Dot Schwarz explains how to give your Parrot enrichment in her blog.
For loads of enriching toys for your bird please click here.
Toys and enrichment
Why make or purchase toys for Parrots? It is sadly not unheard of to see a bird in a small cage get one single perch and maybe one swing or toy. The owner will say, ‘Oh, he just wrecks any toys,’ or ‘she’s scared of any new object.’
To be content Parrots need an enriched environment.
Just consider what their natural environment was like – a forest, space and companions for their whole life. We are not able to provide much of a forest environment in our sitting rooms but we can give them sufficient activity for their curious, intelligent minds.
We have protected them from attacks of predators and provided a constant supply of food. But in return many of them suffer lives of stultifying boredom. This is where enrichment of the cage and the environment and the feeding methods becomes so valuable in keeping Parrots stimulated and avoiding unwanted behaviours.
Parrots have to make an enormous adjustment to adapt to a human-orientated life. Parrots, from the tiny Parrotlet to the majestic Hyacinth Macaw, have developed acute senses and elaborate social behaviour.
The captive Parrot faces none of the challenges of predators, bad weather or hunters, although she retains the inborn potential to do so. In captivity her life may well be monotonous for a large part of her day. We need to provide an environment that mimics some of the challenges and benefits of the wild state.
This could include providing a well-furnished large enough cage and the provision of toys for active minds. Creating inventive opportunities for the Parrot to forage for their food and if the bird has use of an aviary, sufficient enriching items kept inside.
The cage and the aviary
Pet Parrots spend a proportion of their time in their cages, which shouldn’t be but sometimes are, too small for the size of bird. A tightly caged bird loses the use of his wings and also his enthusiasm for life.
Choose a cage as large as possible. If new large cages are too costly, there are many second hand items to be found at markets and on the Internet. Benni my Macaw’s cage (lent me by a kind friend) was purchased for £50.
An aviary spacious enough for the bird to fly is also a major enrichment item. It needs furnishing with plants and swings. Apartment dwellers can fence in the balcony or patio and give the bird the chance of sunshine and rain on their wings.
Making your own toys, foraging and enrichment activities helps the budget stretch further. The Parrot will enjoy sharing the activity.
When you construct toys in front of them, they’ll will try and help by opening jars and boxes and removing tools to safer spots on the table. Your Parrot will enjoy flying off with your tools – so beware.
Parrots are not money minded. They may well prefer a toy made from recycled materials to an expensive bought item. Every household has plenty of materials – empty toilet rolls, wooden cooking spoons, plastic plant pots, corks, Christmas cards, junk mail, cardboard boxes. The list is endless. My favourite Parrot attraction has to be ropes.
Ropes and Swings
My indoor flock now consists of Perdy the Lesser Sulphur Crested, Artha and Casper the Greys and one year old Benni the Blue and Gold Macaw. The conservatory doubles as the bird room so they are not caged at night.
The pet birds have regular out times where they are at liberty in certain rooms. The bedrooms and my husband’s office are off limits but the bathroom has a shower rail and now a bought perch for Benni Macaw.
In their permitted rooms – kitchen, my office and sitting room – ropes stretch across the ceiling. In the sitting room these ropes are looped onto hooks so they can be taken down for non-Parrot occasions.
Ropes are not stable but sway like branches, thus providing an immense amount of acrobatic activity. Hemp clothes lines are the best value for money. A skipping rope stretches across my office ceiling; its plastic handles have been chewed through by Perdy; it will soon need replacing.
Another useful, inexpensive climbing toy can be made from wooden coat hangers. Hook a clothes hanger to the bottom of the first and hook a third to the second and you have a dangling climbing frame that attaches to a rope or a ceiling hook.
When Artha and Casper were younger they loved weaving in and out of the coat hangers. We called it ‘playing circus Parrot’. In their maturity they’ve grown out of this beguiling habit.
When you allow your Parrot out-of-cage-time, ropes are a marvellous way to discourage them from landing on places you’d prefer they didn’t. Stretch the rope in the right place and hang enticing items from it.
I have managed this (just) in the sitting room. Casper and Artha will stay on their ropes but Perdy the Lesser Sulphur Crested Cockatoo perches on the picture rail if her beloved Wal isn’t in the room. Benni Macaw likes to monopolise the play stand.
Ropes can be dangerous when ends are frayed and if they’re not kept taut. Parrots have been injured and even killed by badly maintained ropes so they must be checked regularly for wear.
Local charity shops
A bonus in patronising local charity shops – the charity benefits and your birds enjoy many low cost objects. Baskets are our best buy. They are attractive, practical receptacles for toys; they provide hours of chewing until the birds chew through the handle and the basket falls to the floor.
Some people maintain that second hand babies’ plastic toys are not bird-safe. That has to be each owner’s individual judgement. Let’s face it – unless the bird is kept in an empty, sterile, padded cage, any object or activity can become a cause for injury.
Foraging as a time-consuming activity in and out of cages
Using food as a major part of an enrichment strategy is also successful. Even if the birds are in cages for most of the day, their food can be delivered in ways that make them work for it rather than having a bowl of food delivered like a takeaway.
