By Jennifer Graham, DVM, DABVP (Avian / Exotic Companion Mammal), DACZM
Your birds are cherished members of your family. And, just like any family member, birds require ample amounts of mental and physical enrichment to be their healthiest. Despite their best intentions, many bird owners lack the knowledge necessary to meet the physical and mental needs of their feathered family members. The good news is that providing for the exercise and enrichment needs of your birds can be accomplished with a few basic but important considerations.
In this article, we will cover:
- Behaviors of birds in their natural environment
- Common problem behaviors associated with captivity
- Beneficial ways to provide enrichment for pet birds
- Benefits of flight and wing trimming considerations
Behaviors of Birds In Their Natural Environment:
If you love birds, you have probably spent time watching them in their natural environment. Whether it be songbirds, psittacine parrots, hyacinth macaws or any of thousands of other avian species, they all have some basic behavioral commonalities. These instinctual behaviors include:
- Foraging & Feeding
- Locomotor (i.e. “Comfort”) Behaviors
Most birds spend many hours throughout their day (or night, if nocturnal) in the skies. Even flightless birds are active – whether it be running or traveling distances for food or to find mates, birds are on the move!
Parrot species generally live in flocks. Not only is this important for better predator detection but is also allows for socialization. Courtship, finding a mate, allopreening or feeding, communication including contact and alarm calls, close perching contact, and playing take up 10-40% of the parrot’s day.
Foraging and Feeding:
Another 4-8 hours of the parrot’s day is occupied by foraging and feeding. This begins at sunup and can involve long flights to reach food or water. While many parrots rest in the middle of the hottest part of the day, late afternoon includes more foraging for food.
Locomotor Behaviors & Sleep:
Finally, locomotor behaviors and sleep take up the remainder of the day. Often called ‘comfort behaviors’, locomotor behaviors include those that help maintain the feathers and skin, musculoskeletal system, and result in increased physical comfort. Such behaviors include:
- Beak grinding and wiping
The Importance of Light and Dark Cycles
As tropical or semitropical species, most parrots should have a 12-hour light and 12-hour dark cycle. In addition to sleeping during the dark hours, many parrots nap midday.
What Is Unihemispheric Sleep?
Did you know that most birds engage in ‘unihemispheric sleep’? This means that one cerebral hemisphere stays awake while the other sleeps, which allows for simultaneous sleep and monitoring for predator threats. While this is an incredible ability – it quickly becomes clear how important 12 hours of uninterrupted quiet and dark sleep is for parrots, which does not always happen in our home environments.
Behaviors of Birds In Captivity:
As we’ve discussed, birds in the wild engage in a variety of physically and mentally enriching behaviors each day. Now, let’s contrast this type of living to the average captive pet bird species. A life in a cage simply cannot compare! It is no wonder we see so-called ‘problem behaviors’.
Common problem behaviors for captive birds can include:
- Feather damaging
- Chronic egg laying
These and other problem behaviors are often related to the way captive parrots are raised and can result from our inability to meet their basic needs. The great news is that there are things we can do to provide more enriching lives for our beloved feathered companions – read on to learn more!
How To Provide An Enriched Life For Your Pet Birds
Enriching your bird’s daily life means supporting their instinctual behaviors in as many ways as possible. With a little time, planning, and effort, every bird owner can provide an environment and activities that help make their bird’s life healthier and more meaningful.
Key areas to consider when it comes to enrichment include:
- Feather damaging
- Chronic egg laying
Foraging is instinctual for all birds in the wild. As previously mentioned, wild birds spend a significant portion of their day foraging for food, receiving the inherent physical and mental health benefits in the process. As you can imagine, the benefits of foraging for captive birds are similar and substantial. These benefits include:
- Increasing activity/exercise
- Mental stimulation and manipulation activities
- Relief of boredom, frustration, and stress
- Reduction of aggression and abnormal repetitive behaviors
Before we look at look at beneficial examples of how to promote foraging for your birds, let’s start by establishing what foraging does not look like. Simply providing food in a bowl does not equate to foraging activities for your bird. Just imagine life with a big bowl of food in front of you all the time. While it might be fun for a while, this is not exactly encouraging a healthy lifestyle!
