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Enrichment, foraging, toys, devices and quality of life are all phrases that are thrown around in the pet bird world on a regular basis. We all have a general knowledge of what they mean, but is there truly understanding of how to create an effective enrichment plan for your pet bird? With this article, I hope to walk you through those terms, the end result being a more enriched life for your companion pet bird.
By definition, enrichment means anything that makes something else better. That’s a pretty broad and subjective definition. In my opinion, the definition of enrichment for companion parrots can be anything offered to a pet bird that in some way enhances the quality of life in direct correlation to the animal’s roots in the natural world.
Foraging has become the hot topic for pet bird owners in recent years. Foraging is defined as seeking out or making a search for food. That’s fairly straightforward. Offering foraging opportunities to your parrot can be done quite easily.
Toys and devices are just terms applied to the things you purchase at your local pet store or make yourself to help keep your pet bird mentally stimulated. While toys and devices are absolutely in the big picture of pet bird care, they are certainly not the only way to keep your parrot happily occupied.
Quality of life is a broad term that we in the animal care profession have come to embrace as the quality of care that an animal receives. Again, this is an extremely subjective term that becomes even more difficult to define when used to describe a creature that does not communicate in the same language that we use. Parrots can speak, that’s true, but in describing quality of life, we must certainly look at behavior and health based on criteria we have established. Now that the terminology is out of the way, let’s talk about how to create an enriched environment for the pet birds that share your life.
Study Wild Parrot Behavior
So many times, when I speak with pet bird owners about enrichment, they tell me that they buy toys at their local pet store and that their pet birds chew them up so they have adequately enriched their pet birds’ lives. Of course, parrots need an assortment of toys, but there is also more to creating an enriched life for a parrot in our homes.
Consider the life of parrots in the wild. They are certainly multi-sensory creatures that are getting input on a second-by-second basis. By keeping parrots in our homes, we have significantly reduced the number of sensory experiences. As a conscientious parrot owner, it is your job to fill the void in your parrot’s sensory life. Offering choices is the key to successfully enriching your companion parrot. In the wild, a parrot has numerous choices that it makes on a daily basis. Those choices come in the form of questions like, “What will I eat today?” “Will I be eaten today?” “Where will I roost?” “Will I breed ... who will I breed with?” and the list goes on and on. We remove those choices by creating a controlled environment that we refer to as pet ownership. Enrichment is the solution for the lack of choices our pet birds might experience in a captive setting.
Now we know why we bother doing enrichment. But what about how we offer enrichment? The best suggestion I can give is to know your pet bird’s natural history. Natural history refers to the behavior that your particular species of pet bird would be exhibiting in the wild.
Each parrot species has particular behaviors that will help you create enrichment that is not simply an exercise in futility. Offering a pet bird that forages on the ground a variety of foraging experiences up at the top of the cage or high on perches is frustrating to both you and the pet bird; you spend time creating the opportunities, and the pet bird doesn’t seem to interact at all. This might be because the behavior you are asking for is completely foreign to your pet bird as an individual but it might also be foreign to the pet bird in a species-specific way. There are so many good websites and publications about parrots in the wild that you should have no trouble at all finding out what your parrot does in a natural setting.
After doing your research on your particular pet bird or pet birds, get busy enhancing the sensory needs of your companion. Once again, I will say that the toys are essential to your pet bird’s enriched life, but you also need to address all of your pet bird’s senses, not just the need to destroy or chew.
Whether working with facilities that house parrots or individual pet bird owners, I suggest approaching an enrichment strategy using categories of enrichment. I call it the “Chinese menu approach,” where you have choices in each category that you can offer your pet bird on a schedule — one from column A and one from column B. Although your pet bird may show a propensity for a particular toy, device or opportunity, it will soon diminish if you offer that same opportunity repeatedly without variety. In this case the old phrase “variety is the spice of life” holds true.
Your Pet Bird’s Five Enrichment Needs
For the purpose of this discussion, let’s create five categories of enrichment that address the sensory needs of your pet bird: tactile, visual, dietary, auditory and social. The next few paragraphs, I will define each category and offer suggestions to introducing that form of enrichment to your flock.
Tactile enrichment refers to anything your pet bird touches, whether it is with its beak, a claw or even its feathers. This is the sense that is so often addressed with the toys available for purchase in pet stores. Chewing is essential to your pet bird’s well-being. Your parrot doesn’t have to be what I call a “hookbill wood chipper.” It can be the type of pet bird that chews minimally but interacts with chewable items.
Manipulating items for chewing helps maintain the pet bird’s beak. A parrot that is deprived of chewable items might end up with a beak that is overgrown, which could lead to serious health issues.
When considering tactile enrichment don’t forget the feet. Offering a variety of perching materials and standing surfaces allows the pet bird to keep nails trimmed and reduces the chance of foot issues. Perches should also be different sizes.
Consider a parrot flying in the wild looking for a place to perch. The opportunities in nature aren’t always perfectly suited to the size of a pet bird’s feet. A variety of sizes for perches allows the pet bird the chance to use muscles for gripping that might go unused otherwise.
