How to encourage play
Parrots can be difficult to persuade to
play with their toys. Many times well-meaning parrot owners spend small
fortunes on toys for their feathered companions only to find that they are
shunned and ignored by the bird.
There are a number factors that we can
influence in order to encourage play. One such factor is to teach the bird how
to use a particular toy, other factors include location of the toy and what
kind of toys are being used.
the right toys
Many parrot toys are advertised with
promising descriptions, such as “…made of many pieces of wood, tied with sisal
rope – guaranteed to entertain and keep your parrot chewing for hours…”. But
what if you parrot doesn’t really enjoy chewing on dried wood?
There are many clichés telling us that
macaws love chewing and cockatoos enjoy intricate metal puzzles, for example,
and although I am sure this may apply to many birds it certainly won’t apply to
an entire species.
Parrots are individuals and the key is to
observe your bird in order to assess what he does enjoy doing. Does he chew on
his perches? Does he carefully manipulate the cage lock or the wing nuts
holding up his feeding cups? Or maybe he likes walking around on the cage
floor, looking for interesting goodies that might have fallen down there.
Before buying any toys I would suggest
that you conduct a few experiments first in order to find out what really fires
your bird’s enthusiasm. I suggest you start with collecting the following:
Save a few plastic bottle tops such as
those of milk containers, lemonade bottles and in particular bottle tops with a
flip top, such as those on spice jars or washing up liquid bottles.
Wrap a favourite treat in a piece of
paper and hold it together with a little sticky tape (much like a present) or
scrunch the paper around the treat (this works best with hard treats, e.g.
Save your wine bottle corks.
Also hold on to the pumps of liquid
soap dispensers (provided they’re all plastic and make sure to rinse them out
Just before you are about to run out
of pasta leave two or three pieces in the bag they came in (e.g. fussily or
penne etc.) cut the bag to make it smaller, fold it over and keep it shut with
some sticky tape.
Collect some large stainless steel
nuts and bolts and make sure that they are clean.
Hold on to old pieces of cloth.
You might have some off-cuts of wood
from your last diy project and if not you can always ask your local carpenter
if he’ll save you some.
Collect some pine cones and bake them
in the oven for ten minutes to kill any potential pathogens.
The above represent an array of textures
and shapes. Your bird probably won’t fall in love with all these suggested objects,
but is likely to show an interest in at least two or three different items.
This will give you an idea whether your parrot prefers metal toys to wooden
ones or shreddable ones to chewable ones.
The fact that your parrot is ignoring the
wine bottle corks or the metal bolts is not necessarily because he doesn’t like
them but could be simply due to the fact that they are not presented in the way
that he would enjoy.
Try threading the bottle tops onto a
piece of string to make a hanging toy however, leave some aside to be used as
foot-toys. The wine bottle corks can also be threaded onto the string along
with the bottle tops. Wedge the pine cones through the cage bars and, again,
leave some of the smaller ones aside as foot toys.
I invested in a small wicker basket which
I tied to the top of my pet bird’s cage using a little garden wire. I simply throw
all the foot toys in there. I also got her a treat-cage (treat-dispenser) which
I fill with the little odds and ends that I described above, for her to fish
and tickle out.
The cloth and/or chamois leather can be
tied in knots and tied to the cage or a favourite perch or a hanging toy.
Now that you have all the toys in place
observe your parrot carefully to find out which ones he likes using the most:
Is it the wooden stuff or the plastic
Are they ones hanging up or are they
the foot toys?
Does he make a bee-line for the
wrapped up nuts?
Does he chew on the cloth or wipe his
beak on the leather?
Does he ignore any particular items altogether?
Which items does he come back to the
If he does ignore particular items such
as the chain of bottle tops that you so lovingly created, it may simply be due
to the location. My pet macaw has a large play area set out immediately around
her cage using ropes suspended from the ceiling. I have screwed hooks into the
ceiling from which I hang her toys. There are two spots in particular which she
likes the most. If I relocate one of her favourite toys from one of these
places to a less favoured location she will ignore the toy altogether and turn
her attention to the “new” toy (even if this is a toy she seemed to dislike in
the past) in her favourite place. If on the other hand I don’t hang any toys in
her favourite places she will then turn and attend to toys in less favoured
On the whole, it is best to make sure
that toys are about level with the bird when it is perched. Toys that hang too
low are awkward to get to and toys that hang too high can become boring as they
require endless climbing energy. Don’t take me wrong, it is important to keep
parrots active, so do make sure that some toys require some climbing or
stretching to get to. However, be sure to provide a variety of hanging levels.
Again, observe and assess your parrot’s
behaviour and attitude towards the different toys in the different locations.
Swap less favourite toys with favourite ones by varying the locations. Make
your parrot work for the highly desirable toys by hanging them slightly higher,
Many parrots are instinctively frightened
of new objects. African Greys are well known for that. Other parrots, such as
macaws, often are naturally curious and far more willing to explore the
unknown. It is, however, always sensible to introduce new items sensitively. If
you frighten your parrot with a new toy by introducing it too quickly he may
associate this emotion with this particular toy and never approach it.
