Enrichment is the catchphrase today for those concerned with the proper care of animals in our care, covering all creatures from our companion dogs and cats to captive animals in zoos.
We assume the only animals not requiring enrichment are wild animals, whose daily struggles to survive and thrive keep them quite occupied.
A wild bird has a busy life. According to Koutsos, Matson and Klasing in their 2001 article in the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery (“Nutrition of Birds in the Order Psittaciformes: A Review”), wild Parrots spend over half of their waking hours foraging and eating.
Scientists believe that social interaction consumes another 25% of their waking hours; crucial to survival, feather maintenance takes up the last quarter of their waking hours.
Additionally, there is the constant threat of predator attacks from all directions. As a result, I think we can concur that wild Parrots do not have time to be bored.
Different Play Areas
Providing several places for a Parrot to sit provides variety, and play gyms can be purchased or home made. Phoebe Linden suggests sticking a safe branch (with leaves and bark still attached) in a Christmas tree holder. Voila! A climbing tree.
Branches, swings and fabric-covered wire perches (Boing™) can also be hung from plant hangers for medium-sized and smaller birds.
The success of a playgym depends not on how interesting you think it is, but on how interesting it is to your Parrot. One client did not understand why her Grey kept leaving her T-stand and flying back to her cage. The mystery was resolved when I pointed out that the Grey had nothing to do on the T-stand, and her cage was loaded with wonderful toys.
To maintain high interest, rotate play stand toys as frequently as cage toys. Once a week, remove one toy and replace it with a toy your Parrot has not seen in a couple of weeks. Rotate toys between cage and play stand as well, as styles of play can vary between these locations.
Time Frames vs. Attention Spans
It behoves us to pay attention to how long our psittacines choose to remain on their play areas. For a Parrot that tends to climb down and wander, you should time how long it takes it to leave its perch.
If you find your Parrot climbs down after 15 minutes on his playgym, then move him somewhere else after 10 minutes. Don’t expect him to stay in one place when it is obvious he is bored. These intelligent creatures have limited attention spans, and once uninterested with a location, they rarely remain stationary.
When it comes to remaining on play stands, seasonal variations exist, as well as species variations. My old Blue and Gold Macaw hen Sam is normally (finally, after 35 years together!) quite sedentary in her old age, content to sit for hours on her “tree” in the living room.
She has a ridiculous variety of toys there, as well as a window from which to watch and yell at the neighbourhood children. (Children are NEVER yelled at enough, in her opinion.)
However, when she becomes awash with reproductive hormones from November to January, her priorities shift. Restlessly driven to create a nest, she leaves her perch and becomes appallingly destructive if unsupervised for more than a minute or two.
Consequently, if I have looming deadlines and cannot supervise her as closely as she needs, she stays in her cage more. This is not a problem for her, as she enjoys her cage immensely, and frequently returns to it on her own.
Cockatoos are notoriously difficult to keep on a play stand, as most are totally comfortable “going walkabout” through the house, often accomplishing breath-taking demolition as they wander.
Aviculturist Phoebe Linden noted that many Cockatoos enjoy horizontal space in which to play, and this can be achieved by attaching two play stands together with a board. Perhaps this will help.
Depending on circumstance, it also might help to have more than one cage in various rooms, to give a ‘too a change of scenery without having to watch them every second.
Another alternative would be the invention of board certified avian veterinarian Scott Echols that he calls a “foraging tree.” As will be explained shortly, a foraging tree provides a good deal more than just toys for play.
Great Chewing Stuff
Since toothpick and splinter production are natural psittacine behaviours, we need to provide interesting fodder for their beaks.
This will help prevent but not eliminate furniture chewing, by the way. Adequate supervision will still be necessary whenever a Parrot is out of its cage.
For large Parrots (with large beaks), chunks of 2 x 4s stuck between cage bars work nicely. You can also drill holes in them and hang them on a piece of safe rawhide.
Branches from safe trees (non-toxic, unsprayed and complete with bark and leaves), provide endless joy for some.
Other wonderfully chewable objects include corks, balsa wood, old phone books, folded newspapers (black and white only) and/or greens woven through cage bars.
Paper towels tied around toys (Mattie Sue Athan’s “Paper towel bows”), and entire rolls of adding machine paper can provide hours of happy destruction.
For small birds, those annoying tear strips from dot matrix printer paper are apparently fascinating. All sizes of Parrots enjoy shredding envelops from junk mail! In addition, plastic straws and bathroom-sized Dixie™ cups can be terrific shreddable toys.
Years ago, one of my boarding clients introduced me to the toy-making wonders of those Parrot-style skewers. He skewered an empty cereal box and hung it in his macaw’s cage, providing hours of happy destruction.
Placing shreddable stuff in boxes or on the bottom of the cage is not recommended for sexually mature Parrots. Such materials will encourage rampant nest making with all its accessory problems.
However, hanging such items in the cage may not trigger a reproductive hormone response.
The Critical Importance of Foraging
“Foraging” is defined as searching for and finding food.
In her landmark studies with Amazons at Cal Davis, ethologist Cheryl Meehan found that foraging was even more important than play.
As a result, many Parrot behaviour consultants are strongly recommending that we provide foraging opportunities for our companion birds, as being necessary to their mental health.
In providing foraging opportunities for my old Macaw, I have learned even more respect for her intelligence, and watching her analyze and solve problems gives me fascinating insights into how her mind appears to work.
