One of our biggest challenges in keeping pets is to ensure they are both physically and mentally healthy. Feeding them the correct foods and keeping them in an environment that is appropriate are important for the physical part, but how do we keep pets—especially intelligent ones like parrots—psychologically healthy? And why is this so important to pet owners?
Playtime is important in keeping parrots, as well as other pets, mentally stimulated, and toys play a critical role and must be considered a necessity for pet birds. In fact, puzzle toys have been offered for decades to super smart parrots, and even our canine and feline pets have benefited greatly by the more recent explosion of smart toys. When a pet parrot is kept busy and interested with one of these toys, it helps to prevents bad behaviors—such as screaming, biting, feather plucking and destruction of their environment—from developing.
Intelligent play items often present a reward—such as a healthy treat—when they are moved in a certain way or the puzzle is solved. These foraging toys are great for offering food, since feeding meals in dishes does not give birds or even other pets a chance to do what comes naturally—hunting for their food. Foraging toys keep them mentally challenged and stimulated, which in turn leads to better and happier pets. Boredom can cause a parrot to look for trouble, just like a child.
Because parrots are so intelligent, they need to have any toys rotated out every month unless the toy has been destroyed—then it needs to be replaced. Chewing is an important behavior for parrots to stay active, so toys made for them in the right size that consist of wood, rope, paper and other chewable items must be offered at all times. Durable toys made of metal or plastic can be changed out every month and then reused after a few months.
Foraging toys are usually very durable and generally do not have to be rotated out as much as other toys, but they do need to be cleaned on a regular basis, since food is put into them—just like any cups or dishes. Note: if wet food is used in toys or dishes—such as berries or vegetables—and it is not eaten right away, it needs to be removed within an hour. Dishes and toys should be washed with dishwasher soap and rinsed well after wet food is used, and at least twice a week when dry food is used.
In many cases, foraging toys can take the place of some or most of the food dishes. This way, the parrot has to go and find their food, which gives them the mental challenge they need to avoid boredom. Depending on their main diet, some food can be put in a dish and some of the food can be put in toys. Extra food items—like healthy treats—can be put in more complicated foraging/puzzle toys. Some types of food can be hung from the cage bars as well. Place the toys and food in various areas of the cage, but avoid under perches, where they can get messed on. Also, make sure that clean water is offered at all times in a dish.
Parrots have been known not to eat things they aren’t familiar with or even starve themselves to death, so bird owners must be sure to only put items that the bird has eaten before in the foraging toys. They must also check that the bird is finding and eating the food in these items. Sensitive parrots may not like foraging toys at first, so the toys must be kept outside the cage for a few days. The owner can put favorite food items in the toys and have the bird watch it play with the toy. Once the owner gets the food out, it can be given to their pet. This gives the parrot a chance to understand the toy and quickly learn how to use the toy to get their treat out.
Trick or Treat
Another way to keep a parrot mentally stimulated is to teach it tricks. The reward can be praise and a small piece of their favorite healthy treat. This is called positive reinforcement training. It is used with many types of pets to teach different tricks and reinforce good behaviors. One of the hardest jobs a pet owner has is to be sure that bad behaviors are ignored and not rewarded, since even negative attention can be considered a reward to a pet.
For example, it is natural for a parrot to be very vocal in the morning and before sunset. However, if a parrot screams or goes on for long periods of time, this is not normal behavior and chances are the bird got rewarded for yelling at some point. Yelling at a parrot is a reward to them, since they think you’re yelling with them and not at them. What needs to be done is to ignore the yelling until the bird quiets down, then give attention and praise right away—and even a treat to reward the parrot for being quiet. If the bird starts yelling again, leave the room and ignore the bird until it gets quieter, then repeat the praise and treat.
If a bad behavior like yelling has been rewarded—albeit inadvertently by the bird owner—it can take a long time to break a bird of the habit if it’s gone on for a long time. Therefore, it is best to try not to reward any unwanted behavior from the beginning by ignoring the pet, then give praise and a treat when it is doing something it should. This includes chewing on a toy, for example. Reward the good behavior and ignore the bad—it is easier said than done, but is the best way to have a wonderful pet.
Although all pet parrots are bred in captivity in the U.S., these birds still need to be able to forage for their food as they do in the wild to keep them mentally healthy and active. Offering some or even most of their food in foraging and puzzle toys will definitely help keep parrots active and well-behaved, and using treats while training will give these pets the attention that they need. PB
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 40 years of pet industry and retailing experience.