Bird Food Makers Focus on Nutrition

Commercial avian diets are becoming more nutritionally sound and well balanced as manufacturers aim to meet the varying needs of pet birds of all species and increasing consumer demand for variety, industry participants reported.

Melanie Allen, avian product specialist with the Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass., noted the company has long emphasized avian nutritional studies through its Hagen Avicultural Research Institute (HARI). Located in Quebec, Canada, HARI was established in 1985 under the direction of psittacine aviculturist Mark Hagen to promote the welfare of companion birds. The organization’s research has been behind the development of Hagen Group’s Tropican brand foods and other bird products.

"We know from research that our companion birds’ nutritional requirements are dependent on age and lifestyle more so than a species," she said. "Our Tropican formulas were developed by HARI to meet the life stage and lifestyle of companion or pet birds. Pet birds have nutritional needs that are based on what age they are and, most importantly, what type of lifestyle a particular bird [follows]."

Because HARI recognizes that pet birds each have varying nutritional requirement, its Tropican formulations are identified with colors—orange for hand-feeding for most species; blue as a maintenance diet for most adult birds; red as a high-performance formulation for juvenile birds, those breeding or those in need of a higher value of food; tan for no-soy, no-corn alternatives such as quinoa and pea protein; and green, which utilizes real egg ingredient to meet the protein needs of smaller birds such as budgies, finches and canaries.

Another brand that strives to meet birds’ wide-ranging needs is Vitakraft Sun Seed. The Bowling Green, Ohio-based company manufactures an array of diets, from simple mixes to premium, all-natural formulations, and nearly all of its formulations contain added vitamins and minerals, pellets, fruits and vegetables, along with a variety of seeds and grains, said Tim Norsen, national sales manager for distribution.

Vitakraft takes a species-oriented approach to bird nutrition.

"Considering all the variation in size, physiology and behavior of each bird, having specific mixes is in the best interest of the animal," he said. "Most of our diets are species specific. We feel this is highly important as the nutritional requirements of caged birds varies dramatically by species."

Emily Freeman, associate brand manager for the pet bird category for Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet, maker of Kaytee Fiesta Foods, said bird owners are always looking to offer their pets a range of different foods for well-balanced nutrition.

"Kaytee Fiesta Foods are a nutritionally fortified gourmet diet made of a premium blend of fruits, vegetables, seeds and grains offering maximum variety, fun and nutrition for pet birds," she said. "Fiesta contains prebiotics and probiotics to support digestive health and is formulated with a bird species in mind."

Additionally, the formula for Kaytee Exact food, a premium extruded food, has omega-3 fatty acids to support brain and heart health, as well as enhance skin and feather health for vibrant, healthy plumage, she said.

Consumer Education

A Guiding Hand

Because many bird owners need guidance about how and what to feed their avian charges, pet specialty retailers should be prepared to educate them, industry insiders said.

Knowing how much food to give a pet bird, for example, is paramount, said Emily Freeman, associate brand manager for the pet bird category for Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet, maker of the Kaytee brand.

"Many times, too much food is given to a bird," she said. "Instead of eating it all, the leftover food becomes something to play with in the bird’s cage. This creates excess mess and waste that the pet parent then needs to deal with."

Another mistake pet owners sometimes make, according to Tim Norsen, national sales manager for distribution at Vitakraft Sun Seed in Bowling Green, Ohio, is not giving their pets the diversity of foods that is necessary for health and mental stimulation.

"We encourage bird owners to do their homework and provide the animal with the correct mix of a commercial diet, fresh foods—including grains, proteins, fruits and vegetables—and table foods when appropriate," he said. "This is a great way to build the human-animal bond while providing the bird with enjoyment and variety in their daily routine."

Clayton Burton, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash., said he recommends pellets over seed as they offer a more balanced nutrition for birds, but bird owners who want to make the switch from seeds to pellets might need to be patient.

"It could be tricky making the change, but I suggest putting a separate dish with pellets in their cage," he said. "Some birds are really stubborn, but, eventually, they will make the switch."

Mark Roth, general manager of Bird Fever in Indianapolis, said customers often have questions about bird nutrition, and he’s always happy to explain to them why certain foods are better for their pets than others.

"Many times, people have no idea what to feed their birds and just grab the first thing they see on the shelf, but more and more are starting to care about exactly what they are feeding them," he said. "By educating your customer, you not only teach them about bird health, but you develop a trust with them that can lead to advice—and sales—on other bird-related items."

Bird owners can also fall victim to common misperceptions about bird nutrition, said Gail Shepard, director of marketing for ZuPreem, based in Shawnee, Kan.

"A lot of people feel that companion birds need the same food that birds in the wild eat, and that’s a huge misunderstanding because those in the wild fly 40 miles away and have to fend off predators, and those in cages aren’t doing any of that," she said.

Of course, in order to provide the best customer care and support in the category, retail staff members need to be well-informed on avian nutrition and the products sold on the store’s shelves.

Shepard suggests bringing in a local veterinarian to do a clinic for bird owners to help drive traffic to the store and educate bird owners on what they really need to feed their pets.

Manufacturers themselves also can play an important role in educating retailer sales representatives. Vitakraft Sun Seed makes available to retailers a team of salespeople who are trained on all of its products and the latest in bird nutrition.

"We are happy to help train staff on how to sell not only our diets, treats and supplements, but also how to sell for the category in general," Norsen said, adding that retailers are encouraged to offer food samples and frequent-buyer programs to drive sales and inspire customer loyalty.

Melanie Allen, avian product specialist with the Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass., said a team from the company’s research and product development arm—the Hagen Avicultural Research Institute (HARI) in Quebec, Canada—spends time with retailers and breeders, as the most important thing a retailer can do is stay abreast of current trends in the care of birds.

"We advocate in sharing education and information, plus we network with many avian specialists throughout the world," she said. "We know that when a retailer succeeds with professional avian care guides, we all do."

Tiffany Latino, owner of the Bird Shop in Roseville, Calif., said nutrition is very important to just about all of her customers, so she makes sure to highlight the best foods available.

"We are a specialty store that just deals with birds, so those that come in are more in tune with taking better care of their birds," she said. "Some of the things they look for are higher-quality mixes, chopped fresh foods and sprouting."

She’s also starting to see more interest in organic foods for birds and has been selling more foraging toys as people enjoy hiding the food and making their birds work to find it.