Enriching the Cage…….
…….What is that?
The word ‘enrichment’ itself is a loaded term. When speaking in context of using the word ‘enrichment’ or ‘environmental enrichment’ in accordance to captive animals, it is anything that an animal would find interesting or stimulating in their environment. The goal of providing enrichment to the cage is to improve our bird’s quality of life through providing an area in which to stimulate physical activity and expand on their cognitive capabilities while eliminating or reducing stereotypical behaviors. The more common forms of stereotypical behaviors seen in companion parrots can be screaming, plucking, cage bar scaling, pacing, and the list can go on. In this particular newsletter, the environment in which I would like to focus will be the cage of our companion parrots. In future newsletters, I will expand or write more in depth on other types of environments such as different types of social enrichment or outdoor enrichments and the effects of these enrichment factors, with the best interest of our companion parrots in mind.
To me, enrichment is the arousal of the senses and when introducing different types of enrichment to my bird’s cage, I focus on the challenge level and their willingness to interact with the enrichment. When introducing different types of enrichment, I also pay close attention to how they react and how it effects their confidence level and their sense of security. If the bird shows any type of fear or sense of being uncomfortable, I will remove it and slowly re-introduce the enrichment at the bird’s level of security.
One of the most important factors that I consider when enriching the bird’s cage, is the size of the cage itself. In my opinion, a cage can never be too large. Many times I have heard that someone has a bird that feels more secure in a smaller cage. If that is actually the case, certain enrichments can be provided within the cage to make the bird seem more secure while we work on getting the bird comfortable with exploring their expanding surroundings. The more area a bird has in which to navigate, feed, and play, the more opportunity the bird has in learning. The more opportunity a bird has in learning, the more one will observe their bird’s sense of security and confidence grow. The more a bird’s sense of confidence and security grows through new and changing enrichments, the less opportunity the bird has in performing abnormal repetitive behaviors such as consistent screaming, plucking, pacing, and scaling its beak on the cage bars.
One of the biggest complaints I hear in regards to the cage is, “I can’t get my bird to go back into its cage.” or “My bird hates going into its cage.”. Hmmmm, these statements say a lot. One of the things I see or hear frequently, is when a bird is on their playstand and it begins screaming, bites someone, or it gets into something in which the owner doesn’t want. Guess where they usually put the bird? Back in the cage. So if the bird doesn’t like going in its cage in the first place, the cage is now associated as a form of punishment. A double whammy! In many or most instances, if the cage is perceived as a form of punishment, the more likely the bird will be in resisting going back inside of its cage.
I arrange my bird’s environment so opportunities for negative behaviors are at their minimum, if they exist at all. Therefore, putting my bird back in the cage as a form of punishment is something I would try to avoid. When my goal is to get my bird to go back into their cage, I want them to be excited about it. I do this by providing numerous types of enrichment in which I know my bird enjoys and one of them is nutritional enrichment, which can take place in the form of foraging for food, or the presentation of food.
For example, my Moluccan Cockatoo, Rocky loves pine nuts, popcorn, and unsalted crackers. If my goal is to put him back into his cage, I use the above three types of food and put them in his foraging toys within his cage. Once he is in his cage, he’ll spend a large amount of time foraging for these treats. The key is getting him to want to go into his cage because he doesn’t always see these treats in his toys. I set the environment up for success. On Rocky’s cage door I have a perch and on the end of that perch is a dish. I open Rocky’s cage and place him next to the perch that is hung on his door. I ask him to step up and he usually does because he knows through past experience if he steps up, he will then get one of his favored treats. If he doesn’t, I then place one or a few of these treats in his bowl on the end of the perch. He steps up and reaches in to the bowl for his treats. I don’t shut the door immediately because I still don’t want to associate the treat in the bowl with me immediately shutting the door. Because Rocky also loves head scratches, I will stand there with the door open and scratch his head while he eats a treat. I will then slowly shut the door and re-direct his attention to the foraging toys in the cage with the crackers hanging out of it. Rocky eagerly roams his cage in search of his favorite treats. So he now associates going in to his cage as the only time of the day to search for all of his favorite goodies. The cage is associated with a positive outcome. Perfect!
While speaking about nutritional enrichment or foraging, I believe this is one of the most important forms of enrichment we can provide to our parrots, especially inside the cage. Once your bird learns how to forage, this can be a rewarding pacifier of time for them. The challenge a bird finds in foraging not only is a preferred way of eating, but also aids in issues with negative behavior. If a bird is eating, it can’t scream at the same time. If a bird is wandering all over the cage searching for food, the opportunity for screaming is replaced with the hunt for the food. The more challenging the hunt, the less time provided for the bird to scream, pluck, pace, etc. Foraging for food is yet another positive association your bird can and will develop in relation with being in the cage. (Before incorporating foraging please research levels foraging and see previous newsletter from March 2008.)
Then there are toys! Toys are probably the most popular form of enrichment used or placed inside of the cage. Toys can be classified as a form of occupational enrichment which is used to exercise the mind and the body. These types of toys are intended to enhance the bird’s ability to manipulate objects and visually attract their attention and many, if not all types of toys can be classified under this category. Toys are artificial enrichments that are provided to our parrots in all shapes, sizes, colors, and objectives. Toys also help in stimulating natural behaviors they exhibit in the wild.
So how do we know if our bird finds a toy enriching? If the bird interacts, or is attracted to the toy, it is enriching the bird’s life and environment. Sometimes a toy may wear out its welcome. Keep a toy box handy as a place for these toys to reside until a later date.
