The Importance of Environmental Enrichment for Pet Parrots
This is an article I wrote that appeared in the August 2007 issue of Parrots magazine, although the below version does have a few minor changes and the pictures are a bit different.
Parrots are among the most intelligent of birds and their cognitive abilities have been compared to those of primates, including the great apes (Emery, 2006). Of course, it is this intelligence that often makes people desire a parrot as a pet, but it is also the reason so many parrot owners often give their pets up. Most people would not expect an intelligent and active primate to be happy in a living room cage, but the equally-intelligent parrots are often expected to live in this manner. The result is often a frustrated, bored parrot that screams or plucks out its own feathers. To figure out how we can prevent our companions from becoming unhappy, let’s first examine and compare the lives of wild and pet parrots.
The Life of a Wild Parrot
As it stands, wild and captive parrots live dramatically different lives. Most wild parrots begin their days at dawn, when they awake and begin calling to each other and start their daily morning foraging expedition. This may last a few hours and often takes the parrots far from their morning roosting site. During the afternoon – the warmest part of the day – most wild parrots pass the time by perching together in a group or pairs, where they rest, play, or preen themselves or a companion. Another foraging trip is made in the late afternoon, and afterwards, the parrots then return to a roosting spot where they settle together for the night.
The average wild parrot is rarely alone, as most species occur in family groups or large flocks. During the mating season, parrots tend to stay in pairs and mated pairs generally stay very close to one another, unless the female is in the nest and the male is out foraging for food. Raising young is a very demanding activity for wild parrots, and it keeps them active and occupied. However, this is the lifestyle they have spent one hundred and thirty million years evolving to live. Finding food and raising young in a complex environment and living in a large, social group has also lead to the evolution of relatively advanced cognitive abilities in parrots.
The Life of a Captive Parrot
Now consider the life of a captive parrot. Often, companion parrots have trimmed wings, no need to forage, and no young to care for. Their food is delivered to them in a bowl, and most of them spend a large proportion of their time in a cage. The majority of pet parrots do not have a same-species mate, as it is widely stated that a parrot who has bonded to another parrot will not make an affectionate companion. The relatively dull environment of a captive parrot compared to the environment they have evolved to live in makes captive parrots prone to displaying behaviors that their human owners find problematic, such as biting and screaming. Additionally, many will display stereotypies (i.e. doing the same motion over and over again), or will even pull out their own feathers. Some parrots, especially cockatoos, may go so far as to mutilate their own skin.
What is Environmental Enrichment?
Does this mean that our companion parrots are absolutely destined to live frustrated, unhappy lives? Not necessarily; at least not if the owner is willing to put some effort into enriching his parrot’s environment. Environmental enrichment refers to any modification to a captive animal’s environment that gives it an outlet to display its natural behaviours and keep it busy and occupied. These can include objects to chew on or play with, or hidden foods that the animal can forage for. It also generally includes placing animals in appropriate social groupings. By providing our companion parrots with an enriched environment, including a wide variety of food, and toys, along with opportunities to play and socialize, they can lead happier lives as pets and will be less prone to behaviour problems.
Why is Environmental Enrichment so Important?
Most conscientious parrot owners have long assumed that their animals would be happier living in an environment well stocked with toys and various objects to chew on, but unfortunately, it’s still not uncommon to see parrots in pet shops and homes living in bare cages. This should not be considered acceptable. During the past decade or so, a vast number of scientific studies on a large variety of species have shown that living in an enriched environment benefits an animal in many ways. Animals living in such an environment tend to be healthier, cognitively superior and far less prone to display repetitive, abnormal behaviors than animals living in a dull environment.
Very little formal research has been done on the needs of captive parrots specifically, but this has recently been remedied. A study was done on Orange-winged Amazons (Amazona amazonica) which suggested that parrots in an enriched environment are less likely to destroy their plumage than parrots kept in cages with only bowls of food and water (Meehan et al., 2003). The researchers started with two groups of eight 16-week old Amazons. One group had access only to food and water in bowls and a couple of perches. The second group had to “forage” for some of their food – in some cases, they had to chew through barriers or pull levers to get at food. They also had toys to chew, climb and swing on.
