When I was a child, my mother often scolded me for playing with my food. I have to admit that, as a budding artist, I did like to sculpt with my mashed potatoes. We humans are certainly not the only ones who occasionally play with our food. I have worked with pet birds for than 30 years, and in that time I have seen them play with food in some very interesting ways.
I have always been curious to know if these behaviors are related to natural behaviors in the wild, but there is not a lot of information available about the ways that wild parrots actually eat. We know that they spend a great deal of their day foraging for food and “processing” it so that they can eat it. Wild parrots have to search for their food and then pick it from the tree, vine or field. Then they have to shell or unwrap it, and finally they chew on it for a while before they swallow it.
In comparison, most pet birds have an easy life, with their food provided for them in a convenient bowl. Perhaps some of their strange food behaviors are a substitute for foraging and “unwrapping” food, but I think a lot of them are simply forms of play.
Play is often defined as a frivolous activity that has no purpose. However, it is obvious that there is a very significant purpose for play, even if it is unintended. With people, play tends to suspend time, and when we are involved in play we tend to forget the worries and demands of our lives. I would guess that on a level that obviously has some differences, play accomplishes the same thing in parrots. Playing with food is just another way that our avian companions keep themselves busy.
I believe that some of the strange food behaviors our parrots indulge in are just for fun. Food is not just nutrition for my six parrots, and they clearly enjoy a variety of fresh foods with varying textures, colors and shapes.
Food Crazy Cockatoo Parrots
From my experience, cockatoos seem to develop some of the most interesting food behaviors. Many years ago during a consultation, I watched an umbrella cockatoo stuff small seeds into the feathers on his chest. As he tucked the seeds into his feathers, he tightened the muscle tracts to hold them in place. Some seeds fell out, but many of them stayed until he was finished stuffing his feathers. Then he carefully walked across his perch to his water bowl. He leaned over the bowl and released the seeds. Many of them fell into the water, and he proceeded to eat them one at a time.
Bare-eyed cockatoos have been observed dipping their food in water before they eat. I could find no information as to whether it is to wash the food or to soften it, but both are possibilities. Many pet birds make “soup” by dipping food in their water bowls. Sometimes they eat the softened food, but sometimes it appears as if they are just amusing themselves, especially if the soup also contains toy parts, wood chips and feathers. Parrot soup can become a health hazard, because bacteria develop in the water if it is not changed frequently.
I visited with a client who has a lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo that has his own food game. The bird piles pellets and other small items, like wood splinters, on his shoulder. As he piles them on, he hunches his wing into his neck so that his loot doesn’t fall out. He then climbs to the top of his cage or playgym, drops everything and watches it fall to the floor. The cockatoo repeats this many times until he tires of the game. I don’t think anyone has observed a wild parrot transporting food in this manner. I can’t figure a logical purpose for the behavior, but I think that parrot logic can be very different from human logic.
Another cockatoo, a Moluccan, stuffs his rubber Kong toy with fresh food from his bowl. Then, with great effort, he climbs to the top of his cage, holding the Kong in his beak. Once he is on the top, he squeezes the food out and eats it. Obviously it would be much easier for him to eat his food from his bowl, but it appears that the cockatoo prefers the challenge of working (or playing) for his food.
Food Tossing Parrots
Many parrots will quickly remove anything they don’t want to eat by throwing it to the bottom of the cage or the floor. Others throw food on the cage floor because they want to eat it later. My late, great African grey, Bongo Marie, used to do this. The food that she really liked would usually end up on the floor of her cage, and then she would climb down to eat it. It finally occurred to me that she might prefer to eat from a shallow bowl on the cage bottom, and this was the solution to her throwing good food on the floor. Similarly, I often find bits of food underneath the papers in the cage of my caique, Spike. These are not discarded items but seem to be something that he puts there for later.
Food Sharing Parrots
Bongo Marie also made the decision to share her food with one of my dogs. She would whistle for him to come over and then drop food into his mouth. African greys are not the only parrots known to feed other animals. A friend has a Moluccan cockatoo that feeds about half of his soft food to her Schnauzer. As soon as the woman walks out of the kitchen with the cockatoo’s food dish, the dog runs to the cage and patiently waits for the Moluccan to give him his share.
Anyone who lives with pet birds knows how wasteful they can be with their food. This may serve a purpose in the wild, where their scattering of seeds plants the food sources for future generations. Of course, we don’t want future food sources planted in our living room carpet. Food flinging seems to be a favorite game for many parrots, but African greys seem to be the champions. It always amazed me how far Bongo Marie could fling her moist food. Sometimes I would find desiccated carrots and other veggies more than 10 feet away from her cage.
I am fascinated by the variety of ways that parrots eat their foods. When my Amazons were young, I gave them each a mealworm for the first time. The two double yellow-headed Amazons were a year apart but had the same parents and were both raised in the same manner, eating the same diet. I was fascinated that Rascal ate the mealworm whole without even chewing it. Then he made a food pleasure noise, asking for another and another. In the meantime, Paco delicately peeled hers and took as long to eat hers as it did for Rascal to eat several.
A Pellet Player, Foot Sipper Parrot
My caique, Spike, has a game that he plays with his pellets. My parrots get a lot of fresh food, but they usually have pellets in their cage. Spike seems to think that his pellets are toys rather than food. His favorite thing to do with them is to grind them into his cage bars. Sometimes he does it with such force that the powder ends up across the room.
Spike has also developed a unique way of drinking. Instead of putting his beak into the water dish, he forms a “cup” with his foot, dips it in the water and brings it up to his beak to drink it. He does this repeatedly, but loses a lot of water on the way from the dish to his mouth. I have never seen another parrot do this, although I wouldn’t doubt that there are others.
Minimize Parrot Food Soaking & Flinging
Does your bird drop its food in the water bowl and then eat the “floating debris,” thereby leaving the water clouded with food waste and potential bacteria? Try pre-moistening the food with water, and then place it in the food dish as usual. You might have to fine-tune the degree of soaking to match it to your bird’s liking (some birds like to dunk and then take a bite; others like to let it soak a bit). Treat the soaked food like fresh food, that is, don’t let it remain in the food bowl all day.
After an hour of vigorous cleaning, the birdroom is finally spotless! Now you debate whether to let your bird have its favorite fruit treat or pasta, knowing that it will likely end up on your wall, floor or furniture. If you have the time, offer the food by hand or on a towel. Some food flingers use this opportunity to wipe their beaks off on you or the towel instead of shaking it off.
Some parrots are quite fastidious, while others end up with food all over their faces. My Amazons eat their fresh food and mashes with great gusto, and they still have globs of food all over their beaks for some time after they have finished. Rascal looks like he has strange growths on his beak, but he eventually wipes it off on his perch. This, of course, is a matter of manners. My mother would have been appalled if I had food all over my face and then wiped it all over a dining room chair. Parrots are the masters of playing with their food.