Foraging in Captivity
By Dr Corrie Pinkster B.V.Sc.
Birds in the wild are exposed to hundreds of sights, sounds and activities on a daily basis. They are intelligent creatures and like to be kept active and stimulated. When birds become bored a huge variety of behavioural problems can occur. These behaviours are much easier to prevent than to reverse once they become habits. It is important to acknowledge that by choosing to keep a bird as a pet, it is our responsibility to provide not only a safe environment, but an enriched environment which will stimulate and encourage our bird’s natural behaviour.
In the wild, parrots spend around 4-6 hours a day looking for and eating food. In a cage, they will usually spend on average less than an hour in total feeding time in a day, leaving 3-5 hours for them to fill the time with some other behaviour. This may be socialization, grooming or resting. A bird that is kept in a cage on its own will now have all day to groom and sleep. Often this not only leaves your bird bored and unsatisfied but with plenty of time to develop unwanted behaviours such as feather plucking.
The good news is we can help our birds and provide a much better environment for them. The following principles will allow for a happier, more satisfied and more confident bird. Providing toys/activities that involve searching and working for food, as well as acceptable opportunities to shred and destroy will allow your bird to behave more naturally. The ultimate aim is to have your bird involved in foraging behaviour for 4-6 hours a day, with no food bowl. This can be done both in the cage and at the play perch. The first step is to provide activities/toys which contain treats – food that they love which is an extra on top of their normal diet. To start with these are bonuses if the bird finds them. You may need to demonstrate to the bird where the food is placed and how to obtain it. As your bird gets used to this, parts of the normal diet can be hidden. When you are sure your bird has mastered the art of foraging and can get to all of the food, it’s entire daily provision can be given in toys. Toys should be regularly rotated and moved around the cage to maintain interest.
So what sort of activities and toys am I talking about? This will be very dependent on the size or bird you have and it’s experience with toys. For a beginner, something as simple as putting a piece of paper over the food bowl is a start – they have to move the paper to get to the food. The next step would be to secure the paper with a rubber band so they need to break through the paper to get the food. The food bowl can be filled with non-food items such as small blocks of wood or balls of paper so they must search for their food. Treats such as nuts can be wrapped in a ball of paper, or in an empty toilet roll, or both. You could tie a nut on the end of a length of untreated leather so your bird has to pull it up to eat it. You can purchase or make blocks of wood on leather with many holes to put treats in. Easy food toys can be placed away from perches so your bird has to climb to get to it. There are also many foraging toys which can be purchased commercially of varying difficulty and size. An excellent source of such toys is the Parrot Rescue Centre. To learn more, check out the DVD “Captive Foraging” by Dr Scott Echols, available at the above website.