The parrots in the enriched group were at first wary of the different things in their cages. However, they soon figured out how to get at the food and they learned to use the chew toys. The plumage quality of each parrot was recorded throughout the study. After a year, six of the eight Amazons in the dull environment, and none of the birds in the enriched environment, began to shred or pluck their feathers.
The researchers were able to reverse the effect of feather picking in the six Amazons that did feather pick by putting them in the enriched environment. Initially, they were wary of their new surroundings, but they soon began using the toys. After several months, they stopped chewing their feathers. Each Amazon had been examined by a veterinarian to ensure that the feather chewing was not the result of an undiagnosed medical problem. The parrots all received a healthy, balanced diet, so the feather picking was not the result of any nutritional deficiencies.
The researchers also noted which parrots developed stereotypical behaviors – functionless, unvarying, repetitive behaviors that are often displayed by captive animals. In the Orange-winged Amazons, stereotypies seen included pacing, climbing in a circle, flipping around in one corner of the cage, and repeatedly chewing cage wire in one spot. The Amazons in the unenriched cage displayed more stereotypic behavior than the ones in the unenriched cages (Meehan et al., 2004).
An earlier study on Crimson-bellied Conures (Pyrrhura perlata perlata) also suggested that enrichment activities can alter the behavior of captive parrots in a positive way (van Hoek and King, 1997). A group of ten birds, eight of which had plucked or destroyed their own feathers, were observed throughout different time intervals in the daytime. In period one, the birds were kept in a cage with one type of perch and food and water presented in bowls. In period two, the birds were kept in a cage with various enrichments, including willow branches to chew on, hidden fruit to find, mineral blocks, egg cartons, newspapers, and fruit baskets. In period three, the parrots had access to a greater variety of perches, including rope and willow perches of varying sizes. In period four, a variety of perches and enrichments were provided. Before the study, observations were also made on the conures to determine how they behaved without any enrichments.
During period three, the conures spent more time flying and in period four, they spent more time climbing and hopping. The presence of enrichment items lead to a decrease in the time spent preening. All enrichments were used, but the conures preferred the fruit baskets and branches. Their feather condition stabilized but the conures did not become fully feathered by the end of the study. Even when feather-plucking tendencies are reduced or eliminated, it can take time for the feathers to molt out and grow back.
Clearly, captive parrots do not thrive when kept in dull cages for the decades they can live. Parrots in an enriched environment are less likely to display abnormal, stereotypic behaviors or feather plucking. So, how can we enrich our parrots’ environments?
How to Provide Enrichment for Pet Parrots
i) Chew Toys
Pet parrots generally love to chew and shred things. Wild parrots often have to chew shells or peels to get at their food and most species make their nests in tree hollows, so they often have to chew it up to make it bigger. As a result, most parrots have a strong drive to chew.
It’s easy to provide things for a parrot to chew on and destroy, and one does not need to spend money on expensive toys to do this. Unsprayed, non-toxic branches are great for this purpose. Very large parrots, such as Moluccan Cockatoos, may enjoy receiving large pieces of untreated lumber. My own parrots love branches and will eat the buds off of them, and will then peel off the bark. Ripley the Amazon is capable of reducing a large stick into a pile of toothpicks.
Plain cardboard works great as a chew toy too, particularly for the small parrots who may not always like chewing hard pieces of wood. Plain paper is fine as a “toy” as well. Some parrots will pull paper through into their cage if you place it on top. Then, they can shred it to bits. Fergus, a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo I am fostering, likes to shred the rolls of adding-machine or receipt paper I put in his cage. Old phone books can be fun for parrots as well. The inks used in them are generally soy-based and safe.
Some birds love to shred, preen and destroy peacock feathers. Lucy, my Maroon-bellied Conure, just loves them. When using peacock feathers as toys, only use natural ones that have not been treated with extra dyes or mite sprays. I ran the feathers I gave Lucy through a wash cycle just to be sure they were safe.
