“It doesn’t work on my parrot!” is a phrase i hear surprisingly often in relation to foraging enrichment. Though i understand the frustration in the parrot owners that put down a lot of work into foraging activities for their birds, who just aren’t responding with the enthusiasm the owners expected, in my experience there’s pretty much always one thing the owners of these birds have in common.
Foraging is indeed a very natural behavior to parrots, but it’s also a learned behavior, just like any trick you might teach your pet. “If i do X, Y happens”. In many ways, the process of teaching a parrot a trick and teaching it how to forage is the same! The main difference is that when trick training, YOU are (almost always) delivering the reinforcement. When foraging, on the other hand, the reinforcement is delivered by the environment itself.
This also means foraging can be taught in pretty much the same way: by using shaping and dividing the behavior into small approximations.
And here’s where people often go wrong. We have a tendency to be so excited over wanting to improve the quality of life for our companions that we go all out on the first try. The parrot, who until now has always been served it’s meals in a bowl, looks at us, utterly confused or even scared of the crazy things we just suddenly decided to add to it’s environment, and has no idea what do to. We become frustrated and decide that the bird simply must be to dumb, or that foraging enrichment isn’t his cup of tea.
As with most other things: some birds will of course figure out what to do immediately. Others won’t, though.
That’s why we sometimes need to start out slow. Let’s say you have a scared African grey that has never foraged before, is scared of new things and has been served food in the same bowl for years. Just something as simple as adding another food bowl at the other side of the cage might be the first step you want to take.
After that, you can add criteria just like you would when teaching any other behavior, maybe add food to a stainless steel skewer, a treat cage, or just place it on top of the cage/enclosure to make them work a bit more for it, and slowly expand your parrots’ foraging repertoire until they’re total pros.
Foraging is one of the most important forms of enrichment you can provide your parrot with. In the wild they would spend a lot of time finding and obtaining food. It provides them with a healthy activity (which also means less time for chewing furniture…) and helps keep them fit- and active. When they get to choose, parrots actually even prefer to work for their food, even if the same food is freely available. This is a phenomenon known as “contra freeloading” that i will be writing more about in the future. This means you do not have to feel bad for “making your birds earn a living”. On the contrary: it’s one of the best things you can do for them!
Here are some tips on getting started with foraging:
- Just like when trick training, it can be a good idea to start off with something that your parrot really likes. Once he’s got the hang of the foraging concept, you can start incorporating all kinds of food items; including pellets, fresh veggies and even chop!
- Start off on a level that your birds can handle. If they’re scared of the enrichment you’ve presented or just aren’t getting it: take it back a notch and work your way up. Think shaping!
- Foraging does not have to be expensive, store bought items. And if you make your own foraging items: they do not have to be flamboyant, beautiful creations incorporating lot’s of different materials etc. Personally, i like to save that kind of things for the toys, which are in a different category of enrichment. The important part is that they are time consuming and lets your bird use his mind and body to work on obtaining a goal. Plain wood, paper cups, toilet rolls, cardboard boxes, plant foliage, hay, wood chips etc will often do the trick!
- Make sure foraging enrichment is easy and cheap for YOU to implement, as ideally it should be done every single day!
- Foraging doesn’t have to be a “device” or “item”. For many species, especially parakeets, cockatiels and many other birds that would naturally search for food on the ground; scattering seed or pellets among wood chips/hay is an excellent form of enrichment, for example.
This is a pretty big (and fun!) topic that i will make sure to write more about in the future.
In the meantime, happy enriching!