthood.

NPR explains how clay eating peaked during the breeding season, especially when parrots start feeding their young. Females need more trace minerals to produce healthy eggs with robust eggshells.

Grit for Grinding Food

Parrots don’t grind their food down like mammals because they have no teeth.

Instead, they have a two-chambered stomach comprising the proventriculus and the gizzard. Food moves between them and is broken down by acid, mucus, and other digestive enzymes.

When food reaches the gizzard, it’s ground into smaller pieces by the stomach’s thick wall and muscles.

Some bird species eat sand, grit, small pebbles, and stones to pulverize food and allow it to pass cleanly through the digestive system. However, parrots don’t use grit in this way.

Some parrots consume clay to optimize their digestive processes. Fine clay is more refined than grit, so it works efficiently and sits comfortably in the stomach.

Why Parrots Can Eat Clay

Clay is safe for parrots, which is why so many species practice geophagy in the wild. It increases mineral levels and may ward against toxins. However, sodium overload can lead to:

  • Fluid and electrolyte imbalances.
  • Excessive thirst.
  • Dehydration.
  • Kidney failure.
  • Death.

Captive parrots don’t need clay when provided with a diverse and nutritious diet.

Clay Licks

Clay licks are enormous walls of red clay that have appeared due to erosion along riverbanks. Many parrot species gather there to lick and ingest clay.

You’re most likely to see macaws, Amazon parrots, and parakeets at clay licks because 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 tried to preserve their clay licks to enable parrots to act instinctively. Consequently, these areas are protected as nature reserves.

Clay Blocks

Pet parrots eat the same plant-based diet as wild birds, so providing a clay block could be healthy.

Clay blocks may be beneficial in the following ways:

Calcium

Some parrots are deficient in calcium (hypocalcemia). Parrots can’t eat dairy products because they lack the enzyme (lactase) responsible for breaking down lactose.

Calcium deficiencies lead to the following problems:

  • Decalcification of the bones.
  • Heart disorders.
  • Muscular pain and contractions.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Feather plucking.
  • Lack of coordination.
  • Rickets.

Female parrots need more calcium to produce healthy eggs and hatchlings in the breeding season.

why do parrots eat clay?

Pesticide Protection

Clay licks reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning by binding to toxins, preventing them from being digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. Then, they’re removed from the body.

Suitable Clay for Parrots

Bentonite is the safest clay for captive parrots because it’s natural and highly absorbent. The best-known variety 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.
  • Protection against bacteria and fungi.

Most owners sprinkle Bentonite clay over parrots’ food. It works well on moist foods because water absorbs the clay, maximizing the likelihood of consumption.

When parrots have cuts and scrapes, you can apply Bentonite clay to their wounds to draw out toxins, as this reduces the likelihood of bacterial infection.

You can turn Bentonite clay into a detoxifying drink. Mix a teaspoon of clay with 125 ml of water using a non-metallic spoon. Allow the mixture to settle overnight, leaving clay milk at the top.

Give this to a parrot in a shallow dish and change the water daily for freshness.

The most widely accepted and plausible scientific explanation for parrots licking clay on cliff faces is to increase their sodium intake, especially during the breeding season.