Article - Environmental Enrichment For Parrots

Environmental Enrichment For Parrots
By Dr Jeannie Thomason Copyright © 2008.

Environmental enrichment, refers to the practice of providing animals under managed care with environmental stimuli. The goal of environmental enrichment is to improve an animal's quality of life by increasing physical activity, stimulating natural behaviors, and preventing or reducing stereotypical behaviors.

In the wild, our parrots exhibit four main behaviors: socializing, grooming, sleeping and foraging. In fact, two thirds of a wild bird's day is spent foraging for food. Even their play and interaction with other involves problem solving and thought. Wild birds also are able to get plenty of sunlight and fresh air every day.

Compare this to our captive pets. Life is very different in captivity. We tend to keep our birds inside the house, behind closed doors and windows. Most pet birds are likely to spend most of their days in their cages and of course, too many of them have very little to do in there. Try to think of this from your parrot's perspective, it is like you being locked in a room with window (that is always shut) with just a bed and someone bringing you food three times a day, you have no control over any aspect of your own life. Nothing different to see or do , same thing every day, day in and day out. Some of the obvious results are naturally going to be ill health, and obesity, due to lack of exercise at the very least.

Even we have our bird's cages near or in front of a window, they will not benefit from the sun because the window acts as a filter preventing the bird from absorbing the benefits of the sun such as Vitamin D3. Birds use the sunlight by preening their feathers with feather dust (in the case of cockatiel or cockatoos or the oily secretions of the uropygial (preen) gland). The substance on the feathers undergos a chemical reaction from the sunlight producing Vitamin D3 which the bird ingests with further preening of the feathers. The exclusively indoor bird does not have the benefit of the reaction. One alternative is to provide full spectrum lighting. Just be sure that the bird is unable to access the light or cord because most will chew given the opportunity. Also, the light should not be left on around the clock. Night time and darkness is also VERY important to the bird's health and I recommend 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness each night. You can even put the light on a timer and dimmer to help simulate dawn and dusk with a slow brightening and dimming.

Another option is to provide an outdoor cage for temporary sunning as the weather and temperatures permit. Do make sure that there are shaded areas available at all times and the bird/cage should be protected from wild birds or their droppings.

Cage placement
In a study done of abnormal repetitive behaviors practiced by Orange-winged Amazon parrots indicates that environment plays a role in two types of behavior that the caged birds perform. One of the behaviors, feather picking, closely mirrors compulsive behaviors in humans, according to Purdue University and University of California at Davis researchers.

The scientists found that parrots with cages that didn't allow a view of doors where people entered the room were less likely to engage in feather picking. "For parrot owners and breeders, one thing our research shows is that it might be worth putting a lot of thought into where the cage is positioned in the room". The results showed that birds with no view of the entry door showed no difference in feather picking no matter how close they were to the door, the researchers reported. In contrast, birds that faced the door feather picked more depending on the distance of their cage to the door. Results of the research are scheduled for publication in the January issue of Applied Animal Behaviour Science and currently are published on the journal's Web site.

Try to know your bird, some birds are so frightened of change that a cage move can actually cause picking. However, if your bird is already picking providing variety in the cage location may give them other things to think about and provide some distraction to slow the picking. Sometimes placing the cage in front of a window with a wild bird feeder near by to observe has been found a good distraction and enriching to the captive bird's daily life. I personally have a few cages an or play stands in different areas of my home to give a change of scenery or allow the birds to be where you are when you home.

Many of our captive birds are adapted to the jungle and very high humidity. Do some research to find out more about the natural lifestyle of your particular species and then find a way to provide something close to their natural temperature and humidity. Some of us live in areas of the country with very low humidity or we live in areas that require artificial heating and air conditioning which lowers the humidity in our homes. Either of these situations can be uncomfortable for our birds. Some Feather pickers have been seen to benefit from increased humidity because it is soothing to the skin and allows them to keep their feathers clean.

I personally do not recommend humidifiers due to the harmful bacteria and fungal growth they breed if not cleaned daily with HOT soap and water. Also, if used, be sure you change the cage papers or litter daily as well; which of course is good practice anyway as is making sure to clean the bird's food and water bowls daily as well..