One of the simplest means of enriching your bird’s life through foraging is to change the way food is presented. Some suggestions to stimulate foraging behavior are:
1. Provide smaller meals in multiple locations.
2. Hide or scatter food in the bird’s environment to increase search time.
3. Offer food in foraging toys or puzzle feeders.
4. Providing vegetation in larger pieces on hangers: this increases time to ingest and process food as well as providing higher fiber/satiety.
5. Feed at irregular time intervals to decrease predictability of feeding times.
Building a foraging tree is an excellent means of increasing foraging time. These can be purchased pre-made or constructed if you are the creative type. This set-up serves as the base for a more interactive and stimulating feeding experience and encourages movement.
Foraging Tree Construction:
- A stable central “trunk” is attached to a sturdy base.
- Branches (5-6 work well) are attached to the trunk at a variety of levels and in a variety of directions. Food bowls are attached to the ends of the branches.
- The top of the tree should be below shoulder height of people in the household and the last branch should be between 2-4 feet off the floor (depending on the bird size).
- The bird should be fed twice daily on a tree, ideally for a few hours each time.
How To Offer Your Bird’s Food Via A Foraging Tree:
- Initially, divide the diet equally between all the food bowls. Place your bird on the tree and allow them to explore.
- Once your bird is exploring and eating readily, it is time to move on to the next level. Place a barrier over the food bowls that is easy to remove; paper works well. It is fine if your bird easily moves the papers, of they fall as the bird approaches. Continue this until your bird routinely removes the paper to get at the food and understands that food is present under the barrier.
- The next step is to add variety. Make the barrier a bit more challenging. Some examples include:
- wrapping the bowls in paper
- wad up paper and seat it in the cup over the food
- use cardboard covers over the bowls
- place wooden blocks over the bowls.
- You can substitute a puzzle toy with food for a bowl or hang a puzzle toy in addition to the bowls. The covers can be variable within a feeding; leaving some bowls uncovered and using different materials in the others. You can gradually increase the difficulty of getting at the food as your bird gains confidence in removing things.
- At this point, you can also start to mix up the food. Leave some bowls empty, put fruit in one, pellets in another, put only one piece of food in a bowl, etc. Again, variety and imagination are the keys. In this way, you can create a huge number of different combinations between meals.
Important Caging Considerations
Your bird’s cage provides safety and security, and housing affects your bird’s behavior and well-being. With this in mind, there are a number of important considerations when it comes to selecting and setting up your bird’s cage. Key caging considerations include:
- As parrots are prey species, providing a cage that is open on all sides is not ideal. Placement of the cage against a wall or in the corner will provide more security as this will allow portions of the environment where the bird does not need to be ‘on guard’.
- Similarly, placing a cage in a window or near a doorway may cause stress with frequent unexpected motion appearing in the bird’s field of view. That said, some extroverted parrots (just like people!) are very interactive and may enjoy a window providing visual stimulation or even a cage in the center of the room surrounded by activity. It is important to observe your bird’s behavior closely to determine their preference.
- It is preferable to provide as large of a cage as possible, with plenty of space to flap wings, climb, and move around comfortably without tail damage.
- Parrots feel most secure in high spaces, so providing more vertical space can allow for increased perching comfort.
- Horizontal bars are preferred over vertical as this allows for easier climbing.
- Rectangular cages are preferable to round cages as this allows space for retreat with perceived threat.
- Although fabric over a corner of a cage or wooden or cardboard boxes can provide hiding places, these can also simulate nesting behaviors which can be detrimental to the health of your parrot.
- It is important to provide various types of perches for parrot enrichment. Natural nontoxic branches (willow, maple, manzanita, fig) can provide variable perch diameter which promotes foot health, along with increased chewing opportunities.
- Keep in mind that while allowing a parrot to roam around a house unsupervised is dangerous, supervised time outside of the cage is essential for optimal enrichment.
The Importance of Providing A Sleep Cage
A sleep cage at night can be helpful to reduce cage territoriality and biting as it provides separate space for roosting and foraging and promotes handling. A sleep cage does not need to be large, but it should be placed in a dark and quiet room to encourage sleep. A carrier with a perch can be used and the added benefit is that this reduces fear of moving in and out of a carrier during veterinary visits!
