This is the last article in a 3-part series on teaching parrots to forage that I wrote for Parrots magazine earlier this year. With this article I hope to show you how to increase the complexity of foraging opportunities and fit those ideas into every day living for you and your bird.
In the first two articles in this series I covered the “how” of teaching your parrot to forage. Now I would like to explain the “why” of foraging. I think if we better understand why parrots need to forage, it becomes easier for us to recognize, create and incorporate foraging opportunities into the captive parrot environment.
Making foraging toys and providing foraging opportunities helps to activate the Seeking System in parrots. Seeking is a core emotion in animals and birds that was originally identified by Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist who wrote Affective Neuroscience. Dr. Panksepp spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals.
The core emotions Dr. Panksepp describes as “blue ribbon systems” are: Seeking, Play, Fear, Panic, Rage, Lust and Care. Going into details of this research is not within the scope of this article, however I think his research provides insight into why foraging is so important to parrots. Foraging opportunities should be about more than just hanging a food kebab or foraging toy in the cage. Simply put, Dr. Panksepp states, “Seeking is the basic impulse to search, investigate and make sense of the environment.”
Temple Grandin, in her book, Animals Make Us Human, writes: “Everyone who is responsible for animals – farmers, ranchers, zoo keepers and pet owners – needs a set of simple, reliable guidelines for creating good mental welfare that can be applied to any animal in any situation. The best guidelines we have are the core emotion systems in the brain. The rule is simple: Don’t stimulate Rage, Fear and Panic if you can help it, but do stimulate Seeking and Play.”
Reading Animals Make Us Human influenced and helped to expand my thinking when it came to providing foraging opportunities for my birds. Parrots are amazing seekers. They take pleasure in investigating what is inside things and trying to figure out how to get at an item of interest that is just out of their reach. They like to steal things. I have one bird that doesn’t eat walnuts when you give them to him, but if he sneaks one out of another parrot’s bowl he will eat it.
Now that my own parrots are experienced foragers, I am always thinking of ways to increase the complexity of the foraging opportunities I provide for them. In other words, I work to stimulate their Seeking System.
Once your birds are accustomed to having to work to retrieve food from foraging toys, have them work to get to the foraging toy as well. Toys can be strategically placed just out of reach to encourage movement and activity. This also stimulates the Seeking System in that your parrot has to figure out how to best get at a foraging toy that isn’t conveniently placed right next to a perch.
Try presenting the food you make for them in different ways and offer it in different locations. You might wrap the morning mash in a whole wheat flour tortilla and leave it out on the counter for a curious parrot to find.
Or perhaps wrap fruits and vegetables in leafy greens and place the wrap out on a platform perch in your parrot’s cage.
Strategically placed clutter on various flat surface areas of your home, such as kitchen counters, table tops, shelves, TV trays and end tables, can create activity zones that stimulate the Seeking System and offer your parrot choices and the opportunity to make decisions.
Perhaps leave an old water bottle out for a curious parrot to see if he can open it. Or drape an old sweater jacket with a zipper over the arm of a chair. My birds like destroying zippers so much I purchase old jackets at the thrift store to bring home just for that purpose. Of note: I received a comment from a reader that pointed out caution should be used offering jackets with zippers. I always buy the jackets with plastic zippers, but some jackets have metal zippers which might contain zinc and would not be a good choice for a parrot enrichment item.
Once your parrot is accustomed to foraging, you need to keep it interesting and that can get expensive. You can stretch your toy making dollars by making use of your trash. Recycled containers can make wonderful parrot toys.
When I buy cornstarch I look for the Argo brand and it isn’t because I think it is superior to similar products. Argo cornstarch comes in a bright yellow plastic container with a bright blue top that I use as a parrot toy when empty. After washing, I cut a few holes in the side of the container and fill it with beads and other foot toys. Instead of presenting it to my parrot, I leave it out on the counter as strategically placed clutter to be discovered.
More often than not, parrots themselves can give us ideas for providing them with opportunities that stimulate the Seeking System. I had a tub of apples soaking on the counter in vegetable wash when my Timneh, Buddy, landed on the tub and leaned his beak in to get an apple. I removed the tub full of vegetable wash and replaced it with a tub of clean water with some apples floating inside.
Buddy had a great time bobbing for apples in the tub and this is an activity we’ve continued. When I’m preparing my parrots’ salad mix, I sometimes place vegetables and fruits in a tub of clean water for Buddy to bob for. It is an easy activity to set up and one that he enjoys. Of note, this is an activity that should be supervised and may not be suitable for all parrots, especially smaller parrots that might fall in the tub.
I don’t know a parrot who doesn’t like to test gravity by dropping things off counters and onto the floor. I always have a number of mismatched plastic containers in my cupboards. You know, the ones that don’t have a top that fits and tops that don’t have bottoms to match. I place them in an empty plastic washtub that I leave out on the kitchen counter. My birds enjoy wandering over to rummage through the contents of the tub and toss the containers onto the floor.
These are just a few of the countless ideas to help you stimulate the Seeking System in your own birds. Be inventive, but always consider safety first. Closely observe your parrot and know not only what toys he interacts with, but how he uses them. If you do not feel completely comfortable with a toy or foraging opportunity do not use it.
Other ideas, videos and my Parrot Enrichment Activity Books (available as free PDF downloads) can be found on my website, www.ParrotEnrichment.com.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this series of articles on Creating Foraging Opportunities and that it has served to help you provide foraging opportunities for your own parrots.