Environmental Enrichment for Pet Parrots

By: Jessie Zgurski

Environmental Enrichment: Term used by zookeepers of exotic pets to describe efforts made to improve the living conditions of their animals.

This is important to the well-being of captive wildlife, because most wild animals spendall day searching for food or a mate, or looking after their young. Wild par. Arots generallylive in large flocks, fly miles each day in search of food and water, and often have youngthat require a great deal of care. Captive parrots often have trimmed wings, no need toforage, no same-species mate, or no young to care for. As a result, they can be prone to boredom.

However, by giving pet parrots an enriched environment, including a wide variety offood, and toys, opportunities to play, and plenty of attention, they can lead happy livesas pets.

In the past decade or so, many studies on a large variety of species have shown that anenriched environment benefits an animal in many ways. Animals in an enrichedenvironment, as opposed to one with only food and water available, are healthier andbetter adjusted than animals in a dull environment. For instance, in one study, young rats raised in an enriched environment with toys, opportunities to forage, and places toclimb had slightly larger brains with more neural connections than rats raised with notoys, and only food and water.

Parrot owners have long assumed that their animals would benefit from having largecages well-stocked with toys and plenty of attention from their people. This has alsobeen proven scientifically. A study was done on orange winged Amazons (Amazonaamazonica) which suggested that parrots in an enriched environment are happier andhave healthier plumage than parrots with no toys. The study started with two groups ofeight 16-week old Amazons. One group (Group A") had access only to food and waterin bowls, and a couple of perches. The second group ("Group B") had to "forage" forsome of their food, and they also had toys to chew, climb and swing on. New foodswere placed in different places in the cage, and in some cases, the parrots had to chewthrough barriers or pull levers to get at food.

The parrots in the enriched group were at first wary of the different things in their cages.However, they soon figured out how to get at the food and learned to enjoy playing withtheir toys. The plumage quality of each parrot was recorded throughout the study. Aftera year, six of the eight Amazons in the unenriched group began to shred or pluck their feathers. None of the Amazons in the enriched group did this, and all of them hadexcellent looking plumage.

The researchers were able to reverse the effects of feather picking in the six Amazonsthat did feather pick by putting them in the enriched environment. They were scared oftheir new surroundings at first, but were soon playing with their toys and foraging forfood. After several months they stopped chewing at their feathers. Each Amazon hadbeen examined by a veterinarian to ensure that the feather chewing was no the resultof an undiagnosed medical problem. The parrots all received a healthy, balanced diet(Roudy-Bush pellets supplements with fruits, vegetables, and nuts) so the featherpicking was not the result of any nutritional deficiencies.

This study suggests that, with other things to do, parrots are less likely to chew their feathers. environment, because it is occasionally seen in very well-cared for parrots. However, itdoes seem that providing an enriched enviornment makes it less likely to occur.

The researchers also noted which parrots developed styereotypical behaviors and whichothers did not. Stereotypical behaviors are functionless, unvarying, repetitive behaviorsthat are often displayed by captive animals. These include things like pacing, head-bobbing, flipping over, or self-mutilation. In the orange winged Amazon study,stereotypes included pacing, climbing in a circle, flipping around in one corner of thecage, and repeatedly chewing on cage wire in one spot. The Amazons in the unenriched cages displayed far more stereotypical behavior than the ones in the enrichedcages.

Another study using the same orange-winged Amazons demonstrated that when youngbirds are raised in an enriched environmnent, they are less likely to be afraid of newobjects later on. So, it is important to give a young parrot plenty of toys, different typesof food, and positive attention. This is true for most animals. Experiments on rats,puppies, and chickens have shown that animals in a plain environment are more skittishand less curious than ones raised in an enriched environment. Baby parrots, inparticular, learn a great deal from their parents in the wild, such as which plants, fruitsand seeds are good to eat. In captivity, we are the surrogate parents and need to teachthe parrots to interact with people properly, and what kinds of food are healthy to eat.

Enrichment is also very important for pet parrots because they are very intelligent. Withnothing to do but sit in a cage, a parrot can become extremely bored and frustrated.Along with crows, ravens, magpies, and jays, they are among the smartest of all birds.For example, an African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) named Alex, who lives in thelab of Dr. Irene Pepperburg, has been taught to recognize several colors, shapes,objects, materials, and foods. He also can, if presented with two objects of differentsizes, and colors, can tell you which one is the bigger or smaller one. And, if shown twoobjects of the same size and different color, if asked what's different, he'll likely tell you"color." He knows what same and different mean, and he even seems to know what"none" means. This is even difficult for primates to learn. The studies with Alex havealso shown us that parrots can be more than mindless mimics.

