Eat Like a Bird

I’m sure you’ve heard, and maybe even used, the expression “eat like a bird,” in reference to someone who is a light eater. I’m not sure the etymology of this mistaken impression of avian appetites – but eating like a bird is anything but light-eating – our birds eat A LOT! Not only do they eat a lot, many of them eat highly specialized diets that are quite complex.  


Screen_Shot_2019-11-26_at_2.05.24_PM.pngCarnivore, herbivore, and omnivore are the three diet types we are all most familiar with, and while it would be easier to classify all flesh, fish, and insect eaters as carnivores and all plant, seed, and fruit eaters as herbivores, this doesn’t begin to cover the nutritional needs of each species. When it comes to the diets of our birds, we get more specific than that, considering exactly what types of meat or plant-matter their primary nutrients are derived from, such as frugivore (fruits/berries), florivore (seeds/nuts/fruit), granivore (grains/seeds), piscivore (from fish), insectivore (insects), nectivore (nectar)… and more.

The health and welfare of our birds is of highest priority. High-quality, nutritionally-complete diets are paramount to health and welfare in all species – from the functioning of their internal organs to the healthy condition of their feathers. We take nutrition of our birds very seriously and it all begins by understanding the natural diet of the species so we can closely replicate. To ensure we are providing nutritionally complete diets for some of our specialized eaters – we have avian-nutritionist formulated pellet diets, much like you might buy dog kibble or cat kibble for your pets at home. And while you wouldn’t think of feeding cat kibble to your dog, the same is true of our birds. Everyone does not eat the same thing. We have specially formulated pellets for bird groups such as cranes, flamingos, ratites, waterfowl, parrots, softbills, and more – each one uniquely different and specialized for the group it is created for. 



In addition, our birds need fresh food as well. For our meat-eating birds this means a variety of whole prey. You might be surprised to know there are food companies from which we buy frozen packaged whole prey items much like you would by frozen chicken breasts or steaks from the grocery store. Our raptors, vultures, and other meat-eating birds get a variety of meat types, including rabbits, quail, rats, mice, chicks, fish, and organ meat, such as liver and heart. Our fruit-eating birds get a wide variety of fresh produce, human-grade and pristine berries, fruits, and vegetables as well as nuts and seeds.    


Andy_eating_salmon.jpgSome of our birds are quite particular in their eating habits, and everyone has their favorite foods. Irvana, our turkey vulture, loves quail – but not just any part of the quail, she likes the breast meat, filleted off the bone; she also loves the roe out of the capelin fish we feed. I often joke she’s probably the only vulture alive who dines on quail filets and capelin caviar! Zazu, our wrinkled hornbill, almost exclusively only eats dark red and purple colored fruits. We used to think he was just a bit of a bird show diva, until we read a study indicating wild wrinkled hornbills share the same preference, and that those dark red and purple fruits are high in antioxidants. Pretty cool that humans have only relatively recently learned the health benefits of diets rich in antioxidants – but the hornbills have known it all along. And I could tell a story like that about each and every one of our birds, they all have their preferences, just as you and I do. Milford, our kea, loves pine nuts and bananas more than anything; Andy, our Andean condor, loves his liver and beef heart; Rafiki, our northern ground hornbill, goes cuckoo for crickets; Curie, our American crow, is wild about scrambled eggs; and Zelda, our wreathed hornbill, gets excited about tangerines, to mention a few. Learning our birds’ preferences and making sure they get the things they love, within their healthy balanced diets, is as important to us as it is to them.


16342468951_48f6c8b63e_o_1.jpgAnd it’s not just what we feed that is important, how we offer it is important as well. We spend a lot of time considering how to present food as naturally and interestingly as possible for our birds. Again, we go back to their natural history to consider not just what they eat, but how they find and eat it as well. Is this a species that eats almost continuously throughout the day, or is it a species that gorge feeds once-a-day? Would the species typically feed in the trees, or on the ground, or in the water, or all of the above? Is it a species that forages? Or hunts? Taking all of this, and more, into account, we challenge ourselves to present each bird’s daily diet in a way that stimulates its natural behaviors and helps to meet its physical and mental needs. Raptors get whole prey at times for beak maintenance. Birds that naturally spend a lot of time foraging in the wild have their food hidden and spread out in ways that promote foraging throughout the day. We get creative with enrichment opportunities utilizing food so raptors and vultures have opportunities to grab and rip and tear; corvids and parrots have opportunities to use their problem-solving skills. Whether our birds are flying, or digging, or swimming, or chasing, or climbing, or ripping into, or foraging – they are using their physical and mental adaptations as they would in the wild – it’s rare to see any of our birds offered a boring old bowl of food.

All of this, from the formulation to the preparation to the presentation, is going on every day at Tracy Aviary! I’ll bet you never realized “eating like a bird” could be quite so involved!

This Tuesday, December 3rd is #GivingZOOday! The Aviary, along with #givingtuesday, will be raising money to feed our 400+ birds (thats A LOT of food!). When you donate $14, you can feed one of our spectacular birds for one whole month. You can also extend your gift by inviting 5 friends to donate (which would feed a bird for 6 months), or by pledging to donate $14 a month for the next year, feeding a bird all year long. Starting at 6am on Tuesday, Facebook will match your donations up to $7 billion! This means your $14 will magically molt into $28. Make sure you donate early to double the food for our feathered friends!

If you'd like to donate now, click HERE!



-Helen Dishaw, Curator of Bird Programs