Toys For Birds:
Foraging, shredding, and chewing are important opportunities to allow our parrot companions. Toys are a great way to accomplish this. Toys can be purchased but can also be constructed with minimal effort. Good examples of low-cost enrichment toys include:
- Non-toxic tree branches
- Paper cups
- Cardboard boxes
- Tongue depressors
- Phone books
These destructible toys are preferable to acrylic, metal, and hardwood as they allow natural chewing and shredding behaviors. This reduces the risk of feather damaging behaviors and damage to furniture.
Preferences vary on toy type; for example, Amazon parrots prefer larger sized items and yellow-colored ropes and wooden blocks. Providing exciting, safe toys on a rotating basis is also important. Birds, like people, will become bored if faced with the same toy every day.
Depending on your individual bird, toys may be rotated daily or every few weeks. In addition, subtle changes in perching, food bowl placement, and toy placement can also help keep the environment interesting.
Parrots are flock animals, so companionship with humans, parrots, or other animals is important. Excessive screaming, feather damaging behavior, stress, or other abnormal behaviors can result if social needs are not met. However, petting, cuddling, kissing, and allowing your bird on your shoulder can create conditions for inappropriate bonding.
Examples of healthy bond building activities for your bird include:
- Verbal games
Whistling or talking to your bird to remain in contact when you are out of the room can discourage screaming. It is also helpful to respond to your bird’s soft calls vs screams. A radio or television can help with vocal stimulation when you are away.
The Importance of Routine for Birds:
Although we discussed benefits of feeding at random intervals, it is important to establish some routines with your parrot. Taking your bird out of the night cage in the morning, transferring to a foraging tree or day cage, and placing your bird back in its night cage at regular times are examples of beneficial routines.
Regular bathing (at least once weekly, but ideally daily) is vital for optimal skin and plumage health. It is common that humidity is low in winter with forced air heating as well as some parts of the country, and supplemental humidity is recommended in these conditions.
While some birds love to take showers, others may prefer misting or bathing in a bowl. It may take some desensitization to acclimate your bird to bathing, but the payoff for your bird’s health is well worth the effort!
Exercise and Flight:
The enrichment suggestions certainly promote increased activity and exercise, but we must also address the issue of flight. Birds were made with wings for a reason! While there are circumstances that may necessitate wing trimming, it is possible to provide an environment for your bird that allows flight activities.
The Benefits of Flight For Pet Birds
Flying is hands down the best bird exercise. So, the next time you take your bird in for its annual visit, consider these important benefits before requesting a wing trim.
Key benefits of flight for birds include:
- Better cardiovascular health
- Increased muscle strength
- Greater disease resistance
- Improved respiratory function & bone density
- Improved ability to cope with stressful situations
- Decreased risk of developing fear-based behaviors
- Improved visual acuity resulting from stimulation to the optic cortex during flight
- Flighted parrots are better equipped to escape unwanted interaction with potential predators
Safety Considerations for Flighted Birds
Any bird that is not trimmed is always a potential escape-artist, ready to engage in free flight at any time. This increases the chances the bird may be startled and fly into a predator’s grasp, fly into a ceiling fan, or onto a hot kitchen stove. Owners should be willing to assume the risks associated with housing a flighted bird. Although an owner assumes their bird would never fly away, accidents can and will happen!
Wing Trimming Considerations
Trimming a bird’s wings leads to an inability to fly. Wing trimming can also lead to physical trauma and psychological impact including broken blood feathers, fractures, and keel and tail damage. Although a common occurrence, a young bird should not be trimmed before it is allowed to fledge.
Ideally, weaned birds should be allowed to take short flights to ‘get used’ to flying and improve coordination. Most reputable breeders are aware of this and allow the bird to fledge before giving a conservative trim to avoid escapes. Gradual is best and the trim can be modified during the first veterinary visits for best results.
The Bottom Line
You have ultimate control over your parrot’s environment. Extra time and effort is required to provide the best foraging and exercise opportunities for these great pets, but the result is a happier life. Check out our website for more great tips on bird foraging and enrichment!