Enriching your parrot’s life
Look! I haven’t abandoned this blog! Here’s an article about environmental enrichment for parrots.
Enriching your Parrot’s Life
The world of parrot keeping has gone through many changes through the years. No longer are crates of wild parrots imported for the pet trade, and there are many more types of cages and healthy (even organic) pellets available than there were thirty years ago. Flipping through some of my older parrot magazines, I have also noticed that they contain very few – if any – ads for parrot toys. However, this is not so with more modern magazines! For instance, recent issues of many publications about pet birds contain ads for foraging toys, chew toys, play stands and more. Books about parrot keeping now emphasize the importance of providing toys for parrots, and large pet stores often contain several racks – or even whole aisles – of bird toys.
Toys are often used as a form of “environmental enrichment” for birds, although appropriate enrichments can and should go beyond giving a parrot a few toys. The term “environmental enrichment” is becoming far more common in articles, books and videos about pet bird keeping, and it has also become a major concern among zoo keepers at better facilities. For example, to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, facilities housing wild animals must provide appropriate enrichment programs for each of their animals and keep track of their effectiveness.
What is Environmental Enrichment?
Let’s back up a moment here. Just what is environmental enrichment? I’ve seen many different definitions for it, but, in general, environmental enrichment refers to any modification to a captive animal’s environment that gives it an outlet to display its natural behaviors and keep it busy and occupied. Enrichments can include objects an animal can chew on or play with, or hidden foods that the animal can forage for. Enrichments for birds can include different foods, branches, conifer cones, chew toys, plants, ropes and swings.
Why is Environmental Enrichment so Important?
I’ve noticed that more and more parrot owners are trying to provide their birds with an environment well stocked with toys and objects to chew on, but unfortunately, I still sometimes see parrots in pet shops and homes living in bare cages. Some people may not realize that a parrot cannot thrive with only perches, food and water, but a common argument against providing captive wild animals with enriching environments is that captive animals that have never lived in the wild do not know what they are missing. Therefore, they do not need anything beyond the basics: food, water, perches, vet care, and shelter from extreme temperatures.
However, there is plenty of evidence that captive-born wild animals housed in enriched environments have better overall welfare than animals housed in plain environments. “Environmental enrichment” is not merely a trendy buzz word. During the past two or three decades, a vast number of scientific studies on a large variety of species have shown that animals – from mice to domestic livestock to primates – living in enriched, complex environments tend to be healthier, cognitively superior and far less prone to display repetitive, abnormal behaviors than animals living in dull environments.
Very little formal research has been done on the needs of captive parrots specifically, but this has recently been remedied. For example, researchers at the University of California (Davis) have done studies on Orange-winged Amazons (Amazona amazonica) to determine how to minimize feather destructive behavior in parrots and to learn how to improve the welfare of parrots in captivity. I’ll be referring to the work of this group (The Psittacine Research Project, which I’ll abbreviate to PRP) throughout this article. Much of the PRP’s work suggests that parrots kept in an enriched environment are less likely to destroy their plumage than parrots kept in cages with only bowls of food and water. To show this, 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, which are functionless, unvarying, repetitive behaviors. In the Orange-winged Amazons, stereotypies displayed 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.
An earlier study on Crimson-bellied Conures (Pyrrhura perlata perlata) also suggested that enrichment can alter the behavior of captive parrots in a positive way. Here, researchers started with a group of ten birds, eight of which had plucked or destroyed their own feathers. In period one, the birds lived in a cage with one type of perch and food and water presented in bowls. In period two, the birds lived 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 to the birds. Before the study, researchers observed the conures to determine how they behaved without any enrichment.
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.
Finally, a study done on captive African Grey Parrots done in the Netherlands also indicates that parrots kept in an enriched environment are less likely to display feather destructive behavior than ones in a plain cage. The researchers divided a group of eighteen African Grey Parrots who displayed feather plucking behavior into two groups: one group had access to a pipe feeder enrichment toy loaded with food, and one had access to a pipe feeder without food in it, along with a bowl of food. The pipe feeder foraging toy was a tube with hole in it that the parrots could roll or swing around, depending on whether it was on the ground or hanging from the cage roof. Food would then fall out of the tube.