Other parrots Griffin and Wart, two other African grey parrots from the Pepperburg lag,are learning object labels s well. They learn these by what's called the "Model/Rival"technique. Two people are needed for this. Let's say we want to teach the parrot whata nut is. First, the bird has to be able to pronounce the word "nut." One person asksthe other person, "What's this?" The second person says, "Nut." The first personpraises the second person and gives her the nut. This is repeated a few times, andthen the people switch places, with the opposite person asking "What's this?" Then,they try with the parrot. If he answers with "nut" he gets the nut. If not, he's told "no."This can take a lot of patience.

The behavior of parrots in the wild is also quite complex. For example, spectacledparrotlets (Forpus conspicillatus) have very complicated social systems in the wild, andthey actually have various vocalizations they use to call their different friends and familymembers. For example, one parrotlet used one call to summon his mate, and twodifferent ones to summon his offspring. The parrotlets used to study this phenomenonwere carptive-born but were kept in very large aviaries that mimicked their natural habitateas close as possible. Wild yellow-naped Amazons (Amazona auropallita) and with St.Lucia Amazons (Amazona versicolor) learn most of their vocal repertoire from otherparrots, and as a result, different populations have different "dialects" of calls.

How to Provide Enrichment for Parrots:

  1. Chewing

    Parrots generally love to chew and shred things. This is because they often have tochew shells or peels to get at their food in the wild. The vast majority of parrots alsomake their nests in tree hollows in the wild. So, they often have to chew out the treehollow to make it bigger. Parrots in pet situations often have a strong drive to chewthings up during the breeding season. Chewing also serves to keep their beaks trim.

    It's easy to provide things for a parrot to chew up. Unsprayed, non-toxic branches aregreat for this purpose. Just get some and attach them to the parrot's cage. All myparrots love branches, and peel the bark off them and shred them up. The smallbirds (lineolated parakeets - "linnies:") prefer to just peel bark off of twigs. Plaincardboard works too. Small parrot species (like my linnies) often like to shredcardboard because their beaks cannot break wood. I put square cardboard pieces on aleather string, and the linnies shred it. I make sure that there is no glue on thecardboard, as some glue is toxic to parrots. Plain paper is fine as well - some parrotswill pull it through into their cage if you put it on top of the cage. Some parrots love to shred old phone books.

    It's easy to make hanging wood toys with a drill and some sisal, cotton, or hemp rope, orplain vegetable-dyed leatgher string. Just drill holes in the wood and pull the ropethrough. You can also add pieces of vegetable-dyed leather, rawhides, knotted ropes,or beads. Use non-toxic food colouring or kool-aid to add colour if desired I blot off allextra dye. Wood from places like Rona or Home Depot can be used to make toys if thewood has not been sprayed with chemicals like fungicides.

    Some birds love to shred and destroy peacock feathers. Lucy, my conure, loves them.Just be sure they are natural and not sprayed with chemicals, like a mite spray.Ebay.com is a decent source for these. Petsmart has them as well.

    Twigs or popsicle sticks make good food toys for parrots that like to hold things in thefeet and shred them. Clean pine cones are good for this too. Many parrot owners brieflybake pine cones in the oven to kill any pathogens or insects they may harbor.

  2. Foraging

    Pellets are supposed to be a good complete diet for parrots, but eating nothing butpellets for 20-70 years would be boring for a parrot. In the wild most parrots tend to eatfoods from 50 or more plant species. This is especially true for the tropical species from'the Pacific islands, Africa or South America.

    Food can be presented in interesting ways besides putting it in a dish. Kabobs workwell for this - place big slices of veggies on a stick or a blunt-edged skewer and put it inthe cage. You can also use a clip to put collard greens, kale, broccoli, or other veggiesin different places in the cage. Sometimes presenting food in interesting waysencourages parrots to try new foods. My linnie, Garnet, wouldn't touch broccoli until Iclipped it up.

    You can also try placing goodies (like seeds or nuts) in a bag or box for the parrot to ripopen. You may first have to show the parrot that there is food in the bag or box beforehe'll try to open it. You can also wrap food in a tortilla shell. Nuts in the shell are greatbecause the parrot has to work to get at them. I plan to stock up on these afterChristmas when they are cheap. It's also easy to make a toy out of a coconut shell - just break a coconut in half, and maybe let the bird eat the flesh. This is great for largemacaws, which need more fat in their diets than other parrots. The hollow shell canthen be used as a toy - just drill a hole in the bottom and suspent it from a rope and putgoodies (like grain or seeds) in there.

