Foraging as a Natural Behavior
One big piece of the puzzle keeping your pet bird happy and healthy is daily maintenance. These behaviors are essential for birds in the wild to survive. They are likely just as crucial for your pet bird’s behavioral and mental well-being. These maintenance behaviors include foraging, social interaction, and feather care. Among these, the focus here is on the natural act of searching for, finding and mechanically processing a source of food, otherwise known as foraging.
Depending on the species, many wild birds spend the majority of their day foraging. For example, wild parrots can occupy up to 70% of their awake time each day with this activity. Their counterpart — your pet bird — likely also has an intrinsic drive to engage in foraging. Some birds, such as parrots, are so similar to their wild relatives that they are not considered domesticated and thus have the same foraging drive as wild birds. Studies have shown that given a choice, animals will choose to work for their food rather than choosing freely available food. Foraging represents a requirement for your bird’s well-being and a natural behavior that can help provide a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
The Importance of Foraging
Foraging is an example of enrichment. Enrichment involves providing animals with opportunities to engage in species-appropriate behaviors, giving them a greater sense of control of their environment. This feeling of control empowers animals, and encourages exploration, boldness, and calmer behavior when exposed to stressful situations. It helps avian pets stay active mentally and physically, enhancing their overall quality of life. This mental stimulation is especially important for birds who are highly intelligent. For example, parrots are equivalent to a 3- to 5-year-old child and are capable of using higher levels of thinking.
Foraging is also a great way to prevent behavioral problems that can progress to medical issues. If your bird does not receive enough social stimulation through interaction with people or other birds, they are more likely to spend more time either foraging or taking care of their feathers. Without foraging as a continuous option, some birds are more likely to engage in excessive preening. This excess can progress to feather destruction and loss, skin damage, and secondary infections. In these cases, foraging can be used as both a prevention strategy and a management tool to help treat feather destruction and other behavioral disorders. Foraging may also help to treat other social behavioral disorders, such as screaming and other abnormal vocalizations, and pair bonding behaviors that can result in issues with their reproductive drive. Thus, incorporating foraging opportunities into your bird’s daily lifestyle can help prevent and, if needed, treat various behavioral and medical issues. Any behavior or medical disorder should be thoroughly investigated by your veterinarian so that interventions to complement foraging are also applied if appropriate.
Setting your Bird up for Success
When it comes to foraging in pet birds, the options are seemingly unlimited. Some birds may need training to learn how to forage, and some may need specific environmental considerations for foraging opportunities. This last is particularly the case for birds who are visually impaired, physically limited with arthritis, or if they never had foraging opportunities when they were young. If foraging is not introduced appropriately with consideration given to these birds’ individual needs, then they may become frustrated and not eat, or they could risk physical injury. Underweight birds should be monitored to make sure their nutritional needs are being met while they learn to forage. Check with your veterinarian to make sure foraging, or how to go about it, is suitable for your bird.
If it is, remember a few key things. Start simple, go slow, and gradually increase the amount of work your bird has to do to get the food reward. Regardless of which tools you use to encourage foraging, it’s essential to work within your bird’s comfort zone and skillset, especially if your bird is being introduced to foraging for the first time. This activity is supposed to be enjoyable and enriching for your bird; it should elicit curiosity and excitement, not fear or anxiety.
They need to maintain their healthy, well-balanced diet while learning. One way to do this and incorporate foraging is to use their normal diet. Instead of providing your bird with free access to their regular food in an open bowl, slowly offer them food through foraging only. This may mean initially providing a third of the normal amount of food through foraging and the rest in your previous method. The eventual goal is to get your bird to forage for all their food. Taking things slowly is important as you want to make sure your bird is getting the proper nutrition they need throughout the process.
There are several things you can do to ensure your bird’s experience with foraging is a good one. Depending on your bird’s individual anxiety levels and response to changes in their environment, some birds may find certain foraging tools frightening. One way to avoid fear is to introduce new objects to them slowly. Instead of buying a new foraging toy and sticking it into their cage right away, give your bird the chance to notice it from afar, outside their cage. You can also introduce new objects with desired food items, so your bird associates the object with something they enjoy. Another way is to start with things you already have around the house. For example, you can hide pieces of food in crumpled-up paper, stick food items in between the scales of a pinecone, or use wood items with drilled holes to hide food. Other ideas include hiding food in cardboard boxes, shredded paper, wood shavings, or paper towel and toilet paper tubes. These methods allow your bird to start learning how to forage with items they may already be familiar with, reducing potential fear or anxiety.
