Why Play Is So Important For Your Pet Bird

It's more than just keeping your birds from getting bored and chewing on your furniture. Play is good for your bird's mental and physical health too.

Bird playing
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Rows upon rows of bird toys hanging in pet stores across the nation are prime evidence that we want our birds to play. There are behavioral consequences to not playing, such as picking, screaming, biting or lethargy. There are also medical consequences, such as obesity, infection (from feather picking) and more.

“Ranked in order of importance, the top three activities for birds, in my opinion, are: eating/drinking, foraging and playing,” said Greg Burkett, DVM, an avian veterinarian and owner of The Birdie Boutique Inc. in Durham, North Carolina.

Play for birds is important to them for many of the same reasons it’s important to us: stress release, social interaction and making life more enjoyable, according to Ted Lafeber, DVM, CEO of Lafeber Company in Cornell, Illinois.

“Behind our home we have a creek that’s sometimes very rapid, and my wife and I once watched two mallard ducks float down the creek and “shoot-the-rapids,'” Lafeber said. “They would fly back up the creek and shoot the rapids again. It was delightful to watch. They had a grand time. This went on for about 30 minutes until they flew off. It was a fabulous example of playing.”

For the birds in our homes, however, play isn’t always for play’s sake.

“Birds in the wild spend many hours each day looking for food, and the remaining part is spent in social interaction, feather maintenance and sleeping,” said Kathleen Lance, owner of Bird Paradise in Burlington, New Jersey. “There aren’t any food bowls on the ground or in the trees. As a result, birds in the wild do not have time to be bored. I used to teach second graders and quickly observed that if they became bored in the classroom, they were more likely to act out. In those instances, I realized that I needed to provide more stimulating and enriching opportunities for those kids who had mastered a task and needed to be taken to the next level. And, so it is with birds.”

Play also encourages good health, both physically and mentally.

“The most important abilities to a pet bird are effective use of his or her feet and beak,” Burkett said. “Play encourages birds to use their feet and beak, which helps develop the strength and dexterity needed for perching, climbing and eating, and helps develop good coordination and balance. Playing, if including chewing, keeps the beak strong and groomed. Play also provides mental stimulation and challenges to stimulate brain activity. Parrots need to be challenged with puzzles and toys that encourage birds to use the brain. Play encourages exercise too, which is important in maintaining overall health, such as a strong heart, efficient lungs and good muscle tone.”

When Parrots Don’t Play

Some parrots are very active and playful, and some behave as if they don? know what playing is. Why?

“Maybe the bird did not learn as a young bird how to play because she had no siblings or was raised without other birds, or because she was not given toys at a young age,” Burkett suggested. “If it’s a case that the bird did play but has stopped, the bird could be sick and needs to be seen by an avian veterinarian, or it may be time for some new toys because the ones she has are old or the bird is no longer interested in them. In some cases, I find that the cage is too small and does not allow the bird enough space to play.”

Maybe a slow-to-play bird just needs the right motivation. Lafeber recalled a lecture given by Dr. Yvonne Von Zeeland in Wiesbaden, Germany, at the International Conference on Avian, Herpetological and Exotic Mammal Medicine (ICARE) in 2013, in which she explained a finding in her university study on birds that those on pelleted diets spend more than twice the amount of time foraging when the pellets were placed in toys that they knew how to use.

Play is also different among species. Conures, caiques, macaws and Amazons can play hard; Eclectus and Poicephalus may be calmer players; lovebirds, cockatiels and budgies tend to be active players. Play activity level also has to do with age, hormones, health and happiness. A stressed bird will be unlikely to play because she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself.

Enrichment And Foraging

“Enrichment” was a term first used when dealing with zoo animals that became bored and neurotic living in an environment with nothing to do. Enrichment has to do with enhancing an animal’s environment and foraging has to do with providing unique ways to offer food. These two terms merge when it comes to “play” for your bird. Both Burkett and Lafeber said that they do not see foraging as a form of play, but rather a form of work, though Lafeber concedes that we all have certainly played with our food at one time or another.

“Birds will work for things they value,” Lance said. “There are only so many wooden blocks that birds want to chew on. In time, it becomes boring. It would be like providing a child with the same toy day in and day out. You can begin to imagine what other negative activities to which they would resort as a natural result of their boredom. One way to enrich a bird’s environment is to provide a playstand separate from the cage. I do not consider a T-stand with a dowel in the center and two cups appropriate for mental stimulation. Java stands and the like, with natural branches for proper foot stimulation, are much more enriching. The toys attached to the stand should be of different textures and levels of difficulty.”

Your Bird Toy Box

Keep a variety of toys in your parrot’s habitat, as well as in a cupboard for rotation in and out of the cage to keep the toys “new” to the bird. Toys that can be shredded and demolished are particularly fun, but also provide toys that will last a long time.

Problem-solving toys have been in vogue for several years, and there are plenty of them on the market, or you can make your own. Lance said that with puzzle toys “the goal is to stimulate, not frustrate,” so show your bird how to use a this toy when you offer it.

“Be aware of how your bird plays,” Burkett said. “For example, hard, physical play versus mild-mannered play. The more physical birds should have toys that are softer to reduce the chance of injury from a wildly swinging toy. Mild-mannered birds who prefer to sit quietly and chew wood should receive toys that are made of soft wood, cardboard, calcium carbonate and other easy-to-chew materials.”

Types Of Bird Toys

  • Destructible: Temporary toys that provide energy release and encourage natural chewing and shredding behaviors. These include: raffia mats; paper straws, strips, twists and rolls; pine cones; willow balls and mats; braided grass and straw; woven grass baskets; mineral blocks; coconut fiber; soft wood.
  • Indestructible: For birds who like to play rough. These include metal toys and those made from impact-resistant and bulletproof materials.
  • Chewing: Toys that take effort and time to destroy, like hardwood blocks or chips, lava rock and coconut shells.
  • Preening: Toys that satisfy a bird? desire to preen, such as toys with feathers, cotton rope, crinkled paper, straw or raffia bundles and sisal bundles or fibers.
  • Foraging: Encourages food-finding behavior. Foraging toys are typically hollow and include spaces for the inclusion of food and small toys, pieces of wood and other goodies.
  • Interactive: Puzzle toys and those with moving parts or sounds that stimulate a bird? intellect. The bird has to solve a puzzle to get a treat, or press a button or lever to make a part of the toy move or play a song.

Inappropriate Play

Playing with your bird is important to her health and your bonding experience, but there are types of play that can be damaging.

“Aggressive and rough play is inappropriate, such as startling a bird, poking, wrestling, hitting, restraining or otherwise potentially harmful handling or play,” Burkett said. “Free-flying or encouraging a bird to fly in an area that is too small to fly in can be dangerous by causing injury to bird and property.”

All work and no play makes Polly a dull parrot, so make sure to keep your bird entertained, or she’ll find a way to entertain herself that might not be as productive.

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