The Art of Bird Food

Ever wondered what it takes to feed our birds? We asked our Curator of Exhibit Collections, Kate to give us the behind-the-scenes scoop! 


The importance of bird food: how fish, rats, and papaya keep Tracy Aviary birds chirping

When speaking with our guests, they are often surprised and fascinated to learn that many birds eat other birds and other kinds of meat in addition to the standard seeds, fruit and nuts that we use to fill our wild-bird feeders or even provide for our beloved pets at home.  Even more surprising is the fact that some birds vary in being frugivorous(fruit-eaters) to carnivorous(meat-eaters), depending on the season. With over 400 individual birds representing over 135 species, bird care staff at Tracy Aviary have their hands full in ensuring all of the feathered (and non-feathered) friends receive the best welfare we can provide. Part of this is accomplished through the food the birds eat.  (In case you are wondering, we will address the “non- feathered” part of this importance later on!)


Wouldn’t it be Great if Whole Foods Carried “Toucan Diets” in their Freezer Section?

We can use a very broad paint brush in looking at avian nutrition that stems back to our grade school days where we would classify animal nutritional needs as carnivores, herbivores, or omnivores.  This is a great place to start, but the exciting thing about birds is that they take those categories and really shake them up based on the season, whether or not they are raising chicks, courting a mate, or sadly combating habitat loss and climate change!   For the birds under our care at Tracy Aviary, we go to great lengths to find a balance of nutritionally complete food that also caters to their natural history and (as anyone with young humans at home would know) also finding a way to ensure they eat the nutritionally complete items we provide!   Our species diversity not only includes those strict carnivores like our eagles, or our omnivorous like our blue-crowned motmots, but we are also challenged with birds that are primarily insectivores, birds that only eat fish (if you want to get technical-piscivores), and birds that eat large amounts of insects only as growing chicks. This means we stock a variety food items that we can draw upon when developing a diet for an individual bird. We start with whole food items like rats, mice and trout or commercially produced grains made specifically for an entire group of birds.  Then, based on their nutritional needs, we add supplements, fruit, insects, vegetables, nuts and even eggs. 




The Science Behind Bird Diets

There are diets made specifically for flamingos, parrots, waterfowl, and even emu. These diets are commercially prepared and backed by professional input and scientific testing.  We know they are complete, the birds love eating the diet and the proof is in the pudding-- or in the feathers!  We can literally see the benefits of these diets based on birds’ feather coloration, breeding behaviors and their ability to raise those cute little fluffs every summer. For species with more complicated needs, one single item isn’t enough to provide complete nutrition.  For those species we rely heavily on institutional knowledge (the bird care staff and their vast amounts of experience), the zoo community, our veterinary team and published resources that help guide us in making “recipes” for every bird.   Every bird has a recipe card that we follow and document.  Some cards are pretty simple where other cards are quite advanced. 



Tracy Aviary Bugs Out!

Back to the importance of those “non-feathered” animals; mealworms, crickets, and Madagascar hissing cockroaches are often part of our “recipes” for complicated diets.  Our insectivorous birds like the common shama thrush in our Treasures of the Rainforest exhibit depend heavily on insects, but commercially raised insects aren’t as nutritionally complete as what they would find in their native habitats. These food items are considered “candy” for our birds.  In order to ensure they are a bit more nutritious than a snickers bar, we “gut load” them with nutritionally complete food.  We provide the insects a powdered diet full of protein, calcium and other nutrients that essentially build up the nutritional value of the insect.  Additionally, we provide dark green vegetables and carrots for hydration and additional nutrition for them to snack on throughout the day. Insects also play a very important role in enrichment, training, medicating, and chick rearing.  We use insects as a reward for various behavioral needs, we hide medication in a worm for a less stressful way of medicating a patient and many birds rely on insects when raising chicks.  Our Toucans, for example, must have live crickets available at all times while they are raising chicks.  To put it in simple terms, in one year we feed out over 50,000 individual crickets, 100,000 mealworms, and 2,500 waxworms.



You can visit our insects at South American Pavilion!


Does Diet Preparation Need More Science or Art?

We can’t leave this discussion without thanking our staff and volunteers who learn how to prepare these complicated diets.  Accuracy is essential as we closely observe the intake of different food items. Without our dedicated volunteers, keeper staff and interns, the nutritional needs of our birds would never be met.  These diets rely on precise preparation, whether it is weighing an item to the correct gram amount, soaking a pellet to the exact consistency or cutting a fruit item in a way that encourages appropriate foraging techniques.  These techniques extend further as we look at individuals and their own personalities.  We will often take pellets that we know are nutritionally complete, but maybe not as enticing to our birds. We will mix those pellets with their favorite soft fruits so the pellets will stick to the fruit pieces, ensuring the birds get a bite of healthy food along with their favorite snack (kind of like covering broccoli with cheese for those more picky human eaters).  Mixed species exhibits get more complex where some birds will steal unintended food items from their exhibit mates.  Some species prefer to eat on the ground where others like to eat up high, some birds may be a bit older and need a little help getting to their food pans.  Bird care staff take these individual needs seriously as they prepare diets and distribute out into the exhibits.  There are many factors that go into providing the best nutrition possible for our birds, and it is ever changing as we accommodate their needs at every stage of their lives.  The Art that goes into preparing a diet is just as important as the Science behind it.


Our wonderful Aviculture Intern, Emily preparing diets


The health of our birds is of paramount importance to us. Our resident birds are our most valuable assets here at Tracy Aviary, and are an integral part of our mission to inspire curiosity and caring for birds and nature. Our birds help us educate the public about the fundamental roles all birds play in our ecosystem, and deomstrate why we need to conserve the myriad of avian species and habitats on which they depend. Although #GivingZOODay is over, we are asking our supporters to consider making an end-of-year gift that will keep our birds healthy and well fed all year long. Now - January 15th. 



-Kate Lyngle-Cowand, Curator of Exhibit Collections