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How Playing Is Healthy For Pet Birds

Pet birds play because of instinct, for health, to learn natural behaviors and just for fun.

By Mattie Sue Athan

brown-headed parrots
While wild parrots actively pursue the business of surviving in a hostile environment, the greatest stress a pet bird could have might be the lack of stress.

Apparently frivolous activities, play behaviors are crucial to juveniles in many, if not most, species, including people. The wild predecessors of today’s puppies developed social roles and the ability to communicate dominance, submission and everything in between as a means of surviving in cohesive groups called packs. Kittens can be easily observed watching, stalking, evaluating, pouncing and marking in ways that enabled wild ancestors to bag dinner and defend important territory. Obviously, some of these “skills” are unnecessary and unwanted in our homes, especially in adult companion animals.

Play might be even more significant to wild parrots. Unlike animals that survive by reproducing quickly and in great numbers, parrot species undergo a long, extensive “educational” period between fledging and sexual maturity. During this process, juveniles stay in groups and with their parents. They playfully, often amusingly, try to copy the behavior of other parrots. The youngster learns to groom, climb, fly, open things, chew, communicate and make life-saving decisions about what to eat and when to fight or flee. Without a thorough “education” a wild parrot will not survive. Much of this learning process involves play; hiding, chasing or trying to groom or steal from clutchmates, and they also practice animated responses, vocalizations and displays.

Just For The Fun Of It
But the need for play extends well after maturity in pet birds and bears components that would be unnecessary in nature. While wild parrots actively pursue the business of surviving in a hostile environment, the greatest stress a pet bird could have might be the lack of stress. A companion parrot doesn’t need to decide which foods to eat and which to avoid (although many do actively select and reject certain items); there is no need to avoid predators at the water hole, and the pet bird doesn’t usually need to court and maintain a pair bond and nest site.

Play Replaces Destructive Bird Behavior
So what’s a bird to do? What happens in those long hours when people are away from home fighting for survival in their own “jungles?” Unless a pet bird learns independent play, time alone might be used for problematic or destructive activities.

It’s been said “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” Consider what happened when electronic games became increasingly available to teenagers. By the late 1990s personal computers began making their way into many, if not most, socio-economic strata in the United States. Involved parents complained that their youngsters played video games rather than studying, volunteering or exercising. Surely one can see the fault of this, but something unexpected happened in some other groups. Law enforcement statistics documented a surprising trend. In Brooklyn, Queens and other New York City boroughs, juvenile crime declined. Anecdotal evidence suggested that teenagers were breaking fewer windshields, snatching fewer purses and stealing fewer cars because they were busy playing video games!

Play behaviors in pet birds replace socially and physically damaging activities. A pet bird banging a bell is not screaming for attention. A pet bird untying knots in leather strips is not making holes in the curtains. A parrot demolishing a wooden block or perch is not damaging woodwork.

All of this parrot “recreation” has a somewhat unnatural component; it’s autonomous, solitary. If a pet bird doesn’t learn to play alone, it won’t go out breaking car windows, but it might find something equally obnoxious to do. If a young pet bird is accustomed to face-to-face interactions with people and doesn’t learn side-by-side and independent play, it will almost certainly become increasingly vocal in its demands for attention. A frustrated parrot can be loud.

Parrot Behavioral Addictions
A parrot can become habituated to face-to-face interaction just as easily as a teenager can become addicted to “Grand Theft Auto” (a video game). As a single habit becomes increasingly entrenched, the urge for it is so great that it’s difficult to do anything else. This is an behavioral addiction. Just as teenagers are advised to pursue many activities to avoid the formation of obsessive patterns, newly-weaned parrots must be guided to exploration and diverse adventures. That doesn’t mean expensive toys, but it does mean lots of opportunities do make appropriate decisions.

People are as confined — by jobs, home, family — as pet birds or any animal surviving a limited niche. A freshwater fish can’t suddenly decide to move to the ocean. Few wild animals can deviate from the time-tested paths of their parents. Likewise,  very few people can simply walk away and survive in the manner to which they have become accustomed. The process of choosing between alternatives is the closest thing most of us have to freedom. When we buy a garment or car, we want to see many options before making a decision. When we go on vacation, take a holiday, we want to go where we want to go.

The process of choosing between various activities provides a similar sense of well-being for a pet parrot. A busy, well-adjusted pet bird might want to talk into an empty cup (sound out a hollow instinct), chew up a perch (carve or display nesting skill instinct), aggressively bang a toy against the cage (vanquish a rival) or throw out only the certain colored foods (avoid “toxic” food instinct). It might want to chew through wads of paper looking for treats (forage.)

The more opportunities a pet parrot has for appropriate activities, the less time it will have to consider and improvise inappropriate ones. 


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