You may have heard the important warning that you should never feed potatoes to dogs.
Because potatoes are part of the nightshade family, they contain solanine. Solanine is toxic to some dogs, and it is at its most potent in raw potatoes. When cooked, potatoes become much safer.
But what about birds? Can birds eat potatoes? Are birds susceptible to getting sick from solanine? Are potatoes safe, acceptable food to feed to the birds in your backyard?
Good news: potatoes are considered safe for birds! However, just like with dogs and other animals, it is best to give birds potatoes that have been cooked.
Nutrition Information for Potatoes
There are a variety of types of potatoes, but many of them have similar nutrition facts:
- Plenty of Vitamin C and Vitamin B6
- More potassium than a banana
- Complex carbohydrates that fuel the body
- No fat, cholesterol, or sodium
Some potatoes, like russets, are rich in iron. White and red potatoes have some iron, but not as much as a russet potato.
As winter approaches, birds that stay in cold climates need more calories than they do during other parts of the year. This is also a time when there is less food available in the wild. They also need more fat. Plain potatoes won’t offer them fat, but leftover potatoes cooked into a recipe might!
Birds that migrate need to increase their caloric intake right before migration, too. They need to be strong and healthy to migrate hundreds or even thousands of miles.
Can Birds Eat Raw Potatoes?
Many animals feast on potatoes in nature. This includes rodents (such as voles and field mice), wild boars, raccoons, deer, squirrels, and birds. Worms and insects often eat potatoes, too!
Some of the birds that eat potatoes are thrushes, sparrows, and owls.
People who grow vegetable gardens, including potatoes, often have to deter birds from accessing their crops as they grow. A popular option for keeping birds out of the garden is the use of bird netting.
The behavior of these wild birds shows us that there are definitely birds that can eat raw potatoes without a problem.
However, there are still some problems to be aware of.
1) Raw potatoes contain a naturally occurring enzyme called protease. This enzyme makes it harder for birds to absorb the nutrients in the rest of their food. If a bird eats too much raw potato, it can end up being nutrient deficient.
2) Raw potatoes are also very starchy. Starch is difficult to digest, and it can actually stay in a bird’s crop and/or digestive tract long enough to ferment. Fortunately, when you cook potatoes, most of the starch is cooked off.
If you feed a bird raw potatoes, it might be fine… or you might cause a problem! It’s definitely a “better safe than sorry” situation.
Can Wild Birds Eat Cooked Potatoes?
Unlike raw potatoes which may cause health complications in wild birds, cooked potatoes are just fine!
Baked potatoes are a great option because they don’t include any other ingredients that can cause issues for birds. Other potato recipes should be evaluated for their levels of fats and sodium.
You also want to avoid giving birds onions and garlic, which are frequently cooked into potato recipes.
Skip the Potato Chips
Potato chips are junk food for humans, and junk food for birds, too.
Potato chips aren’t toxic or poisonous, but they won’t help meet a bird’s nutritional requirements. The Spruce even lists potato chips as one of the 10 worst foods you can feed to wild birds!
In moderation, potato chips aren’t going to cause any major damage to the birds in your backyard. Sometimes, I let my kids scatter the stale leftovers of a forgotten bag of chips in the yard for the birds. But it’s not a good idea to make this a consistent part of their diet.
Sweet Potatoes: Another Healthy Option
Sweet potatoes do not contain solanine, because they’re not actually potatoes! Sweet potatoes are a part of the morning glory family, not the nightshade family.
It probably won’t cause any problems if you offer the birds raw sweet potatoes. Many pet bird experts say that it’s fine to feed parrots raw sweet potato, but there isn’t as much information out there about wild birds.
If you are worried, you can always cook the sweet potato and offer it baked, boiled, diced, sliced, or even grated!
How To Prepare Potatoes for Birds
If you want to include potatoes in the assortment of foods that you offer to backyard birds, some methods are better than others.
For example, throwing a raw potato into the yard probably doesn’t do much good.
Not only is there the risk associated with starch and protease, but it’s also just too big for most birds to be interested in. They can’t carry it away because it’s too heavy, and they may not be interested in pecking at a potato long enough to get a bite.
Instead, try some of these options:
- Boil whole potatoes until they are just barely soft, and then slice them up and offer chunks of potato.
- Bake potatoes without any salt or butter, and then dice them.
