Should You Give Citrus to Your Birds?

close-up of African grey parrot being hand fed a strawberry
 
You know what a motorcycle rider and a bird in the wild have in common? They both rely on a 360 degree view of their environment for survival. 

First, full transparency. It’s important to understand where we get the information we pass on to you from “Command Central” at Windy City Parrot which today is from any of our PCs, tablets or smart phones we interact with daily, tens of thousands of bird owners as well as vets, manufacturers, and rescues, monthly (for the past 20 years) between our website, Facebook, Pinterest, email and other social media platforms. We listen, we read, we chat and we draw our conclusions. Should you take what we say as gospel? Not necessarily, but it’s not in our best interest to provide bad bird care information.

 
As little as 20 years ago zookeepers thought red and green Eclectus were two different parrot species and would try to breed a green with the green or red with a red. Just yesterday in the Facebook post titled Eclectus are sexually dimorphic – you can tell the sex by the color – males are green a Facebook fan related how she walked out of her vet’s office in disgust after the vet felt they needed to perform a DNA sexing test on her four-month-old female Eclectus – Duh. 
 
That said, let’s get to the heart of the matter. According to the FDA, fruits like tangerines, oranges, grapefruits, tomatoes and such, are ‘acidic”. We define acidic using something called a pH factor. Pure water as well as most human beings have a pH very close to seven which is neutral Anything less than seven is considered acidic, a Florida orange has a pH of four. Humans have a buffering system called acid based homeostasis which compensates for acidic foods immediately in the mouth which we need so the food doesn’t simply burn our esophagus on the way down.
 
diagram of. Digestive system
We’re not advocating a total elimination of citrus in a birds diet but with a simple understanding that a birds digestive system does not work like a human’s you begin to realize how citrus “may” be harmful. Birds have no teeth so the food is not masticated (chewed) and where digestion literally begins, in the mouth of humans, food, in parrots travels first into something called the “crop” (directly from the mouth) where food is stored, for hours and then softened for a while before it enters the two part stomach. 
 
When food enters the first part of the birds stomach, hydrochloric acid, mucus and a digestive enzyme called pepsin are secreted where chemical digestion begins. Food is then passed into the secondary stomach or gizzard where the food is crushed and ground mechanically before it’s passed on to the small intestine which is the primary site of digestion via chemicals and where nutrients are absorbed. 
 
If you’ve followed the flow of food from the last two paragraphs please note that the first stop of the food is in the crop where the food sits – undigested – for hours. Birds don’t have an acid based homeostasis buffering system like humans, so with a few large chunks of a Florida orange sitting in their crop, isn’t it possible your bird may develop what we humans call heartburn? With acid in their crop and no way of for them to communicate the pain or irritation (or ask for a Tums) They may just begin pecking at the chest area where they feel the pain is coming from. We actually first heard of this from veterinarians recommending the removal of citrus from the diet of self mutilating parrots.
 
Further, while the undigested acidic food is sitting in the crop, it is lowering the pH of the rest of the food in the crop before passing through the rest of the digestive system thus introducing a batch of acidic food for the stomach to deal with. So for those of you who say “citrus may be harmful to your bird” is coming as a surprise, I’ll just let you draw your own conclusions.
 
But wait there’s more. Some experienced bird owners might ask at this point “How is my bird able to eat hot chili peppers that many bird owners call “bird peppers?” How can a 250g bird eat enough these peppers to blow my head apart without showing any signs of discomfort?
 
Human taste buds can only taste sweet, salt, bitter, sour and as only recently discovered, MSG. Capsaicin is tasteless and odorless and what we feel when we “taste” the hot is really “pain.” Birds on the other hand have total insensitivity to Capsaicin which is the biggest difference between taste receptors in birds and humans.
 
One of the reasons that mother nature puts capsaicin into chili peppers is to make sure that birds spread the seeds throughout the world. Once birds in the wild eat the fruits of wild peppers the undigested seeds pass out through poop and based upon how far away the bird flies the seeds are able to develop with less competition. Science has actually discovered that the seeds of wild peppers are spread throughout nature almost exclusively by birds.
 
On the flipside to all of this, one might think that the capsaicin could build up and be retained in the compound of their flesh and feathers to help guard themselves against predators. Although this is pretty common in insects, but not common in birds. When farmers experimented with putting the capsaicin compound in chickens they found it to be not detectable by human beings. Which means you’ll still have to put hot sauce on your tacos from a bottle for the foreseeable future.
 
Mitch Rezman
Windy City Parrot

Mitch Rezman

He's handled a 1000 birds of numerous species when they visited monthly birdie brunches in the old Portage Park (Chicago, IL) facility. The one with the parrot playground. Mitch has written and published more than 1100 articles on captive bird care. He's met with the majority of  CEO's and business owners for most brands in the pet bird space and does so on a regular basis. He also constantly interacts with avian veterinarians and influencers globally.

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