Softbill Diets


Various Ingredients For Varied Softbill Diets

Because there are so many different types and species of softbills, there is no one softbill diet.  Even when dealing with feeding a certain species, diets vary depending on the aviculturist.  Foodstuffs vary depending on the region also, for example papaya is a inexpensive, popular food item for frugivores in southern USA, but it is not readily available in the north.

A softbill species’ diet needs to be researched carefully so that a healthy diet can be provided since each species can be very specialized in their dietary needs.  A softbiller must enjoy digging for information as published information on diets can be hard to find.  Ideally the specific diet should be researched before obtaining the bird.

Main Softbill Diets

  1. Frugivorous – fruit eaters such as turacos, mousebirds, and toucans
    • Mixed fresh fruits such as papaya, apples, bananas, melon, pears, grapes, etc.
    • Water soaked and dry commercial, low-iron, softbill pellets
  2. Insectivorous – insect eaters such as beeeaters, pittas, and flycatchers
    • Livefood – mealworms, waxworms, crickets, etc.
    • Commercial insectivore pellets or mix
  3. Carnivorous – meat eaters such as crows, rollers, and kingfishers
    • Prey animals such as mice
    • Beefheart, lean ground meat, etc.
    • Commercial diets such as dog and cat chow, Bird-Of-Prey diet, etc.
  4. Nectarivous – nectar eaters such as hummingbirds and honeycreepers
    • Commercial nectar product
    • Soft fruits
    • Commercial insectivore food
  5. Omnivorous – plant and meat/insect eaters such as Tockus hornbills
    • Mixed fresh fruits such as papaya, apples, bananas, melon, pears, grapes, etc.
    • Water soaked and dry commercial, low-iron, softbill pellets
    • Livefood and/or prey animals
  6. Herbivorous – plant eaters
    • Fresh vegetables
    • Commercial avian pelleted diets

Most birds do not fit solely into a category, and there is cross over.  Some species start with one type of diet as chicks and switch to another once fledged.  For instance, tanagers eat higher protein diets when they are chicks and switch to more fruit based diets as they get older.

Commercial diets are an important part in most softbills’ diets.  Mazuri and Kaytee companies make excellent softbill pellets.  Paradise Earth has an excellent softbill mix and freeze-dried insects.

Iron Storage Disease (ISD)

No discussion of softbill birds’ diet is complete without a mention of Iron Storage Disease, and how it directly relates to diet. Some softbills, such as toucans and starlings, are prone to a devastating dietary condition called Iron Storage Disease or hemachromatosis in which, simply put, the body stores too much iron in the liver, and the bird dies. Death can occur with no previous symptoms.


Toco Toucan

There is no inexpensive, reliable, proven treatment, and no easy way to test for Iron Storage problems. Research is being done as to why this happens, how to prevent it, and how to treat it, but there is nothing definitive yet. Current thoughts are that the level of iron in the naturally available food stuffs of certain birds is so low that the body pulls as much available iron from the food as possible and stores it in the liver, which in captivity, where diets are higher in iron, this leads to an overload of stored iron and, consequently, liver failure. Iron from animal sources seems to be more of a problem than iron from plant sources. Most veterinarians recommend less than 100ppm (parts per million) of iron in the diet of susceptible birds.  Mazuri makes a low iron softbill pellet.

Interestingly enough, it has been suggested that there may be a correlation between Yersiniosis and ISD susceptibility as well as copper and iron metabolism.

A cautious approach regarding ISD is recommended until more is known about how it affects all softbills. A large majority of private and zoological institutions plan their softbills’ diets carefully with concerns about Iron Storage Disease. Sparingly feed citric fruits, such as orange and kiwi, as citric acid may facilitate the absorption of iron, and choose a pelleted food that is low in iron, with the available iron plant-based.

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Copyright 07/09  Kateri Davis