- Grate potatoes with a cheese grater, then bake or broil the bits of potato in the oven before putting them out in the yard.
Birds generally aren’t interested in warm foods. Instead, let the potatoes cool before you put them out in the yard.
You can put the cut-up potatoes in a dish feeder or scatter them on the ground.
Don’t Offer Rotten Potatoes
There are very few smells worse than a rotten potato! Just like it’s incredibly unappetizing to humans to smell a rotten potato, moldy or too-old potatoes are yucky to birds, too!
You should throw rotten potatoes into the trash rather than putting them out for the birds. Molds and bacteria can make birds sick.
If you want to put them into the compost bin, that’s okay, too–but watch out! Sometimes potatoes make new potatoes in the compost pile!
Keep an Eye on Table Food That You Feed to the Birds
If you have offered table foods to the birds in your yard, pay attention to it.
Sometimes, birds simply aren’t interested in something we think they will enjoy! If that’s the case, the food may begin to turn. This can be an issue if any birds end up eating it, of course, but it’s also an issue if it makes a huge mess in your feeders or yard!
If you find that the birds aren’t interested in what you gave them, don’t take it too personally. Birds know what they like and what they don’t! You can always find something else that works better.
Watch Out for Predators
Table scraps can attract other animals, not just birds.
You might be inviting raccoons, stray cats, foxes, coyotes, skunks, and more! Some of these animals, like raccoons, will eat birds when the opportunity strikes.
These predators are an especially big problem for fledglings and nesting babies that don’t have many defenses or the ability to quickly fly away.
If you find that you are making your garden or yard too hospitable to nuisance wildlife, pause your bird feeding activity for a while, especially of table scraps and “people food.”
FAQ About Feeding Potatoes to Birds
Let’s take a look at some of the most common questions people have about feeding potatoes to birds!
Are Potatoes Poisonous to Birds?
Although potatoes can be poisonous to dogs and other animals, they are not poisonous or toxic to birds. It is still better to give cooked potatoes instead of raw because of the high starch levels in raw potatoes, and the presence of the protease enzyme that makes digestion difficult.
Can Birds Eat Mashed Potatoes?
Because mashed potatoes are cooked, they are safe for birds. That said, birds may not be interested in mashed potatoes because the texture is not similar to what they eat in nature.
It’s better to avoid giving onions and garlic to birds, so if you cook a potato dish with those ingredients, it should not be put out for the birds.
Can Birds Eat Potato Flakes?
Anecdotally, some birders have expressed concerns about potato flakes. They worry that because potato flakes are dehydrated and expand when water is added, that might create swelling in a bird’s digestive tract.
This is similar to the myth that rice expands in a bird’s belly and causes it to die or even explode.
Potato flakes are probably safe for birds, but if you want to be extra careful, you can skip the potato flakes.
Can Birds Eat French Fries?
If they can’t eat french fries, then I’ve got bad news for all the birds that move from patio table to patio table at restaurants, pecking at dropped fries!
French fries probably aren’t the most nutritious food for birds, but there isn’t any significant risk to birds that eat them. In fact, potatoes that have been fried in oil have a high-fat content that will help prepare birds for migration or help them get through the winter.
Can Backyard Chickens Eat Potatoes?
Like wild birds, backyard chickens can eat potatoes! It’s best to offer cooked potatoes rather than giving the birds raw potatoes. Chickens are great for cleaning up leftovers. Like any other food, potatoes should not be provided if they are moldy.
Can Parrots Eat Potatoes?
Cooked potatoes are fine for parrots–in moderation.
Ideally, 50-70% of a parrot’s diet should come from specially formulated pet bird pellets. The remainder of a parrot’s balanced diet should come from fresh foods like cooked whole grains, raw or cooked vegetables, soaked legumes, and raw or soaked nuts. Fresh fruit can make up a small portion.
The starch level in potatoes raises some concern for parrots, so pet owners can offer cooked potatoes (including french fries) as a special treat rather than a consistent part of their diet.
The Big Takeaway Message to Remember About Potatoes & Birds
If there is one thing you should remember about making potatoes available to birds is this: cooked potatoes are safer than raw!
In addition, always make sure that you are offering safe, healthy food instead of anything that has “gone off” or gotten moldy. Enjoy feeding your backyard birds and providing them with plenty of dietary variety!