Meet Radish. Radish is a former breeder parrot, unknown age, potentially wild caught. His entire body is naked, no feathers left, and the plucking has gone on long enough that they won't grow back. When I met him, he repeated the same motion over and over again in his cage, climbing down the sides, then climbing back up. He did not know how to play with toys, and after his previous owner tried enough, she finally stopped giving them to him.
These days, Radish joyfully plows through a cornucopia of balsa, soft pine and shredding toys, making lots of mess in his cage, exerting a lot of energy, both mental and physical, to create that level of destruction.
Close your eyes, and imagine a flock of wild parrots. They're hanging off trees, gathering food, squawking and squabbling amongst themselves. When they're done, they take flight and head off somewhere else. Or maybe they're sitting quietly, preening their feathers after a long day of effort.
Go to the World Parrot Trust index of parrots, and watch some of the videos. I guarantee you, you will not find a single video of a wild parrot sitting on a single perch all day long, without moving much other than to waddle to his or her food dish. And yet, I've brought home a shockingly large number of parrots who did not play, whose lives consisted of exactly that -- sitting all day, or worse, repeating the same stereotypical behaviours in their cage, or worst yet, destroying their feathers and themselves... all because of lack of enrichment.
Parrots are extremely busy, extremely athletic creatures who fly for miles a day, forage for food, play with their friends, preen with their mates, raise their children. We love them for their curiosity and interactivity, and yet, there's a phenomenal number of parrots who do mostly sit there all day long.
Zoos around the world have entire fleets of zookeepers whose job it is to keep the animals under their care with adequate to amazing environmental enrichment. An enriched environment for the animals under our care can prevent behaviour problems including screaming and biting, as well as provide us with a constant supply of mess to clean up -- that's why we all got parrots, right?
Toys are one vitally important part of environmental enrichment, and one that many new parrot owners don't really understand -- what they are, why they're important, how to make them, and most importantly, how to get their flocks to play with them. Hopefully these words of wisdom (and useful links!) will help.
Nothing in the universe is entirely risk free, and enrichment definitely comes with risks that are easily dealt with by using common sense. Here's a few guidelines, as well as some links to people who go into much more detail than I will.
There's no official parrot toy organizational structure that decrees that toys fall into specific types, just a set of generalized types of toys that I've seen created and I've made myself.
One important thing to keep in mind is that if a parrot doesn't like the toys you're making them, try another type! I'll get into that in more details in the training section below.
Also, one individual toy can fulfill multiple different 'types'. For example, I regularly mix and match wood and shreddables, as that's a combination my parrots enjoy a great deal.
Absolutely! There's a ton of people out there who sell parrot toys, both online and in person. Many pet stores will sell some parrot toys (although I find that the larger stores tend to only stock wood and some shredding toys, mostly for larger parrots). Smaller, parrot specific stores tend to have more variety. For those who have a smaller flock, and/or who have issues with making their own toys, buying toys is a GREAT choice, and frequently supports another parrot lover out there.
If you are a parrot toy maker who would like to be added to this list, please contact me at stephanie at rationalparrot dot com and I'll see if you can be added.Canada
Avian Stainless has lots and lots of fun noisemaker toys for all different sizes of parrots.
Feathered Addictions is a great general purpose store that I've ordered from online.
Oliver's Garden creates the coolest acrobatic toys, including the Crawler, one of which I've had for nearly a decade now. They've got a lot of other things too, well worth checking out.
The Spunky Parrot has a ton of different toys, and also sells pre-filled skewers, which are super fun and give you some ideas on how to make your own.
Things for Wings has a ton of great shredding toys and also toy parts available. I've ordered from them several timesUnited States
Choppers Toys has so much fun stuff, it's almost impossible to summarize. I've ordered from them extensively, more before I moved to Canada.
Mother Plucking Bird Toys makes the Orbit and the Atom. I have three of them (two atoms and an orbit) and I swear, they're the greatest toys ever, providing fun places to add new foraging setups, great places for exercise, and the ability to add more parrot space without taking up more floor space.
Natural Inspirations Parrot Cages sells my absolute favourite in-cage toy ever, the 2 by 4 holder. It's a perch, and a foraging toy, and a wood chipper. All of my larger parrots love them, and I love having the ability to replace perches in giant cages for a low cost. Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommended.
Absolutely! Making your own parrot toys allows you to customize them to your own parrots, helps you save money, and can be a lot of fun for both you and your parrot.
The #1 resource for parrot toy making is the Parrot Enrichment website, including the Parrot Enrichment Activity Book version 1 and version 2. If you're interested in making parrot toys (or you aren't!), go read those now. I'll wait. :)
Another great resource for parrot toy making is the Facebook group Parrot Workshop. Their files in particular are worth looking at, and the group is very welcoming.
Your options for making parrot toys are to make them from scratch, using materials at hand, or to use toy bases and toy parts. I hate tying knots, so I tend to use a large number of toy bases. My favourite are stainless steel rings, skewers, curly skewers, and anything that's relatively easy to thread onto.
