In this blog, Liz Wilson outlines why play is so important for Parrots.
Long viewed as a childish waste of time, play is now perceived as a critical component of the healthy human lifestyle. This is true also of all intelligent species and not just babies, as play behaviours have been observed in adult wild animals as well as youngsters.
Play is especially important for our intelligent Parrots, so toys are a necessity, not a frivolity. After all, many of our birds spend long periods of time without our company, as we work long hours to provide income with which to provide more toys for them!
Colleague Sally Blanchard said it well when she commented that the only truly safe toy was the ones that Parrots never play with. Indeed, our intelligent psittacine birds can be extremely creative in their ability to get into trouble – especially while playing wildly – but some obvious dangers need to be mentioned.
Mechanical hazards are things that can trap toenails, beaks, tangle around extremities and sharp things that can puncture. Mechanical hazards include such things as open (as opposed to welded) chain links, “key ring” type rings, paper clips, shower curtain clips with sharp points, safety pins, cheap bells with clappers that can be removed and swallowed, etc.
Those little so-called “jingle bells” routinely trap toes and beaks and are a frequent cause of emergency veterinary visits.
Toys with soft ropes that can become frayed need to be closely monitored and trimmed to a safe length as needed, before toes or necks become entangled.
For the same reason if lengths of rope, leather, chain etc become exposed (i.e. after chewable parts have been removed) the toy should be discarded or refilled to prevent accidents.
Other dangerous attachment devices include bent wires, and any spring loaded or bent metal clips (i.e. dog leash clips). Quicklinks are much safer for toy attachments.
Toxic dangers encompass a variety of things. Leather should be untreated or vegetable dyed. Wood should be untreated and/or dyed with non-toxic colours. Bells should be extremely sturdy with clappers that cannot be removed … or they should be avoided completely.
Cheap metal objects should be avoided as they often contain zinc and/or lead. Especially dangerous are most things categorized as “junk jewellery.” Safe metals are either chromed or stainless steel, available either through high quality Parrot toy companies or through boating supply outlets.
Minimizing Potential Dangers
My friend Peggy has an admirable habit when it comes to new toys. For the first several weeks, she removes new toys from her Parrots’ cages when she goes to work and replaces them when she gets home. In this manner, she seeks to minimize potential dangers while her birds have a go at a new object.
For those of us lucky enough to have access to unsprayed tree branches for our Parrots to chew and climb, it behoves us to be aware of the types of trees that are safe for Parrots. According to Canadian aviculturist and toxicologist Gillian Willis, safe trees include:
These are not the only safe woods for Parrots, but these are commonly used for perches. Trees to avoid completely include cherry, apricot, peach, prune or nectarine. To quote Ms. Willis, “These trees all belong to the Prunus species and contain cyanogenic glycosides which can release cyanide if ingested.”
For more chewing fun, safe branches can be offered with bark and leaves still attached. Simply wash the branches in soap and water and allow them to dry in the sun. If disease is a concern, branches can be disinfected by soaking in a 1:10 solution of bleach and water, then washed and dried as previous.
Types of Toys
When I got my Blue and Yellow Macaw Sam 35 years ago, the only toys I could find in pet stores were tiny plastic toys made for budgies. As a consequence, I found Sam fascinating things in hardware stores, such as pliers and screwdrivers. Things have improved exponentially now, as toys come in an extraordinary variety for all sizes of birds (and beaks).
Different types include:
Foraging and Puzzle Toys
Superb for engaging the analytical brain of the Parrot. When introduced properly, these types of toys are fabulous. Now that my Sam has caught on to the concept of foraging, this is her favourite type of toy and I am especially pleased with the quality and prices of foraging toys made by Creative Foraging.
If you and/or your bird are unfamiliar with foraging, Dr. Scott Echols has an excellent DVD titled “Captive Foraging” that goes through a step-by-step process of teaching Parrots to forage. Well written, designed and produced, it is definitely money well spent.
Wood and Rope Toys
Super for chewing, a natural behaviour for Parrots, especially popular with Macaws, Amazons and Poicephalus species like Meyers and Senegal Parrots. Cockatoos are exceptional as chain saws whittling their way through wood chunks as well as untying – and retying – rope knots.
Preening and Shredding Toys
Outstanding for quiet play, especially popular with species like Eclectus Parrots. Preening toys are often marked as an alternative to feather destructive behaviours, but I have no experience with them being helpful in these situations.
These are favourites of my Blue and Yellow Macaw, who loves shredding palm leaves and soft woods.
Foot Toys and Chewables
Foot toys are especially popular with Grey Parrots and chewable toys are popular with most species.
Climbing and Swinging Toys
Tremendous for exercise, especially with young Parrots.
Acrylic and Activity Toys (i.e. music boxes, etc.)
