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Environmental Enrichment for Parrots
by Dr. Chris Steel, BVSc
In the wild, most species of parrots live in large flocks. There is usually a pecking order that establishes which individuals have access to the best nesting spot, the ripest fruit, the highest branch and so on.
Individual parrots may carry this dominant/submissive culture into domestic situations where they act out this behaviour within their human ‘flock’. If the owner becomes intimidated or backs down the parrot becomes more dominant and thinks it has the higher hierarchical status. To prevent this owners should continually demonstrate their dominance by using their height advantage, by correcting inappropriate behaviour and by communicating firmly with the bird. A parrot owner must show affection to the bird but at the same time stay dominant.
The adult parrot is thought to have the emotional and intellectual development of a three-year-old child. They have the ability to recognise many individuals and understand the concepts of shape, colour, material and size. By consistently repeating responses they may also understand the meaning of some words and phrases. Parrots also have short attention spans and the tendency to display tantrums when overtired.
Many hand-reared parrots start their lives relating to those that rear them, and later to their new owners, as parents or older siblings. However, when parrots reach ‘puberty’ this relationship becomes sexual. It is therefore vital to socialise the parrot with many family members. Owners must be careful not to encourage the bird sexually by feeding mouth-to-mouth or preening the lower back, belly or inner leg area. In saying that preening the bird is very important for promoting bonding if done on the head, neck, breast and under wing areas by using your fore finger and thumb in small ‘nibbling’ actions like a beak.
Inappropriate sexual behaviour includes regurgitation of food, lowering and fluttering of the wings and rubbing of the vent area against a toy or the owners hand or arm.
Growth and Development
Every attempt should be made to reward the bird (for example, by talking to it, looking at it, preening it, allowing it to perch on your arm) before it feels the need to misbehave to attract attention. If the bird does misbehave then it should be punished. Do this straight after the incident and while the bird is perched on your arm rapidly lower it 10 cm or so to startle the bird. Place the bird back in its cage without any verbal communication or eye contact with the bird. Leave the room or cover the cage for 15 minutes before coming back and resuming interaction.
Talking to a parrot is very important. Calling to the bird when in the house but out of sight maintains contact and discourages screaming. When the bird calls softly back, it should be answered or given attention in another way to reward it and so reinforce the behaviour. An answer machine positioned near the birds’ cage enables an owner to telephone and ‘talk’ to the bird several times a day. Likewise, music, radio or television can be played for background noise to a parrot. They often find silence very stressful (except at night).
Position the cage in a corner of the room. A cage open to the room on all sides does not give the same sense of security.
The cage should be as large as possible and of an appropriate shape – it should be wider than it is tall. All cages should allow space for climbing and wing flapping and must be tall enough to prevent the tail from dragging.
The bar spacing should not allow the head to come through, and all openings should be secured.
The cage should not be overcrowded with perches or toys. Branches from non-toxic trees such as apple, ash, birch, chestnut, eucalyptus, pear, popular and willow are excellent for perches. They are soft on the skin, variable in diameters which promotes circulation to the feet and parrots love to chew both the bark and the wood that helps keep their growing beak trimmed. Parrots should not be allowed to chew branches or stones of single stone fruits (plum, cherry etc). The fruit themselves are very safe.
100% natural cotton ropes also make good perches and act as swings. Nylon ropes must be avoided due to risk of ingestion of the fibre. Sandpaper covered perches are common but this commonly causes foot lesions.
It should be bright but never exposed to direct sunlight flooding in through a window. The importance of the day and night cycle is well recognised as a potential stressor that may cause behavioral problems. Pet parrots should have at least 10 hours sleep a day.
A heavy, dark cover should be used to shut out natural or artificial light and most of the noise. The cage should preferably be moved to a quiet, dark place for sleeping.
Parrots are naturally inquisitive and playful. This provides the opportunity to develop skills that will be needed later for activities such as foraging.
Parrots should only have toys that are guaranteed to be ‘parrot safe’ and of low zinc content.
Destructible toys such as cardboard, twigs and leaves from non-toxic trees, pinecones, edible flowers (violas, pansies, marigolds, nasturtiums) are preferable to acrylic, hardwood, rubber or metal toys. Rawhide dog chews and untreated firewood are attractive to larger parrots.
Rotate toys a few at a time to keep the bird interested and to avoid clutter.
It is essential to provide change. It is a good idea to have a ‘playpen’ or a freestanding perch. No bird should be allowed free rein in a house, as there are too many potential dangers. However, supervised time outside the cage is encouraged.
Many birds enjoy a car ride. A cage that can be seat belted into the car should be used. Remove swings, toys and water bowls. Provide fruit as a water source.
Potential Household Sources of Heavy Metal Poisons
Wild parrots spend many hours foraging for food. Captive birds often have little opportunity to forage as high-calorie food is usually placed in easily accessible bowls, which results in little physical or mental exercise for the parrot. It is recommended that toy/food combinations be used to stimulate the bird. These can be purchased or made eg pinecones stuffed with fresh food or lettuce leaves wrapped around fruit and veggies and tied with cotton or grass. Also you can thread things like carrot tops through the bars.
In the wild, parrots feed in the early morning and again in late afternoon, so pet parrots should not have constant supplies of food as this may result in boredom, lack of curiosity and ‘fussy’ feeding preferences.