What’s all the fuss about foraging anyway?

By Lara Joseph

There has been a lot of talk about it lately. Exactly what is it and why all the fuss? Foraging is the act of searching for food. For a wild parrot, that could mean flying among jungle, treetops searching for fruits and leaves, searching the forest floors for nuts and grubs, and searching for farmer’s fields for the freshest crops, just to name a few. In the wild, a parrot will spend a good portion of its day flying and searching for food. A bird will expend a large amount of energy flying and searching for food between feeding sites. Therefore, you may be able to imagine how much time is spent looking for food for themselves and possibly their mate and/or chicks back in the nest. That is a lot of time and that is a lot of energy and that is only one of the numerous behaviors a parrot will perform in a day.A parrot’s mind and body is built and adapted to all of this mental and physical activity. Why the emphasis on all this activity and time? Because when we compare our companion parrots’ daily exercise, daily activity, and daily feeding portions to that of their wild counterparts, you can begin to see the major differences in the mental and physical activity levels. Their bodies are built to expend all of this energy in the wild, yet when you look at our companion parrots in our household, how are we feeding them? The majority of us probably feed them numerous times a day, at scheduled times each day, out of a bowl that is easily served in front of a convenient perch. A lot of their daily mental and physical activities are being eliminated, just in how we are feeding them. This can aide in weight gain, health problems, and excessive physical and mental energy. The four to six hours each day they would spend searching for food in the wild, has now just been decreased to about 45 minutes of behavior in their cages. So, now let’s talk ‘foraging’.

Where do we start? A bird needs to be taught how to forage. Cockatoo ForagingWhile teaching your bird to forage, always leave food in a dish that is easily accessible in case they do not understand their foraging toy; they can always rely on the food in their dish. You may want to start by taking their most desirable food or treats and teach them to forage with those items while leaving their second and third choices of food in their dish. I taught most of my birds to forage with their treats. You will want to begin with a very basic toy or strategy where the food is very clearly visible to your bird and easily accessible. Such as in the picture shown. The toy can be a dish in its own and the treats are clearly visible. Place a treat or two in the toy and place the toy right next to a perch. The toy in this picture is placed higher than I would recommend for beginners, because my bird is already used to associating the treats with the toy and knows they are in there. Place the toy low enough next to the perch that your bird doesn’t even have to lift his head to see inside the dish. The bird will just have to look down to see the treat. A few times in providing your bird with the treats in the toy, they will begin to associate the toy with their treats. Your next move may then be to raise the toy a little higher than eye level and let your bird see you putting the treats in the toy. The next time, raise the toy a little higher. The next time even a little higher. The next time, try moving the toy a little further from the perch. Once your bird fully understands the treats are in the toy, start moving the toy to different locations inside the cage and watch your feathered friend eagerly work for his favorite treats.

The next level may be a toy in which the bird can easily see the food, but has to form some type of manipulation in order to get to the toy. A manipulation, such as easily moving an object out of the way, such as placing crumpled up pieces of paper in the dish with the treat so your bird has Cockatoo Foraging In Toyto move and manipulate the pieces of paper out of the way in order to attain the treat. Shown in this picture is another favorite foraging toy of my cockatoo’s but just a little more advanced and for a larger bird. I put almonds in the shell inside of this toy. They are clearly visible to my bird but harder to attain. I say more advanced for two reasons. One, because my bird has to destroy this toy in order to retrieve his treats. He will work all day in destroying this toy. Secondly, because of the amount of time it takes to attain the toy. My bird is a very advanced forager and I have built his level of foraging over time and many foraging toys, therefore; his tolerance of frustration is higher and he knows he can solve the puzzle. When teaching a bird to forage, it is very important to make the frustration level at a minimum if any at all, or the bird may give up and abandon the foraging. I will explain more and go in to more detail on this in upcoming newsletters. Birds enjoy the challenge of foraging. Their minds are built for it but it needs to be taught with the frustration level at a minimum for beginners. A full day of working on a toy such as this, is a full day my bird is not performing and undesirable behavior such as screaming or pacing. As stated before, always provide food in their dish in case they cannot get the food out of the toy.

If you find your bird is not foraging for his treats or food, two things may be happening. Either the food or treat in the foraging toy is not as desirable as you once thought, or the toy is too advanced of a level for your bird’s current ability. If the toy is too advanced, back up to the previous level, such as the first example described above or even more simple such as putting the treat in an adjustable dish and raise the level of the dish after a day or two. This will begin to cause the bird to have to climb the side of the cage, instead of standing on his perch, in order to attain the treat.

A healthy bird will enjoy the challenges of foraging. It is mentally and physically stimulating for them. Foraging is also a great way to help keep your bird occupied while you are not at home. I almost always toss in or hang a foraging toy for my birds when I leave for work. They are usually very eager to work for their reward and when I come home from work, it is very rewarding for me to see a resting bird next to a destroyed foraging toy. A job well done and very rewarding for the bird and the owner alike!

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