What Parrots Want: The Importance and Use of Foraging and Environmental Enrichment for Birds

Parrot with sign Will Work For Food by Nico Schoemaker

Lecture outline

contrafreeloading cropped square van Zeeland
Lecture objectives will include:

  • Parrots in captivity versus parrots in the wild
    • Species-typical behaviors of wild parrots
    • Captive living environments
  • Environmental enrichment
    • Types of enrichment
    • Effects of environmental enrichment on behavior, health, and welfare of captive parrots
  • Research to identify the behavioral needs of psittacine birds



Despite parrots being popular pets, much of the information regarding their nutritional and behavioral needs is still unknown. Unlike dogs and cats, most psittacine species are not domesticated and have therefore likely retained most, if not all, of their wild instincts and behavioral needs. In captivity, however, most parrots have little to no opportunity to perform these species-typical behaviors. This will not only reduce their welfare, but can also result in the onset of abnormal repetitive behaviors, including feather damaging behavior, and oral or locomotor stereotypies.

Provision of environmental enrichment serves an important tool to enable animals to perform their natural, species-typical behaviors and reduce the occurrence of health and/or behavioral problems. Several categories can be distinguished, including social, occupational, physical, sensory and nutritional or foraging enrichment. In recent years, several studies have been performed to study the effects of different types of enrichments on the parrots’ behavior and welfare, which revealed their potential to reduce abnormal repetitive behaviors and improve captive parrot welfare. Nevertheless, information regarding the parrots’ true behavioral needs is still largely unknown.

Various methods exist to study the importance of different types of enrichments for an animal, of which so-called choice tests are considered the most informative. Of these, preference tests, in which the animal is allowed to choose between two or more environments which differ in only one feature, are probably the best-known. While using such tests it was found that parrots are highly motivated to work to obtain their food (contrafreeloading), thereby indicating that provision of foraging opportunities is essential for the parrots’ well-being in captivity. Other studies have focused on the parrots’ preferences for specific enrichment features, thereby providing an empirical basis for the development and refinement of enrichments.

Aside from preference tests, so-called motivational tests may be performed. Such tests, also referred to as consumer demand studies, help to address the actual value and importance of a specific enrichment for an animal. In a pilot study regarding parrots’ motivation for various types of enrichment, it was found that parrots were highly motivated for social interaction with conspecifics and for space to fly and roam freely, whereas other enrichments were valued differently by the individual parrots. Results of the aforementioned studies help to formulate recommendations regarding the parrot’s living environment and further improve their welfare in captivity.


About the presenter

Dr. Yvonne R.A. van Zeeland is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Zoological Medicine at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Dr. van Zeeland earned her doctorate from Utrecht University in 2004. She completed an internship in companion animal medicine at Utrecht University, followed by a residency in avian medicine. In April 2013 Yvonne became a Diplomate of the European College of Zoological Medicine and a European recognized specialist in avian medicine. Throughout her career, Yvonne has shown a special interest in parrot behavior. She became a Tinley-certified parrot behavior consultant in 2012 and she also researched feather-damaging behavior in grey parrots. [MORE]



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Expert Q&A

Although many chatbox questions were answered during the live webinar session, the remaining questions were answered by email and are summarized below:

Q: Is the van Zeeland foraging study published?”

A: A link to this study is included in Dr. van Zeeland’s LafeberVet article, Fascinating Facts on Foraging & Enrichment, which was mentioned on Sunday, however here is a direct link for download of her thesis: https://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/276159.

Q: Do you find it better to add one enrichment item at a time or to add a large variety and types of enrichment at once?

A: I would have that greatly depend on the individual bird, although for any bird, having options to choose from is important to enable it to control its environment and regulate its own activities according to its own preference. For a bird that appears anxious and is displaying escape/avoidance behaviors when confronted with novel objects, or a bird that appears to handle changes in the environment less well (e.g. likely to respond with stereotypic behaviors, feather damaging behavior, conflict behaviors) I would certainly not recommend to change or add too many of the same things at a time, but rather consider a gradual introduction of new items/objects/enrichment. For those birds that appear more curious in nature or more easily distracted (e.g. only busy with a single activity for a short period of time and then changing to another) more frequent changes and/or adding more enrichment at the same time would be possible. Also consider to strategically offer enrichments to the bird based on the schedule of an owner. For example, a good time to offer most favored enrichments to a bird could be when the owner leaves for work and/or no other activities are planned (the owner is busy otherwise and does not have time to interact with the bird) so that the bird is actually more interested in the enrichment and more likely to keep itself occupied with the enrichments, whereas it might not be when that enrichment is continuously present.

Q: Do you recommend using anti-anxiety meds (ex. TCA, SSRI) on stressful birds?

A: Anti-anxiety medications can certainly be considered in birds that are very stressful. However, giving meds to birds would require an owner to be able to do so without causing additional stress (i.e. the bird would have to take in the medicine voluntarily as otherwise the provision of medication might actually potentially worsen the situation). In addition, I never consider giving meds to be the sole solution, but only as an adjunct therapy to enable the bird to start accepting training and enrichment with more ease. In any anxiety-related problem, systemic desensitization and counter conditioning are essential to ensure a positive outcome in the long term, and in most cases I have seen that, with time and patience, the animal will revert to calmer behavior and adjust to the situation without the need to revert to medication, even in cases in which I initially expected to need it. (So the number of cases in which I actually have used it in the end is really minimal).

