Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Getting Parrots To Exercise

The Morning Workout

We all know that exercise is important for good health … for all species. Exercise is particularly important for our parrots, as most conditions in captivity are extremely different from the lives they live in the wild. For example, my students found that Grey parrots in Africa can fly up to 60 kilometers (that’s over 37 miles) in a single day as they go from their night roosts to various foraging areas and back again (May, 2004).

In the wild, they sit on tree branches that sway in the wind and thus are forced to shift their weight around to keep their balance. They climb up and down tree trunks, “juicing” the bark (May, 2004). Our birds do climb around a lot on their cages and have perches that vary in size and shape, but, like most companion animals, they encounter little of what they would experience on a daily basis in the wild. What could be done to recreate something like a natural exercise pattern?

Developing A Bird Exercise Routine

We decided to consult with our veterinarian and her colleagues who specialize in nonhuman physical therapy. These professionals came up with a few exercises for our birds to help with strength and balance, and I thought it might be fun to share some of them.

The two main exercises use a balance ball and a contraption we had to build that involves a ramp with adjustable angles. I’ll talk only about the ball because it is available commercially. The balance ball is a somewhat peanut-shaped inflated exercise ball (see photo). We place a towel on top to give the birds some purchase for their toes and to protect the ball from their nails.

Exercises For Birds

Once our parrot is perched, we then go through four different actions. Just as with our own attempts to get into shape, you don’t want to make a bird do all of these in a single session at first, or do all the “reps” the first time, either. Instead, work up slowly to the entire set.

1) Rolls: The first action involves “rolls.” With the bird in position, we roll the ball slowly forward and backward (alternating for a total of four rolls, twice in each direction) so the bird walks on top of it. We guide them so they have to walk backward, and don’t immediately turn around.

2) Hills: Next are “hills.” We slowly lift one side of the ball so that it tips up at a shallow angle (never completely vertical!). We ask the parrot to walk to the top. When the bird reaches the top, we lower the ball back to the mat. We repeat in the other direction, twice for each side.

3) Bounces: Then come the “bounces” that are particularly important for stability. We lightly push up and down on the ball so that the bird is gently bounced. We want them to crouch and engage their leg muscles. Be careful — the bird’s feet should never bounce off the ball.

4) Combo: Finally, we combine these three into one set of “random movements,” alternating among rolls, bounces and hills randomly. This is done at a comfortable speed for each bird.

How The Birds Like Exercise

I have to say that our birds, like most humans, seem to have a love/hate relationship with exercise. We get that “slitty-eyed” look when we take out the equipment, but once they are actually on the ball or the ramp, they so seem to get into the spirit of things! (See photo.)

May, D.L. (2004). The vocal repertoire of Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus) living in the Congo Basin (Central African Republic, Cameroon). PhD Thesis, University of Arizona, Tucson.

Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D.

About Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D.

Dr. Irene Pepperberg is an adjunct associate professor at the Dept. of Psychology, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA. She is also a lecturer and research associate at Harvard University, in Cambridge, MA.