From a first glance, parrots are very destructive to their environment. They chew plants, decorticate trees, strip leaves and crush growing tips. They often leave a tree like would an angry gardener who had nothing but a dull machete to perform his duties. Flowers are chewed, crushed or plucked. Fruits are eaten green, with considerable waste, and seeds, drupes and pods are crushed, split, opened and partly eaten. When done, one would think that a flock of parrot is the greatest environmental enemy. In truth parrots provide a key service to their environment. By stripping a tree, they create openings that allow other branches to grow. The seeds they drop offer food to many terrestrial mammals. And the pods and drupes they pluck and then fly to a nearby tree to eat are often dropped in flight.
In the forest, parrots in essence act as gardeners. When parrots disappear, the viability of the forest is imperiled because they prune trees and scatted seeds, pods and drupes that give new life to the forest. The best example of this scenario is seen in the case of the Blue-throated Macaw Ara glaucogularis and the palm Attalea princeps, which is an important food source and is associated with macaw perching sites. The macaws contribution, when they drop the palm seeds, to the creation of new palm islands, which provide food and shade to other animals in an otherwise open plain.
When lories, lorikeets, Swift Parrots Lathamus discolor and many other species feed on flowers, pollen and nectar, they get their heads covered in pollen. When they next feed they fertilize the flowers. Studies in Tasmania show that when Swift Parrot feed on Eucalyptus globulus they pollinate ten times more flowers than do bees.
In the neo-tropics, Brotogeris parakeets are great fruit eaters. Studies suggest that almost 70% of the seeds that pass through the gut are viable and can germinate.
The above examples indicate both the importance of parrots to an ecosystem and how much they interact with their environment.
In captivity, parrots tend to be given toys to destroy and interact with. They contribute to breaking the monotony of captivity. But in my opinion toys are not enough and do now allow the natural behaviors to be played out. (I must add that I recommend both toys, especially those that are complex and can hold treats, and enrichment.)
Because of this opinion, I always recommend that we provide the birds with pods, large seeds, fresh branches and more. My African Greys Psittacus erithacus display great excitement when I provide them with green coconuts. The fibrous covering resembles that of the seeds of Elaeeis guinensis, the oil palm, which provides an important food resource in the wild. The birds strip the fibers and will ignore toys and even their food when coconuts are provided. Many will work hours to find a weakness in the hard inner shell to reach the liquid and meat. Coconuts are commercially available in almost all parts of the world and can be provided as a special treat.
Branches are best provided with leaves, but those living in areas where winter causes the leaves to be shed can provide branches nonetheless. The birds will chew the buds and bark. Willow is especially good. The branches can be cut and placed in water until the buds swell. The birds will then decorticate the stems.
Various companies now sell palm seeds across the world. The seeds of ornamental palms (except for Betel Areca catechu) can all be provided. I offer my birds the inflorescences and drupes in various stages of growth (from very immature to mature). The seeds of the Foxtail Palm Woodyetia bifurcata are an absolute favorite and those of Bismarckia are the least favorite, but all palm seeds will be chewed, played with and eaten. Cockatoos will even carry the dry outer husk into the nest. The seeds of Foxtail are hard but I recommend leaving them in the cage, as even the smallest conures will eventually perforate the shell to eat the meat. The leaves of palms will be stripped when offered. This behavior emulates that of wild parrots and is seen even in parrots many generations away from their wild brethren.
In Florida we have a pantry in the yard. The fruits of June plum Spondias mombim are a favorite of the birds. We offer them green and ripe. The birds will peel the skin and eat the flesh attached, but what they treasure is the seed. I have seem parrots spend many hours rubbing the seeds in their beaks—they´re literally treasured like a child would a pacifier. The pods of Royal Poinciana Delonix regia can be provided in both an immature and a nature stage. The same can be said of the pods of Cassia grandis, called carao, cañafistula or cañandonga in Spanish.
Banana leaves and trunks are also enjoyed, though can be messy. I find that conures prefer to destroy the trunk over other birds. Flowers from most plants will delight the birds. We often give our birds the flowers of Hibiscus, which flower profusely.
Brazilnuts come in large, cannonball-like pods. The outer casing is hard to break and is intended to protect the valuable seeds. Many parrots cannot easily extricate the nuts, but I have provided the pods to many species and they have provided months of work. One pair of Crimson-bellied Conures Pyrrhura perlata perlata spent 7 months working on one pod. They extricated the seeds and eventually started eating them. They were an obsession and helped keep the birds entertained.
Pine cones, acorns, the seeds of Hakea and others can also be provided. The key is to provide them in various stages of maturity.
When providing enrichment, it is important to ascertain that they come from a pesticide free source. We grow some of our enrichment but also harvest a considerable amount. We always ascertain that the location has not been sprayed by the land owner or county; in current programs to control various mosquito borne diseases—Zika, chikungunya and dengue—strong toxic compounds are used and they can prove deadly to parrots. I would always call local authorities to ascertain when spraying occurred. We also recommend washing the enrichment. We hose all enrichment down, sometimes soak in an apple cider solution and then sun dry as necessary.
Providing enrichment is time consuming and requires some effort, but it will provide great enjoyment for the birds and will allow a natural behavior to be carried out. I enjoy the outings to acquire the enrichment and then get tremendous pleasure from seeing the great enjoyment the birds receive from destroying, chewing and manipulating the enrichment.