Toys & Behavior Enrichment

Parrots and other birds are intelligent, curious and naturally active in the wild. The typical wild bird spends most of its day searching for food and being alert for predators. When it is not looking for food, it may be searching for a mate or helping take care of a nest, protecting its home from rivals, socializing with other birds, or preening its feathers, among other activities. As pets, birds no longer have to search for food, worry about predators, defend their home from rivals, or do many of the other things necessary to survive in the wild. Without these things to do, some parrots and other birds begin to engage in abnormal behaviors such as feather-plucking and chewing at their skin, pacing around their cages, back-flipping, eating their own stool, prolonged abnormal screaming, etc.

A busy bird is a happier healthier bird. Birds that are given things to do are less likely to have behavioral problems. Although it can seem challenging and expensive at times to provide toys and activities to keep your bird busy, it can actually be much easier than you think. Here are some ideas for inexpensive toys and foraging:

  • Empty cereal boxes with favorite toys or food inside.
  • Recycled telephone books make great shredding toys for your birds. Hanging them up in your bird's cage, or simply placing them in or on top of the cage will provide your "shredder" with hours of fun. If these are too large for your bird, buy a used paperback book from a thrift store and try that instead.
  • Foraging Baskets (choose any item listed below to begin)
    • Plain, uncolored wicker or palm fiber baskets (available at craft stores)
    • Plain brown paper bags from grocery store
    • Cardboard boxes
    • Plastic containers (throw-aways from deli foods, small condiment containers, washed pill bottles)
    • Stainless steel buckets that can be purchased from feed-and-supply stores or pet supply stores. (Put something heavy in it to prevent it from tipping over or onto the bird, such as a washed brick or rock.)
    • Fill the foraging container with shredded paper and hide treats, foot toys, pine cones, grains, paper balls, leather pieces/strips, sisal rope, cotton or leather strips, small branches, popsicle sticks, wooden clothes peg (the old fashioned kind without a metal spring), a piece of leather with a hole in it through which you pass a short piece of sisal string and knot on both sides, a couple of (safe) cat or baby toys, plastic rings, etc. Do not use glass beads, charm bracelets, or things that are small enough for the bird to swallow. You can add dry food tidbits hot peppers, dried fruit, a piece of garlic, a chunk of ginger, etc. Add a couple of nuts in the shell, and cover the stuff with a few pieces of newspaper crumbled on top of it. Attach to the cage or place on top.
  • Non-toxic and Care-fully Cleaned Natural Branches from outside provide hours of entertainment. You can also tie treats and food to strings and attach them from branches to provide foraging opportunities.
  • Untreated Lumber: Available at your local home improvement store (i.e., Home Depot or Lowe's). Most stores have cutoff bins in the back of the lumber department, enabling you to buy lumber in various sizes at very little cost. You can cut these into smaller pieces, then string on short chain, sisal or cotton rope, stainless steel toy holder; or simply place in the cage as a foot toy. For even more fun, you might drill holes in the wood and stuff with treats or beads.
  • Buy a large bag of natural raffia at your local craft store. Tie up bunches of it with twine or birdie safe rope. Cut smaller bunches and tie them together in a strand. Hang at the top of the cage.
  • Tie a bunch of plastic straws tightly together in the middle with twine or any other bird-safe rope. Tie another rope from the middle to secure to the top of the cage. You can also cut the straws in half and secure in the middle and make smaller bunches and tie together and make a long strand.
  • Brown paper lunch bags, clean cardboard egg cartons, paper balls, tamale wraps (corn husks), coffee filters, paper plates, or paper cups with toys or food hidden within. If needed or if you want to add more difficulty to opening the item, wrap or tie shut with natural twine.
  • Take a roll of adding machine tape and slide it through a wooden perch/dowel and attach to cage. Birds love to shred these! (Remove the roll before the paper on it is used up as the adhesive in the machine tape roll may contain zinc.) . This may not be an appropriate toy for heavy chewers.
  • Plastic Toys: Do make sure that your parrot doesn't ingest any of the plastic. Examples of fun toys made from plastic that were not created for parrots, but also make great toys for them are: infant rattles and key rings and teeth rings, linking rings (some birds have problems with these as their beaks get stuck in between the linking ends - supervise your bird), measuring spoons on a ring, beads from discount stores or craft stores, plastic bottle tops and big buttons (too big to swallow).
  • Grapevine or Willow Wreaths: These items can be found at craft stores during the winter holiday season. (You get great deals on these immediately after the holidays.) Attach wooden pieces, beads, leather and paper strips, attach nuts into the wreaths. Make sure the wreaths are not varnished (they will look very shiny), painted or sprayed with glitter.
  • Dog Toys: Dog pull or chew toys, available in various sizes.
  • Pieces of sisal or cotton rope with lots of knots and/or beads
  • Spiral-swings/rope perches with things tied to them.
  • Inexpensive finch nests make great foraging containers. Hide your pet's favorite treats or toys in one and hang it up.
  • Alphabet Blocks: Either made for small kids or sold as bird toys. Drill them and hang them, offer as foot toys, include in foraging baskets, provide as foot toys, or include as part of larger toys.
  • Shredded Paper in a Basket or other Container: Hide treats, wood pieces or other foot toys for the pet to discover.  Wrap items in paper, non-waxed paper cups or paper plates.
  • String beads on a rope or short pieces of chain, cotton rope, leather strips or sisal with knots in between. Attach to the cage bars or offer as foot toys.
  • Pine Cones: Pine cones make great food toys for parrots. Pick up any pine cones that are freshly dropped. Soak pine cones in a dishpan with vinegar water (about a cup of vinegar to a gallon of water) for 10-15 minutes - this gets all the dirt and bugs out. Then let them air-dry in a large colander for 24 hours. The second step is to put the pine cones on a foil covered cookie sheet and bake at about 225 degrees for 15-20 minutes to kill bacteria, molds, etc. Obviously, let them cool down before giving them to your pets. Both big and small birds treasure them. Offer as is, or wrapped in other things (paper, cups, folded paper plates) or stuff treats (nut butters with seeds or dried fruit) into the cones.

