Our birds need something to do when they’re not the center of attention or when home alone. Boredom is a human concept, but it applies to pet birds, too. Without some "work” — i.e. play — to keep them occupied, birds may rely too heavily on their human companions for activity or become lethargic perch potatoes. Screaming, feather picking and self-mutilation are sometimes linked to a lack of satisfying activities as well.
Ideally, birds learn to play when they’re young. A baby bird’s natural curiosity leads her to explore and test objects and surfaces. Providing toys throughout these early learning stages is important for the bird’s future development. When older birds don’t seem to know how to play, you have to be the teacher.
When I adopted Bert, an African grey parrot, I was told that he didn’t like toys. What I discovered, as we became acquainted, was that he just didn’t appreciate toys inside his cage! I worked around that by offering him small toys on his playstand. He seemed to like small wood pieces that he could hold and chew, or larger durable objects like the rubber Kong toy that he could wrestle with on the bottom of the stand.
Gradually, he accepted hanging toys, and he now spends hours each day happily playing on his stand. He’s to the point where he tolerates and even plays with a single toy inside his cage, an important consideration when I’m away from home. I don’t feed my birds on their stands (less mess!), so toys are their main source of activity when they’re out of their cages.
One of the keys to encouraging independent avian activity is discerning your bird’s play style. Does your bird like to play with hanging toys or foot toys? Is your pet an active, tumble-around-on-the-bottom-of-the-cage type of bird, or dignified, like my red-lored Amazon, Bogart? This 38 year old enjoys chewing on small chunks of wood he can hold in his foot, and he raucously attacks hanging toys. However, if I see him playing at all, he immediately stops, as if I’ve caught him behaving in an unacceptable manner. No matter, I can tell that he plays independently by the wood chips I find in his cage tray. Bogart is very reward-oriented as well. Toys embedded with nuts or treats get his attention first.
Does your bird like busywork? There are many intricately designed foot toys available to pique your pet’s interest.
Some birds have a penchant for comfort toys; soft plush items they can snuggle up to or groom. Many macaws self-comfort by draping their hanging toys over their backs or holding them under a wing. There’s not a lot of activity involved here, but toys that satisfy comfort cravings are very worthwhile, especially for lone birds.
Don’t forget to examine fabric or rope toys for fraying, and discard those that become badly damaged or soiled. I clip the ends of my macaw’s rope toys once they become frayed in order to reduce the risk of her getting a toenail caught in the fibers.
Is your bird aggressive with its toys? Does it act as though it hates the object, flinging and tossing it with abandon? It may not be hate at all, just a strong, active response to a favored object. In any case, the strenuous play sessions these playthings provoke provide a great opportunity for exercise.
Musician Roberta Fabiano has found little Barbie-sized guitars for her mitred conure, Ratchet, to play with. "She runs at the guitar as soon as she sees it and loves bashing it on the bottom of her cage like a naughty little rock star,” Fabiano said. "She has (fake) electric and acoustic guitars, and I always supervise her closely when she’s playing with them.”
Some birds have a talent for solving puzzles or using their toys as tools. Even wild cockatoos have been observed using sticks to drum for mates. Kelly, my orange-winged Amazon, uses small, round, dish-like containers to bail the water out of her water dish. She’ll also hold a spoon smeared with oatmeal or peanut butter and eat out of it. African grey Bert uses hanging toys as head-scratchers. He’ll get the toy moving, and then put his head underneath for a scratch. Bobo, my smaller grey, reaches out for the cage bars to get her swing moving.
Take note of your pet’s talents, preferences and quirks, and work with them when offering new toys. Try a swing embellished with chewy logs and pieces. Not many birds can resist this opportunity for beak work!
Nancy Sheffer, known as NanCBird to her Internet and bird club fans, often uses household objects as toys. "Paper cups are wonderful as long as they’re not coated with anything. I use the small bathroom cups and small lunch bags. Let the birds watch you put a favorite treat inside. Small boxes with tape and labels removed are good, but never use boxes from meat or produce, because they could be contaminated. Unused tongue depressors, pizza boxes and many other everyday things are great, but examine all potential playthings to make sure they are safe.”
Sometimes the tables get turned, according to Nancy Merritt of Texas. "Both of my birds were party animals from the get-go,” she said. "Even though George, my double yellow-headed Amazon, had been abused and had abandonment issues, one of the things that caught my mom’s eye when she bought him in 1981 was his vivacious personality. He was playing, putting his feet out between the cage bars to catch a finger to pull in and bite, and screaming ‘Hello!’
Dudley, my Senegal parrot, was just a party in feathers. He wouldn’t interact with me, but he was an expert at entertaining himself. So I haven’t had to teach a bird to play; mine taught me how to play.”
Want to learn more about bird toys?
Pet Bird Toys & Safety
Bird Toy Groups For All Types Of Play