She and I both enjoy the challenge. I try to out-fox her, and she frequently out-foxes me in return!
Parrots will work for things they value, as long as they do not also get those items without effort. For example, if Sam has unlimited nuts in her treat bowl, why should she work for nuts?
Being highly food motivated, there are many things she values - such as sunflower seeds, small pieces of nuts, bits of cereal, etc.
The first step to teaching foraging is for the bird to learn that a treat might be there, even if it can’t see it. This takes a tiny bit of patience, but it immensely rewarding.
Start very slowly, taking incremental steps of difficulty. Only make things more complex after your Parrot catches on to the current level of difficulty.
Sam and I have been foraging together for months now, and while her pellets are always within easy reach in her food bowl, she no longer gets her favourite things without working for them.
In the future, I might gradually increase her foraging opportunities to include her pellets and fresh foods, as well.
Please keep in mind that Parrots can be neophobic (afraid of new things), so introduce new items slowly. Foraging should be challenging and fun, not terrifying.
The following are a variety of foraging ideas, with their brilliant inventors listed.
Avian veterinarian Scott Echols and toy maker Kit Manchester put their creative heads together and came up with a variety of excellent ideas. A free hand-out of easy and inexpensive suggestions can be obtained from www.birdsjustwannahavefun.com or 800-246-1018. Ideas include:
“The Wrap:” Place a treat in a paper cup, paper towel, empty envelop, coffee filter or whatever, and close it by twisting or crushing the container. Then you can punch a hole in it and hang it in the cage, or hang it on a skewer. For more difficulty, offer The Wrap as a foot toy or hidden around a Parrot’s cage. In her Bird Talk article on food toys (September 2002), colleague Chris Davis used this same idea but with tortillas, instead.
“The Cover:” This is an excellent technique for the beginner forager. Place a paper towel on top of the bird’s treat bowl, so all he has to do is pull it off to get to his reward. Once the bird is doing that without hesitation, go a step further. Using masking tape, tape the paper towel to the edge of the bowl, so the Parrot has to tear through the paper to get to his treat.
An excellent variation of this technique is board certified avian veterinarian Evelyn Ivey’s “Popsicle Sticks.” Lay one or two popsicle sticks (or tongue depressors) on top of your Parrot’s food bowl. Once he flings them off quickly, tape them down with masking tape (which will not damage his feathers), with spaces between so he can still see his food. Add more and more popsicle sticks as he gets accustomed to this game, until he has to happily splinter his way through a solid layer of popsicle sticks to get to his treats.
“Pebbles and Seed:” This is the invention of veterinary ethologist Andrew Luescher. Fill a bowl with appropriately sized, well-scrubbed pebbles (large enough that a Parrot cannot swallow them and small enough that it can move them around). Sprinkle a couple of teaspoons of small treats over the rocks and jiggle the bowl, causing the tiny morsels to drop below the pebbles. My macaw Sam loves this game, and will spend as long as an hour chuckling to herself while she rummages around in the metal baking dish, trying valiantly to find all the precious sunflower seeds that she saw me bury there.
“Cups & Plates:” Bonnie Kenk and Karen Webster, both colleagues in the Parrot division of the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants [www.iaabc.org], collaborated to come up with this one. Spear a bathroom-sized paper cup on a Parrot skewer, then a small paper plate, then another paper cup and a coffee filter, etc. Food treats hidden in the paper cups make it a foraging toy.
Remember that Parrots are intelligent and if they do not figure out what you are doing, it is because you are not showing them clearly enough. For instance, my Sam has a treat cup that hangs from her tree, at the end of a 3-foot chain.
She has to pull up the chain, open the lid, and balance on one hock while she reaches in to get her prize. She is very good at this, and reels in the cup multiple times per day, whether it contains a treat or not.
However, when I wrapped the treat in a tissue inside the cup, this stopped her cold. She did not appear to realize there was a treat inside the paper. I had to offer her tissue-wrapped nuts a couple of times before she caught on to the hidden treat in the cup.
Back to the Issue of Attention Spans
Dr. Echols made the concept of play gyms MUCH more interesting when he devised the idea of “the foraging tree,” and this concept might keep those wandering Cockatoos in one place at least for a little while.
In addition to the usual toys, he hangs multiple foraging devices on his ‘too tree, giving these super-intelligent birds multiple problems to solve. This is much more interesting that simply a “toy” and could be helpful in keeping those wandering chain saws on their play gyms for longer periods ... like 10 minutes instead of 3!
I have found this concept to be useful with Sam as well, as the possibility of a luscious food treat can keep her glued to her tree, even when reproductive hormones rage. She has a metal treat cage on her tree, and I put very large walnut in it the other day. I was tickled to see that this particular nut kept her completely involved for several visits to the tree, as she hung upside-down from the cage, trying valiantly to break the nut through the treat cage’s bars. Hard work indeed, but obviously well worth the trouble!
Time Well Spent
Short of time that we are in this life, a little planning can go a long way towards making our Parrots’ lives with us more interesting. One of my clients gets her family involved on Sunday evenings, constructing a pile of simple foraging things (like small nuts in paper twists) to be dispersed through the work week.
Even a small bit of time can produce a multitude of tiny puzzles for Parrots to solve while we are otherwise involved. Every little bit counts towards improving the quality of life for our beloved birds.