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From The Zoo To You: Tips For Feeding & Enrichment For Parrots

Use these tips from zoo keepers to better enrich your pet bird's life with foods and toys.

By Louise Bauck, BSC, DVM, MVSC

Woman with kitten
By Gina Cioli/BowTie/Courtesy Andy St. Laurent
Provide foraging opportunities for your pet bird.

Zoological parks have been developing creative and practical solutions to issues of bird husbandry for several decades. The professional staff at your local American Association of Zoological Parks & Aquariums (AAZPA) institution houses a dedicated group of experts who spend hours studying, training and entertaining their animals.

Our pet birds can benefit from their expertise in regard to environmental enrichment. This term means that an attempt is made to enrich every aspect of a pet bird’s life. Techniques range from auditory stimulation (e.g. sounds of the rain forest), to exercise management (e.g. training for flight) to foraging activities (i.e. hidden food and labor-intensive feeding puzzles) and much more.

I began to think about this issue recently at a local animal shelter, when I paused to admire their beautiful pair of Bourke’s parakeets. The delicately-colored birds peered shyly at me with their enormous dark eyes but did not move. Their home was well-made, medium-sized and filled with toys of every description, as well as ropes and swings. But the cage looked exactly like it did the last time I saw it — six months prior!

Obviously, the shelter workers had their pet bird’s best interests in mind, but they did not realize that toys are not enough. For one thing, zoo keepers know that if it is not “scheduled,” it is not enrichment! This means that even the best toys lose their novelty quickly, and all enrichment items must be rotated (exchanged) for different ones on a weekly or even daily basis.

Birds Will Work For Food
What type of activities do the birds engage in on a daily or seasonal basis? How can we provide similar activities to a pet bird? Zoo professionals start by looking at the behavior of a wild parrot in its natural habitat. Flying, searching for food and water, grooming, bathing, excavating nest holes, social hierarchy and pair-bonding activities, sleeping, resting, climbing, and much more fill the day-to-day activities of wild parrots.

Most of us probably spend more time thinking about what we feed our parrots rather than how we feed it. Calcium deficiency, vitamin-A deficiency, excess fat intake and many other problems are all well known to avian veterinarians and bird owners. Although formulated foods (pelleted foods) have gone a long way toward solving these problems, a large proportion of pet parrots receive inadequate nutrition. Yet even parrots that are maintained on the most balanced, most natural diet possible might still have health issues related to how the food is offered.

Time To Move
According to researchers, wild psittacines can spend up to 60 percent of their time foraging and related activities. Flying and searching for food, investigating a source, husking, crushing, stripping, peeling and other food-related activities occupy the majority of the bird’s time, especially the younger birds. Many large parrots, particularly those that forage at the top of the forest canopy, are very wasteful feeders. They remove seed pods, palm nuts or tree-top fruits, process them, and often discard most of each. (How many of us who share our homes with parrots are all too familiar with that technique?) Some smaller psittacines, namely those in the parakeet family, are typically grass feeders. They fly down to the ground and cling to seed heads while rapidly husking the seed kernels. Hanging parrots, fig parrots, lorikeets and several others are flower, pollen and fruit feeders. Some parrots, such as the Pesquet’s parrot, even have a vulturine niche, eating fruit “carrion” (rotten fruit). The Pesquet’s parrot even looks like a small vulture!

Social factors also influence feeding. Some birds tend to forage in pairs, some in flocks, and others forage in flocks seasonally. Some forage throughout the day, others are dawn-and-dusk feeders. One species of New Zealand parrot, the kakapo, typically feeds at night.

With so many feeding styles, each species group needs some individual attention to an appropriate feeding regime. However, some generalizations are safe to make. All wild parrots invest a considerable amount of time feeding or processing food. Pet parrots generally find their food provided to them in a bowl. It is easy to see why obesity and inactivity can become a problem for companion parrots. The time wild parrots spend foraging is shifted to other activities in the pet bird’s setting. Time spent on normal grooming, for example, might be shifted to time spent in over-grooming, and then on to feather mutilation. Or the time spent in flying and searching for food might be shifted to time spent sitting still; not too many calories are burned that way.

Having a personal shopper and chef (you) provides for all of the parrot’s culinary needs, but this can lead to a number of inactivity problems. Fortunately, it is possible to make your pet a more active participant in feeding.

Re-Think The Bowl
Zoos have a strong interest in natural feeding methods for a variety of reasons. They typically have a mandate to educate the public, as well as to maintain animals in a healthy condition, and to reproduce those species if needed. Although it is rarely possible to grow Pandanus palm trees inside the enclosure of a palm cockatoo or hyacinth macaw, the nutritional equivalent of the fruit of these trees can be sought. The actual act of foraging is harder to duplicate.