Tightly securing perches to the cage or wall is really unnecessary. Branches in the wild are seldom solid surfaces that don’t bend or move. Ensure your parrot’s safety but don’t overprotect to the detriment of your enrichment offerings. Tactile also includes offerings that allow the pet bird to experience different temperatures, such as the cold of ice cubes or the warmth of river rock heated in the sun.
Tactile enrichment should also include some softer surfaces for your pet bird that mimic the foliage it might experience in the wild. (Just be aware that when offering softer material like bedding, you might be encouraging breeding behavior.)
Visual enrichment is often (forgive the pun) overlooked. Our pet birds are such visually stimulated creatures when they are in the wild. Their colorful plumage is the first clue to how important visual stimulation is in their world. Visual offerings don’t need to be grand productions suitable for a museum. Use the resources available to you, such as the Internet, to print pictures of other parrots of the same species as yours. Hang those pictures near the cage or playgym. (Be sure that there is an avenue for escape if your pet bird feels threatened by the picture of another pet bird.)
Offering mirrors is another way to provide visual stimulation for your parrot. Don’t worry about the old wive’s tale that your pet bird won’t learn to talk if it sees another pet bird of the same species. It might hold conversations with the image in the mirror, but it can still be encouraged to mimic human speech.
Another dynamic of visual enrichment is what’s going on in the environment around your pet bird’s cage or gym. If you can, get behind the perch, and take a look at what your pet bird sees every day. Try moving the perch to create a different view for your pet bird. If possible, move the cage to give your pet bird a really different outlook. Not to be confused with a pet bird sitter, using the television for visual stimulation is a great resource. There are several products on DVD available from various organizations that show footage of birds in the wild. Think about purchasing one of those to use as a form of visual enrichment.
Dietary enrichment is perhaps the easiest but most frightening of the enrichment categories. If you have your companion parrot on a food diet that you find satisfying and nutritionally sound, it can be intimidating to think about straying from that plan. Don’t be afraid to vary your pet bird's food diet. Maintain the usual routine, but vary the presentation or include novel and appropriate food alternatives in small quantities in addition to the daily diet. (Be aware that if you are offering additional food you will have to cut back on some of the usual diet to maintain a healthy weight on your pet bird.)
The other scary issue with offering dietary enrichment is the overwhelming number of resources for toxic versus nontoxic items for parrots. The multiple lists of toxic versus nontoxic items must be carefully researched. Look at several lists and cross reference for particular items. If you have questions about whether a food item is safe, consult your veterinarian. If you still don’t feel comfortable after your have exhausted all your resources, err on the side of caution and don’t give that particular item to your pet bird.
Even if you don’t choose to be adventurous in your dietary enrichment of your parrot, you can use foraging as a form of dietary enrichment. Offering foraging is one of the easiest ways to stimulate your pet bird’s natural behavior. I could write a whole article on foraging. For the sake of this discussion, foraging can be as simple as moving the food bowls or covering the food bowls with a piece of paper.
If your pet bird is obviously advanced when it comes to foraging, then up the ante a bit, and hide the food in boxes or foraging devices that you can find at your local pet store. As I have said in my lectures so many times: foraging isn’t brain surgery. In the wild it just means going and finding food, not solving a 200-stage puzzle to get an almond! There are a number of great foraging products available and even the “Captive Foraging: The Next Best Thing to Being Free” DVD by Dr. Scott Echols that will give you great ideas for creating foraging activities for your parrot.
Auditory enrichment is perhaps the most often underutilized form of enrichment for parrots. In the wild, parrots use vocalizations across long distances for communication. Squelching that screaming behavior 100 percent of the time might be doing your pet bird an injustice. Work with your pet bird to allow calling vocalizations at appropriate times of the day; namely dawn and dusk. This might even end some of the screaming at inappropriate times.
Play audio clips of parrots in the wild for your pet bird. The number of downloadable audio clips available online is huge, so you have a lots of choices. You can also play natural sounds that are relevant to the geographic origins of your parrot’s species. In small doses, you can also play predator calls such as hawks and eagles. Use this form of enrichment quite sparingly, as you don’t want to add undue stress to your parrot’s world.
Social enrichment is the last category we’ll discuss. Parrots are flock animals. In the wild, they are most often found in large groups or smaller family groups. By placing a pet bird in your home, you are removing it from a natural flock. Therefore, you need to become the flock for your companion pet bird. Spending time with your pet bird is crucial, not on a rigid schedule but a bit of time when you can. Interactions should include play and should allow your pet bird the choice to not interact. If you have more than one pet bird, you have created a flock in your home. It is your job to provide social enrichment opportunities for your flock. (Please don’t take social enrichment as an opportunity to run out and purchase another pet bird or two! There are ways to provide social stimulation without overpopulating your home with parrots.)
If you are already providing a varied enrichment program, challenge yourself to add a few more new opportunities. If you are just starting out, the cardinal rule is to be creative. Relate the opportunities to your parrot’s natural history and you will succeed.
If you’re a new pet bird owner or new to a particular pet bird, there is a learning curve for both of you. Some pet birds need training to learn to interact with enrichment, and some will dive right in. Whichever type of enrichment you offer, have fun creating it and watching your parrot enjoy a more enriched life.