Many pet birds have difficulties adjusting to captivity. Genetically programmed to spend their days looking for food, water and shelter, a bird in a cage has very few challenges and may become bored. Shuffling up and down a perch, with food and water always available, is not exactly stimulating to a pet bird. Lack of stimulation may lead to self-destructive behavior, such as feather picking. Fortunately, veterinarians and researchers have made progress in techniques to overcome emotional problems in a pet bird. One promising treatment is called captive foraging.
Hide and Seek
To combat too much time on their hands, or rather, wings, birds can have a more interesting day if they have to find hidden food, the basis of captive foraging. Making pet birds work for their meals seems to add real zest to their days. While we can’t know what a bird is thinking, meaningful work does seem to make them happier and can cut down on self-destructive behavior.
At the heart of captive foraging is the following strategy: openly provide pelletized food but hide goodies like nuts and seeds. Pelletized foods are very nutritious, but they don’t allow a bird to discriminate among the foods they find the tastiest. The homogenous nature of a food pellet means it’s all or none for the bird. In captive foraging, the bird can pick out the exact nuts and seeds it prefers.
To get the most out of captive foraging, it’s best to start with modest challenges. The last thing you want to do is begin with a complex foraging toy that stumps and frustrates the bird. A simple starting challenge is to cover part of the bird’s food tray with a plain piece of paper. As long as part of the bowl is visible, your bird should be able to solve the puzzle and retrieve its food. Keep the bowl in its usual location — you want to change only one variable at a time. Your bird should eventually understand that there is food under the paper. From there, it’s only a short step for the bird to learn how to knock off the paper and access the food.
Crank Up the Challenges
Once your bird has figured out the paper challenge, it’s time to up the ante. In the next step roll some tissue paper around tasty nuts and seeds such that the food inside is partially visible. Your bird will learn to open the tissue-paper packet with its beak and feet in order to retrieve the treats. Increase the challenge by completely wrapping the food in two or more sheets of tissue paper. It will take longer for your pet bird to penetrate the inner chamber of goodies, at least at the beginning. Many birds quickly learn effective ways to access the nuts and seeds without too much difficulty. You might next hide the packet in the bird’s food bowl under a layer of paper. The bird will have to apply all of its skills to get at the food, a significant challenge. Finally, start creating multiple food packets and placing them in new locations within the cage. Your bird will forage from one packet to the next, partially replicating its behavior in the wild.
Enterprising manufacturers have caught wind of the captive foraging phenomenon and have responded with a variety of toys for hiding food. You veterinarian might offer a supply of different toys, and more are available at pet stores and online. It’s a good idea to start with simple toys so that your pet figures out the challenge without getting too frustrated. The advantage of securing foraging toys from your vet is that you are assured that the toys are safe and not too difficult to solve. One popular foraging toy places food inside a honeycombed chipboard box approved by the USDA. Your bird must chew through the wafer to get at the delicious treats inside.
Busy Birds Are Happy Birds
The time spent foraging for treats keeps your bird from getting bored and engaging in negative behavior, like screeching and feather plucking. If your bird is behaving badly, discuss the problem with your veterinarian. Many vets like to experiment with different techniques and can offer you solid advice about the do’s and don’ts of captive foraging. By keeping things interesting for your pet bird, you may be able to break the cycle of destructive behavior and replace it with a healthier lifestyle for your winged friend.
Dr. Paul has a strong interest in avian and exotic animal medicine and surgery, as well as small animal internal medicine and surgery.
He has provided services for numerous breeders, kennels, aviaries, and mini zoos.