Playing is a behavior we see in many animals, but it is the creatures that are considered extremely smart that seem to show the most play behavior. Parrots are, without a doubt, among the most intelligent pets kept in captivity and, in many ways, the most playful and most in need of interaction and stimulation.
Parrots can bore easily, especially the larger species, and a bored parrot can develop all sorts of bad behaviors, such as yelling, plucking feathers and biting. In the worst cases, they can even go “insane.” Keeping them in the right environment, feeding them the proper food, and giving them the stimulation they need with interaction and toys will make a parrot a fine-feathered friend, rather than a frustrated, feathered fiend.
A healthy environment for intelligent birds, such as parrots, offers items that can keep the pet occupied when the owner is not able to give them attention. Toys can provide great distraction, as long as they are changed around with some frequency and are replaced when destroyed. It also helps to offer a pet bird a variety of toys that are made up of different materials, including some that are brightly colored, as parrots can see color like we can. Another important factor to consider with bird toys is their “shredability”—parrots love to destroy things and doing so has the added health benefit of keeping their bills in great shape.
The size of the toy offered to any bird must be taken into consideration for a number of reasons. For example, a toy that is made with small parts may be inappropriate for a larger parrot, since the bird will not only be able to destroy the toy too quickly, it may also ingest the smaller pieces, leading to a visit to the vet. On the other hand, large bird toys may intimidate a small parrot and it may also be too big for the bird to get its beak around and chew on. Be sure to find out what species of bird customers have before selling them any toys, even if the customer brought the toy up to the counter. Although some manufacturers will describe what size bird to give a toy to, bird owners do not always notice or pay attention to the labels.
The variety of materials that toys are manufactured from today is impressive. Some materials are easy to shred, like paper, palm leaves, cardboard and soft woods. These are great for smaller parrot species. Harder wood like manzanita and java are great for larger parrots that have very strong bills. All parrots should be given toys made from materials that can be destroyed, as it keeps them busy and parrots seem to enjoy chewing on things. Be sure to tell owners that this is normal behavior and that they will need to replace toys like these as needed.
Toys can also be made out of plastics and metals that are much harder or nearly impossible for a bird to destroy. Some plastics used are very hard and are usually made in larger sizes for big parrot species. Smaller plastic toys, made with thinner plastic, should never be given to larger birds, as they can and will chew them apart, leaving behind sharp edges that can hurt the bird. The bird might also eat the smaller pieces, causing digestive problems.
Many bird toys on the market today are made of a mix of materials and tend to keep a bird’s interest longer. Some of them are the “intelligent” toys, in which a treat is hidden inside the toy and can only be obtained when the bird figures out how to get it out. These toys are great for the larger parrots, as they can keep the bird mentally stimulated for long periods of time. Treats in these toys do not necessarily have to be food items; they can also be pieces of wood, paper or cardboard that the bird loves to chew up.
It is important to tell parrot owners that they should not rely on the toys themselves to keep their bird mentally stimulated, since parrots need to get attention from their owners, as well. But toys can certainly be helpful, as long as they are changed out when destroyed or before the bird becomes bored with them. The best thing to do is offer three to four different types of toys to a bird in their cage, and change them out at least every month or even more often. This is especially important to do with young parrots, as well as those species that are considered “sensitive” like African Greys, so they will not fear new objects in their cage. Once a toy has not been used for a few months, the owner can reintroduce it again.
Customers who own larger parrot species should definitely make use of the “intelligent” toys for their pet along with the different treats that can be used in them. It is also a great idea to give a parrot an area to play in that is separate from its cage such as a bird gym or stand. This play area should include many different toys that are not being used in the parrot’s cage, giving the bird two distinct areas to keep it busy and hopefully out of trouble.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.