A great way of increasing the humidity is to simply provide a daily bath for your bird. Bathing can be done in a variety of way depending on the individual. Smaller birds may enjoy misting or a shallow bowl of fresh clean water placed in the cage daily.

As a side note, if you are introducing your bird to bathing, it has been found that noise will often stimulate bathing activity. For smaller birds, running the sink faucet slowly and placing the bird on a towel over the sink divider (for traction). The birds will watch you running your hands under the water and often will join in on the activity.

Foraging and Enrichment ideas

Let's evaluate our parrot’s quality of life in captivity and see what we can do to meet more of their natural behaviors; perhaps we can reduce some of their over- preening or feather picking in the process.

Ideally, as natural a habitat setting as possible is preferred. Birds were designed to fly, and when possible, should be given the opportunity to do so in a protected area. This would ideally be a large enclosure set up out of doors as a rainforest environment where the birds can live comfortably as close to nature as possible, with enough space to make continuous and sustained flight. However, since this is not feasible in most situations, there are a few ways to safely let your flighted birds fly. (If you keep your bird's wings clipped, they can still get great enrichment by just being able to hop and climb around in a safe enclosure large enough to flap thier wings and move about with lots of space to spare.

If the birds must be housed indoors or if space does not permit large flights, they should be allowed out of cage time daily, for as long as possible. They should be taken outdoors in good weather, as it is important for them to have access to unfiltered sunlight (not necessarily sunshine) whenever possible. In this case, wings must be clipped and they must be supervised at all times.

Foraging enrichment fosters the expression of natural food retrieval and stimulates the bird's mind.

By now, hopefully the wheels in your mind are turning; how can we stimulate our bird's intelligent brains and provide "enrichment" and stimulus to them? Any novel stimulus which evokes an animal's interest can be considered enriching, including natural and artificial objects, novel foods, novel ways of hiding foods, and different methods of preparing foods.

The captive bird's need to shred, peel and destroy is very strong so always provide plenty of paper, clean, safe (un sprayed/un treated) branches, wooden toys, paper, raffia or some of the great shredable toys on the market to satisfy this natural instinct in them.

Puzzles that require your parrot to solve simple problems in order to access food or other rewards are also considered enrichment.

Encourage foraging both inside and outside of the cage. The following are just some general ideas, and should help to get you thinking along the lines of fun and interesting ideas for your birds.

Multiple Food Stations - place several bowls of food in the cage at various levels and places with a little bit of a different good in each. Greys seem to like one on the floor of the cage. This stimulates them to begin looking around in other areas for their food. Once they are used to idea and eating out of each differnt bowl, you can place some small foot toys ond/or a loose piece of paper or cardboard on top of the bowls to hide the food and goodies. You may have to give the bird a few days to get used to the idea of not seeing the food, depending on your individual bird. when they have learned they have to remove the covering of paper or cardboard, then you can make it more difficult to get into the bowls so your bird actually needs to tear the paper to get to the food. and search through the toys for the food. Make sure the birds have a variety of activities, choices to make and problems to solve.

You can also hide food or nuts in some of the puzzle toys available these days OR make your own toys. Try placing an almond or other nut in a small paper cup and wedge it between the bars on the cage or tie it shut with some safe raffea. You can also hide nuts or slices of fruit and/or veggies inside of corn husks or take two paper cups or throughly cleaned plastic pudding cups and put the food in one and cover it with the second cup and run a fruit skewer or rawhide though both cups and hang from cage or perch.

Empty paper towel tubes can be stuffed with greens, nuts, etc. and a piece of paper or cardboard stuffed into the ends to close it up.

Weave collard greens or chard through the bars of the cage along with strips of shredable materials, paper, grass mats, etc.

Rotating Toys - Just taking a toy out of the cage and hanging it somewhere else like on a play stand or in the window, etc. it will become a brand new toy to the bird. Switch toys around and add new ones every week or so.

Hopefully you will begin to think of other ways to enrich your parrot's life and make foraging a part of that.

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