Environmental Enrichment Ideas for Your Companion Parrot

Welcome to my latest blog post in a series looking at environmental enrichment for companion animals. The previous posts looked at ways to provide enrichment to pet dogs and cats. In this post I will discuss the importance of environmental enrichment for parrots and the best ways to enrich your companion parrot's life.

From the relatively small (and more common) budgies, lovebirds and cockatiels all the way up to the larger Cockatoos and Macaws, parrots come in an amazing range of sizes, colours and personalities. Unlike cats and dogs, companion parrots have not undergone thousands of years of captive breeding for the purpose of domestication. This essentially means they remain wild animals in terms of their behaviour (Hoppes & Gray 2010).

A Green Winged Macaw foraging

In the wild parrots live in flocks with a sophisticated social structure and complex interactions, the basis of which is the pair bond. Parrots can fly hundred of kilometres per day and spend hours of their day foraging for food and interacting with other members of their flock. Contrast this to the life of a companion parrot confined to a cage, alone for much of the day. The captive parrot shares the desire to perform the same innate behaviours as their wild counterparts, however their ability to do so is limited within the constraints of their cage and the home environment (Mornement, 2018).

Why do companion parrots need enrichment?

Companion parrots need enrichment to provide them with opportunities to perform species specific behaviour, which is critical for their mental and physical well-being. Even though many pet parrots are provided with everything they need to survive (i.e. food, water, shelter and human social interaction), they must be provided with opportunities to engage in normal parrot behaviours, including foraging, bathing, flying, problem solving, preening and socialising, regularly in order to thrive.

In my work as an applied animal behaviourist, I see many companion parrots who have developed behaviour problems because they are unable to be parrots. Some common problems I encounter are feather picking disorder, excessive vocalisation (screaming) and aggression due to fear, territorial behaviour or mate defence.

By providing daily enrichment opportunities, companion parrots can express species-specific behaviours in an appropriate way. This can help to alleviate problem behaviours and even prevent them in the first place.

An African Grey parrot exhibiting feather picking disorder
Image by JoelZimmer (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Types of enrichment

If you've read my other posts in this series, you'll remember that environmental enrichment can be Animate (social) and Inanimate (physical). Animate enrichment is the provision of social stimulation from interaction with other birds or people. Whereas inanimate enrichment involves interaction with objects including toys, feeding enrichment, olfactory and auditory stimulation.

Enrichment ideas for your parrot

The best enrichment for companion parrots facilitates behaviours seen in the wild and provides opportunities for mental stimulation (problem solving), social interaction and physical exercise.

Social enrichment

Parrots are highly social flock animals and need social enrichment every day. Many species are long-lived and most form strong attachment bonds to their caregivers. Having two (or more) companion parrots can help provide much needed socialisation with other birds, which is very beneficial if the owner works full time. If you only have one bird, it's critical to allow your companion parrot time out of its cage every day to be with you. Spend time talking and playing with your parrot daily. Training is a great way to share time together in a productive way (see below).

Wild Rainbow Lorikeets flocking

Feeding enrichment

Parrots are no longer considered the "bird brains" of the animal world. Rather, the latest science is shining a light on the incredible intelligence and problem solving abilities of parrots (Milewski, 2015). Wild living parrots spend a good proportion of their day finding and foraging for food. This requires thinking, problem solving and physical activity. For this reason, companion parrots should be fed from foraging toys, rather than eating ad lib from a bowl.

Parrots also have complex and varied species-specific dietary and nutritional needs. The diets of many wild parrot species remain poorly understood. An appropriate diet it critical to your companion parrots health and well-being. If you're unsure whether you're feeding your bird an appropriate diet, check with a knowledgeable breeder or avian veterinarian.

Training

Many people have unrealistic expectations of their bird's behaviour. Parrots are naturally loud, messy, destructive and mischievous. However, these normal parrot behaviours in a home environment can be problematic for many people. Companion parrots need to be taught appropriate behaviours, such as chewing on appropriate items, vocalising in desired ways (i.e. not screaming loudly) and toileting in certain areas, when living in our homes. Positive reinforcement training is the most effective way to teach parrots desired behaviour. Here is an introduction to positive reinforcement and its benefits for companion parrots.

Food can be used to reinforce a pet parrot for flying to your hand

Physical enrichment

Allowing your bird daily flight opportunities is extremely enriching. Flight facilitates physical exercise and problem solving. It also allows for a quick get away if the bird is frightened. The downside of allowing your bird to fly is that our homes are full of potential dangers (e.g. windows, open doors, electrical cords, stoves etc).

The practice of clipping one or both wings of companion parrots to reduce or prevent their ability to fly, although controversial, remains popular today. Most people clip their birds wings for safety reasons or to make the birds easier to handle. I am now firmly against this practice in most cases for a number of reasons. My knowledge and experience to date clearly suggests that preventing parrots from their right to flight severely compromises their welfare. That's all I'm going to say about it for now and will write about the topic in depth in a future blog post.

A Moluccan Cockatoo with wings clipped

Other ways to provide physical enrichment include toys that promote your parrot to use its beak and feet to manipulate them as well as items that encourage your parrot to climb. Things like parrot play gyms (made out of natural timber), swings and ropes work well. Daily opportunities to bathe is another way to enrich your parrots life. Bathing is not only enjoyable for birds but it's vital for their skin and feather health, helping to promote preening.

Parrots are highly sensitive creatures who need their physical and behavioural needs met (and ideally exceeded) to live a happy life in captivity. Problem behaviours are common in companion parrots, particularly when one or more of their biological needs are not being sufficiently met.

If you'd like to learn more about how you can provide your parrot with enrichment download these FREE parrot enrichment activity books, written by a parrot enrichment specialist HERE.  I'd love to hear about other ways you enrich your parrot's life. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments section!

Dr Kate :)


References

Hoppes, S & Gray, P. (2010). Parrot rescue organizations and sanctuaries: A growing presence in 2010. Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine, 19(2), 133-139.

Meehan, C. L. Garner, J. P. & Mench, J. A. (2004). Environmental enrichment and development of cage stereotypy in Orange-winged Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica). Developmental Psychobiology, 44(4), 209-218.

Meehan, C. L. Millam, J. R. & Mench, J. A. (2003). Foraging opportunity and increased physical complexity both prevent and reduce psychogenic feather picking by young Amazon parrots. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 80(1), 71-85.

Milewski, A. (2015). New intelligence on Australian parrots. Wildlife Australia, 52(4), 28.

Mornement, K. (2018). Animals as Companion, In Animals and Human Society (pp.281-304).

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