Environment & Enrichment
To be content Parrots need an enriched and enriching environment. Think about what their natural environment would be — a forest, lots of companionship, room to play and fly and squabble, foraging for their food and avoiding predators all of which are instincts they have regardless of whether they’re in a jungle setting or in our homes. Most are not able to provide much of a forest environment in their homes but we can try to provide sufficient challenges and activities to stimulate and challenge them.
We provide protection, a comfortable environment, and usually a constant and easily obtainable food supply. While this is necessary and what we SHOULD do, it also creates some unintended consequences that result in many birds suffering from boredom and frustration. This is where enrichment becomes a key consideration for keeping our birds mentally stimulated, which will help control some unwanted behavior such as aggression and/or plucking and self mutilation.
Parrots have to make a huge adjustment to adapt to a human-orientated life. All species have acute senses and elaborate social behaviors that are not the same as human behaviors. Many owners get into trouble by trying to extinguish natural, instinctual behaviors so they end up with a frustrated bird and a frustrated household. The first step in “enrichment” is for the OWNER to learn what is normal and natural for the bird and then learn to accept that as a condition of owning a parrot; if you don’t like their natural characteristics then don’t own a parrot.
Let's take a look at some areas of enrichment that you may consider implementing to keep your bird active and busy, challenged, stimulated, and socialized.
As we’ve already discussed, a captive bird faces none of the challenges a wild bird deals with. Since their instinct and evolution has built them to ‘deal’ with these things, captive birds will have ‘something missing’ in their existence. To avoid monotony, we need to provide an environment that mimics some of the challenges and benefits of the wild state. This includes providing a well-furnished, appropriately-sized enclosure that contains toys and activities to occupy their time, while presenting challenges to overcome, problems to solve, inventive opportunities to forage for a reward, and in the best of circumstances and opportunity to be out in the fresh air and natural sunlight.
The cage and the aviary
Pet parrots spend a proportion of their time in their cages, which often 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 you are fortunate enough to have an aviary it should be spacious enough for the bird to fly comfortably inside. Also outfitting it with plants, natural branches, appropriate-sized perches, and even swings and nets for climbing.
For exposure to fresh air and natural sunlight, apartment dwellers can enclose in the balcony or patio allowing an opportunity for sunning and maybe even some exposure to natural rain. Home owners can have a smaller spare cage that can be placed outside in good weather, just make sure the birds are safe from predators and protected from heat exhaustion.
Making your own toys, foraging and enrichment activities helps stretch the budget further. Your bird will enjoy sharing the activity.
When you construct toys in front of them, they’ll will try and help by opening jars and boxes. This is teaching them that the end result is meant to be interactive and played with. Your bird may well prefer a toy made from recycled materials to an expensive, bought foraging puzzle.
Our Homes are filled with foraging materials wooden cooking spoons, plastic plant pots, corks, Christmas cards, junk mail, cardboard boxes. The list goes on and on. Be imaginative and ingenious. Make it a game and you will soon find the actual making of the toy is just as fun to your bird as destroying it. Anything you can do with your bird is a communication and bonding opportunity.
Ropes and Swings
Ropes are not fixed and stable but sway simulating natural branches. This lend itself to the perfect opportunity for amazingly enjoyable acrobatic play fun.
Hemp Jute and sea grasses are safe options for ropes, swings, nets and boings. Cotton ropes pose a danger of impaction of the crop, as they fray and become ragged the cotton fibers are ingested and remain in the crop, undigested clogging up the works. Fraying materials also pose an entanglement risk.
While enjoying out-of-cage-time, ropes are a great targeting point. This will teach them to land on approved perching points.
Trips away from home
Well socialized birds like to get out and go just as we do. They get bored with the same environment. Outings with a well-trained bird are great fun. Plan carefully and make it fun for both you and your companion bird.
Most of all enjoy your companion you are the center of their world, make it exciting.
Foraging activity in and out of cages
Food as a major part of an enrichment strategy is very 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 just hopping up to a bowl of food.
Imagination and ingenuity is again needed here. Making parcels like little presents or hiding treats and pellets in a foraging medium, forcing the hunt or a dig.
Homemade foraging treats
It is quite simple to make your own food foragers. Drill holes in a piece of untreated pine wood and insert nuts in the holes.
Plastic cups tied top to top make an excellent treasure chest for a morsel. Food itself can be made into foragers, a celery "butt" with different foods tucked into the leaves, or a Chinese cabbage treated the same way. Pine cones with slivers of nuts inserted is a favorite as well.
Natural items such as tree branches, pine cones, rose hips and edible flowers such as hybiscus and dandelion to shred are great natural shredders. Please ensure your branches and other naturals are pesticide free.
Parrot trees and play gyms
Play Gyms look outstanding but can also have a price tag to match. A lot of do it yourself expertise is not need to construct your own play gym. They can be something as simple as a small tree trunk secured in a bucket with concrete to an elaborate maze made from knocked together pvc. Plastic chains and wrapped hula hoops make excellent swings. There is an endless array of plans available if you do a little research. Grab a buddy and a Saturday afternoon and there you have it.
Birds also love chewing 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. Wrap some treats in paper and stuff a box which you slip into another box. Dig Dig Dig! Egg cartons are great for this sort of enrichment.
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