Parrots are surprisingly intelligent creatures and need mental stimulation to prevent boredom. Parrot enrichment should be an integral part of your bird’s daily routine, which is why it’s so important that you provide your parrot with the right environment and toys to interact with.
Parrot enrichment includes enclosure additions like foraging tools, a variety of chew toys, puzzles and multiple perches to ensure they’re busy and happy all day long.
Providing stimulating visuals, olfactory sources, socialisation, human interaction, and environmental enrichment has a significant impact on your parrot’s mental and physical wellbeing.
My family has as passion for parrots and bred, hand-reared and kept many kinds of parrots and birds including:
- Amazon Parrots
- African Grey Parrots
- Sun Conures
- Blue & Gold Macaws
- Scarlet Macaws
- Budgerigars ( I’ve written a separate guide for enrichment for budgies)
In this article, I will discuss parrot enrichment strategies for keeping your pet bird happy. I have created this complete and in-depth guide on parrot enrichment that covers a wide range of categories from visuals to auditory to food and more. This information is based on our expertise as parrot keepers, knowledge pooled from my zoo keeper friends, and research from prominent scientific journals.
I’ll also discuss why enrichment is essential to your parrot’s physical, mental, and emotional health and can guarantee they have the highest quality of life. So grab a coffee and read on.
Why Parrots Need Enrichment
Many people believe that enriching a parrot’s life means giving it toys to play with or providing stimulating activities. While these things are important, they only scratch the surface of what a healthy and stimulated parrot needs in order to live comfortably.
Enrichment is essential to your parrot’s life quality because it allows them to express their natural behaviors that are often difficult or impossible to demonstrate in captivity.
A lack of enriching stimuli can result in parrot behaviours such as:
- Mood swings and obsessive behaviours (like feather plucking)
- Lowered self-esteem
- Higher levels of anxiety
- Increased fearfulness around people
- Increased or constant stress
- Excessive vocalisation (screaming)
Any number of these could have serious effects on your parrot’s physical, mental, and emotional health, which could lead to several issues and effectively reduce their overall life expectancy.
By providing your parrot with a wide range of stimulation and enrichment, they are more likely to be loving, confident, and healthy pets you’ll have for many years to come.
Seven Simple Ways to Provide Enrichment for Your Parrot
- Provide your bird with a variety of toys to keep them entertained.
- Offer your parrot treats like fruit, vegetables, or nuts in addition to their regular diet.
- Make sure that you provide your parrot with enough space for their wingspan.
- Create an environment in which the bird feels safe and secure by providing them with a perch or cage they can retreat to when they feel threatened.
- Spend time each day playing games, talking, and interacting with your pet bird so that they will be happy living in captivity.
- Keep things interesting by changing up the routine every once in awhile so that it doesn’t get boring for either you or the parrot!
- Give them time outside of the cage for exercise every day.
Now lets’s look into these in more detail and I’ll share more insight an enrichment ideas for you to use.
Visual Enrichment – What can your parrot see?
You can tell parrots are visually oriented animals just by looking at their astonishingly bright and colorful feathers.
Parrots originate from the tropics and subtropics of Central America, South America, and islands in the Pacific. They can live up to 80 years!
A predominant reason for this trait is to provide camouflage in the wild as the colors help disrupt the outline of a parrot’s body, making them more difficult to hunt. However, many scientists believe it is also a direct result of sexual selection, meaning female parrots will choose the male parrot with the most impressive plumage as their mate.
Since there isn’t an array of colorful birds, plants, and other wildlife present for your pet parrot to gaze upon in captivity, you need to provide them with sources of visual enrichment instead.
There are a few ways you can do this through their immediate environment and various items you surround them with.
Place Your Parrot in a Visually Stimulating Environment
The first place to start with providing your parrot with visual enrichment is to consider the environment in which you plan to place their enclosure.
This is where your parrot will be predominantly kept throughout their life, so you want to make sure it provides everything they need visually while still taking their other sensitivities into account.
As social creatures that derive a lot of enjoyment from visual stimuli, the worst thing you can do for your parrot is to place them in a poorly lit room that is rarely used. This goes hand-in-hand with social enrichment because keeping your parrot in such a room will make them feel isolated.
An Active Setting
From a visual standpoint, there is also little for your bird to watch outside of their cage if you keep them in a low-traffic room. Therefore, we suggest placing their enclosure in a mildly trafficked room in your house so they can see you and other activity, but aren’t overwhelmed with high-traffic activity, such as frequently opening and closing doors which is common in entryways.
Be sure to place your parrot’s cage high up on a table or shelf so they can see more of the activity within their room, as well as feeling much more safe and secure than they would on the ground.
A Well-Lit Space
You’ll want to place your parrot in a room that gets 10-12 hours’ worth of indirect natural light. Too much direct sunlight could potentially stress out your parrot, but they still need light to stimulate the natural progression of day and night.
Another great way to help your parrot get quality visual stimulation is ensuring their perches are in various locations within their enclosure that allow them to sit and see various angles of the room.
Give Your Parrot Shiny or Sparkly Toys and Enclosure Accessories
When there isn’t anything interesting happening outside of your parrot’s cage, you’ll want to give them other, more reliable sources of visual stimulation.
You can achieve this by providing your parrot with various toys and accessories made from sparkly or shiny materials. A common choice is safe stainless-steel toys like bells, bowls, spoons, and sometimes even the chains can catch your bird’s eye.
