By Amy Martin
Physical and mental stimulation is vital to every species on the planet. Squid, poison dart frogs, pigs, rats, cats, tortoises, spiders, jaguars, sheep, dogs, ferrets, parrots, you name it, they all need daily stimulation. Enrichment is a fundamental component of responsible, preventative companion parrot care. But how can we ensure the parrots we care for are getting enough?
Vital For Well-Being
Studies have shown that when animals are provided with a stimulating environment, they are less stressed, live longer and are better able to develop problem-solving skills, not to mention that unhealthy behaviors are more likely to be prevented. In the zoo community, this kind of stimulation is referred to as enrichment. Admittedly, that word is thrown around rather loosely in the pet community these days, but most people do have at least a limited understanding of the purpose of enrichment and how to appropriately apply it to an individual animal. Importantly though, many people do not recognize the need for species-specific enrichment.
What Is Enrichment?
Over the years, enrichment has evolved from merely providing animals with basic husbandry needs to simulating an individual species’ natural habitat to encourage choices and elicit natural behaviors.
Enrichment is the act or process of increasing intellectual or spiritual resources
• Behavioral and environmental enrichment are essential components of life in captivity, whether animals live in a zoo, shelter, laboratory, sanctuary or a home.
• Enrichment is now considered one of the primary means for addressing concerns about an animal’s physical and psychological welfare.
• Enrichment is as integral to an animal’s well-being as comprehensive veterinary care and nutrition.
The International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (IAATE) defines enrichment as “the provision of interactive opportunities that enhance the lives of animals”. They further explain that “the activity levels of birds in the wild suggest that, under human care, they can benefit from mental and physical stimulation.”
Why Companion Parrots Need Enrichment
Imagine yourself sitting on a wooden chair in a room that is no more than 6 feet by 6 feet. There are no windows. You cannot leave and no one ever visits you. You have no radio, television, phone or internet. Someone offers you the same food in the same bowl every morning and evening. Your physical exercise consist only of shifting your weight in the chair. What do you think would eventually happen to your mind and body after a day, a week, a month and, eventually, a year? What about a lifetime? This kind of mental and physical stagnation is incredibly harmful to all living creatures.
This scenario is all too common for parrots in homes and shelters all over the world. The good news is it can be prevented and we can be the ones to do so.
Providing Enrichment for Parrots Is Crucial to Their Well-Being
Do not let those flirtatious faces and colorful feathers fool you. Parrots are not domesticated animals. Cats, dogs and horses have been selectively bred for qualities that enable them to live more harmoniously among humans. Parrots are exotic, and by definition are not a species indigenous to the U.S.
Companion parrots have the same instinctual needs as their wild counterparts. A parrot may live in a cage at home with his owner but his mind and body are just as wild as the green-winged macaw who is flying free in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America.
Parrots bred in captivity have the same instinctive physical and behavioral needs of parrots living in the wild
Putting Together the Parrot Puzzle Pieces
If we want to create a healthy, species-specific environment for a captive parrot, we have to ask two very important questions:
• What are the natural behaviors of this parrot species in the wild?
• What are the actions that occupy this parrot species’ 24-hour cycle?
Answers: flying, grooming, sleeping, and finding food, safe roosting spots, new territory, mates and nest sites. Wild parrots spend over 50 percent of their daily activity foraging and feeding.
Now think about what your companion parrot is doing during his 24-hour cycle, and what he would be doing in the wild if he had a choice. If it is drastically different, a change is needed.
Foraging is one of the most severely constrained behaviors of captive parrots
What Captivity Takes Away
When parrots live in captivity, the daily challenges and choices they would have in the wild no longer exist. Food is brought to them. They always have a stationary perch to rest on. They don’t need to search for a mate or nesting site. There are no predators to evade. All this may sound great to us, but behavioral and health problems can result.
By making life easier for companion parrots, we have inadvertently taken away their choices and removed opportunities for them to fulfill their instinctual desires. We have created an environment that is not conducive for their overall health and well-being. This can cause them to suffer from captivity-related stress and other maladaptive behaviors.
