This is the first in a 3-part article on teaching parrots to forage that I wrote for Parrots magazine earlier this year. Part I will give you some basic ideas on how to get started providing foraging opportunities for your parrots. Part II gives you some ideas on how to move to the next level of foraging. Part III explains how to increase the complexity of foraging opportunities and fit those ideas into every day living for you and your parrot.
If foraging is new to your bird, start slowly. For birds that have never had to forage, some give up easily when presented with food that is not delivered in the manner they have become accustomed to.
One of the first things you can do is cover or wrap the food bowl with paper using string or masking tape to fasten the paper to the bowl. Sometimes you may need to poke a hole in the paper to show your parrot food is inside the bowl. Alternatively you could run a thin strip of paper down the middle of the bowl. Even something as simple as this creates a foraging opportunity in that your parrot has to stop and think before getting food out of the bowl. Over time you will be able to gradually increase the width of the paper across the bowl or dish until you cover the entire bowl and your parrot will tear through the paper to get to the food inside.
Another way to introduce a foraging opportunity to a reluctant forager is to add a few wooden beads to their bowl of pellets. Start with just a few beads. Once you see your bird nudge aside a bead to get to a pellet, add more beads the next day and the next, until your parrot readily forages through a covering of wooden beads to get to his pellets.
Whole vegetables can be made into foraging toys. Small pumpkins or butternut squash make great beginner foraging toys. To make it more interesting for your parrot you can cut the top off the pumpkin, carve out some of the flesh and put in some of his favorite vegetables or fruit. Also carve holes in the side of the pumpkin and stick in a nut or piece of carrot or broccoli in the hole. When pumpkins aren’t in season you can use butternut or zucchini squash or whole bell peppers in the same way.
Thread large pieces of vegetables and fruit on stainless steel skewers to hang in the cage. The skewers provide a foraging opportunity in that food is presented to your parrot in a different way. Instead of getting food from a bowl, your bird will need to climb to a different part of the cage and figure out how to reach the skewer to get the food off of it.
An artichoke strung on a stainless steel skewer makes a great foraging toy. You can stuff the leaves with a variety of fruits and vegetables. To encourage your parrot to approach the artichoke you might smear almond butter on the tips of some of the leaves. Artichokes have sharp thorns at the end of the leaves. More often than not these are trimmed by the grocer before putting them out to sell. If you do get one with sharp thorns, they are easy to trim. Cut the thorny tips of the leaves off with a pair of kitchen shears.
There are many commercial foraging toys on the market that are good for beginning foragers. I like the Treasure Chests made by Parrot Island with see through acrylic drawers which are easily opened and there is room for all sorts of foot toys and treats inside each drawer. If your budget won’t stretch to a Treasure Chest, similar foraging opportunities can be created using quick lock bowls that attach to the side of the cage or stainless steel buckets that can be hung in the cage.
All these items make good foraging toys for beginners. Fill the bowl or bucket with non-food items like foot toys, plastic bottle caps, pieces of wood and beads, with a few nuts or other treats mixed in. Your parrot will then have to maneuver through the non-food items to get to the treats.
To encourage smaller parrots to forage you could place a shallow container on the bottom of the cage. Fill the container with pellets and/or seed mix with a light covering of shredded paper. Keep in mind that most avian veterinarians recommend seeds mixes be offered as a treat food and not a staple of the diet. When you see your bird push aside the shredded paper to get to the food you can add more shreddable material to increase the complexity of the foraging opportunity.
I share a recipe for bird bread on my website that most parrots like. I bake the bread in mini-muffin tins and make a hole in the center of each muffin before baking. That way I can string the bird bread on toys and hang them in the cage.
When our Timneh, Irving, came to live with us I was told he didn’t play with toys and wasn’t accustomed to foraging. Irving liked the bird bread. The very first foraging toy I made for him was a single piece of bird bread strung on a length of hemp rope. I knew Irving was ready for me to increase the level of difficulty just a bit when I saw him chew the bird bread off the rope.
I added a piece of wood to the rope with a bird bread muffin on top of that and hung it in the cage. After I saw him eat the bird bread that rested on top of the wood, I added paper on top of the next one and gradually worked up to more complex foraging toys for him.
My goal was to get Irving to go to the rope to get his bird bread. Once I had him accustomed to eating bird bread off the rope, I added vegetables and fruit hidden under unbleached coffee filters or grass mats to the foraging toys.
If you have a reluctant forager, like my Irving, who was accustomed to getting high carbohydrate treats handed to him, you may have to start out with treats like a pretzel, cracker or very small slice of cheese to get your parrot comfortable with taking food off a toy hanging in the cage. It is important to keep in mind that you only use what I call “junk” food to get them used to the idea of going to the rope or skewer and taking food off a toy hanging in the cage.
Once they learn to reach for the rope or skewer and get the food off of it, begin to eliminate the unhealthy food and start incorporating healthier bird bread and small pieces of favorite fruit into the toy. Work your way up to adding leafy greens and vegetables along with paper, vine balls, straw mats or any other shreddable material into the foraging toys you make for your parrot.
These are a few fairly easy ideas to get you started teaching your own parrot to forage for food. More ideas, videos and my enrichment activity books (available as free PDF downloads) can be found on my website: www.ParrotEnrichment.com .
In next week’s post I explain how to move up to the next level of foraging.