If you would really like to find the perfect toy for your bird, pay closer attention to which parts of particular toys your bird interacts. Many birds will single out favorite “parts” or “pieces” of a toy and leave the rest hanging. If this is the case, search for toys which contain more of those “parts” or “pieces”. You may then want to add additional “attainable” challenges to the enrichment and the environment. What I mean by this is, if your bird loves a particular toy, add a little challenge to the toy such as not hanging it in a convenient spot. Hang it just out of reach of the perch, or from a boing in which the bird has to keep his balance while interacting with the toy, or even hang it on the outside of the cage. I suggest the additional challenges for the birds already used to being challenged. For those not used to the challenge, try teaching them with more basic challenge (see March 2008 issue).
Perches are also a part of enrichment to a bird’s cage. The size, placement, and substrate of the toy could be very enriching to your bird. I have a mix of perches within by birds’ cages ranging from rope, cement, Manzanita, plastic, etc. Perches, along with toys should be rotated on a regular basis to keep the cage exciting, changing, and mentally stimulating for your bird. How often should we rotate? Your bird will tell you. Once you get to know your bird, you will be able to recognize their interest level and where it begins to fade. I try to keep one step ahead of that point and change at least one toy and/or perch to make their environment consistently stimulating. If you notice your bird not going to a particular perch or a particular area of the cage, try hanging their favorite toy near the perch or in that particular area.
Another type of enrichment I find for my birds while they are inside of their cage is training. One behavior I may focus on training is asking them to go to a certain area within their cage while I open their door. I may train them to wave while they are inside of their cage. All of my birds’ cages are in the same room. When one bird is being trained and getting the attention, the others are usually very eager to vocalize their desire to be a part of the training action also. Training from within the cage really works in enriching their environment and the options are endless in what to train. One more positive association related to being inside the cage.
So since we have briefly touched on the issue of a bird’s sense of security, or lack thereof, I would like to take the opportunity to continue to discuss this behavioral issue and how enrichment within the cage could help the bird in overcoming its fears.
In the wild, parrots have many predators and their survival depends on their attention to prey and awareness of danger in their surroundings. This is a behavior in which wild birds have had to pay much attention to through the evolution of their history. It should be of no surprise that this behavior could be an instinct passed down through the generations.
In the wild, parrots have the opportunity to escape in many different forms, but the main form of escape would be flight. In most instances within our homes, our birds are housed in their cages. If they perceive danger within their environment, and that environment is also the room in which their cage is located, what opportunities do we provide them for escape? This is a common situation that is often overlooked and one that I believe can lead to many behavioral issues within our birds. One behavioral issue in which I see it leading, is to a behavior many people label as “phobic”. A bird who is often faced with an insecure environment can most definitely develop behavioral issues. In many situations, I see the caregivers unaware of the early onset of behaviors developing. Some of these behaviors exhibited by the bird may be harder to recognize than others.
I think it is very important to provide, even to the most confident bird, the opportunity to retreat to an area in which they feel safe and secure within their cage. For example, many birds may feel more secure in the highest area of their cage. A perch can be placed at the highest part of the cage. If the bird’s cage is in a corner, a perch can be placed at the highest spot in the cage located in that corner. The bird now has the shelter of two walls on either side. A larger toy can be hung next to this perch to provide the bird something to go behind and hide. Additional toys could be hung surrounding the perch to give the bird the opportunity and sense of security in hiding behind the toys. Yet another added bonus that accompanies a positive consequence to being in their cage.
Interacting verbally with your bird can be one form of audible enrichment. My birds’ cages are all in another room in the house. They are in a room where I frequent, walk by often, and from anywhere in the house the birds can easily hear me. This could be a challenging situation if I were dealing with any type of screaming issues with my birds and if I was the one for which they were screaming. This is currently not the case because I have since modified this issue and will discuss and explain this in an upcoming newsletter.
For the most part when the birds are in their cages, they are either busy interacting with some type of toy, resting, or socializing with each other. Many times though, I use their “in cage” time as a way for us all to interact verbally with each other from different areas of the house. These could be considered as contact calls, but I believe these vocalizations, between my birds and I are much deeper than that. Our vocalizations back and forth are more of a game. Rocky will call out “Peek A Boo”. I will reply back with a “Peek A Boo to you too, Rocky!”. He’ll start laughing. I start laughing. My Greenwing, Murray will chime in with an “Ahh Ahh Ahh!”. I’ll reply back with the same to Murray. Soon Rico, my Umbrella Cockatoo will pipe in with an exuberant “HI!”. Of course I yell back, “Well hello there Rico!”. By this time the house is full of all sorts of echoing noises and phrases that send the neighbors gossiping about the house on the end of the block. Before you know it,
the birds are all interacting vocally with one another and “HEY!” I realize I’ve suddenly been cut out of the conversation all together. This is one time it will bring a smile to my face to be left out of the conversation and to hear it carry on without me. Yet another positive enrichment they associate with being in their cage. Cage time doesn’t seem so bad after all does it?
About the Author
Lara Joseph lives in Ohio where she shares her home with four birds; two cockatoos, a large macaw, and an eclectus hen. She dedicates her time to the work and study of parrot behavior and their welfare in their captive and native environments. She writes articles on different aspects of companion parrot welfare, including behavior, enrichment and foraging and its effects on behavior, her life with her own birds, and approaches on increasing the human/parrot bond. In her free time she enjoys consulting issues of parrot behavior, working for her avian board certified veterinarian, designing her own line of foraging and enrichment toys, and traveling to further increase her education in the world of these amazing, intelligent, and extraordinary creatures.