One trick is to cover bowls with brown paper, poke a nut through to show the food is underneath and let them tear away the paper to get their food.
Gay Noeth in Canada started wrapping food into tiny parcels and hiding them amongst the leaves of her homemade Parrot tree. She reported how much more willingly the birds ate these items they had foraged for themselves.
Artha and Casper do not readily eat greens. I have chopped enticing mixtures and put them in their food bowls only to find when they were let out of their cage both birds flew happily onto the kitchen counter and ate a bunch of spring onions.
An experiment on enrichment
Caring owners have long known that an active bird with challenges and choices is less likely to develop plucking, screaming, biting, anxiety or other behavioural problems.
This was given a scientific basis by an experiment with sixteen young, parent-reared Orange Winged Amazons.
The researchers found that the birds with foraging and enrichment in their cages feather plucked and screamed less than the control group with no enrichment. And they also found that the feather plucked group allowed their feathers to regrow when they were put into the enriched cages.
Homemade foraging treats
As well as bought toys that provide hiding places for treats, it is quite simple to make your own. Drill holes in a piece of untreated pine wood and insert nuts in the holes.
Plastic drinking cups are excellent items for creating foraging opportunities for your birds. An artichoke with different foods tucked into the leaves, a cabbage treated the same way, a whole ear of corn. Fir cones with slivers of nuts inserted works well.
Since we have a large garden, I have plenty of natural items available to make toys. After tree branches the most popular item is fir cones (Casper) and rosehips (Artha). Perdy is champion flower muncher. Give her a rose to shred and she is a happy bird.
I also notice that when in the aviary, the indoor birds, especially Casper, like to chew on clumps of grass and dandelion roots and leaves.
The line between foraging, toys and enrichment becomes blurred. But indoors or outside the more purposeful activity you provide the better the birds enjoy it.
Make sure that branches or natural materials have not been sprayed with chemicals. If necessary wash branches in a weak (1 to 10 parts dilution) bleach solution. Let them dry naturally or bake in an oven at 180/200 ° for 50/60 minutes.
Willow wreaths and swings
A homemade toy – useful both for exercise and chewing and also pretty is a willow wreath. A wreath takes about 40 minutes to assemble and will last a few months before the stems are chewed back to the wire and it looks grotty.
You need a metre or so of stout fence wire bent into a circle or an old hula hoop will do as well. Depending on their thickness and length, you need 20 to 40 stems of willow. You just weave them round and round the wire tying loose ends in with a thinner piece of wire of twine.
Once the stems have been in position for a day of so you can take off the ties, then decorate the finished wreath with flowers or fir cones or plastic balls.
Parrots love chewing willow – perhaps they are aware of its medicinal properties. And if you have no willow trees handy or a generous neighbour who will donate some, a simple swing can be made from a broom handle cut in half.
Plastic chains make excellent swing ropes. My aviary Parakeets also like swinging on a tyre with the inner tube removed.
Parrot trees and towers – bought and handmade
Parrot towers look splendid but can hurt the budget. You do not need a great deal of DIY expertise to construct your own Parrot tree. I’ve used a sturdy metal bucket and a clean tree stem. Sand or cement anchors the tree in the bucket.
You can buy the beautiful stands made of hard wood. You can also make your own. A friend, wanting a high and stable perch, bought a hat stand from Ikea, anchored it into a base tray of pea shingle and hung toys and food bowls from the top wooden struts.
Her African Grey, Cleo is better disciplined than mine and would stay on this perch and play rather than destroy objects in the sitting room.
Another comparatively easy tower to make is one made of various widths of PVC tubing. Cut it with a ratchet tool and stick lengths together using unions or plastic cement.
Stainless steel quicklinks are the best and safest to use when making Parrot items. You use these to vary the toys and objects that you hang from the plastic tube frame. A simple foraging tree can be made from a branch anchored into a bucket and then changed and decorated at will. .
Many pet Parrots have to spend a large part of the day with their owners out at work. This is where ingenuity can really help keep your birds happy and content in your absence.
My birds love chewing to pieces old magazines and newspapers. Don’t discard them. Let your bird have them as part of her shredding activity.
The same applies to boxes and cartons. It does not take long to wrap some corks in paper and hide them in a box which you slip into another box. It takes longer for the Parrot to work out where the cork is hidden. Egg cartons are great for this sort of enrichment.
Trips away from home
Well socialised birds do get bored with the same environment. Outings with a well-trained bird are great fun. Artha and Casper enjoyed a recent day long outing to Think Parrots in June. Last week, I took Benni Macaw in his harness to town and had a coffee. Did he enjoy it? I hope so.
For loads of enriching toys for your bird please click here.
Resources and References
The Parrot Enrichment Activity Book Versions 1 and 2 by Kris Porter only available on the web
Foraging opportunity and increased physical complexity both prevent and reduce psychogenic feather picking by young Amazon Parrots by C.L. Meehan, J.R. Millam, J.A. Mench, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 80 (2003) 71–85
An excellent DVD on how to provide a foraging tree has been compiled by an American vet
CAPTIVE FORAGING: DVD
by Scott Echols DVM, Dipl ABVP M. available from Amazon.