After spending four weeks in either treatment, the birds were switched around: the birds with the loaded pipe feeders were placed in enclosures without loaded pipe feeders and the birds with the empty pipe feeders were placed in cages with loaded ones. The birds with access to a loaded pipe feeder displayed improvements in their overall feather condition. Additionally, the researchers found that the amount of time spent with the foraging toys was related to the birds’ feather condition. Birds that spent more time foraging had better feather condition scores.
Finally, there is evidence that keeping juvenile parrots in enriched environments can make them less neophobic as adults. “Neophobia” refers to a fear of novel stimuli, and it’s a trait that many adult animals have. In a study on juvenile Orange-winged Amazons, the PRP found that juvenile parrots whose enrichment devices were frequently rotated were less neophobic as adults than juveniles whose enrichment devices were never changed. However, this effect did not hold for highly fearful juveniles, which suggests to me that very fearful birds should be gradually desensitized to enrichment devices.
Now we know that, in general, parrots kept in enriched environments are less likely to feather pick or display stereotypic behaviors than parrots kept in dull environments. However, I feel I should point out that there is no single cause of feather plucking in parrots. One cannot assume that a parrot who plucks is being kept in an impoverished environment. For instance, some birds who pluck may continue to do so out of habit even after the conditions that first caused the plucking have been remedied. Feather picking and self mutilation in many different species of birds and mammals has also been linked to maternal deprivation early in life, and poor health and malnutrition may also cause feather plucking in parrots. Even so, while the causes of feather picking are complex, providing a bird with an enriched environment can decrease the chances it will happen. So, how can we enrich our parrots’ environments?
Providing Enrichment for Pet Parrots
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 like to chew.
It’s easy to provide things for a parrot to chew on and destroy, and one does not necessarily need to spend money on expensive toys to do this. I get quite a few items for my parrots to chew from my own backyard. Unsprayed, non-toxic tree branches make great chew toys or perches for parrots. My parrots love branches and will eat the buds off of them, and then peel off the bark. Wooden toys can also be purchased at most pet stores.
I’ve also used flowers – mainly lilacs – from my back yard as enrichment items for my birds. Lories in particular should enjoy large, fresh flowers since lories naturally feed on nectar. The usual caveat about giving a bird plants applies here: do not give flowers that have been sprayed with pesticides or are toxic. Flowers from flower shops or gardening centers have usually been sprayed with pesticides and should not be given to parrots unless they are guaranteed to be organic.
Some plants, including many horticultural favorites, are toxic, so make sure a plant isn’t toxic before giving parts of it to a parrot. Safe types of branches to give a parrot include those from birches (Betula spp.), alders (Alnus spp.), willows (Salix spp.), poplars, aspens and cottonwoods (Populus sp), elms (Ulmus spp), grapevines (Vitis spp), magnolias (Magnolia spp), manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp), and lilacs (Syringa spp). However, I’ve noticed that manzanita wood is too hard for most parrots to chew on. Be very cautious with elm if you live in an area where elms may be treated against Dutch elm disease.
Safe types of flowers to give to birds include lilacs (Syringa vulgaris), carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus), gladiolus (Gladiolus spp.), hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), honeysuckles (Lonicera japonica), marigolds (Tagetes signata pumila), roses (Rosa spp.), and violets (Viola odorata). The leaves and flowers of dandelions are also safe and are actually quite nutritious.
What if a parrot ignores the enrichments he is given? If a parrot does not chew on a certain type of wooden toy, try offering wood of a different hardness or texture. Some parrots will ignore very hard woods but will enjoy softer woods. For example, my Red-lored Amazon, Ripley, doesn’t bother chewing very hard woods, but does enjoy softer chew toys. She’ll usually reduce these to shreds quite quickly. Likewise, my Lineolated Parakeets and Australian Parakeets (a Budgie and a Bourke’s Parakeet) like to nibble twigs but they do not chew very hard woods. A formal study on Orange-winged Amazons by the PRP has also demonstrated that a wood’s “destructability” can determine whether a parrot will chew on it or not. Parrots tend to prefer to chew on items they can actually destroy.
I have also found that plain cardboard works great as a chew toy, particularly for the small parrots who may not always like chewing hard pieces of wood. Some parrots also like to chew on the four-cup holders that fast food places give out with orders for multiple drinks. 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 fostered for a while, liked to shred rolls of adding machine or receipt paper. Old phone books can be fun for parrots as well. They have been a hit among the macaws and cockatoos I’ve looked after and Mitri, my male Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, loves to tear up phone books. The inks used in phone books are generally soy based and safe.