Another frequently overlooked option for enrichment is the most frequently used one in large aviaries and zoos -- browse. At Natural Encounters most aviaries are set up with cut off tree branches, leaves included, which allows the parrots to shred, chip and destroy to their heart's content. If you have the ability to cut down safe wood, I highly recommend using it.
Keep in mind that parrot toy part stores are not the only place you can find parts. I buy cupcake liners and straws from a kitchen supply nearby, and adding machine paper rolls from an office supply store. I use egg cartons and paper towel rolls to add additional things to shred, and keep junk mail for paper ripping joy. I encourage all my friends to donate their old phone books to shredding joy at my house, and have scaveneged trees throughout my entire neighbourhood after an ice storm.
I buy toy parts online and assemble my own toys. Here are the places I regularly get parts from. Again, if you sell toy parts and would like to be added to this list, please contact me at stephanie at rationalparrot dot com.Canada
Crystals Bird Toys sells such great toy parts, including the balsa wood that makes my pyrrhura conures have absolute fits of joy. She ships to the US as well.
The Parrot Hotel sells toy parts (particularly birdie bagels), as well as cleaners and cages.
The Spunky Parrot also sells lots of toy parts, and is a great resource for softer wood. I buy a lot of balsa from there for my ever chewy conures.
Things for Wings also sells toy parts. I get a lot of my shreddy parts from there.United States
California Bird Nerds sells a wide variety of toys parts, and shipping is reasonable, even to Canada. I've bought from them countless times.
Caseys Wood is a craft store that also sells hardwood parrot toy parts, pre-drilled. They're too hard for most smaller parrots, but for the macaw owners among us, they're so awesome.
Make Your Own Bird Toys is a one stop shop for nearly everything you might need, including a large number of stainless steel rings and bases.
Playing with toys, like almost everything else, is a learned behaviour. Baby parrots are great at exploring their environment on their own, but if they're not encouraged to play with enrichment items, or not provided with enrichment items, they may not learn those vital life skills.
If you have a parrot who will not play with toys, that is a behavioural emergency... but it's also a skill that's easy for them to learn through positive reinforcement and shaping.
The plan should be modified for every parrot, and can include some to many of the following ideas: playing together, foraging, multiple items of toys, and reinforcement for approaching/interacting with toys.
I generally start by setting up the cage with multiple types of toys. Sometimes, you can make some assumptions based on species, but all parrots are individuals. You may find a macaw who prefers chewing on straws and cardboard to chipping wood, and a grey who wants to do nothing BUT chip wood. If you provide a variety of toys, you can begin to see what they like.
What if your parrot is afraid of toys? The best tool in the toolbox for this is active desensitization. If you start by teaching your parrot to touch a target you can use that beginners behaviour to encourage them to approach a new toy. I usually set it up by determining the distance at which the parrot is comfortable with the new toy -- it might be all the way across the room. Then I encourage the parrot (either by shaping it, target training, or luring) to approach the new toy. The parrot is rewarded for looking at, moving towards, and interacting with the new toy. Eventually, through the magic of classical conditioning, the toy itself will begin to have value -- and you will have increased their confidence and broadened their world.
You've set up the cage, but the parrot still sits in the same spot, a lump on a log. Here's where you can start having fun. One of my favourite games, and one of the ways I encouraged Radish to start playing is to play with them. I played with some paper, and then offered it to him. If he ignored it, I'd play 'keep away', and turn away, and make that paper the most fun thing ever. Eventually, he reached out to grab it, and we threw a party together. A lot of parrots also really enjoy teaching humans to fetch. This is one of Theo's absolute favourite games. He loves nothing more than to have a giant box of toys to go through, and throw them all on the ground, then repeat when I hand them back. He laughs and pins his eyes, and is clearly beside himself with his sheer training knowledge. After all, how many humans know how to fetch?
Another option that I love to use with parrots who have a favourite treat is foraging. I offer them a treat sitting on a cupcake holder, piece of paper towel, newspaper, or white paper. After they've taken it a few times, I slightly crumple up the paper, and then eventually crumple it up tightly, and let them pick the treat out of the middle.
Once they've learned that treats come inside paper, I tie or attach the treat-filled paper wads to toys in their cage, thus encouraging them to explore the toys. At first, most parrots just take out the treats, but you can make them increasingly harder as time goes on. Even if it takes them a while to play with the toys, you're encouraging them to move and explore their environment.
Last but not least, positive reinforcement goes a long way with parrots. If you see your parrot approaching a toy, interacting with enrichment, or playing with a toy, REINFORCE IT! A small treat, a great deal of happy praise, a joyful little song and a few moments of playing together helps keep them happily playing with toys, and helps your relationship. It's vastly more important to catch them being good than to deal with problems after they've occurred.
Who wants to start playing with your parrot now?