I would suggest that you place new items
within visible distance from your birds cage or play area – 2 meters should be
fine. Watch your bird’s reaction. If he seems uncomfortable, increase the
distance. If he seems indifferent about it you can edge the toy closer and
closer to the cage over a period of a few days. Always observe your parrot’s
reaction and don’t be pushy in the approach – any sign of discomfort, go back a
few steps. Many birds accept new toys within a day or even hours - it is down
to the individual.
Once your parrot seems interested in the
new item, or at least appears indifferent about it, you can hang the toy on the
outside of the cage and eventually on the inside.
won’t play with anything
Older birds that have never had access to
toys, as well as some younger birds, need to be taught how to play first. Think
of the last time you bought a toy for a tiny toddler; the first thing you
probably did when you gave him the toy was to play with it, making excited
noises and demonstrating every wheel and button. Teaching a parrot to play
works in a similar way. I would suggest that you play with the toy in front of
your parrot and excitedly talk about the toy at the same time. Often this
awakens a sense of curiosity in pet birds and he may want to participate. Keep
playing with the object while your bird approaches and starts to partake.
Reinforce every positive move he makes in this procedure, even just him looking
at the item should be reinforced by rewarding it with a favourite treat, for
example. Once he actively engages in play with you and the toy reward him
greatly by praising him enthusiastically and treating him.
If your pet doesn’t show any interested
in toys even though you are playing with it yourself you can try and get
another person involved. One of you plays with the toy while the other person
talks about it and requests the toy. You eventually hand the toy to the other
person who then engages excitedly in play, again talking about it at the same
time. This is a model/rival situation (Irene Pepperberg’s Alex is taught to
associate language with objects in similar ways). Your parrot may get more
exited by watching the two of you and would like to become part of this flock
activity. Irene Pepperberg has found in her research with Alex and two other
African Greys that learning takes place more easily when the bird can watch two
people interacting with an object as opposed to one person handling the object
or by watching and learning via video and television.
– a natural behaviour
Utilizing a parrot’s natural instincts
can also help to engage a bird in ‘play’. Foraging for food is a natural
behaviour that we can easily encourage at home.
As mentioned above I hung a basket on my
bird’s cage which holds her foot toys. From time to time I place a nut at the
very bottom of the basket, or the crunchy pasta in the bag (which crackles when
chewed), and then top it up with the foot toys. She has learned and remembers
that sometimes there is a great surprise at the bottom of this basket which
causes her to check and turn it over at least once a day. As she goes on she
stops and plays and investigates many of the foot toys on ‘her way’ to the food
You could also bury dry food treats in
wood shavings or sterilised soil, although this can become quite a messy
Favourite food items are always eagerly
awaited. You could make your bird work for his treats by combining toys and
I keep large plastic bottle tops (for
example those on liquid washing powder bottles) and wedge a suitably large nut
into the centre of the bottle top for my macaw. As she is busy trying to prise
out the nut she inevitably simultaneous chews on and plays with the bottle top
itself. For smaller birds one can wedge a piece of walnut into a lemonade
Birds that have never used their toys
tend to be more easily persuaded to do so when food is involved. Practically
any toy can somehow be spiked with food. I have tied nuts to toys using thin
garden wire, or you could even glue food items to plastic toys by making your
own edible glue. Simply mix a little plain flour with a little water into a
smooth paste. Place a pea sized drop of flour-glue onto the toy, lay it down on
a table and sit a favourite treat (nothing moist or wet) in the centre of the
glue and leave to dry.
These suggestions may seem a little unusual;
however, it forms an easy way of encouraging your parrot to use and work with
different items. In this way learning how to play is a coincidental side-effect
of foraging for and obtaining food.
The process of manipulating a toy and to
be rewarded by it at the same time by receiving a food treat makes this way of
learning to play self-reinforcing. Your bird will associate whichever items you
use with positive, desired experiences and outcomes and is therefore likely to
return to such toys again and again and may eventually find joy playing with
the toy whether there is a food treat attached or not. I would, however,
recommend that you keep on spiking the toy occasionally in order to maintain
the interest in the item.
Some of the manufactured toys are
cleverly designed, well-made and look great and can provide hours of fun
provided that you choose toys made of materials that your parrot has already
shown an interest in. A fairly safe bet is to buy toys that contain a variety
of materials, such as wood, cloth, leather and metal.
You might have assessed that your bird
loves wood to nibble on and went out and bought him an enormous wooden toy at
great expense, only to find that after a gentle introduction he ignores it.
If after you having played with the toy
yourself in front of your bird he still ignores it, try hanging it elsewhere or
at a different height. Always remember to reward any signs of interest, such as
a move towards the toy or even just your bird looking at the item, with praise
or a treat.
You can spike the toy with treats, by
tying them on or by gluing them using flour-glue, depending on the material.
And finally, if your bird likes chewing
on fresh fruit tree branches take a few thin, fresh, juicy twigs and weave them
through and around any toy where possible (willow is also very good for this).
For any bird that likes chewing and de-barking fresh twigs, getting involved
with the toy in this way, again makes this a reinforcing activity.
Please note that you should
always remove loose, tangled pieces of string hanging from toys to avoid