Small boxes can also be given to parrots. My Jenday Conure, Peggy, loves plain boxes and I’ll often cut a hole in one and give it to her. She’ll go in and completely destroy the box from the inside. However, I would not give a bird boxes if she treats them as nesting areas. Small boxes (or plain paper bags) can be used as foraging toys as well – just place some surprise treats inside of them. A bird may initially have to be shown that there’s food in a bag or box before he’ll be motivated to get at it.
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 cycle in a washing machine just to be sure they were safe.
Twigs or Popsicle sticks from a craft store also make great toys for parrots who like to hold items in their feet to chew. I’ve noticed that cockatoos in particular seem to appreciate foot toys, so if you’ve never offered your cockatoo foot-sized chew toys, give it a try! Some cockatoos are also capable of removing the nuts off of bolts and such parrots can be given stainless steel bolts with nuts on them to play with. Clean pine cones can make good foot toys as well. Many parrot owners briefly bake pine cones (or wood from outside) at a low temperature in the oven to kill any pathogens or insects they may harbor.
Many birds also like to chew on wicker baskets. I buy Mitri baskets 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. I get Mitri’s baskets at craft stores and stock up when they are on sale. I’ve also been told that they can be bought for a low price at Ikea.
A tray of wheat grass can also be used to enrich a parrot’s environment. The wheatgrass itself is non toxic and easy to grow and a parrot may enjoy pulling out the grass, bathing in it (if it’s damp), chewing it, and nibbling at its roots. When I grow wheatgrass, I use plain soil that doesn’t have any perlite or other additives in it. Give wheatgrass sparingly (once a week or so) for parrots that actually eat it, since it is somewhat rich in iron. Additionally, do not over water a tray of wheat grass intended for parrots. Over watering plants may encourage the growth of mould in the soil.
ii) Food-based Enrichment
Parrot owners can vary both the types of food given to a parrot and the way it is presented to enrich their birds’ lives. I always leave a bowl of pellets in my parrots’ cages but also frequently offer them different types of nuts, fruits, vegetables and various whole-grain items.
Kabobs work well for presenting food to parrots in a new way – just place big slices of vegetables on a stick or blunt-edged skewer and hang it in the parrots’ enclosure. Some pet stores even sell steel kabobs that can be hanged in a parrot’s cage and reloaded as needed. Not only can varying the presentation of food enrich a parrot’s life, but it can even encourage a bird to try new foods. For example, my Australian Parakeets will eat vegetables placed on a kabob but will rarely eat them if they’re in a bowl.
Wild parrots spend a great deal of time foraging, and captive parrots can also benefit from having the opportunity to forage. I’ve already noted that one can try placing goodies (like seeds or nuts) in a bag or a box for the parrot to rip open. There are even products on the market (e.g. like those by “Creative Foraging Systems”) that allow parrots to chew at chipboard to get at food. The same company makes polycarbonate foraging toys that dispense food after a bird has pulled a drawer, turned a wheel or shaken something. Additionally, the Parrot Island shop in Minnesota sells treasure chest foraging toys that can be filled with different toys and goodies. A few birds may be able to figure these toys out on their own and others may need a little bit of training to learn how to get the food out.
A foraging tray can also easily be made for a parrot by taking a tray, adding a non-toxic substrate to it (such as plain straw, shredded paper or rocks that a parrot can move but not swallow) and sprinkling some of a parrot’s favorite food over it. The parrot can then move the substrate around to find the food. Little bits of dried papaya and seeds work well for this, as most parrots love them and will enjoy finding them.
iii) Climbing & Swinging
Many parrots love climbing toys. These can include ropes, swings, large tree branches or ladders. Many parrots that 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 that 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 rope toy. Loose threads can easily become wrapped around a parrot’s toe, and this could cut off its circulation. Peggy the Jenday actually lost a foot before I got her because she got it caught in threads she chewed loose in the plush bird tent she would sleep in. I’ve also talked to other bird owners whose birds have lost toes due to loose threads wrapping around them. Therefore, it’s part of my bird care routine to make sure that my birds’ rope perches and “boings” don’t have any loose threads. I actually do not put any rope or cloth items in Peggy’s or Mitri’s cages since they are such strong and enthusiastic chewers and they can even unravel tightly-wound rope perches.
