All animals need some amount of Enrichment, or mental and behavioral stimulation, to lead a fulfilled life. This is especially critical in the case of highly intelligent animals like parrots, who may become despondent or destructive when bored.
Research into the intelligence of parrots is ongoing. Alex, a Congo African Grey, understood the concept of “zero”, which is not commonly understood by most human children until the age of 4 years old. One day Alex was brought in front of a mirror. Alex looked himself up and down curiously, and then verbalized perhaps the first human-witnessed existential question an animal has ever posed; "What color?" Additionally, Alex used more than 100 words in correct context, understood ordinality of numbers, and identified both shapes and numbers by name. Furthermore, a 2015 study showed evidence that Goffin's Cockatoos were capable of a limited form of the inference-through-exclusion concept. Prior studies have shown that they were capable of using and manufacturing tools. Surprising outsiders to the parrot community, a Goffin’s Cockatoo outperformed seven-year-old children in puzzle tasks.
Given this evidence, it's anything but surprising to realize that parrots, as intelligent creatures, need plenty of stimulation to be content. This stimulation can take many forms, including visual and auditory stimuli, social interactions, or variety in food and toys. Altogether, these attempts to promote healthy behavior and satisfy your parrot's need for mental stimulation from a category of animal care known as Enrichment.
Enrichment is defined as the process of improving something by adding something else. In the case of pet parrots, there are a variety of different things you can add to their daily routine and environment to improve their quality of life.
Parrots are visually oriented, so they enjoy an interesting view in a well-lit space. Most parrots are social creatures who crave connection and want regular interaction with other members of the household. Exercise is an important form of enrichment that not only includes flight but also climbing and perching. Parrots also have acute hearing, so a background of soft music or nature noises may make their environment more pleasant. Foraging is one of the most important activities for a wild parrot, so encouraging foraging behavior is a great way to improve a pet bird's health and to keep them entertained. Providing a wide variety of fresh foods can provide an outlet for a parrot's curiosity while also supplying necessary nutrition.
FORAGING AND FOOD
Providing enrichment for parrots goes hand in hand with providing proper nutrition. While there are nutritional pellets and liquids that meet most of their base nutritional needs, these forms of feed do nothing to reward a parrot's natural curiosity. Nor do they satisfy the parrot's need to engage in instinctive foraging behaviors as they would in the wild. Depending on species, fresh foods (a mix of vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds) should make up 25% to 50% of a parrot's diet. Presenting a mixture of fresh foods as "chop" (cooked grains and legumes mixed with diced vegetables and fruit) exposes the parrot to a variety of tastes and textures at once. Larger pieces of fruit or vegetables make interesting toys all on their own as the parrot explores how to hold and bite them.
It's also important to note that while foraging behavior in the wild is a search for food, there are many toys that prompt appropriate activity without actually involving food. Any toy that encourages chewing, shredding, or digging through different objects can be a foraging toy. For example, this toy made of a cardboard egg crate with various objects attached via colorful cord incentivizes rooting with claws and beak. There's no telling what interesting things a parrot might find hiding inside!
Foraging toys come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and types. The simplest ones consist of wood, rope, paper, or cardboard designed to be chewed or shredded. Some are designed to hold small bits of food and are meant to be shredded by the bird to reveal the treats inside. Toys, food, or even edible flowers and foliage attached to a grapevine wreath or cut branches presents a different sort of challenge (just be sure to use plants safe for parrots, and do not use plants that have been sprayed with pesticides). The parrot will make a mess destroying these types of toys, but this is exactly the kind of behavior they engage in when foraging. You can also offer durable puzzles the parrot must manipulate in order to reach a food reward. Pet shops and online retailers carry many styles of foraging toys, but if you have the time and inclination, you can also make your own. There are many resources for toy-making available on the internet, from the excellent DIY instruction videos made by Jack Pine to the Parrot Enrichment Activity Book version 1.0 and version 2.0 by Kris Porter.
DIY Foraging Toy Videos from Jack Pine
EXERCISE FOR BRAIN AND BODY
Exercise is extremely important for a pet parrot. With easy access to food and a smaller space to move around, obesity and related health issues can be a major problem. Ideally, the parrot should be allowed out of its cage to engage in safe flying on a regular basis. Inside the cage a selection of ladders, PVC flexible perches, and swings can give your bird an opportunity to play and exercise, while play gyms provide an interesting structure to climb and perch on outside the cage. Flying, swinging, and climbing all give a parrot chances to explore, problem-solve, and exercise both body and brain.
Foot care is another major consideration in keeping your bird healthy, as well as an opportunity for further enrichment. Perches of varying materials and diameters not only contribute to healthy feet, but also create a more interesting environment. Birds spend all of their non-flight time standing and perching. Foot toys are a wonderful way to incentivize exercising those all-important toes! A foot toy is, essentially, anything a parrot can pick up with its talons. Playing with toys of this type teaches coordination and dexterity. It also gives your parrot the chance to experiment with using the toys they can pick up to further manipulate other objects in their environment.