Q: Your opinion on wing trimming?
A: This would depend on the individual’s situation. Whereas wing trimming could be behaviorally beneficial to the one bird (e.g. because it is allowed more time outside of the cage or outside of the house) it might not be for the other bird (e.g. a bird kept in an aviary who can then not use the ability to fly or a bird that is startled by something and cannot easily escape by flying away, thereby potentially getting more stressed). It would also be conceivable that there are species differences, e.g. consider the anatomic build of slender-bodies birds such as macaws, budgerigars or cockatiels versus the more heavy-built Grey parrots and Amazon parrots. Functions of wings and flying can be different between species, for example, flying to get to foraging grounds or escape from predators, versus flying as a means of play (which you for example can see in crows). With some birds (in particular macaws, but also other species) you may witness that the birds enjoy the free flight and when given the opportunity to fly, they will choose to do so, whereas others will not and only use flight as a means to escape. We would certainly need to consider these aspects, as well as the potential health effects (as shown by Scott Echols in relation to e.g. bone mineralization, or e.g. risk for atherosclerosis) if birds are not able to exercise sufficiently. Similarly, health risks can occur if a bird is flighted (e.g. accidents in the house). As a result, it would be a decision that should not be taken lightly but made based on weighing all the potential pros and cons for each specific situation and individual. For those that are interested, in Current Avian Therapy, together with other colleagues we have mapped out the different considerations for wing trimming birds, and attempted to provide a framework for making a decision on whether or not to trim a bird.


Q: Do you think it is possible for owners to satisfy parrots need for social interaction?
A: Certainly, the need for interaction (in terms of time, type of interaction) would probably differ per species and might also differ per individual (as it also does in humans), but in general we have to consider that parrots are species with high social needs. Whether or not a human can satisfy social interaction needs at all would a substitute would first of all depend on the rearing history of the bird (if it is a parent-reared bird which received little attention from humans in the early phases of life it is highly likely that this bird will not appreciate human contact from the start and would need many positive experiences in order to consider human contact as a positive reinforcer). If the bird is a hand-reared individual, human interaction is more likely to be experienced as positive by the bird (whereas contact with other birds might not be, and can even have a negative outcome for that bird). However, in these birds, problems can occur at times when the owner is not able to offer sufficient time or the type of interaction that is needed by the bird. For example, when the bird becomes sexually mature, lack of possibilities to mate could result in sexual frustration and problem behaviors. In many situations, people have other obligations such as work, necessitating them to leave their parrot alone for a large portion of the day and posing a risk for lack of social interaction. To be able to prevent that from happening, we would first need to know how much and what type of interaction would be sufficient or insufficient. From what is known of parrots in the wild, the time spent on direct social interaction has been mentioned to account for at least 1.5 hours per day (we are here again generalizing for parrots and not looking at individual species, for which it could certainly differ). Based on this information at least 1.5 hours of direct social interaction would be recommended (which would certainly be feasible for many owners). Nevertheless, in the wild, birds also spend a lot of time in contact with other birds without directly interacting, which is something that might just be as important. That is certainly something that is harder to realize for most owners who are off to work for a large portion of the day. Nevertheless, we have to realize that, even in case of an inability to completely satisfy one need, it does not necessarily imply that the bird will be suffering or experiencing welfare problems. As long as we provide the bird with sufficient opportunities to adapt. For example, in the above mentioned situation, provision of other types of enrichments could certainly act as a substitute, as long as the opportunities that are provided are meaningful / functional / relevant to the animal and provide allow it to adapt to the circumstances. Similarly, other types of stimuli (e.g. radio or television) may in part acts as a substitute when an owner is not present (and has recently been identified as a risk factor for feather damaging Grey parrots if not provided when an owner is absent). It would therefore be important to consider all aspects of the living environment and see what and where potential substitutes could be provided to enable the animal to optimally adapt to its situation.

Q: I have read that The University of Hanover offered free treatment of Feather Picking birds, but the owners have to agree that the bird stay for 6 years. What is your opinion on this subject? Do you really think that an average bird owner can succeed in treating this problem?
A: Does the question writer mean that the birds need to stay with the owner for 6 years and not be rehomed or euthanized in the meantime, or does the writer mean that the bird will be hospitalized for 6 years in the clinic? In either case, I don’t think the chances of success will be high as the owner is the one that has to be willing to spend the time and effort and be motivated and willing to make the necessary changes in the living environment for the bird. In a way, taking away the financial constraints of treatment might persuade owners to come in with their bird, but still they would need to be willing to put in time and money to restructure the living environment (if finances were an issue to start with, they still are in this situation). In the situation where the bird is hospitalized in the clinic, it would mean that owners do not need to spend the time themselves on the changes because the clinic takes over their tasks. However, the likelihood of a successful treatment in the end would be slim as there is a high risk of the bird starting to pick again when it is back home as the owners may not have been motivated enough to make the changes themselves. Alternatively, forcing owners to keep their bird for 6 years to get free treatment also seems odd, as these owners may again not be motivated or accomplished enough to make the needed changes, and perhaps even get frustrated because the treatment then does not work, which would then put both the owner and the bird in an awkward situation which will be detrimental to both. In my experience, the patients in which treatment is likely to succeed is in those cases where the owner is willing (and able) to put in the time and finances to make the changes that are needed, and those owners are often the ones that would be willing to spend the money (rather than need persuasion with a free consult and treatment).


RACE approval

This program is approved by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB) Registry of Continuing Education (RACE) to offer a total of 1.00 CE credits to any one veterinarian and/or 1.00 veterinary technician CE credit. This RACE approval is for Category: Medical Program using the delivery method of Non-Interactive-Distance. This approval is valid in jurisdictions which recognize AAVSB RACE; however, participants are responsible for ascertaining each board’s CE requirements. RACE does not “accredit” or “endorse” or “certify” any program or person, nor does RACE approval validate the content of the program.