Twigs or popsicle sticks from a craft store make great toys for parrots who like to hold items in their feet to chew. I’ve noticed that cockatoos in particular often seem to appreciate foot toys. Pieces of lumber can also be cut into foot-sized pieces. Clean pine cones can make good foot toys as well. Many parrot owners briefly bake pine cones in the oven to kill any pathogens or insects they may harbour.
A few cockatoos I have fostered enjoyed shredding baskets I bought for them at the craft store. I buy the ones made of plain wicker that have not been painted or coated in any other way. Baskets can be hung in the parrots’ cage and various foot toys can be placed in them.
ii) Foraging Toys
Fresh food need not always be presented in the same dish everyday, although I always make sure that there is a bowl of pellets available for each of my birds. Kabobs work well for presenting food in a new way – just place big slices of vegetables on a stick or blunt-edged skewer and hang it in the parrots’ enclosure. Use a clip to put kale, broccoli, or other veggies in difference places in the cage. Sometimes, presenting foods in new ways encourages parrots to try new foods. My Lineolated Parakeets, Garnet and Emerald, wouldn’t touch broccoli until I clipped it up. Foraging toys are best offered in the morning or evening, as this is when parrots tend to be the most active.
Try placing goodies (like seeds or nuts) in a bag or a box for the parrot to rip open. It may be necessary to show the parrot that there is food in the bag or box to get him to try to open it. Nuts in the shell are also great to feed, as the parrot will have to work to get at them. It’s also easy to make a toy out of a coconut shell – just break a coconut in half and remove the meat. The hollow shell can then be used as a toy – drill a hole in the sides and suspend it from a rope and put goodies (like grain or seeds) in there. The coconut meat is also a great treat for large macaws, which need more fat in their diets than other parrots. It’s fine as an occasional treat for other parrots as well.
One can also make a “honey stick” like the ones sold in pet stores but with peanut or almond butter or flour paste. Spread nut butter or a paste made out of flour and water on a pine cone or popsicle stick and roll it in seeds, pellets, or dried fruit. A foraging toy can also be made by drilling holes in a chunk of wood and jamming nuts in there. Just be sure the parrot can actually get at the nuts with some effort! I also sometimes place seeds on a clean surface or in a tray of wheat grass so the parrots can “forage” for them. For a large cockatoo I fostered, I would place some seeds on the bottom of a bowl of sticks & rocks. He would have to toss these out to get at the seeds. Since he liked to run each rock through his crest and chew each stick up, this would keep him occupied for quite some time.
iii) Climbing & Swinging
Many parrots love climbing toys. These can include cotton ropes, swings, large tree branches or ladders. Many parrots who enjoy swings (especially cockatoos) will hang on them and flap their wings to make them swing. It’s best to place a swing outside of the cage where there’s more room for the bird to swing around, although they can work well in large cages or aviaries. Ripley’s large swing hangs in the living room by her playstand and Lucy has a few ropes above her playstand she can climb on. The Linnies seem to love their ladders.
I would like to add a quick note about rope safety here: please make sure a parrot cannot get itself wrapped up in rope or in loose threads on a swing or rope toy. Loose threads can easily become wrapped around a parrot’s toe, and this could cut off its circulation. It’s part of my bird care routine to make sure that their ropes don’t have any loose threads.
iv) Other Toys
Some parrots like mirrors as toys, but others might become too attached to them. Others may try to attack them, and in that case, they are best not used as toys. Some parrots like to groom or beat up stuffed animals, but this is an activity best left for when the parrot is being supervised, as some birds may eat the stuffing or become tangled in it. Other parrots love bells or other noise makers. In general, there are a lot of different types of bird toys out on the market, and rotating toys in and out of a parrot’s cage can keep his environment interesting and stimulating. However, if a parrot has a particular favorite toy, be sure to leave that one in at all times.
vi) Social Interactions
Parrots are social creatures and need to have a human or another parrot to interact with daily. There are many ways one can interact with a parrot, besides the simply holding and petting him. These include:
● Teaching your parrot tricks. Many parrots enjoy learning tricks if positive reinforcement-based methods are used and the training sessions are upbeat. Some outgoing parrots seem to enjoy performing for people.
