There are a few myths floating around about how birds play and interact with toys. Retailers who know the facts can help customers choose the perfect toy for their birds.
Until relatively recently, people considered it ludicrous to think that living creatures other than human beings possess the ability and desire to play–with play being defined as an activity that has no absolute goal, such as attracting a mate or getting food. Those of us in the pet industry certainly know that it is a myth that birds don’t enjoy play. In fact, play is a necessary part of their existence to keep them sane. Still, a number of other fallacies about how birds play and interact with toys persist until this day.
One myth that has existed for as long as I’ve been in the pet industry is that toys with mirrors should never be given to any type of caged bird. The argument is that the bird will become too attached to the mirror toy and become untamed and even aggressive toward the owner. Admittedly, there is some truth to the statement, but it is a concept that certainly needs some clarification, as it really depends on the bird’s personality and species whether it should be offered a mirrored toy or not.
The two most popular parrot species kept in captivity, the budgerigar (parakeet) and the cockatiel, rarely develop any problems when given toys with mirrors. In fact, a tame budgie or cockatiel will see its reflection as a “friend” that can keep it company when its owner is away. Once the bird moves away from the mirror, the “friend” is gone and then the bird will go to their owner.
In the past 35 years, I can only think of two cases where a budgie got too caught up in its reflection and ignored its owner or even attacked when its owner tried to take the bird away from the mirrored toy. This is out of thousands of parakeets and cockatiels I have sold, owned or heard about during my life.
More intelligent birds, like medium- to large-sized parrots, are a different story, as they are more likely to get too attached to their reflection to the point where they may ignore their owners or become aggressive. My yellow-naped Amazon parrot had one of those faintly reflective rectangular hanging mirrors that was popular years ago, but he never got too attached to it. Other Amazon owners, as well as people with cockatoos, macaws and even lovebirds, however, have reported having to take the mirrored toy away. Just because something is true for one bird or species, it may not be for all of them.
Another myth about birds is that non-parrot species, such as the popular zebra finches and canaries, don’t need to play with toys like the more clever parrots do. This is not the case; all birds are considered intelligent creatures, but like other pets, some species and/or individual birds can be smarter than others. All caged birds should be given size- and species-appropriate toys.
We all know that bird owners should never give a large parrot a toy with small parts designed for a parakeet or cockatiel. Parrots will chew or pull off parts that can easily be swallowed, leading to serious health issues. The reverse is also true. It’s a bad idea to give large toys to small parrots. It’s like giving a ball that is too large for a dog to hold in its mouth. The dog, and the small parrot, may push at the large toy or ignore it or even worse, be fearful of it. Bird toys are meant to be held, chewed and worked on, so be sure owners are giving their birds suitable toys.
Another disturbing myth about bird toys is that there is no reason to change them out unless they’ve been chewed to bits. The fact is that toys should be changed out at least every month or two, and maybe even more frequently for large, sensitive or young parrots.
If an owner changes durable toys out fairly often, young birds will get used to having new items near them. This can help prevent a bird from reacting badly to any new objects being put in or even around its cage. A parrot that never has anything changed in its cage or surroundings for the first four to six months after going home may become sensitive to a small change and develop some other bad behavior as a consequence. Besides creating a more stable parrot, changing out toys helps to prevent boredom.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.