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Teach Your Pet Bird To Play

Once your pet bird learns how to play, toys are not the limit.

Mattie Sue Athan & Kit Manchester

Conures playing with bird toys

Bird toy play usually develops naturally during the period between fledging (when the bird begins to fly and leave the nest) and the onset of sexual maturity in a healthy, young parrot. A normal juvenile parrot is only too willing to climb, chew, disassemble, ring or simply bang almost anything in its environment. This might be furniture, books, picture frames or a favorite pair of shoes — if they are within easy reach of that irresistible hooked beak. 

But what does a responsible owner do if a bird, young or old, won't play with toys? Failure to develop play can result in attention-demanding behavior, or in stress and frustration anytime the bird is not interacting with people.
The Played-With Toy
Once a parrot develops independent toy play, it can reward its own behavior if the environment is rich with interesting playthings. The key to piquing a bird’s interest in a toy or item meant for play is in the construction, presentation and modeling (showing how to play with on object; "how it works.”)

Construction toys are more enticing if they have parts that move and make sounds. If toys don’t have moving parts that bang together and make noise, more than one toy might be hung from the same hanger so that they shake, rattle and knock against each other when moved.

If a parrot doesn’t readily take to them, toys might be hung so that they interfere with bowls. This setup requires the bird to move them out of the way to reach food or water. (Watch to ensure that your bird is still accessing food and water.) 

Toys might also be hung on both sides of a favored perch where so that the toys have to be moved out of the way to access the rest of the cage. If the bird can’t go either way on the perch without having to move the trinkets, and each one has brightly colored parts that make sounds when they move, the bird is more likely to explore these accessories.

If humans in the home are focused and hard working, the bird may have seen them only get dressed, come and go from the home, prepare meals and engage only in necessary, human-work-like activities. Parrots love to copy behavior; they are more likely to learn toy play if they observe their humans playing with toys.

The Most Enticing Bird Toy Material
Parrots especially seem to enjoy puncturing paper with their beaks, so paper is probably the easiest material with which to entice a reluctant bird to play. Try these paper concoctions to stimulate your bird’s toy play:

1) Paper balls — Place dozens of wadded paper balls in the cage and food dishes. Put a treat inside some of the balls and not in others. Place some atop the cage to encourage climbing and pulling paper balls through the cage bars.

2) Paper towel or napkin — Lay the paper flat, and roll it into a tight tube from corner to corner. Then tie it like a bandanna in a bow-like shape on to perches and toys. Use a paper towel to wrap a new toy.

Alexandrine parakeet
Foraging toys are a good way to teach your bird how to play. Your bird has to figure out the puzzle to get to treat inside.
3) Adding machine paper — Wrap branches, food dishes and toys with plain adding machine paper.

4) Accordion fans — Fold three or four sheets of paper into an "accordion fan” shape. Weave them between the cage bars next to where the bird likes to sit so that the ends of the fan flare into the bird’s face. Stuff treats between the edges of the sheets of paper at increasingly deeper levels as the bird’s expertise at foraging increases. 

5) Paper covers — Place paper over food dishes so your bird has to knock it off to get the food. If that’s too easy, fasten the paper in place with a little masking tape, and poke holes in the paper to make the cover more interesting and easy to tear. (Whenever food or drink is obstructed in any way, monitor your bird to ensure that it is eating and drinking.)

6) Paper strips — Cut paper strips and weave them between the cage bars. Give your bird a bundle of paper strips to shred. Punch a hole in one end of the paper strips, and hang it with a quick link.

7) Paper shred — Pile clean, shredded, recycled paper (no staples) on top of a dish with dry food. For a bigger toy, use a plain wicker basket or metal cake pan, place small toys and/or treats in the bottom and cover with paper. 

8) Paper twists — Wrap small treats (such as seeds and nuts) in paper, and twist the ends. Adding machine paper is a convenient size to make paper twists. 

9) Paper plates — Place a toy or treat on a flexible paper plate (avoid plastic coatings and Styrofoam), and fold in half. Glue the edge (using nontoxic school glue), or tape the folded plate shut. Punch a hole in the edge and hang.

10) Cups and cones — Make foraging toys with small, unwaxed paper cups or water cones. Place a treat in the cup, crush it and twist the top. This works well with wet food. Punch a hole in the top of the cup to hang from a quick link. Place the cups throughout the cage.

11) "American origami” — Create a hat, boat, airplane or other simple origami paper design. Hide treats in the paper to make them more interesting. Hand them to the bird, put them on the food bowl, or simply place on top of the cage.

