Earlier I posted on the importance and complexities of pet parrot care. I include not only the Psitticines (large parrots, from Macaws to Parakeets) but also little guys like Canaries, Finches, and Button Quail that are frequently kept as pets. All of these birds share a commonality of far too much time in confinement, with far too little to occupy their minds or exercise their bodies. I will attempt to describe some easy, but IMPERATIVE, enrichment activities in this blog.
All captive animals need to be provided with activities to the closest approximation to their natural habitat as possible. Back in the late '80's, when Fluoxetine (Prozac) first came into use as an anti-anxiety drug, zoos in this country incorporated its use for Polar bears with obsessive-compulsive behaviors. These bears would pace in a pattern incessantly, over groom, and sway in predictable patterns. It was found that by giving them Prozac, their mental state was addressed, but without behavior modification programs to address the active portion of their brains, little effect was mediated by the drug.
Incorporated, however, with puzzle toys and environmental enrichment, these animals restored themselves and re-adjusted to their captive boredom status, with new tools on board. Their story runs parallel to that of your typical caged parrot, as well as many other of their shared comrades - other zoo animals, sanctuary animals, performance animals, and education animals. And daily, I see in my private practice, pet animals who are left at home during the hours that we commute from 9-5 jobs and leave them alone and under stimulated - dogs, cats, ferrets, birds, and others.
All need jobs to do, other than standing idle in small cages, and here are some suggestions for helping stimulate their minds during the many hours that they must spend alone.
Parrot toys, as I mentioned earlier, can be very expensive, especially for the larger birds. Parrots are very destructive - it is part of their job in life - and love to shred. Toys for parrots should come in three forms.
The first would be shredable toys. These are easily bought (and 5 minutes later, if you have a Cocka-chew, your $40 toy is destroyed!) or made. Some things that I like to do are very creatively taken from other large bird rescue colleagues of mine, who house many birds that are not ours but that we need to make life better for until we find them a new ideal home.
- Food: hang broccoli heads, carrot tops, and fruit bits from skewers or tied to the sides of the cage bars. There are also foraging toys that you can purchase that you can put these foods into. Make sure that they can be easily cleaned, as birds are very susceptible to bacterial infections,
- Alternatively, you can take some zip ties and tie a cardboard box to the side of the cage, and put these foods in there. It is fun for the bird to crawl into the box and explore, eat, and throw food out, much as it would do in its native jungle or Amazon rain forest. These can be combined with chewed off bits of other wooden toys or random acrylic foot toys to mix and match. Make sure that all fresh food is removed every 4 - 6 hours to prevent spoilage. BONUS! They get to chew and shred apart the cardboard box, as well.
- STORE BOUGHT TOYS: Those $40 wooden, sisal, chola wood, etc complex and wonderful toys that you bought that were destroyed in under 10 minutes can be brought to new life. I used to watch in dismay as my new Prize Purchase was chewed into bits and sent to the cage floor in mili-seconds. Now I gather up all the bits and restring them into new toys using anything that my imagination can conjure up, which trust me, is a lot! If I am feeling lazy or un-inspired, they go into one of the boxes that are zip-tied to the side of the cage and made more difficult to get into than any other toy - nothing like a challenge to a bored parrot! Side effect of note: this helps with nuisance screaming and destructive feather plucking/self mutilation as well. These are both very (unfortunately) common parrot behavior problems, and if left unchecked, can be very difficult to solve.
Dry foods, such as tortillas, or cooked pasta, can be woven through the cage bars. There they will dry, and provide fun chewing toys as well as nutrition.
Food bowls can be made more fun by taking a paper bag (ask for paper, not plastic at the grocery store) and disguise the food bowl station inside the bag where the bird has to either climb into or chew through the bag to get to the food. Make sure to monitor your birds dropping to ensure that he or she is getting optimal nutritional intake - the last thing that you want to do is starve your bird to death since it can't figure out where the food is! A parrot owner should be intimately familiar with the normal size, shape, consistency and amount of your bird's droppings on a daily basis, as this is one of the first signs of illness, which birds notoriously mask until it is too late, but is an imperative clue of when to rush to your avian veterinarian.
- HOME MADE TOYS
I say this with a caveat, since brooding and nesting can be VERY problematic to a pet bird's psyche and behavior, but providing chewing materials such as a wound up phone book or small catalog, (even better, according to Clare and Whimmer, stuffed into a card board box) to chew on is NIRVANA. It is best if you can hang these from the sides of the cage. The problem here is that providing chewing material within a dark, cave-like substrate can induce broodiness, which can cause a myriad of behaviour problems. But the chewing and scootching and scratching and happy coo-ing that can be part of NOT being broody - IF you are careful - are worth their weight in gold.
Be creative. My first Umbrella Cockatoo, Bea, LOVED wine corks, and we would give them to him whenever we had one. Make sure!!! - however - that if you are doing something like this, that they are not ingesting the material, just playing with it.
My very first bird was a rescue Cockatiel, brought home from the avian vet clinic where I worked. One of her favourite toys was the plastic ring that you get when you open a plastic milk jug. She would put it on and off her head with one of her feet for hours at a time in bliss and - BONUS! - it was "free" with our milk!
So, in closing, think of yourself locked in a room for life, sometimes being able to come out and wander a bit of the house, but not on a dependable schedule, or even when you felt like wandering the house and perhaps did not avail yourself of the opportunity, only to regret it later. Put yourself in the place of a being in a box, and then work to make their world what it should be. It is not your fault - nor theirs - that they are artificially captive in a cage where they should be flying free, but since you have taken on their responsibility, embrace it and do the very best that you can for them.
If you have any questions or feel the need to discuss this further, please contact me. The third part of this series will combine perch care, nutrition, and finding an avian veterinarian.
Dorene Olson, BA, APDT, AKC CGC evaluator
TARA Training Behavior, LLC