Avian Expert Articles

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Dealing with Picky Eaters

African grey
Fig. 1: Athena enjoying chard

I’ve written a bit before about our Grey’s diets, and the ways in which we try to introduce new foods. What I haven’t really discussed is just how picky at least my birds can be when it comes to food choices! I’m sure that this behavior derives from eating patterns in the wild—the need to make sure that they do not ingest something that is the least bit spoiled and could cause illness, for example. However, I think we tend to lose sight of that evolutionary rationale when we must deal with that level of fussiness during food preparation time—then the outcomes are sometimes frustrating but can also be extremely amusing.

Parrots’ Opinions on “Fresh” Produce

African grey parrots
Fig. 2: Griffin thinking about joining Athena in eating chard

I’ve mentioned before that Athena loves fresh, organic chard. I’m not sure how much she eats, but she bites off many pieces, plays with the leaves and stems, and obviously clearly enjoys having it around (see Figure 1; in Figure 2, Griffin is intrigued by her behavior and is thinking about trying some). Thus, I was really excited to see organic chard when my local farmers’ market opened one recent Sunday, and I promptly purchased a bunch. After taking it home, I carefully cut off the ends, put it in a jar of freshwater, and put the whole thing in my refrigerator, because I would not be in lab until Wednesday.


African grey
Fig. 3: Athena ignoring “old” chard

Each intervening morning, I repeated the process of trimming the ends and changing the water, and to my eye, the chard looked great. Imagine my dismay when Athena took one glance at it, gave it a single desultory bite, and then completely ignored it (Figure 3). After a moment or two, she actually tossed it from her cage. I guess what looked “fresh” to me definitely didn’t make the grade for her.

Griffin also has some idiosyncrasies. For example, he adores Earth’s Best© baby foods, particularly the one made with lentils…but only if it is at least room-temperature or slightly heated. Giving it to him right out of the refrigerator ensures that he’ll turn up his beak every time. Giving it to him warm means he’ll “glug” it as though he were a chick slurping down baby formula. Go figure….

We also have to buy two different types of crackers as treats, one for each bird. Griffin likes the Norwegian-style ones that are almost all seeds and grains, whereas Athena likes ones in which flax seeds are baked into the dough. And, as I’ve been told that onion is toxic to parrots, we have to make sure to avoid any crackers with that ingredient as well.

Accommodating Individual Meal Preferences

One of my favorite Griffin stories actually involves his food choices. He prefers most fruits compared to most vegetables, so he tends to eat his breakfast in the following order: grapes, banana, apple (known to him as  “banerry”), then whatever veggies are at the bottom. Interestingly, that is also the order in terms of ease of food preparation, and one brand-new student made the mistake of working in that order and thus filling his bowl in that order—that is, with the grapes well below things like broccoli. I happened to walk into lab just a few moments after she had presented him with his meal; his response was to toss everything out and onto the floor in search of those precious grapes. Her response, “Griffin! How dare you waste all that food! Think of all the starving parrots in Africa!”, left me speechless with laughter, having grown up with parents who had basically said the same thing to me when I was a young, vegetable-aversive child.

Alex also had a few preferences. Bananas had to be just the “correct” level of ripeness, and he definitely had a preference when it came to the type of grape he was given. One time the grocery store was completely sold out of anything but some green grapes, so we bought those, thinking “a grape is a grape.”’ Right? Well, he kept asking for “grape,” and then tossing the offending fruit back at us. Finally, after a few tries, he said at the top of his lungs, “Wanna grape…URP-UL!”, which was his way of saying “purple.” Duh…

Now, we humans have our own likes and dislikes, and we do not think such behavior is odd or even funny. I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised when our feathered friends act in similar ways!

7 thoughts on “Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Dealing with Picky Eaters

  1. My African grey is so picky she don’t like fruits and vegetables. So I give her nutri berries I wish there was a home made way to give her a nutritional meal.
    And I would like to know if there is a easy way to trim the nails. I do them and she don’t like it and I’m always afraid of cutting the quick

  2. I totally agree with you, Dr. Pepperberg. My CAGP presents many of the same behaviors. However, she has to have each different type of food served in a separate dish, and the one she likes best must be served first. I get no ‘Thank You’, either, for being her
    waitress, but I always receive a ‘I love you, Eleanor or Mom’ before the day ends.

  3. My grey is fussy too. He only likes green grapes and red cherries. No red grapes or golden cherries for him. He has begun eating broccoli after years of trying. He likes carrots, but the orange and purple baby carrots only. The interesting part is that in the ZuPreem mix, the orange balls are the ones he leaves behind! Go figure.

  4. I so love to read stories about Alex. He had such amazing comprehension and self-awareness, and to see that he even had color preferences in regards to grapes makes me smile.

  5. I too have a picky grey when it comes to eating. Just about drives me to the drink if
    I can say. I feed him him the bean inside cooked snap beans between my fingers one by one. It is what he likes. Of course, the same is true of grapes and the ripeness of
    bananas. The list of his finicky eating habits are too numerous to mention here.

  6. have a response for Kathy – try filing your grey’s nails after they have been properly trimmed. I just use an emery board and play a game. My green cheek will also “chew’ on the emery board which keeps his scissor beak in check.

  7. After 25 years with my CAG, we still do the dance of what foods we are interested in and which we literally lean away from when offered. Currently there is no fruit that is acceptable. The closure of our grocery store salad bars during the pandemic required a lot of investigating which brand garbanzo beans were acceptable.. But we must have three bean salad. And only cooked carrots.. And he will whimper like an injured animal until his pellet food bowl is added to, no matter how much other food is present.

    And when I share my food, it has to be observed being transferred from my plate to his bowl, none of this putting it in the bowl in the kitchen. But the ultra sweet part is that he waits to start eating until I start eating. If that’s not love, then what is?

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