A common question I am asked by parrot owners is how I get my parrots to eat new foods. I'm not going to lie, my parrots don't have the best diet out there, but they do get a fair mix of pellets and fresh foods. It used to be much harder to get them to try new foods so I can understand the frustration parrot owners feel when their parrot refuses to try anything.
There are three main factors affecting if the parrot will eat a new food:
1) Hunger 2) Taste of the food 3) Motivation/interest
We can control all three of these variables and the likelihood of success is best when all are managed. While it is true that if you starve the parrot long enough, it will eat practically anything, there are many reasons we do not want to do this. Instead, we just want to focus on offering new foods when the parrot is hungriest. This generally tends to be in the morning and evening prior to meals. Similar to the food management practices I recommend for training, withholding food for a few hours prior to offering new foods increases the chances of the parrot eating them. As they say, everything tastes better when you are hungry. Which brings us to taste.
There will be foods that the parrot will not eat no matter what. It just doesn't like them and you have to accept that. However, there are other foods that it may desire a preference for that it is just being too stubborn to try. These are the foods we can try to get them to eat through hunger and motivation. If you know that there is a particular food that your parrot never likes, your chances of getting it to eat something similar are slim. For example, Kili doesn't like mushy foods no matter how sweet they are. She hates blueberries, raspberries, watermelon, etc. You would think most parrots should like these but she just doesn't. For this reason when I want her to try a new food I try to make sure its more similar to other foods she likes. She likes hard/crunchy foods so I knew that I had a better chance of getting her to eat pineapple on camera than some new kind of berry.
This brings us to motivation. This is where most people go wrong when introducing foods and then are disappointed the parrot won't eat them. Think about children refusing to eat what their parents try to force them to eat and then being insatiable when it is something their friends are consuming. Whenever I am eating something, the parrots are always flying over to check it out and watch anxiously. On the other hand if I just slop something in their cage bowls, they couldn't care less. In fact, if I put an unfamiliar food in their food bowls, the most likely thing is that they chuck it out piece by piece. Forcing the parrot by stuffing the food in its beak is pretty much the worst thing you can do because then it will not trust that foods you offer are enjoyable. No. The way to motivate parrots to eat new foods is to make as much excitement and anticipation about the new food as possible.
I truly appreciate the power of modeling new foods when I got Kili and Truman to try Mango for the first time. The two parrots were spending outdoor time in the aviary when I had some mango slices to offer them. They were becoming accustomed to a midday fruit snack time so they waited eagerly to get their day's share. I had a lot of Mango so I wanted to eat off some of the pieces before giving the birds some. The two parrots watched eagerly as I ate it. Truman was just boiling with jealousy that he wasn't getting any. In fact he flew over to me in hopes of getting some. I stood there relishing the mango until it was nearly finished. I broke the remaining pieces into smaller bits and offered them to the parrots one at a time. However, I did not just give them mango outright but made them do tricks for it. This wasn't just an ordinary "here you go" kind of food, this was a super treat that they had to earn. They didn't know what it was but if they had to go through so much to get it, they knew it must be good. They eagerly performed their tricks and loved the mango off the first taste. During previous occasions when I offered equally tasty food to them in their cages, it would get tossed out uneaten. This is why turning the new food into a treat rather than a chore is so important.
This is just another reason why trick training is so important to parrot ownership. The parrot learns that the food it receives for performing a trick is always a good thing so when you offer the new food in reward for a trick, the parrot is more likely to try it. However, this only gets the parrot to put the food in its beak. How much it enjoys the food and is likely to eat it again depends on the taste and how excited it is about the food. Even if the taste isn't the best, if the entire experience is highly pleasant, a positive association will still be established. It can develop an acquired taste for the food in response to the positive stimuli coexistent with the food. This is why those first experiences are so critical.
The first piece offered should be quite small. A large piece is more likely to be dropped and less likely to be tasted and swallowed. Start with very small pieces so that the parrot has a better chance of feeling the taste. Then if you see it eating the small pieces can you go onto bigger ones. You see the parrot isn't likely to hold the food with its foot unless it likes it. And it doesn't know that it likes it until it has tried a few pieces. Once you see the parrot use its foot to hold or at least support the food, you will know that it approves of it. If you see eyes pinning or other signs of excitement, then you'll know the parrot absolutely loves the food.
Once you have developed this first level of food acceptance, it is your choice whether to continue offering it only as treats or as cage food. If the food is healthy in large quantities, then it is alright to offer it in the cage. However, if the food can be considered empty calories or junk food, then save it strictly as a treat.
Just remember that even though a food might seem really tasty to you (and even other people's parrots), it doesn't mean that your parrot will eat it. Most of the time the experience around eating the food plays a large role in it but sometimes your parrot will not eat it no matter what. Do your best to get your parrot to try stuff but if it just isn't working you have to accept that. Just because a parrot won't try something this time or even a bunch more times doesn't mean that it will never eat that food. I had tried to feed banana and grapes to Kili many many times and she always refused. Then I skipped offering it to her to avoid wasting time. Then at some point I tried again and they became some of her favorite fruits. So even though you may fail with a particular food in the short term, it still pays to try every once in a while in case your parrot changes its mind.
In the video, you will see me offering pineapple to Kili and Truman for the first time. They had never seen or eaten it before. I picked pineapple because it is less mushy than other things I could think of that they hadn't tried. At first I just ate the pineapple in front of them to build up the anticipation. I peaked their interest by not giving it to them even when they made it clear that they wanted it. Finally I gave in but only gave it to them in response to tricks. Truman liked it off the bat but Kili was being picky. She was dropping the pieces at first. But after watching Truman enjoy it a lot, she began to chew/swallow as well. I did this new food introduction during training time but just before starting any training so the birds were at their hungriest. So without further ado, here are Kili & Truman eating pineapple for the first time.
I was not too concerned about getting Truman to eat fresh foods when I got him. His weight was low as it is and I put all of my effort toward first getting him to eat his colored pellets and then eventually to switch him to his long term pellet diet. The few times I tried to offer him fresh foods he wouldn't even taste them so for a few weeks I didn't even bother. However, the time has come that he start eating other things so I just put him on a stand next to Kili and started feeding her vegetables.
Kili zealously ate her cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots which strongly encourage Truman to try as well. I could tell just by looking at him that he wanted a bite because as soon as I would give something to Kili he would start learning in and looking anxious. Sure enough, this time whatever I gave Kili he happily ate as well. These are the same things he wouldn't even try when I tried to give them to him previously.
Finally I put Truman in his cage and gave him a cup of these veggies. He ate them well and then had some of his pellets as well. He's been doing great and this parrot to parrot modeling thing works great. I definitely suggest anyone who is getting a second parrot to let it learn off the first one. If you just have one, you can try to get it to learn from you. If you start eating a certain new food, quite likely the parrot will want to try it as well.