● Encourage your parrot to flap her wings while you hold her up or walk with her. This is great exercise and helps keep wing-trimmed parrots in shape. Of course, an untrimmed parrot can be encouraged to fly where it is safe. In fact, untrimmed parrots should be taught to fly to their owners on command.
● Have your parrot with you while you watch movies, read, or surf the internet. Many parrots simply enjoy hanging out with their owners and are content to be with them.
vii) Outdoor Excursions
Almost all parrots enjoy being outside to enjoy the sunshine – just be sure your parrot cannot get away by using a harness or cage. A parrot kept inside his whole life may be a bit wary of being outside at first, but he will likely learn to enjoy being outside after some time.
Ripley loves going outside on nice days to explore the yard and chew her lilac bush. She is also amazingly secure in public places, so my husband and I take her everywhere we can get away with. Any place that sells food is out of the question, but we’ve taken her to small book stores, aquarium stores, movies stores and hardware stores with no trouble. She has a secure travel carrier so she can be safe in the car. Only very well-trained, outgoing parrots should be taken out like this. Any that show fear on outings are best left at home.
Even if they don’t go out much, all pet parrots need some time out of their cages daily. Having a play gym makes this much easier for the owner. A play gym is a spot where the parrot can perch and play with toys that are different from the ones in her cage. These can be purchased, or made out of inexpensive material. For example, a cheap play tree can be made by taking a Christmas tree stand and placing a small, parrot-safe tree in it. The book Parrot Toys and Play Areas explains how to make a variety of different play trees out of branches and/or dowels and PVC connectors.
Don’t forget to give your parrot showers. Not only are they essential for his well-being, but many parrots love them. Ripley becomes very excited in the shower and laughs and trills while being sprayed, Garnet and Emerald also love showers and hang upside-down and spread out their wings during one, so they become wet all over. Some parrots, however, prefer to bathe in a shallow dish of water, and some parrots from arid regions of the world, like budgies, like to bathe in dishes of wet greens or wet wheat grass. Lucy, for example, hates showers but will take a daily bath.
Even though most of us cannot give our parrots the ideal lifestyle they evolved to live, with a bit of work and imagination, it is possible to provide a companion parrot with a stimulating environment. A varied diet, opportunities to forage, climb, fly and chew, along with attention from their owners all contribute to making a parrot’s life much more enriching.
Emery, N. J. 2006. Cognitive ornithology: The Evolution of Avian Intelligence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Series B, Biological Sciences 361: 23-43.
Meehan, C. C., Garner, J. P., and Mench, J. A. 2004. Environmental enrichment and development of cage stereotypy in Orange-winged Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica) Developmental Psychology 44: 209-218.
Meehan, C. L., Millam, J. R., and Mench, J. A. 2003. Foraging opportunity and increased physical complexity both prevent and reduce psychogenic feather picking by young Amazon parrots. Applied Animal Behavior Science 80: 71-85.
Shannon-Nunn, L. and D’Arezzo, C. 2000. Parrot Toys and Play Areas: How to Put Some Fun Into Your Parrot’s Life. Crowfire Publishing, Springfield, VA, USA.
Van Hoek, C. S. and King, C. E. 1997. Causation and influence of environmental enrichment on feather picking of the Crimson-bellied Conure (Pyrrhura perlata perlata). Zoo Biology 16: 161-172.
**MUST SEE** The Parrot Enrichment Activity Book by Kris Porter
-an online E-book with all sorts of ideas on enriching your parrot’s life.
-a part of the University of California, Davis, Department of Animal Science that does research on the needs of captive parrots. There’s an article there on how to choose wooden toys for your parrot.
-an essay on feather plucking and environmental enrichment in captive parrots.