Companion parrots have become increasingly popular pets due to their colourful plumage, long life and extreme intelligence. However, with extreme intelligence comes boredom, particularly when the parrot is not provided with an enriching environment.
What is Enrichment?
Enrichment includes objects, activities and other changes to the birds surroundings that enhance the complexity of the environment to make it more rewarding.
Why should I provide enrichment?
A lack of enrichment can have negative effects on the birds welfare resulting in behavioural problems, including self-harm. For example, it is estimated that 16% of companion parrots show feather-damaging behaviours (the act of repetitively chewing or removing their own feathers) as a result of a lack of enrichment.
Why does this happen?
In the wild parrots spend their days in complex social groups (flocks) foraging for food, socializing, communicating, bathing, preening/ allopreening, establishing nesting territories, mating and raising their young. All in all their days are extremely stimulating and feather damaging behaviours rarely occur. This leads us to assume that in most cases it is the captive environment which is not fulfilling the birds’ needs and contributing to detrimental behaviours.
In a companion setting it can be difficult to replicate the activities birds carry out in the wild. However, it is not impossible to provide a stimulating environment that enriches the parrots daily lives. A varied diet, foraging, toys, companionship and the great outdoors (on a harness, travel carrier, or in an aviary) are a few ways to make your parrots days stimulating.
Feather damaging including excessive preening and feather plucking are strongly influenced by diet and the behaviours surrounding mealtimes. Birds fed on seed based or pellet only diet and/or birds with no opportunity to forage for their food are more likely to damage their feathers, compared with birds who are fed on a varied diet and who are encouraged to forage for their food.
A lack of environmental enrichment can contribute to birds becoming anxious and fearful of change. This increased fear responses can lead to undesirable behaviours such as feather-damaging, excessive vocalization or aggression
By incorporating enrichment into the parrots’ daily lives, fear responses are significantly reduced, specifically to new objects and unfamiliar humans and increases the birds activity levels, inquisitiveness and helps to make their days meaningful.
Parrots spend 4-6 hours of their day foraging for food, this includes traveling several miles to a feeding site, once there, engaging in a local search of food, selecting food items, and manipulating them. When compared to a wild parrots feeding regime, companions parrots mealtimes are relatively boring.
Incorporating the act of foraging into the parrots mealtimes can give the bird the opportunity to express the foraging behaviours seen in their wild counterpart. We can achieve this by:
- Put feed items inside of boxes, closed toilet roles with a small point of entry and offer as foot toys.
- Cover food with shredded paper (best for the beginner forager) enabling the bird to rummage for their food.
- Hide food items within parrot safe foliage or hang from parrot safe plants.
- Hang parrot skewers or coconut shells from ropes and hide food items in them.
- Wrap food up in paper and place around the parrots environment.
- Utilize specially designed foraging toys.
- Training! High value treats such as nuts, seeds and fruit can be incorporated into your parrots daily training session.
Enrichment not only comes in the form of foraging, but it is every other aspect of your parrots environment that provides stimulation. For example:
- Rotate toys at least once a week with something new and/or placing these toys in different areas of your birds cage/ playroom.
- Move perches around regularly to provide different climbing patterns or provide alternative climbing frames.
- Teach your parrot a new trick.
- Add new ingredients and textures your parrots chop.
- Provide your parrot with a herb garden it can walk on, forage using their beak and feet.
- Take your parrot outside (on a harness or in an aviary)
- Daily showers/ baths,
- Sand boxes to dig (African Greys spend large portions of their time in the wild digging).
- Companionship either in the form of another bird or you. Spend as much time with your bird as possible.
Please make sure all enrichment items used are BIRD SAFE.
My parrot is scared of everything- What do I do?
Neophobia ( the fear of unfamiliar items) is common in adult birds who have not been provided with the opportunity to investigate at a young age. Therefore when a new object is given to the bird it shows extreme or irrational fear to the object.
Signs of fear in birds may include:
- Increased vocalization.
- Growling or hissing.
- Raised wings.
- Head shaking.
- Body tremors.
- Puffed up feathers.
- Sudden flight away from the object.
- Showing aggression towards the object e.g. lunging or biting.
Long term signs of fear include:
- Feather plucking.
- Loss of appetite.
- Sitting in one corner of their cage.
- Excessive vocalization.
You know your bird best and they may show other abnormal behaviours that will indicate it is afraid or something is wrong. Please always consult an avian veterinarian if any unexpected abnormal behaviours occur.
Follow the steps below to introduce a new object to your bird.
- Introduce the object at a distance outside of your birds cage for a short period of time. The parrot should not be showing signs of fear.
- Move the object closer to the parrot. The distance between the object and the parrot will decrease over time in relation to the parrot not showing any signs of fear to its increasing proximity.
- Once the toy is in close proximity of the bird, place the object below your parrot, when no fear response is elicited move the toy up further towards the bird. DO NOT place the toy above eye level.
- Once the object is level with your bird and in close proximity without signs of fear being shown offer the toy to your bird. This is best done on a flat surface. You may want to play with the toy yourself to show your bird it is safe and nothing unexpected is going to happen.
- Use the click and reward system to encourage your bird to touch the toy. Do not reward lunging or snatching.
- Once your parrot is comfortably touching the object they will begin to explore the object. Encourage manipulation by attaching treats to the object or inside the object. At this point you should decrease the number of click and rewards given to your bird for touching the object.
- Once your bird is actively playing with the toy remove all click and rewards, treats may still be incorporated with the toys.
- Target training can be used to encourage the bird to move closer to the object and initiate touch. This approach is commonly used in zoo animals with little to no human contact and aggressive birds.
- Throughout the process you should continuously be reading your birds body language, as soon as they show signs of fear, stop, and take a step back.
- Pushing a novelty object onto a neophobic bird will only increase their levels of fear while simultaneously decreasing the trust the bird has in you.
Don’t forget !
- Parrots daily lives should be full of stimulation to prevent a poor welfare state.
- The new objects introduced should hold your parrots attention, if they’re not showing signs of fear but they’re not interested either, switch it out for a different object or make it more interesting.
- Enrichment does not just come from objects; it comes from other forms of stimulation such as social interaction with yourself or other birds.
- If your bird is neophobic take your time, do not rush the process.