Another great way to encourage active play is through the use of parrot play gyms or activity stands. They can take the form of a standing structure placed on the floor or other stable surface, or a hanging structure if that fits your space better. Either type of activity center can serve as a base for attaching other types of toys to generate further interest. For safety, parrots should always be supervised if their play equipment involves any type of rope, as they may chew fibers loose and swallow them. Basic play gyms make for a fairly simple DIY project with parts that can be found at most general hardware stores.
DIY Play Structure Videos from Jack Pine
Parrots are rarely alone in the wild. As flock animals, they have an innate need for companionship and social interaction. Connection with a flock also provides a sense of safety and security. A bird who is not regularly provided with attention and affection will have a poorly developed sense of security and belonging. Isolation can lead to the development of negative behaviors, depression, and self-harm. As a responsible parrot owner, it is important to provide for your parrot's need for social interaction and companionship. Fortunately, with their exceptional intelligence and gregarious nature, parrots are able to relate to their human family as their flock.
Flocks participate in many activities together such as eating, traveling, preening, bathing, playing, roosting, vocalizing and socializing. There are many ways to affirm your parrot's place in your flock. Acknowledge and answer your bird's contact calls when you are in other parts of the house to reassure them that you're nearby. Create daily routines you can enjoy with your parrot, like special greetings or farewells, games, or songs you can sing together. Eating together is a great (if potentially messy) way to help your parrot feel like a valued member of the flock. Include them in household activities. Folding laundry or dusting may be boring for us, but highly entertaining to a parrot! Just be careful to keep them away from any chemical household cleaners, as these can be very irritating to a bird's lungs.
More than anything else, making time to interact with your parrot daily is key to ensuring a content, well-adjusted bird. Selecting a spot for their primary cage that allows regular access to household members will make this easier on everyone. High traffic areas with constant activity may be too stressful, so consider options where your bird can observe and interact without being right in the middle of the action. Regular interaction can have benefits for the human members of the flock, as well. For examples, take a look at How Parrots Help.
Creating a healthy and pleasant environment for your pet parrot should be a priority. In addition to access for social interaction, several other factors need to be considered when placing the primary cage: Steer clear of areas near exterior exits as these can expose birds to sudden changes of temperature. Keep the cage out of the kitchen to avoid fumes from cooking and cleaning. Parrots need dark and quiet to sleep, so choose a spot where they won't be exposed to late night activity. Placing the cage in a corner or with at least one side against a wall provides a sense of protection and security.
Ideally, the parrot should be able to clearly see any door into the room so they can observe people and other pets as they enter.
The use of an outdoor cage or aviary is another form of environmental enrichment. Parrots need the UV rays in sunlight to produce vitamin D, just like humans. Vitamin D affects the ability to store calcium, so for healthy bones they need a dose of sunlight. Supervision during any outdoor time is critical! Not only to prevent flighted birds from escape, but to safeguard them from predators who might consider a parrot a tasty snack. While they may be secure inside a cage or aviary, an aggressive predator close by can be dangerously frightening for a bird.
As visually oriented creatures, parrots do best in spaces that are well-lit during the day and dark during sleeping hours. Placement that allows a window view may provide a source of entertainment and stimulation to your bird. This will give them an opportunity to observe the weather, outdoor birds, passing neighbors, and experience daylight cycles. Please note that it's best to avoid placing your parrot's cage directly in front of a window as doing so may attract attention from outdoor predators. A sudden fright from a pouncing cat or swooping hawk is extremely unpleasant for any bird and could even be enough to startle one into heart failure.
Auditory, or sound-based, enrichment is frequently overlooked, but a very effective way to provide enrichment with fairly low effort. Many parrot owners report that their birds call loudly first thing in the morning and in the evening around sunset. One of the simplest forms of auditory enrichment is simply to allow this behavior and respond as a member of the flock. Upon waking, the members of a flock call out to locate one another. When your bird calls early in the morning, greet them. When the sun goes down, parrots call out to their flock to roost for the night. Make a ritual of saying goodnight so the bird knows that these calls have been heard and understood.
Another way to enhance a parrot's auditory environment is through the use of nature sounds or recorded bird calls. Rainforest sounds mimic what a parrot might hear in the wild. Recordings of bird calls, categorized by species, can be found many places online. Short sessions with recordings of the calls from their own species may be beneficial for pet parrots, especially at times when other members of the household aren't available for social interaction. Just remember that a parrot's hearing is extremely acute, so any recordings should be played at a very low volume. It's also worth noting that there's a reason we refer to mimicry as "parroting". Parrots are apt to pick up on words or phrases and repeat them for their own amusement, which is one reason we suggest nature sounds or bird calls for enrichment over leaving a television or radio on.