Species that typically invest a large amount of time in finding or processing food items might be more prone to behavioral disorders when kept in captivity. The wild gang-gang cockatoo, for example, feeds almost exclusively on the very well-protected fruit of the eucalyptus tree. Hours of work are needed just to expose enough of the edible kernel to make up a daily meal. In captivity, where they are generally fed a seed-only or pellet-only diet, this species is one that has a very high prevalence of feather mutilation. Is it because the labor-intensive feeding activity has been taken away from the companion bird?

The logical solution to emulating a natural lifestyle is to make it a lot more time-consuming for a pet parrot to obtain or process its food. Zoos have chosen a number of strategies as part of their environmental enrichment (EE) programs to do just that.

One of my favorite studies involved the Major Mitchell’s cockatoo (Lophocroa leadbeateri). In this study, performed in the 1980s at the Toronto Zoo, zookeepers hid all of the birds’ food on the floor of the enclosure and covered it up with leaves and paper. The hungry cockatoos had to spend hours to obtain the same amount of food they had previously consumed in a few minutes.  Even if you don’t have a playroom with a floor you are willing to turn into a big mess area, you can still try it occasionally, or just hide your bird’s favorite treats/foods. A cautionary note: make sure you do not deprive your bird of food and calories when encouraging a more active feeding method. Zoo workers “scale train” most of their (non-tame) parrots, getting even the feistiest birds to step on to a scale perch  for a weigh-in. (It is amazing what you can do with treats and a clicker!) In this way, keepers can carefully monitor a bird’s weight during a feeding change. Training in and of itself is also great enrichment, as it mimics social order interactions. Check with your avian veterinarian before you make any drastic changes in your bird’s diet.

“Contrafreeloading”
There is a funny phenomenon known in the zoo world that is called “contrafreeloading.”Contrafreeloading (CFL) is defined as the selection of food that requires work over the selection of “free” food. For example, one recent study performed on jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) allowed a choice of feeding from freely available food or food mixed with wood shavings. CFL was demonstrated by the bird’s clear preference for feeding from bowls containing shavings. In another study, Abyssinian ground hornbills (Bucorvus abyssinicus) and bare-faced currasows (Crax fasciolata) showed a preference for eating food that was hidden over food that was visible, much like our experiment with the sun conures. (See below: "Hide & Seek Feeding").

Another EE feeding technique that is popular with zoos is to use labor-intensive foods, such as in-shell nuts (whole Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, whole almonds, whole walnuts), as well as dates, whole fresh corn cobs, pomegranates, suspended spray millet (even for large parrots) or spray milo and “fruit strings” (hanging suspended fruits). Several commercial foods also can qualify as “labor-intensive,” stick foods.

Don’t forget safety considerations: you must be diligent about using safe and species-appropriate fasteners to prevent the bird’s foot, legband, head or wing from becoming entrapped. Nutritional balance must also be maintained. Most avian veterinarians and aviculturists recommend formulated diets because of their great nutrition, but as long as other foods do not make up more that 10 percent of the caloric intake, you can probably offer them safely. You can use these base food items in all applications in many of the puzzle-type feeders.

In any case, daily weighting and dropping inspections are always recommended. If zoo parrots can be scale-trained (that is, trained to step onto a gram-scale so they can be weighed), pet parrots certainly can be!

The Novelty Effect
Zoological parks are in a position to offer their charges much larger enclosures than most of us are able to provide for our companion birds. But we have one advantage they do not: a house. Your house or apartment is related to a concept called the Periodic Access Area (PAA). This is a relatively new strategy in captive animal management. The PAA has been described as a portion of an existing habitat that is intermittently blocked off or barred to the animal(s).

Think of the cage as the existing habitat, and the house as the portion that is periodically blocked off. When access is allowed to the PAA, an increased activity level in almost all animal subjects can result, as opposed to having the entire house all the time. This is because the novelty of the forbidden area encourages exploration. Allowing activity in different rooms in the house, setting up new climbing areas or hidden treat areas can enhance this effect. 

To Trim Or Not To Trim? 
Flight seems like a right that most birds need (for exercise) and deserve, but safety needs are also important. My general advice is to trim wing feathers as minimally as possible, and do not take chances with prevailing winds if you take your bird outdoors. Of course, for good exercise benefits, you need to provide daily access to a room or your house. Safety concerns besides flight must obviously be addressed, kitchens and windows are particular hazards, but most of us are able to identify the big problems. Talk to your breeder or avian veterinarian for more information.

Speaking of the great outdoors, the zoo community has something to teach us in this regard. So many of the pet parrots that belonged to my clients spent their entire life indoors. An important part of zoo enrichment is access to the sights and smells of the outdoors; the hot sun of a July day, a rain shower in August, a spring breeze in May. Perhaps we can all try harder to allow our pets these same benefits. There are lots of sources for inexpensive and easily assembled garden or patio aviaries, which allow your pet to safely enjoy an outdoor experience on a nice day. Of course you need to be extremely careful during transfers, especially with a flighted bird. A little dog kennel to move your bird or flight harness helps negate the risks of your bird taking off. Zoo birds are also trained to enter and exit a transport carrier quickly and easily. You can do it, too! Do not leave your bird unattended, and make sure it has shade and shelter from the sun and rain and that predators cannot reach it.