These can be a huge hit, especially with Greys and Cockatoos.
A fabulous way to extend your toy budget by assembling or repairing toys yourself!
The Right Toy for YOUR Bird
As a rule, Parrots have the irritating habit of not reading what we write about them, choosing instead to simply do what they like. So your Grey may not like foot toys and your Cockatoo may not like untying knots. Each bird of each species is an individual with distinctive likes and interests.
Some Parrots buzz saw their way through wood chunks and others prefer more delicate play. However, we humans tend to get stuck in ruts, as I discovered to my dismay with my Macaw.
Sam has tons of huge Macaw-sized toys with chunks of brightly coloured wood, but she has shown less interest in them over the last few years. Then I purchased an African Grey-sized wooden toy for a friend’s Parrot and Sam went nuts. Spotting it on the table, she flew over and started chewing on it, providing clear evidence to me that smaller toys interest her more, now.
When did she change her mind? I have no idea, as I’d never provided her with smaller toys previously. So I cannot judge whether she has changed her approach to play, or whether her age (likely in her 60s) has slowed her activity level.
Just as I would not wish to read a single book over and over indefinitely, Parrots can get bored with the same old toys. Toy rotation can avoid this. Once a week, take one toy out of a bird’s cage and replace it with a toy the bird has not seen for a few weeks.
For even more interest, move the other toys around. Owners have been intrigued to discover that an uninteresting toy can suddenly become appealing if placed in a different location.
You can also rotate toys back and forth between cages and play areas. Also make certain your birds have plenty of room in which to play, so don’t overload their cages so they cannot move about. Fewer toys rotated more frequently serve better.
Toy Destruction and Aggression
Some Parrots are extremely destructive with their toys, and some inexperienced owners conclude that the bird should not have more toys if it cannot “take good care” of its things. This is a sad commentary on human misunderstanding, as toys that are destroyed are toys that are dearly loved.
As a child, I was extremely hard on my toys and as a result, I only have one teddy bear left. Does this mean that teddy bear was a huge favourite of mine? Not at all. It means I didn’t like it at all!
Some Parrots can get extremely aggressive with their toys, banging them around while shouting loudly. Contrary to many human opinions, this does not mean the bird does not like a toy – instead, this is proof that it is a huge success.
Amazons are famous for this, and so-called toy aggression can be a brilliant way for them to blow off steam in wild play. After all, wouldn’t you rather have a Parrot beat the daylights out of its toys rather than bite the daylights out of you?
New Toys and the Skittish Parrot
As usual, Parrots can have a variety of responses to new toys. Many are neophobic or afraid of new things. This is sensible when you are a small prey animal, as new things could easily be dangerous. Caution, after all, can enable you to live a longer life.
Other birds have a let-me-at-‘em approach to new toys, jumping onto them without hesitation. My friend Peggy’s Grey will pull new toys out of their shipping box and start playing with them before they are even unwrapped!
If your Parrot is more hesitant about new things, there is an easy technique to desensitize it. Start with the new toy across the room, placed lower than the bird. Watch the bird’s body language and when it appears no longer concerned about the new object, move it a little closer to the cage.
Do this in gradual steps – perhaps over a period of several days – until you reach the cage. Now hang the toy down low, outside the cage and again wait until the bird is no longer troubled by its proximity.
Gradually work it into the cage, again down low … then slowly raise it to play level. Another technique for introducing new toys is to offer them at first away from the cage. Only move them into the cage when the bird is comfortable with them.
If at any time the Parrot appears apprehensive or alarmed, you are moving too fast. Shift the toy back to the last place that wasn’t disturbing to the bird, and progress much slower in your introduction.
No matter how well you might think you know your Parrot, there will always be times when a toy you are positive will thrill it, falls flat. As a result, most of us end up with toys that never get used, and in our current financial world, this gets expensive!
To maximize my toy budget I’ve hit on having toy parties with Parrot-owning friends. Every few months we get together to swap new toys that our own birds ignore. Should you choose to do this, please do it only with experienced, knowledgeable Parrot owners who routinely get their birds vetted so the potential for disease is minimized.
Do not underestimate the potential for “toys” that are free. My Sam loves to buzz her way through old phone books and paperbacks. Cardboard boxes of all sizes can be skewered on Parrot shish-kabob type toys and hung in cages for cheerful destruction. Plastic straws, paper cups and empty thread spools can also make lovely toys.
My friend Karen skewers paper plates, coffee filters and paper cups to make hanging chew toys. Punch holes in a brown paper bag and fill it with foot toys and occasional treats for a Parrot-style pinata.
From my experience as a veterinary technician, the only dangerous paper is shiny coloured paper, as those dyes can be toxic. Otherwise, get creative!
Get all the toys your Parrot needs here.