The concept of giving toys and enrichment to parrots dates back only about 30 years. Review important works dealing with parrots dating to the 1980s, the heyday of bird keeping, and you will find that toys or enrichment are not mentioned. Toys came first, as they would provide the pet parrot with a means of staying occupied. Enrichment came later. As a concept it migrated from the zoological work. Enrichment is usually provided to both pets and birds in breeding situations, while toys tend to be offered to pet birds.
Wild parrots spend considerable time interacting in their environment. They search for food, chew leaves and branches, explore openings in trees and even associate in large groups to interact. Parrots just do not feed and then rest as many believe. They are active members of the ecosystem in which they live. Indeed recent studies by Jose Tella and his team from Doñana in Spain have shown that parrots actually transport seeds and pods and play an active role in the continuation of the ecosystem. The Blue-throated Macaw Ara glaucogularis, for example, were found to transport palm seeds over a kilometer. Where they drop these seeds, new palms sprout and in turn these provide future nesting and feeding sites. The new stands of palm contribute to reforestation.
The curious and destructive nature of parrots is not only evident in captivity but also in the wild. They will chew leaves, pods, bark and more and watch it fall; they can literally prune trees to their liking. Many will explore everything in their ecosystem. A friend who lives in Rio de Janeiro´s Tijuca Forest showed me this one morning. We placed some seeds in a cardboard box and stepped back some distance. Soon some Pyrrhura conures landed on the table containing the box, left and kept coming back, each time building up more courage. Finally one went inside and emerged with a seed. Soon the other flock members followed suit. No matter where the box was placed, they would come to it and perform the same behavior.
This curious and destructive nature of parrots should be kept in mind when selecting toys.
Almost on a monthly basis I hear of some disaster as a result of the owner providing the wrong toy. Small parts that can be chewed and swallowed should never be found in toys. I know of one case where glass beads were encrusted on a piece of wood. The parrot immediately removed and swallowed these, probably believing they were more of the colorful pellets that formed part of its diet. In another case small metal bells were removed and swallowed by a macaw. In both cases surgery was required.
Toys are best purchased without any part that can be swallowed. If they have elements can be pried or chewed off and fit in the mouth of the bird, forego that toy—it is unsuitable.
Plastic toys made for children are best. They are intended for chewing. I write this because I know of more than one case where inadequate plastic toys were provided. The birds were easily able to splinter the plastic, swallowing pieces and creating a severe crop impaction in one and internal hemorrhage in another.
Chains can be great fun, but the links should be welded. Open links can be opened and can catch a leg band. I have seen several cases where this happened. The results ranged from a broken leg to a bird that chewed off its leg in order to escape.
While on the subject of metal, make sure that it has not been coated with zinc or lead. I prefer that all metal parts be made from stainless steel. Hooks, rings and chains made from this metal are much safer than those whose coating may be suspect. Some metal could well contain a shellac or powder covering that will peel off while being manipulated in the beak. These coatings can be toxic. Investigate the manufacturer and if necessary write them.
Clothespins are popular, as are all sort of wooden parts sold for use around the home. (knobs, rings, etc) When looking at these, make sure the wood has not been treated and that the clothespin do not contain any metal closing mechanism that can snap and injure a toe or tongue.
Rope is popular. The birds enjoy swinging and chewing it. But ropes can be dangerous. Fibers can wrap around a toe, strangling circulation and causing injury. Soiled ropes can also be a source of bacteria, especially if they are situated in such a manner that a bird can defecate on them. Also, know the source of your rope. Chinese rope may be inexpensive but several pet owners have complained about their pets becoming ill, presumably because the ropes had been treated with a flame retardant.
Plush toys are popular for baby parrots, being provided as companion. But these contain fibers, fillers and often small eyes that can easily be chewed off. They must be examined very closely for removable parts and if chewed should be removed, as the fibers can wrap around the neck or toes.
When providing toys, always place yourself in your bird’s position. How will it be destroyed? Are there parts that could be swallowed? Can any elements crush the tongue or toes? Is the manufacturing country suspect? The list of questions that you need to review is endless.
Enrichment is another means of keeping your pet occupied. Fresh branches from an insecticide free source and from a non toxic plant can be given. Branches with the leaves intact and palm fronds are greatly enjoyed. Pine cones, split or whole green coconuts, pieces of brown coconut shell, the seeds of various trees and palms, seashells and even small seeds buried in a bowl of clean sand or pebbles can be provided. The intention is to provide the bird with a natural element or behavior that will keep it occupied for hours.
The importance of providing toys or enrichment are best understood by watching parrots in the wild or any documentary showing these birds in their environment. It will then become more than apparently how much time they spend playing, exploring and interacting. A single pet parrot kept in a sterile cage is truly unhappy and will become frustrated. I repeatedly see this. More than one plucker or chewer that has reached me recovered when placed in a flight cage with other birds and given considerable means of enrichment.
Understand your pet’s needs to stay occupied for much of the day and provide the necessary tools for this to occur. Change the toys or enrichment frequently—toys can be rotated—to prevent boredom. In toys, look for complexity and always figure out a way of incorporating some edible morsel.
By keeping your pet mentally challenged, it will be much happier. In turn, you will have a pet that may be less moody or irascible, more content to sit and cuddle and which is more focused on that precious one on one interaction.