The important thing is to do something for your bird every day. Find something that is easy for you to do and that engages your bird. Plan ahead -- it is easier to spend an hour once a week preparing the toys than to rush about before work trying to stuff treats and paper into a foraging bucket! Supervise your bird when you are introducing a new toy and it seems like the toy might be dangerous, take it out and throw it away. (For example, some toys have very long chains that can wrap around a foot, wing, or neck.) If your bird doesn't seem to use a toy, play with it yourself as that often helps a bird overcome its initial distrust of a new object. Rotate the toys before your bird becomes bored with them.

It is extremely important that you clean and disinfect any toys you bring home from a pet store before you let your bird play with them. A pet store that carries bird toys often sells birds or provides grooming services for birds.  Unfortunately, these other birds can spread germs through their dander, breath, and feces.  Sometimes you can see visible dust or dander building up on toys but many germs can spread through the air and leave behind no sign of contamination.  Wash any plastic, metal, glass, or ceramic item in warm soapy water, rinse in hot water, and then dunk in a bucket of dilute chlorine bleach for 10 to 15 minutes.  About 1 cup of bleach to gallon of water is plenty!  Rinse the toy thoroughly in water and then let air dry overnight before putting it in with your bird.  Wood, cloth, and leather toys are more difficult to disinfect.  It is still helpful to give them a warm soapy bath and rinsing but some wood toys and leather toys may crack or split.  Cloth toys may be difficult to rinse all the soap away.  Bleach can be used on these toys to but will often fade or discolor the toys. Some veterinary offices offer disinfection of small toys using a gas sterilizer but this is not always practical.  If you are not sure you can disinfect a toy properly, you should skip that toy and find another one.

You can learn many other ways to stimulate your bird through the DVD, Captive Foraging, as well as checking out the website www.goodbirdinc.com. A busy bird is a happy bird!