    You can also make a "honey stick" like the ones sold in pet stores but with peanut butteror flour paste. Spread peanut/almond butter or a paste made of flour and water on apine cone or stick, and roll it in seeds. You can also drill holes in a hunk of wood andjam nuts in there. Since seeds and nuts are quite fatty, be sure not to over feed theseto your parrot. I use them as a treat a few times a week. Sometimes, I'll spread seeds on a clean surface and let the parrots find them and eat them.

  3. Climbing

    Many parrots love climbing toys. These can include things like cotton ropes, swings,"boings." or ladders. Many cockatoos absolutely love large swings and will hang onthem and flap their wings to make them swing. Other parrots may love to do this aswell. It's best to place a swing outside of a cage where there's more room for the bird toswing around, but swings can work fine in large cages. It's possible to make swingswith materials found at a hardware store. For small or medium birds, it's possible tomake a swing from a hanger. Bend the hanger in a circle and wrap cotton or sisal ropetightly around it.

    A quike note on rope safety: Make sure the parrot can't somehow get itself wrapped upin the rope or in loose threads. All my parrot's rope toys are outside of the cage, so am always supervising them while they use them.

  4. Other Toys

    Some parrots like mirrors as toys, but others might become too attached to them.Others (like my conure, Lucy) try to attack them, and in such a case, are best not usedas toys. My Amazon, Ripley, likes to "beat up" stuffed animals, but since she couldswallow the stuffing, I only let her play with them when I am watching her. Someparrots love bells - just make sure the parrot can't get his head stuck in them or chew off the clapper.

    Some toys intended for babies or toddlers are fine for parrots because they have to besafe and free of small parts that are easy to swallow. They also have to be made with non-toxicdyes. Be sure to avoid anything made of soft rubber - rubber is very bad for parrots ifthey chew it off and eat it (this is true for ferrets as well).

  5. Interacting with your Parrot

    Parrots are extremely social creatures and should have either a human or another parrot to interact with daily. There are many ways to interact with your parrot, asidefrom the obvious ones like holding and petting her.

  6. Outings

    Very outgoing parrots may love going on outings to pet stores, book sgtores or video stores. Almost all parrots love to be outside - just be sure to either use a securecare or avairy or be sure the parrot's wings are trimmed.

    Even if they don't go out much, every pet parrot should get some out of cage timedaily. Having a play gym makes this easier. This is a spot where the parrot can perchesand play with toys that are different from the ones in its cage. These can be purchasedor made. My husband and I made one from a square of untreated plywood, a squarewooden rod and some branches cut off of a tree. We fastened the wood rod upright inthe middle of the plywood square and attached some branches along the side of it in aspiral fashion. Ripley really enjoys this new playstand and we made it with less that $5worth of materials.

  7. Showers

    Showers are part of the basic necessary care for a pet parrot, but I place themunder enrichment because many parrots just love them. Ripley the Amazon laughs,trills, whistles, and sings exuberantly while she has a shower. My linnies love a showeras well and hang upside down and spread out their wings so they get wet all over whileI spray themn. Some parrots, like my conure, prefer to bath in a shallow dish of water.


Parrots tend to be very active, intelligent animals, and need a varied diet, lots oftoys, and plenty of attention to be happy as pets. Parrots without toys or a human oravian companion can become depressed, bored, or frustrated, and some of them willpull out their own feathers. A large cage with plenty of toys, a varied diet and dailyattention from their human owner can help parrots stay happy and healthy.

Further Reading (Links, Books, Articles, and Magazines)

Environmental Enrichment (Orange Wing Amazon Studies)



Meehan, C.C.,Garner, J.P., and Mench, J.A. 2004. Environmental enrichment anddevelopment of cage stereotypy in Orange-winged Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonicaDevelopmental Psychobiology 44:209-218.

Intelligence of African Grey Parrots:



- The Alex Studies by Irene Pepperburg
- Alex and Friends: Animal Talk, Animal Thinking by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
(This is a book written for teenagers 12 and up).

-Both of these books are available from the Alex Foundation website.

Wild Parrots



Wanker,R., Sugama, Y., and Prinage, S. 2005. Vocal labelling of family members inspectacled parrotlets, Forpus conspicillatus. Animal Behavior. 70: 111-118

Make Your Own Bird Toys

Parrot Toys and Play Areas by: Carol D'Arezzo (Available from the World Parrot TrustWebsite, http://www.worldparrottrust.org/publications/books.htm)