Treating inactivity-associated behavioral problems, such as obesity and feather mutilation syndromes in parrot species is generally unrewarding. Preventing these problems can be more successful, and an alteration in feeding strategy can be an important factor. 

Hide & Seek Feeding
There are lots of options for foraging activities besides floor-feeding. In a study performed at Zoo Atlanta in 2006, we tested two sun conures (Aratinga solstitialis) with some feeder puzzles and hidden food cups. Immediately following the collection of baseline weight data, the conures were introduced to several new feeding devices. We attached the puzzles to the outside of the flight cage. (Some parrot species are shy about new toys or items for their cage, and a slow exposure to them is a good idea.) Fastening these toys to the outside of a cage is less scary than putting them inside the bird’s territory without warning.

Parrots often seem a lot more interested when they think they are not supposed to have access to an item, and we found the birds trying to reach the puzzles even before they were placed inside the flight. Also included were clear plastic cups that we could hide in the exhibit, punched with holes near the rim and secured with twist ties. (Safety concerns, such as entrapment, zinc toxicity, hygiene factors and foreign-body ingestion were discussed and both devices and fasteners used were bird-safe.)

The idea was to dispense with the bird’s regular feeding dishes entirely, and have them feed from a constantly changing and hidden location, supplemented by what they could remove from the feeding puzzles. 

What did we find? Both Scruffy and his buddy, Ringneck, actually gained weight slightly, probably due to increased muscle mass with all that flying. The time the birds spent resting decreased from 24 percent of their time to 14 percent!  

No Toys
Remember your school days when the last 20 minutes seemed like forever as you waited for the clock to strike 3 o’clock so class could be let out? Or perhaps you were “mistakenly” assigned afternoon detention, with nothing to do but twiddle your thumbs for an hour or two until you were finally excused. These moments seemed like forever because you had absolutely nothing to do but sit and wait. There’s a reason why detention is void of environmental enrichment; it’s meant to be punishment. Similarly, a cage with no toys is much like a perpetual detention hall for the parrot housed inside. That’s enough to make any being become anti-social, depressed or defiant.

Parrots need activities. They have instincts hard-wired into them that makes them want to chew, shred, climb and hide. Don’t think for a moment that our companion parrots don’t realize that they have beaks, claws or wings. A parrot with no opportunity to chew might seek out that opportunity via your table or leather ottoman.

Parrots are somewhat easy to please if you pay attention to their needs. They have individual toy preferences, although there does seem to be some species-specific preferences. Macaws, Amazons and cockatoos, for instance, are like feathered lumberjacks, effortlessly tearing up chunks of wood. Cockatiels and lovebirds appear to have an affinity for chewing up paper. Conures are good at untying knots. Caiques and lories are inclined to roll on the ground and twirl a foot toy with their feet while on their backs. Some birds spend a few minutes chewing up a toy; others devote their entire morning to demolishing it.

Learn Your Bird’s Play Style
Now that you know that your bird needs toys and enrichment, how do you make sure the toys you offer aren’t ignored? Just as you learn to pay attention to your spouse’s likes and dislikes, get to know what your bird likes. Toys generally come in small, medium, large and extra-large sizes; which correlates with your bird’s size.

Wood Toys: Consider the size and power of your bird’s beak. Softwoods, such as balsa, might be better for a cockatiel, budgie or lovebird than a toy made of hardwood, such as manzanita, which a power chewer like a macaw or Amazon might enjoy. Some toys have cardboard elements, with or without a treat or paper stuffing inside.

Plastic Toys: Some toys incorporate hard-plastic elements, such as beads and discs. A lot of parrots seem to enjoy manipulating beads and other shapes with their beaks. If the plastic part is tied onto a leather strip, you might notice that your bird will work out the knot until all the beads fall to the cage floor.

Metal Toys: These toys are not just virtually indestructible, they make noise when shaken or hit against the cage bars or other toys; many parrots enjoy the resonating sound.

Foraging Toys: These toys are very much like a game of hide and seek for your bird. They can be made of wood, cardboard, plastic or just about any bird-safe material and usually have a reward inside, such as a treat or other toy, which requires a bit of exploration by the bird in order to find it.

Puzzle Toys: These toys test you bird’s problem-solving skills. Cockatoos and African greys seem to be especially adept at solving puzzles, which could be a bead that has to be guided through a maze in order to release it, or a series of knobs that must be turned to dispense the treat.

Don’t restrict your bird to just one toy type. Try some of each, and offer two or three at a time. Rotate out the toys every few days with new ones. Parrots have been said to have the intelligence of a 3-year-old child. With this in mind, take a peek inside a preschool on any given weekday and you’ll see the role toys play in their day; the same goes for our birds.


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