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Encouraging a cockatiel to eat pellets

Expert Question

Dear Phoebe, I have tried time and time again to slowly introduce pellets into my pet Cockatiel's diet, but it seems she would rather starve than eat pellets. It always ends the same way, she eats all of her seed and will not eat again until I have poured her more seed. What am I doing wrong?

Expert Answer

Hi and thank you for writing World Parrot Trust about your Cockatiel's diet. It can be super-frustrating to try time and time again with the pellets and still have her refuse to eat them. Food fights can be common with parrots, so the first thing I’m going to recommend is that you take a break from the dietary concerns. Relax, and let go of any preconceived notions you have on how long it should take, how many she should eat, etc. Presumably, she’s healthy, so you can trust her wild wisdom.

Because you write that you've tried many things already, you probably already know that a lot of parrots like to dunk their pellets. So, if she doesn’t already have a bowl of shallow water right beside the bowl of pellets, add one and the problem may be resolved. Lots of our parrots only eat pellets that they've dunked in water. We call this Pellet Soup. Don’t worry about the water getting too dirty: you may need to change it a couple of times a day, but that's doable. You can use a hook-on cup right next to her pellet bowl and put in it just an inch or so of water so she can retrieve the pellets once they are wet to her satisfaction. Another thing that helps is having a separate bowl for pellets, another for seeds, another for veggies and nuts and at least one, usually two, for water, per cage. The smaller water bowl is placed by the food bowls intentionally, for soup-making, with the larger water bowl in another location for big drinks of fresh water or bathing.

Also, be sure you have several varieties of high-quality pellets on hand. Buy small bags of different kinds and sizes. Be sure they are scrupulously fresh, too. To help you keep track, feed only one kind at a time, but over the weeks, definitely mix it up. When you notice that she’s dunking or pulverizing a specific type, keep feeding that type for a while. Once your Cockatiel eats one kind/size of pellet, she’s more likely to try another kind. However, she may also become loyal to one brand, so be ready to change your mind along with hers. Keep watching for and taking her signals. This reminds me that parrots in the wild eat seasonally. No boring hum-drum diets for them, but fresh offerings that coincide with rainfall, sunlight, winds and capricious availability.

The more generally adventuresome your Cockatiel is, the more likely she is to try new things, including foods. Foraging, foraging toys, the acts of foraging – these are essential elements to good eating habits. Therefore, plenty of space is essential not only for foraging, but also for exercise as the more calories she expends, the more foods she’ll eat. A large cage (what’s commonly called "Amazon-Sized") works well for exploratory confident 'tiels and, properly perched, affords her lots of opportunities for an enriched captive life. However, it's not only about the cage.

What I find with my flock of companions is that they do their most adventuresome eating when they are not near their regular food bowls. Away from their cages – that’s where a sense of adventure and an exploratory nature best thrive. (The only thing more boring to eat than a bowl of pellets? Eating those pellets while stuck in a cage.) Can you imagine eating the same dried food every day while in the same location? Blech. So, let her in to the kitchen with you and watch what she samples. In my kitchen, there’s a basket for parrots, a table-top stand with bowls, a large windowsill dedicated to parrots (no nick-knacks) and plenty of counter space where they walk around and spread, toss and sample foods. I'm ostensibly cooking and they are ostensibly helping me. What’s really happening is mulch-making.

This is one of the many things my parrots have taught me – once past babyhood, they no longer view me as the ultimate authority on everything: they like to discover their own preferences. It's my joy and job to provide them with environments in which they discover what they like to do and how they like to eat. If you give your 'tiel the space and materials, she'll show you what she likes.

Sometimes, they eat pellets (or other foods) that they've first wrapped up or poked into fabric or shoelaces. They take the pellet (or nut or celery stalk or whatever) and poke it in to fabric, then eat the bits and crumbs. It's a combination of playing and eating. My little Rosie Cockatoo, Nikki, likes her pellets squished among the strands of a Ring Around the Rainbow made by Star Bird ( which I keep on the kitchen counter especially for this reason. Only yesterday Nikki munched on a huge macaw-sized pellet that she’d stuck into her rainbow strands. Granted, this might be the only pellet she eats for several days – and mostly she pulverized it – but she definitely ate a pellet. You might try cutting 2” x 4” strips of cotton and seeing if your cockatiel likes to make wraps for her foods. Lightly mound a few strips, a piece or two of her favorite nut and a couple of pellets on a flat surface and let her explore. Cockatiels love walking around while they eat and they eat best by picking at foods scattered around in what might seem to us a haphazard manner, but if it makes sense to them, let’s learn from that. She probably loves dropping stuff on the floor, too, which is part of cockatiel eating. Think of it this way – if she drops 50 pellets on the floor, she has 50 chances of tasting one! So, let her play the wrap-it-up/forage/mulch/toss games and see what happens.

By expanding the idea of 'converting her to a pelleted diet' into 'providing her with opportunities to be creative' you’ll enrich both of your lives. Eventually, given the right choices in the right environments, she'll eat a diet that’s smart for her. Messy for you, but smart for her. Good luck and have fun.

All best,
Phoebe Linden and Flock

Phoebe Green Linden
About Phoebe Green Linden

In 1986, Phoebe married the love of her life, Harry Linden, at the place of her avicultural beginning, the Santa Barbara Bird Farm. 20 years of dedicated observations and avid learning have formed her opinions surrounding psittacine neonates, neophytes, fledglings and adults who benefit markedly from thoughtfully arranged environments. She and Harry include boxes, playgyms, cages, aviaries and agreed-upon furniture and counter surfaces for parrot activities. There are no spaces in their home or on their property untouched by parrot dander.

During the years they raised parrots for the pet trade (they no longer do, since 2001) and continuing through today, they have dedicated themselves to developing environments that increase observable natural behaviours such as exercising, interacting, foraging for foods, touching, preening, flapping, flying, showering, mulch-making, wild bird watching, helping with chores, and goofing off—not always seen in captive birds. Their experiences are happily shared with World Parrot Trust members with the objective to foster enrichment for captive psittacines and their caregivers.