More Staying Power
As a parrot becomes accustomed to playing with paper objects, more durable materials may be offered with the paper toys. Although paper is an attractive material to help a reluctant parrot play, birds quickly learn to destroy paper toys and can become bored with toys made exclusively of paper. 

Gradually transition from paper to cardboard to soft wood to hardwood to metal or plastic parts. Continue to combine your bird’s favorite destructible components with more durable materials to make especially appealing toys. Avoid cardboard that has been used to transport food, because produce — and even boxed goods — may have been sprayed with pesticides. 

Toy Phobia
If your pet bird is afraid of toys, try some of these tips:

1) Toy "jewelry” — A parrot can learn that an object is not dangerous if it is worn or played with by a favorite human (or other bird). Keep a lanyard handy, or hang that new toy around your neck with a piece of cord like a pendant for a few days. Examine or manipulate the toy frequently in front of your bird, showing your enthusiasm for it. (Learn how to make a bird necklace or bracelet here.)

2) Competition and "Keep-away” — Parrots are curious by nature, and a toy will be even more interesting if it is hidden or kept separate from the bird.  First wear toy jewelry inside your shirt for a day or two, then gradually reveal more and more of it. Anything in the possession of a person or another bird is especially interesting, as parrots retain the instinct to compete (for food, mates and nest sites) from their wild predecessors. 

3) "Into The Cage" — Parrots can be quite focused on trying to pull objects into the cage. A new toy may be most attractive if it is unreachable during unsupervised time or if it is hung on the outside the cage. A toy hung between two cages can be very appealing — especially if one of the birds is accustomed to toy play — and the birds can jointly "attack,” compete for or play tug-of-war with the toy. 

Provide Opportunities To Make Successful Decisions
One of the best ways to stimulate interest is to construct a toy as your bird looks on. Assembling toys in front of the bird is a dynamic combination of the principles of modeling use (showing the bird what to do), safety (demonstrating that the toy is not dangerous) and competition (you have to keep the toy away long enough from your bird to complete it).

The concept of modeling can be used to teach toy play to a companion parrot if humans try to assemble a puzzle within the bird’s reach. Buy a nice, clean, inexpensive jigsaw puzzle (also buy a lead test kit, available at hardware and home-improvement stores, to ensure the puzzle and similar items do not contain lead). Sit with your back to the bird's cage, open the cage door so that the bird can climb out onto the table, and then try to put the puzzle together.

Turn the pieces picture-side up and start fitting them together. You are demonstrating to the pet bird that these little odd-shaped pieces are safe and interesting. Because your back is to the cage, you are also implying with body language that these little pieces are for you and not for the bird. This "keep-away” process should make the activity doubly appealing to a curious parrot. Of course, if this technique is successful, the puzzle will be destroyed.

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Posted: September 11, 2013, 1:45 p.m. PDT

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Teach Your Pet Bird To Play

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Reader Comments
My UC loves to play fetch. My QP dont like toys at all instead he likes those little hang on the side feed bowls and rearranges those in his cage quite often! lol
Dee, Pine Bluff, AR
Posted: 9/20/2013 7:28:41 AM
my cag thinks paper balls are the best!
Gabby, San Diego, CA
Posted: 9/11/2013 8:19:58 PM
My familys pet parrot is older and was neglected at his previous owners house, I just gave him the paper rolled with seeds and twisted at the ends and he loves it!!!! Bt my personal pet parakeet loves paper, but sadly is not strong enough to break holes in it, he doesnt seem to know how to bite either..... is this concernable?
Amanda, Akron, OH
Posted: 11/1/2011 5:08:49 PM
Loved your article about teaching a bird to play. I have a couple of questions for you:

1) Have you ever seen a bird actually invent his own game? My Triton cockatoo, Joey, does something really unusual. He chews up something (typically a wood block or a piece of cardboard). Then, he picks up a little piece of it between his toes, twists his head around upside down, drops the little piece, and tries to catch it in his beak. (This is similar to a human tossing a piece of popcorn up into the air, and trying to catch it in his mouth.) I have always been mystified in watching him do this. It is clearly not a survival skill, but self-invented play.

2) Have you seen a bird that likes to play catch? Joey loves to toss a toy (usually an empty plastic juice bottle) back and forth. He will run and get the bottle, and then throw it back. He has so much energy that he will keep this game going for 45 minutes! (He usually tuckers me out!) I have videos of this. (I am somewhat new to taping this.) I am wondering how many other birds there are out there who play catch like this? Is Joey unusual, or is this fairly common?
Cindy, Delaware, OH
Posted: 7/21/2011 7:45:41 PM
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