Why Parrots Play

Whether they're learning important skills or just having fun, play is a very important part of a parrot's life.

Some birds need to be taught how to play, so you might need to show them how to play with bird toys. Via Gina Cioli/Lumina Media

Whether we’re talking hopping, bopping, tossing, juggling, weaving or tail pulling, different species of parrots are naturally inclined to develop different types of interactive as well as self-rewarding activities. These behaviors might be remnants of wild ways that somehow support survival, or they might simply be fun. From the caique parrot’s piggy squeal to the quaker parrot’s “hehe” dance; from African greys scratching in corners to Goffin’s cockatoos flipping objects over their shoulders, behaviors that might be considered unusual in one species of parrot might be expected in another.

Experienced breeders, parrot behavior consultants or anyone who has lived with multiple species of parrots can probably relate numerous stories of behaviors common to a species and describe particular behaviors in individual birds that may be uncommon in their species.

The Need To Play

While juvenile members of many domesticated and wild animals play, very few species — humans and birds — enjoy sufficient free time from the stresses of survival to retain play behaviors as adults. Since they are sheltered from predation, starvation or adverse weather conditions, companion parrots have more opportunities for play. Because very little of their survival depends upon their own activities, companion parrots actually need to develop play behaviors.

Opportunities for flexing mental and physical “muscle” are limited in a bird cage, so play becomes a necessary component of healthy behavioral adjustment for pet birds.

A newly weaned parrot that is held constantly during the period in which play naturally develops, between fledging and sexual maturity, might develop unwanted alternate behaviors, especially attention-demanding behaviors. If a companion parrot — including small birds, such as a budgie or a cockatiel — doesn’t develop play behaviors, she might begin calling ceaselessly for human attention.

Toys are the tools with which a parrot develops guided, appropriate behavior rather than spontaneous behavior that might be accidentally reinforced. Knowing species-specific play styles can assist bird owners in choosing appropriate toys for their birds as well as help them present the toy to pique the bird’s interest. Likewise, providing accessories for anticipated activities reinforces those behaviors, which might otherwise disappear if they are not accommodated.

Play may be interactive (done with others) or solitary. Some interactive play, such as vocalizations and feather displays, might be related to courtship, rivalry or territorial behaviors. Even some behaviors that appear independent might actually be related to courtship. Chewing wood, for example, might be demonstrating the skills needed later for reproduction (e.g. nest-carving); eating (even if the food can’t be shared) might demonstrate the ability to feed a mate and babies; and colorful feather displays demonstrate optimal genetic makeup.

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Behavior and Training · Birds