Captive parrots need the opportunity to behave as they would in the wild
Enrichment as Prevention
Avian veterinarians, parrot rescue and rehabilitation centers and individual parrot owners are acutely aware that behavioral abnormalities are common in captive parrots. Self‐destructive and maladaptive behaviors such as such as excessive screaming, feather destruction, self-mutilation, phobic reactions, stereotypic behaviors, depression and aggression are all too common. Fortunately, enrichment studies have proven that these can be reduced significantly or prevented altogether with the use of species-appropriate enrichment.
How Enrichment Helps:
• Promotes naturalistic behaviors that stimulate a parrot’s mind and increases physical activity, resulting in a reduction in overall stress.
• A reduction in stress promotes overall increased health by increasing the parrot’s perception of control over her environment.
• Enhances the environment and stimulates the parrot to investigate and interact more with her surroundings.
• Enables a parrot to occupy his time in captivity most constructively.
Enrichment promotes naturalistic behaviors that stimulate the mind and increase physical activity. Enrichment reduces stress and therefore promotes overall health by increasing an animal’s perception of control over his/her environment
The Goal of Providing Enrichment for Parrots in Captivity Is to:
• Increase the range of natural behaviors.
• Reduce abnormal behaviors.
• Increase positive ways to utilize their environment.
• Increase the ability to cope with stresses and challenges in a healthier way.
The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors.
Enrichment is generally grouped into the following five categories. These are not mutually exclusive or listed in any order. Safety is always priority.
Exercise for the mind and body by offering psychological devices and/or voluntary behavioral training. The goal is to encourage exercise and provide the parrot with challenges and control over the environment.
Presenting varied and novel foods and/or changing the method of food delivery. It is used to elicit feeding, foraging behaviors, problem-solving strategies and to facilitate behavioral conditioning.
Habitat: this involves altering the size and complexity of the animal’s enclosure and/or adding accessories such as substrate, temporary objects, permanent structures, alternate perching sites, climbing or swinging opportunities and objects that can be manipulated with the beak or feet.
Stimuli that address all five senses (auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile and taste); designed to elicit a species-specific response.
Direct or indirect contact: Providing direct contact could be with people, parrots of different species, conspecifics, other animals or objects like mirrors. Indirect contact is provided through visual, olfactory and auditory stimulation.
Enrichment is often considered to be simply offering toys and fun foods, but it is far more than that.
Enrichment in Action
For over a decade, I served as an enrichment coordinator for various sections at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, Louisiana. In the Children’s Zoo and Education Department I had the daily challenge of enriching multiple species of parrots, many of whom were once pets but had been donated to the zoo because of undesirable behavior issues.
To ensure the parrots’ safety, comfort and focus during educational programming, I utilized all five types of enrichment multiple times a day for each bird. I made changes to structures in their enclosures, presented novel objects for them to investigate, changed how I presented food to them, used force-free training and much more.
Depending on the species, I encouraged them to behave in specific ways that would be natural to them in the wild. Offering a variety of options, allowing them to make choices and have control over their environment greatly reduced their boredom, frustration and aggression.
Bored parrots are easily frustrated. Frustration can lead to destruction of their environment, aggression towards other parrots and even harming themselves.
Enrichment Is Worth Your Time and Effort
Creating and providing species-specific enrichment for each parrot required research, planning, cooperation and creativity. I did this every day for nearly a dozen parrots, morning, noon and evening all while supervising and mentoring volunteers and interns and educating the public.
I share my story with you because many parrot guardians do not believe that enrichment is something they have the time for. Here is the truth: You do have time; you just have to find it. Investing your time and effort into learning about your companion parrot’s unique and individual needs will change his life in ways you would never have thought possible. It will help your parrot to enjoy a healthy, harmonious life in captivity. You have the power to prevent health and behavioral issues while helping him thrive.
This article first appeared in BARKS from the Guild, May 2015, pp.48-50. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.
About the Author
Amy Martin owns and operates Conscious Companion® and is a member of the advisory team for Family Paws Parent Education, www.familypaws.com. She also serves on the board of directors of the Cape Fear Parrot Sanctuary.