The concept of behavioral enrichment encompasses a number of techniques designed to encourage a captive animal to live, for lack of a better word, a “fuller” life. We do this by exploiting natural behaviors in a way that encourages the animal to stretch its mind and body by exploring, exercising, hunting, trying new foods and so on – activities outside of the basic necessities of captive life.
The Importance of Enrichment Opportunities
Parrots, with their limitless curiosity and energy levels, are ideal enrichment candidates. This is fortunate, as enrichment activities go beyond “nice to do” for such highly intelligent birds. Most animals that I have worked with in zoos, from fish to mammals, benefit from “BE”, as zoo keepers term it. However, active, inquisitive, social species – parrots, crows, primates, wolves and so many others – need physical and mental stimulation if they are to not just endure but thrive in captivity.
What’s more, opportunities to explore and think stave off boredom, and in parrots this often translates into a well-adjusted pet that does not pluck its feathers or scream.
Following is a review of the major categories of BE. You’ll notice that the various types overlap, and most stimulate parrots in more than one way. Please see our large selection of unique parrot toys, play pens, perches and CD’s – many will be useful in organizing a BE program for your pet.
I really favor this with parrots – after watching several species in the wild, I’m convinced that physical movement should be a key component of any pet parrot’s BE program. Parrots, even those long confined to boring cages, take well to wing and leg-stretching opportunities.
Provide a complex cage, and remember that you can vastly increase the cage’s usable area by adding climbing surfaces. Birds that flit from perch to perch, such as finches, make good use of spacious cages. But caged parrots move about mainly by climbing – a huge cage is not much good if the bird can merely sit on a perch or two and stare into space.
Install vines and perches of varying widths and sizes, so that your pet can make full use of the space afforded to it. Wild grapevine is particularly useful as you can find nearly any shape and size needed – just be sure you can distinguish it from poison ivy! Parrots will also delight in using and shredding branches from fruit and other non-toxic trees (please see Pet Birds and Plants – Avoiding Toxic Species).
When adding toys to your parrots cage, don’t just attach them within reach – try making your pet work, by installing the toys in locations that can only be reached by hanging, climbing sideways, etc.
This category of BE includes interactions with other birds, people and (if safe!) other pets. When your parrot is left alone, a training CD, TV or radio may provide some diversion.
Anything that stimulates your parrot to “figure some thing out” qualifies as mental stimulation. This can range from hiding its food, supplying a foraging toy within which a treat is secreted or simply introducing a safe, novel item into its environment (i.e. a pine cone or cardboard box).
Hiding and varying the diet works well with any animal – just watch a group of guppies habituated to a fish flake diet react to a chunk of frozen prawn if you have any doubt as to the universality of the technique. Nutritionally based enrichment is also very easy to introduce, and the possibilities are limitless.
Please browse our parrot food selections for unique items to offer your pet, and consider using whole fruits and nuts as opposed to pre-cut pieces. Research your pet’s wild diet and then search for some foods it might appreciate – food markets in Asian, Latin American, African and Caribbean communities offer a wealth of nutritious fruits, nuts and vegetables, some of which might be part of your pet’s natural diet.
Time and time again, I have been surprised by the very noticeable change in an animal’s level of excitement when offered a new or natural food item. This applies whether the animal in question is a toad or a tiger – I’m sure you will be delighted at your parrot’s reactions.
Small meals spread over time and food items hid about the cage or, if safe, the house, are other tried and true methods of keeping your parrot on his or her toes.
Pay attention to those noises that stimulate your bird to call, display, bathe or just sit up and take notice. Play these and similar ones to rouse it to activity.
Of course, avoid using noises that might startle or instill fear in your pet – your macaw might not appreciate a recording of the scream of a harpy eagle, for example…then again, it would be interesting to see if a captive born macaw might respond to a predator’s call!
An excellent article on the natural foraging and social behaviors of the kea is posted on the web site of the University of Nebraska’s Avian Cognition Center:
good day, im having problems giving enrichment to my blue and gold macaw,can you help me with new ways of enrichment.
your suggestion will be highly appreciated..
Hello Rommel, Frank Indiviglio here.
Thanks for your interest in our blog.
In addition to the ideas mentioned in the article, there are a number of toys/puzzles/activities that you can create on your own, most out of everyday items that are easy (and often free) to come by. This is especially useful for macaws. As they are so powerful and destroy many manufactured toys in short order. Also, you can tailor the item to your particular bird’s personality or abilities.
An excellent article on homemade toys is posted on the website of the Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital; you can read it here. Also please check out our Make Your Own Bird Toy section…it is stocked with low cost items such as drilled corn on the cob, wooden blocks and metal links that can be useful in your endeavors.
Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.