Image via iStock.com/WhitneyLewisPhotography
By Paula Fitzsimmons
If you plan to live with a parrot, you’ll need to find ways to keep him occupied. “It is not natural for birds to do nothing at all. If they are not doing something ‘productive’ then they will find destructive behaviors to fill their time,” says Dr. Kenneth Welle, a clinical assistant professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Boredom and improper socialization of pet parrots can result in a variety of unwanted behaviors, including excessive vocalization, pacing, feather-plucking and withdrawal. “Inadequate or improper socialization can also lead to aggressive behaviors, excessive fears or phobias, and inability to interact appropriately with people or other birds,” adds Dr. Welle.
Here are some things you can do to help prevent boredom and the consequences that follow.
1. Talk to Your Veterinarian About Potentially Adopting a Second Parrot
Consult your bird’s veterinarian to see if your bird could benefit from having another parrot friend. Keep in mind that not all parrots are good candidates for having a roommate. Mature parrots that have spent the majority of their life as the only bird in a household may find the introduction of a new bird stressful and upsetting. You will also need to be careful, because housing two sexually mature parrots together can encourage breeding and a whole host of other problems.
If you have talked with your veterinarian, and she thinks that the addition of another parrot could be beneficial for your bird, then a new bird could be one way to provide your parrot with some mental and physical exercise. Debbie Goodrich, president of Flight Club Foundation, says, “Despite potential for fighting and injuries, the overall wealth of interaction between each of them is huge, even if they don’t share the same cage.”
You will need to follow proper introduction protocols when it comes to bringing home a second bird. That means ensuring the new bird goes through quarantine and that she has been checked by an avian veterinarian and cleared of potential diseases.
2. Use Positive Parrot Training Methods
Bird training can consist of teaching husbandry behaviors, like going in and out of a crate, climbing on a scale to be weighed, climbing back into the cage, and learning to close the door on his own, says Cassie Malina, certified professional bird trainer and supervisor of staff development at Natural Encounters in Winter Haven, Florida.
“You can also train behaviors that are simply enriching for the parrot and stimulate their problem-solving minds. Train them to climb a ladder, pick up a bucket on a string, climb a rope, play basketball, do an obstacle course, stack blocks or cups, match the shapes in puzzles—anything you might imagine.” Malina says the key is to train using positive reinforcement and never through punishment.
If you offer treats as a reward, be mindful of the type of food offered. “An avian veterinarian should be consulted to help design a diet that is nutritionally balanced, calorically appropriate, leaves some favorite foods available for training only and does not overly stimulate reproductive behavior. Free access to treat sticks and seed mixes can disrupt this goal,” explains Dr. Welle, who is board-certified in Avian Practice.
3. Let Your Bird Fly
The way your bird spends his energy is as important as how he spends his time, says Dr. Welle. “I like to discuss alternatives to wing trimming to allow for birds to retain flight. There are safety aspects to this, but as I see an aging population of birds, the long-term effects of sedentary lifestyles is clear.”
Birds are built for flight, and in the wild, parrots spend a lot of time and energy flying to find food and water. “Flight training is a great way to simulate that in our homes and helps us keep our birds happy and healthy,” says Sheila Blanchette, rehome assistance and possibilities program chairperson with the Quaker Parrot Society. “It also makes every day living with birds a lot easier, since we have a way of asking them to come to us even if we can't reach them, and we are generally able to manage them a lot more safely.”
If you do choose to keep your bird flighted, take steps to ensure your home is escape-proof and safe from potential dangers, like boiling pots of water, open flames and toxic substances. You will also need to be vigilant about ensuring that doors and windows are closed, fans are turned off, and that your other pets cannot get ahold of your parrot.
It is also important to be mindful of uncovered mirrors. Mirrors encourage sexual behaviors and activities, which can be problematic if you have another bird. Birds can also be upset by the reflection they see in mirrors.
4. Provide a Suitable Cage and Parrot Playstand
“I think that ultimately we need to move toward larger and more complex enclosures for birds,” says Dr. Welle. He recommends an aviary or bird room instead of, or in addition to, large bird cages. “It is hard for a bird to spend 20-24 hours in a cage that barely allows for extending the wings and expect that she can engage in normal behaviors.” If you do opt for a cage, experts recommend getting the largest one you can afford.
