What is enrichment and what is its use?
Enrichment and its uses are very important when it comes to the welfare of animals under human care. But what exactly is enrichment? Well, enrichment is adding something to an animal’s environment that allows that animal to express natural behaviours. This is mostly seen in the form of foraging when it comes to our parrots.
I have always been interested in providing the best possible life I can for the animals under my care. During my Bachelor of Animal Science I undertook placement at a zoo where every day we would make sure that every animal was provided with some type of enrichment to keep them happy and reduce any behavioural problems that might arise when a non domesticated animal is in captivity. Parrots, though a popular pet, are still classed as non domesticated. This is why they can be so hard to care for properly. Enrichment plays a huge role in helping them live the best life they can in our homes.
Enrichment comes in many forms, the most common is foraging. In the wild, parrots spend upwards of 6 hours looking for and accessing food, however, in our homes they are provided food by us that’s easily available. They don’t need to work for it. So what happens now that they have all this free time? They scream, they get destructive, they might even pluck out their own feathers. Basically, they become bored.
Outside of foraging there are other types of enrichment that can improve the lives of our birds.
Most beneficial when with other birds (especially of the same species). Socialising with their human is also beneficial
This is a form of enrichment that does not use food as a reward but has the bird undergo activities that include problem solving, learning, and being able to control something in their environment
For example, being allowed to fly around the house
Modifies the bird’s environment
Using a variety of perches and swings as well as non-foraging toys (especially ones that can be shredded)
Utilises the bird’s senses
For example, playing music, letting your bird safely watch the outside world (through a window or in a safe outdoor enclosure)
Using foods that they don’t often receive or a variety of delivery methods of food (this is where foraging comes in)
I went hunting for articles and studies that looked at the effect foraging enrichment has on parrots in captivity. I found out a few things. To note, many studies on the effects of foraging on the welfare and behaviour of animals used primates, mammals and other bird types in zoos as their focus, this tells us that there is a need for more targeted studies on parrots, in particular, companion parrots.
The common types of parrot behaviour witnessed in the wild consists of foraging, socialisation, grooming, resting and play. If we want to provide the best possible environment for our birds we should aim to provide opportunities for all of these behaviours to be expressed.
Enrichment has been shown to;
Reduce fear responses
Increase exploration behaviour
Provide cognitive stimulation and manipulation activities
Reduce stress, frustration and boredom
Decrease abnormal behaviour like aggression
Overall increase in welfare
In the wild, parrots are spending the majority of their day foraging. These foraging behaviours we see can be broken down into four categories.
Local search for food
Food selection and procurement
When choosing how to provide foraging for our birds at home we should be aiming to fulfill these four categories.
Most studies that I read found that parrots engaged in contrafreeloading. This is when an animal is offered a choice between easily accessible food (i.e. in a bowl) or food that requires effort (i.e. in a foraging toy). The animal chooses the food that requires effort. This suggests that foraging may be a behavioural need, both psychologically and physiologically. A study by Johannes Lumeij, supported this need by showing a reduction in injurious behaviour (i.e. feather picking), a promotion of a more natural time-budget (more time spent foraging) and a promotion of behaviour patterns that were deemed desirable when foraging enrichment was provided.
Types of foraging enrichment used are:
Multiple bowls to encourage movement
Mixing food with inedible items so the bird needs to search to uncover their food
Larger-sized food particles to extend the time birds spend eating
Various puzzle feeders/foraging toys to provide a cognitive challenge and increase time spent obtaining food
Introducing enrichment to your parrot.
So, once we’ve decided to provide enrichment for your parrot how do we actually start? If your bird has never had to search for their food it's important to start simple so as not to discourage them. I personally start by mixing shredded paper or pieces of cardboard with my birds pellets in their bowl where they see some of the food but have to dig around a bit to get it all. From there, I cover the bowl with paper and poke holes into the paper. This way the bird can see the food but has to actively shred the paper to get to it. When introducing new foraging methods it's always a good idea to have your bird watch you set it up, so they see that there is food there.
Some birds may become stressed when new items are introduced. You may need to start slowly, even having the new object within sight for a few days as your bird gets used to its presence before properly introducing your bird to it. The more a bird is introduced to new items the easier it will become. If you’re struggling to get your bird to approach a new object you could utilise target training, by asking your bird to target around and near the object, this creates a positive association with the new object and your bird should be more focused on getting the target than the fear of the object (if you’d like to know more about target training and how to start go check out our post on it here).
As parrot owners we should be aiming to provide the best life possible for our precious feathered friends. Providing enrichment allows our birds to express their natural behaviours as much as possible. The best way to do this is by providing foraging opportunities so our birds do not become bored or frustrated.
Coulton, L. E., et al (1996) Effects of foraging enrichment on the behaviour of parrots Universities Federation of Animal Welfare
Fairhurst, Graham D., et al.(2011) Does Environmental Enrichment Reduce Stress? An integrated measure of corticosterone from feathers provides a novel perspective. PLoS ONE
Lumeij, Johannes T. and Hommers, Caroline J. (2008) Forging ‘enrichment’ as treatment for pterotillomania. Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Rodriguez-Lopez, R. (2016) Environmental enrichment for parrot species: Are we squawking up the wrong tree? Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Stevens, A., et al (2021) The effects of environmental enrichment on the behaviour of cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus) in aviaries. Applied Animal Behaviour Science
van Hoek, Caroline S. and ten Cate, Carel (1998) Abnormal behaviour in caged birds kept as pets Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science
van Zeeland, Yvonne R. A., et al. (2013) Efficacy of foraging enrichments to increase foraging time in Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Parrot Enrichment - Bird Vet Melbourne (https://birdvetmelbourne.com/bird-behavior-training/)