Contrafreeloading puts a smile on my face. As a student of animal behavior, it is one of the coolest phenomena I know of. It has been studied in many species from rats to grizzly bears to humans and yes, even parrots.
It is so incredible because these animals do the opposite of what you would expect, hence the “contra” prefix. Contrafreeloading means, when given a choice, animals will choose to work for their food even when food is freely available.
Even when free food is placed right next to them, they choose to work, sometimes rather hard, to get the same food.
Here’s a little history behind the term and concept:
“This term was created in 1963 by animal psychologist Glen Jensen. Jensen ran a study on 200 male albino rats where the end result was the rats ate more from the food source where the rats had to press on a bar to get the pellet rather than the dish of pellets where they didn’t have to do anything at all. Jensen then studied the behaviors of gerbils, mice, birds, fish, monkeys and chimpanzees. In fact many have studied contrafreeloading since then with similar results, except for the domestic cat — which likes to be served. This 1963 study’s results were surprising because it would be more logical, from an evolutionary point of view, to not expand energy to get food when food is freely available.
Why do pet bird people care about this? Birds seem to want to work for food, which is a wild instinctual behavior. Avian behaviorists recommend that pet bird owners encourage contrafreeloading behavior with foraging setups and bird toys within the pet birds’ cages and that pet bird owners engage their parrots by training commands like Step up or tricks such as the eagle, and then use a treat reward system. This keeps pet birds busy, active and healthy.”
Growing up, I had chickens and pigeons. They would eat from their bowl until they were satisfied, but if I took some of that same food from the bowl and threw it in hay or on the grass, they would run over and start strutting and scratching. Kicking over blades of grass and woodchips, they would rediscover the hidden food and start eating again.
Recently, I saw an example of contrafreeloading on the Internet. It was a herd of goats playing with boomerballs even though there was food in nearby troughs. A boomerball is a durable plastic ball (good for anything from cats to lions), that has one small opening. As the animal rolls the ball, food slowly spills out.
This is similar to the natural behavior of grazing animals. In the wild these animals would have to cover long distances to get fed properly. If the animals are given a smaller area in captivity, but are continuously rolling the ball to disperse the food, their physical and psychological needs may be met. This may not have occurred if their food was freely obtained. Many of our pet birds’ wild family members, fly long distances or forage throughout the day in the grasses to find their meals. We should be replicating this behavior in our homes.
You may have experienced contrafreeloading in your own backyard. Many people enjoy feeding wild birds. Many people do not enjoy feeding squirrels. Buying squirrel-proof feeders or placing squirrel food on the ground away from the bird feeder are options thought to prevent squirrels from eating the bird food. However, this is usually not the case. The squirrels usually end up performing magical acrobatic moves on the feeder to retrieve the bird food. The squirrels then come back to stash the treats that were on the ground. The squirrels may be enjoying the challenge the bird feeder provides.
Kenny CooganChickens love foraging too!
Why Work For Food?
There are several theories explaining why contrafreeloading might occur. It may promote an animal’s natural behavior of foraging or hunting. Being able to choose how to manipulate the environment, like accessing food from a toy, might provide them with the mental stimulation needed to prevent boredom. My chickens, ducks and cockatoo can choose to peck, roll or gently push their feeder ball giving them endless ways to retrieve their treats.
Birds may be using these information-seeking behaviors to work out how to predict the location of the best food sources. It could be that they see the free food (food in the dish) and know it is going to be there in the future. Therefore they stock up on the food that is a little more time consuming because they don’t know how long that opportunity will be available.
A third theory on why contrafreeloading works could be the additional reinforcers that are part of the feeding device. Birds could be enjoying the feeding device itself. The way it rolls haphazardly, like an insect, keeps your birds on their toes. They appreciate the chase. The texture on their beak, or the color or noise the feeder toy makes could also be satisfying to your pet.
There are a lot of options when choosing a feeder toy for your pets. You could purchase them at a pet store for usually $5 to $20. There are also a lot of feeder toys you can make at home. For a parrot you could take a 2- to 3-inch wide PVC pipe and put caps on the ends. The length of the tube could be a six inches or larger. Drill a handful of holes on the side of the tube and it becomes a food dispenser when the bird rolls it. Another option is it to place a pet’s food in wiffle balls. As the balls roll, pellets fall out.
Being able to provide simple food challenges for your pets is good for their well-being. Allowing birds the joy of working will keep them healthy and occupied.