Peggy loves to chew on little vine balls and these are quite easy to turn into foraging toys. Just stick some seeds or nuts on the inside and they’ll fall out as the bird chews the vine ball. I buy the vine balls at a pet supply store, but they’re also available at some craft stores. If buying vine balls from a craft store, be sure to buy ones that aren’t painted, glossed or scented.
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. 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 different toys in and out of a parrot’s cage can keep his environment interesting and stimulating. Taking a toy out of a cage and then putting it back in later can make the parrot treat the toy like it’s new. For example, Mitri likes to ring his bell, but he does get tired of that quickly and then ignores the bell. If I take it away and give it back to him later on (after several days), he treats it like it is new and will ring it.
v) Social Interactions
Parrots are social creatures and need to have a human or another parrot to interact with daily. A parrot that’s bonded to a person or people will want to spend time with people and aviary birds should generally have another bird or birds as company. I have several small birds (various parakeets, finches and button quail) that are not tame with people so they are housed with other birds.
There are many ways one can interact with a parrot, besides simply holding and petting him. Training a parrot either tricks or useful behaviors (like step-up) can provide him with mental stimulation. I highly recommend teaching a recall to flighted parrots. Parrots enjoy learning tricks if positive reinforcement-based methods are used and the training sessions are upbeat. Some outgoing parrots even seem to enjoy performing for people.
There is even evidence that captive wild animals who have daily positive reinforcement-based training sessions daily have better welfare over ones who are not trained. This hasn’t been studied in birds, but in one study, macaques who went through daily training sessions displayed fewer stereotypies than macaques who did not.
Detailed instructions on how to train a parrot are well beyond the scope of this article (I could easily write one of similar length on training), but there are plenty of good resources out there on how to train a parrot new behaviors or how to put an existing behavior on cue. I personally like “Clicker Training for Birds,” by Melinda Johnson.
vii) Outdoor Excursions
Almost all parrots enjoy being outside – just be sure your parrot cannot get away by using a harness or secure 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 and if he’s gradually introduced to the outdoors.
Ripley loves going outside on nice days and she is also amazingly secure in public places, so my husband and I take her everywhere we can. Any place that sells food is out of the question, but we’ve taken her to small book stores, aquarium stores, movie stores and hardware stores with no trouble. She has a secure travel carrier so she can stay safe in the car. We are also in the process of harness training Mitri so he can go out as well. Harness training a bird can take a lot of patience (and it can sometimes take months of training sessions), but using a harness (use ones designed for parrots) can help ensure that a parrot won’t fly away while outside. Even wing-clipped birds can get quite far if startled and it’s windy outside. If taking a parrot outside, keep him very close so he won’t be taken by a hawk.
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: How to Put Some Fun Into Your Parrot’s Life also has instructions on how to make playstands.
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. 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.
In order to thrive in our homes, parrots need more than just food, water, perches and a cage. They need outlets for many of their natural behaviors, including foraging and chewing. Providing a parrot with foraging and chewing materials need not be difficult or expensive and it will increase the quality of life for the parrot and make him a well-adjusted, happier bird.
Coleman, K., and Maier, A. 2010. The use of positive reinforcement training to reduce stereotypic behavior in rhesus macaques. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 124, 142-148.
Fox, R. A., and Milla, J. R. 2007. Novelty and individual differences influence neophobia in orange-winged Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 104, 107-115.
Kim, L. C., Garner, J. P., and Millam, J. R. 2009. Preferences of Orange-winged Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica) for cage enrichment devices. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 120, 216-223.
Lumeij, J. T., and Hommers, C. J. 2008. Foraging ‘enrichment’ as treatment for pterotillomania. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 111, 85-94.
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.
http://www.creativeforagingsystems.com (Foraging toys for birds)
http://parrotisland.mainsecureserver.com/catalog/index.php (Parrot Island)
http://www.parrotenrichment.com/ (From this site, one can download an e-book about enriching a parrot’s environment. If a bird doesn’t seem interested in toys or foraging, there are even ideas on how to teach a bird to forage.)
http://animalscience.ucdavis.edu/research/parrot/aboutus.html (The Psittacine Research Project at the University of California Davis)
http://eppa.ca/meetings/flowers.html (Edible flowers for parrots).
http://www.mdvaden.com/bird_page.shtml (Safe woods for parrots).
Harness training a parrot – Barbara Heidenreich explains how to harness train a parrot.