When selecting toys for the cage, encourage owners to keep in mind the bird’s species, size, interests and personality.
Like people, birds have distinct, individual personalities. Watch a group of young budgerigars playing together and it becomes obvious which ones have loud and active personalities, which are a bit quieter and which are just plain devilish. My favorite budgie, Tribble, was, without a doubt, the devilish type. He was fearless, a bit reckless and he harassed other birds from the tops of their cages. He also loved playing aggressively with all types of toys.
When choosing the right toys for a pet bird, a pet owner should not only consider the size and type of the bird, but also their personality. It is extremely important that all birds, even the non-parrot species, have at least three toys in their cage at all times. These toys need to be changed out at least once every two months, or preferably once a month for larger parrot species, even if the toy is not damaged. Toys that have been used up should be replaced right away, while others can be recycled back into the cage once they have been away from the bird for four to six months.
One reason why toys should be changed every month or two is so that the bird will not be afraid of new things. This can be a big problem for some birds, like species with quiet and sensitive personalities, such as African grey parrots. Owners that have birds with these traits need to be very diligent about changing the bird’s toys every month, or even more often, especially when the bird is young. It’s also a good idea, especially with sensitive birds, to change the environment in and around the cage once a month by moving and/or replacing different objects. This way, a young parrot does not react badly and get stressed when anything new pops up around them.
Another important incentive to change toys on a regular basis is to keep the bird from getting bored. The pet’s intelligence will play a large factor in how often toys should be changed or replaced. Generally, the larger the parrot species, the smarter the bird will be, and the need to change toys out becomes more imperative. A bored parrot can become a very dangerous creature to itself, the environment and its owner. Biting, screaming, chewing, pulling feathers and destroying everything it can get its beak on are behaviors that will occur if a parrot is not kept occupied. Of course, attention from the owner is the first key to keeping a bird mentally healthy and happy, but toys are the secondary requirement.
Toys fall into roughly three categories, and it is best to give birds at least two–if not all three–types at the same time. The first toy group includes items that can be destroyed. Though many types of material can be used for these toys, most are usually made of rope and/or wood. Besides the size of the toy, it is important to consider the thickness of the rope and the hardness of the wood when choosing the right toy for a pet bird. The rope should be more like string for small birds like canaries and parakeets, but bigger and stronger for larger parrots.
Ideally, wood toys should have a mixture of both hard and softer wood pieces, so some parts of the toy are easier to destroy than others. The size of the wood pieces is in direct proportion to the size of the bird. Never give a large bird a small wood toy, as it could swallow a small piece too easily, which may lead to health problems. Giving a small bird a wood toy with large pieces isn’t as much of a problem, but if a bird cannot chew the toy easily, then the point of giving it to them is lost.
Birds need to chew and destroy items for two important reasons–the grinding process keeps their bills in good condition and chewing up something helps the bird stay mentally stimulated. Be sure to tell bird owners when they buy toys made with destructible parts that it is normal, healthy and necessary for their bird to chew up the toy, and that it must be replaced when it has lost more than half of its pieces.
The other two categories of toys include ones made of hard plastic or metal parts that cannot be destroyed easily, and toys that give out a treat item when played with by the bird. The toys that give a food or other items don’t have to be changed out as often, since the bird is rewarded for playing with the toy and the toy makes them think, which is great for helping avoid boredom issues. Virtually all parrots–particularly those that are very smart and with curious dispositions–will greatly enjoy any toy that will give them an award after solving a problem. Of course, parrots also love to play with toys that provide a reward, such as a nut, after chewing down the outer wooden part.
Tribble loved mirror toys with beads on the front. Mirror toys carry a myth that birds will become more attached to the mirror than the owner. For small parrot species such as the parakeets and cockatiels, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. In fact, the “friend” in the mirror can keep these small birds company when an owner is away. For larger parrots, there may be more of a problem with attachment, so it is best to stick with non-mirrored toys with lots of bright colors and interesting designs.
All toys will help keep birds happy and healthy, and variety is important, but giving toys that bear in mind the bird’s species, size, interests and personality will always work best.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.