Consider creating a play area that’s separate from your bird’s cage. “Keep things they like to play with on the stand,” says Lisa Bono, a certified parrot behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants who also runs Grey Parrot Consulting. “Reward good behavior. Make it fun to come out and something they look forward to. That in itself is a reward. Turn that stand into a foraging station. By that I mean have various spots on the stand where your parrot can go, explore and perhaps find a favored food. This keeps them busy. A busy beak is a happy beak. A happy beak makes for a happy human. That's what we should strive for.”
Consider something like the Prevue Pet Products small parrot playstand. Smaller parrots might enjoy the Penn-Plax Cockatiels and medium birds wood playpen.
5. Encourage Your Bird to Play Parrot Games
There are a lot of great bird toys for parrots on the market, but not all may be suitable for your bird. Consider the species when purchasing or making toys for parrots, says Bono. “Bigger macaws and cockatoos may like chunkier and harder woods. That, however, is too much work for an African grey parrot. Grey parrots like to see destruction.” Bono says that many birds enjoy shredding paper or cardboard items along with thinner, softer woods.
Variety is also important. “They need proper toys to keep their beaks in shape besides just providing enrichment. Various parrot perches should be available, as well of different sizes and composite. This aids in proper foot care and exercise,” Bono says.
Whichever bird toys or games for parrots you choose should be safe. “Inspect rope toys frequently. Do not allow more than a half inch of fray, as it can wind around toes, legs or even necks to cause injury or death. Make sure you are not buying copper items. Some items from a dollar store or craft store can be treated with chemicals,” says Bono.
If you are going to offer toys containing metal, stick to toys with stainless steel hardware only, if possible. “[That might mean] buying your own and switching out the nickel-plated hardware most toys come with,” adds Bono.
The Bonka Bird Toys spoon delight bird toy is made of stainless steel and acrylic and provides birds with shiny objects, noises, and reflective surfaces to keep them entertained.
6. Talk to Your Veterinarian About Possible Outdoor Time
It is very important that you discuss any plans for outdoor time with your veterinarian. There are plenty of problems that can arise from going outside with your bird, from potential escape to exposure to bacteria and disease. Your veterinarian can give you the best advice for ensuring that any trip outdoors is a happy and safe excursion.
When done safely, outdoor time can provide your bird with access to fresh air and sunshine, as well as to new sights and sounds. There are different options for keeping a parrot safely outdoors, including carriers and flight suits—like The Aviator bird harness and leash—designed to prevent escapes.
If you choose a flight suit, it best to do a test run inside your home first. Not all birds are willing to tolerate wearing the suit. If your bird does not mind wearing one, then you will also want to make it is fitted correctly so that he cannot slip out or injure himself.
Carriers should be roomy and escape-proof; have room for parrot food, water and foraging items; and have openings for sunlight, advises Blanchette, who is a certified parrot behavior consultant and trainer with her business, Heart of Feathers Education, based in Methuen, Massachusetts.
Regardless of the method you decide to use to take your bird outdoors, you’ll still need to talk with your veterinarian first to make sure she is a good candidate for outdoor time.
7. Encourage Foraging Behavior
Wild birds spend a lot of time foraging for food, so this makes a good natural enrichment for companion birds, says Dr. Welle. “My own birds have never had a food dish. Their food is distributed into about 150 different sites.”
Foraging bird toys don't need to be expensive to be effective, says Bono. “Some ideas such as a small paper cup, coffee filter or even a paper towel can be fashioned to make a foraging toy. I make homemade foraging items every morning for my flock. It consists of a small paper cup. I choose one with very little coloring and no wax. I wrap a cashew up in a paper towel and stuff it in the cup. I fold over the top of the cup to keep the nut and paper towel from falling out, and presto—instant, favored, inexpensive foraging toy.”
Other foraging toy options include the Planet Pleasures pineapple foraging bird toy, the Bonka Bird Toys helix bird toy or the Bonka Bird Toys bellpull bird toy, which all have places for hidden treats.
Parrots are intelligent and social animals who require regular interaction and environmental enrichment. “Providing the highest level of welfare for any pet takes work and commitment,” says Malina. If you have a parrot with behavioral challenges, seek help from reputable sources, she adds.