Many birds will require a good amount of patience and guidance from you, especially in the beginning. Whenever you introduce your bird to a new foraging tool or method, allow them to see you slowly hide the food item in the tool. For example, if you hide a food item in a crumpled piece of paper, make sure your bird sees the treat and sees you hiding it. This way, your bird knows to look there for the reward. Moreover, do not hesitate to gently help your bird obtain the item. Allow your bird the time and space to work through the challenge, but do not let them get frustrated. This can work against you as birds can get so frustrated they give up and lose their motivation to explore other challenges. If your bird repeatedly gets frustrated quickly or you find yourself constantly needing to help them solve the challenge, that may mean the current method is too complicated.
Remember it’s better to start simple and then slowly make things harder for your bird. This helps ensure your bird’s safety as introducing your bird to a foraging method that is too complicated or inappropriate can lead to strangulation hazards, toxic ingestion, and foreign body ingestion. To avoid these risks, supervision and researching your specific foraging method beforehand are critical. Your veterinarian is an excellent resource you can consult with.
Scattering and Hiding Food
Scattering food outside the cage instead of keeping it all in one or two easily accessible bowls, while you stand by, is a straightforward way to encourage foraging. Designating a space outside the cage to do so can help maintain cleanliness while encouraging foraging. One step up from this is scattering food in natural materials like leaf litter, straw or paper, so your bird has to dig for it. Adding wooden blocks or other obstacles increases the challenge and work involved. You can also have multiple food bowls around the cage, some with and some without food. Occasionally rotating which bowl has what keeps birds on their toes as they have to check all the bowls. You can partially or fully cover food bowls with newspaper or cardboard, so your bird has to chew their way through it. It may be necessary to punch a starter hole so your bird learns to chew through the barrier to get the food.
You can also mix food with inedible items such as wood beads, plastic bottle caps, and shredded paper. Make sure the inedible items are large enough to not be swallowed and do not pose a risk. Some birds, especially parrots, really like shredding and destroying items, the remnants of which may be swallowed and become hazardous. Supervise your bird to prevent swallowing. Finally, you can try wrapping individual food items in pieces of paper, corn husks or other materials. Twisting the ends can make it more challenging for your bird.
Another way to hide food is to use puzzle feeders. These are devices that hold food and must be manipulated in different ways to release the food. There are many different types available with varying degrees of difficulty. Be sure to research whatever products you are considering paying particular attention to safety.
Alternate between Reward and No Reward
Not all foraging efforts should be met with a reward. In the initial phases of learning these skills, birds should be kept motivated through consistent rewards. Later in the process, however, keep your bird engaged by alternating which toys, bowls, or other foraging tools have food and which don’t. When suited to your bird, continual challenge and novelty are great ways to mentally and physically engage your bird. The goal is to encourage your bird to explore many foraging avenues and not just rush to the one with their favorite food item. Accordingly, try to match how valued the reward is with how difficult it is to get it. Your bird may be more motivated to continue working harder and longer for their favorite treat than for a less valued item. However, giving your bird treats or food items that are not part of their regular diet should be infrequent and should not undermine their overall diet. It’s easy to overfeed your bird with high-calorie treats; monitoring food intake and body weight with a scale are good ways to avoid weight gain.
Foraging Perch or Tree
A foraging perch is a piece of non-treated wood drilled with holes into which food items can fit in tightly. There are many types of perches, but the point is that the food reward is easily visible but not accessible unless your bird chews through the wood. A foraging tree, on the other hand, is several steps up. Like a perch, a foraging tree can have holes in it to hide food, but it also offers many opportunities to hang different food puzzles and toys. Your bird will have to navigate the tree and its branches to get from puzzle to puzzle, which can be randomly filled with different food rewards and no rewards. These trees can be made of lumber, sticks, PVC pipe, or rope and can either be purchased or hand-made. While foraging trees can be excellent tools, they require a lot of space and are more expensive, so they are not the best fit for everyone. Ask your veterinarian for recommendations if you believe a foraging tree may work for you.
Foraging Toys (Tools)
There are many options when it comes to foraging toys. However, just because something is marketed as a suitable foraging toy for birds does not mean it will work for your bird. Some factors to consider are safety, available cage space, and difficulty. You want a toy suited for your bird’s current skill set that poses no risk of injury. If there is a risk, it may be better to go with another foraging toy or always supervise your bird when they are using it.
How Practical is Foraging?
Providing your bird with foraging opportunities is an ongoing process. There is no stopping point. Foraging helps meet your bird’s need for on-going mental stimulation, exactly like food, water, and social interaction. As your bird becomes proficient at one method, they may need further challenge to stay engaged. You will need to dedicate some time and creativity into finding new ways to help your bird forage, especially initially.
While it may take some time to figure out what works best, the aim is to eventually develop a routine with enough variability to keep your bird engaged. When exploring foraging options, it’s essential to consider how much space you have, how much time your bird is left alone, and whether they need supervision with some foraging methods. Finding ways to incorporate foraging into your bird’s daily lifestyle that works for both of you will make the experience enjoyable and exciting for everyone involved.