Some people will even go as far as leaving a television on in the same room for their parrots to watch when they aren’t around. Although this can be great, make sure the sound is either off or very low on your television as they can easily scare or stress your bird.
Avoid the Classic Mirror Toys
One of the most accessible and commonly recommended toys that will visually stimulate your parrot is a mirror. Although they are certainly interesting to look at, we actually recommend you avoid these toys for the sake of your bird’s mental and emotional health.
Mirrors can actually cause your bird to become confused or aggressive as they can’t discern the reflection as themselves versus another bird. They could see this bird as a territorial threat or as a social companion.
Sometimes parrots will even mistake their own reflection for their mate and become defensive of the mirror as they protect their “mate” from others.
There are examples of birds becoming obsessed with their mirror to the point that they refuse to eat, come out of their cage, or play with other toys. Again, this could be because they believe it to be a mate or companion that they seek social benefits from when in reality, it’s just their reflection.
Although there are certainly some birds that enjoy their mirror for what it is, the risk of your parrot becoming obsessive, aggressive, or even depressed over their mirror outweighs the slim chance they’ll be unaffected.
Auditory Enrichment – What does your parrot like to listen to?
In terms of their senses, hearing is the second most relied-on sense for birds behind visuals. Birds, in general, have some of the best hearing capabilities of all creatures in the animal kingdom, the pigeon and owl being the most superior or the species.
Although parrots might not have the infrasound hearing of a pigeon, their hearing is still incredibly sensitive and can be a great source of stimulation.
A fantastic way to give your parrot auditory enrichment is through the use of music. You can play recordings in your parrots’ habitat or have a radio playing in the same room as their enclosure.
Again, since their hearing is very sensitive, be conscious of how loud you’re playing your music because it will be louder for your parrot than what you hear.
Some of the best types of music and sounds to play for your parrot are:
- Classical music (preferably instrumental and without lyrics)
- Chiming or tolling bells
- Natural sounds like ocean waves, rainfall, or forest noises
- Soft rock
- Folk songs or country ballads.
These types of songs are soothing to the parrot as well as calming and enjoyable. You’ll want to avoid music with loud basses or sudden/startling instrumentals, as this can frighten or irritate your pet.
In addition to being auditorily pleasing, your parrot might love music and recordings because many can mimic sounds. This gives them inspiration for noises to practice in addition to their natural songs.
Food-based Enrichment – Make your parrot work for their food
If you’ve ever heard the phrase that the stomach is the second brain, then you’d know that food can have a substantial effect on a person’s emotional state as well as physical health. The same could be said for your parrot, which is why food-based enrichment is so important.
A common misconception with any pet is that owners think they can stick to one food that will be the sole source of nutrition for their pet. Although your parrot should certainly have a base element to their diet, such as birdseed or pellets, solely feeding them this food can lead to a series of issues.
For instance, birdseed, in particular, is extremely high in fat, and so, your parrot needs an extensive amount of daily exercise to burn off all of the calories they consume with their food. The seed is in their diet, the more exercise they need.
Sadly, the exercise captive birds get is nowhere near comparable to those of wild parrots, so the majority of pet parrots that eat an exclusively seed diet will become overweight and develop fatty liver disease. This can have severe life-long repercussions for their health.
To avoid this, it is important to have an enrichment-focused approach to your parrot’s diet and give them a wide variety of food sources that are both nutritional and pleasant for them to eat.
The Ideal Parrot Diet
We’ll start this section by prefacing that there are 402 species of parrots, and many of them are common household pets. So, while this diet example might be a great place to start for your parrot’s food-based enrichment, some variation might be necessary depending on the species you have.
Here are the elements you should ideally incorporate into your parrot’s regular diet and place in their food bowl for day-long consumption.
|Food Type||Quantity||Important Notes|
|Bird Pellets||This will create the base of your parrot’s daily diet (50-70%)||Avoid colored pellets as they contain excessive amounts of sugar, artificial dyes, and harmful preservatives.Pellets are a better food base than seeds because they have less fat. Organic is ideal (although they are certainly rare)|
|Seeds||Small portions as a treat source. 10-20% of overall diet when combined with fruits and nuts.||Parrots love seeds, but this love means they often overeat them when available, leading to health risks we’ve mentioned.To minimize their seed intake but still make them accessible, you can use seeds for foraging rather than accessible in their food bowl. Seeds are also great for taming and training tricks.|
|Fresh Foods||The other majority of your bird’s regular diet is here, making up 30-50%||Best options include:Cooked whole grains and/or pseudo-grains (ex. brown rice)AsparagusBeetsBell peppersBroccoliCarrotsCollard greensHot peppersMustard greensLeafy greens (ex. spinach, kale)LeeksButternut and Winter squashesSweet potatoesPumpkins|
|Fruit and nuts||Small portions as a treat source. 10-20% of overall diet when combined with seeds||Same with seeds, fruit and nuts are extremely high in sugar and should only be provided as a treat and variety source. Maybe provide one berry for your bird to eat for the day.|
Remember that a key element of diet enrichment is variety, so while your base pellets might stay the same, you should constantly give your parrots different vegetables, grains, and even fruits every day. After all, no one wants to eat the same meal every single day, and your parrot is no different.
The Importance of Foraging for Parrots
You can’t discuss parrot enrichment without tackling their most natural instinct, which is foraging. You need to provide plenty of foraging opportunities for your parrot.
Research has shown that wild birds spend anywhere from 50-70% of their waking hours foraging for food and eating. That’s 6-18 hours of their life every day that they spend on searching consumption of food.
Many unknowingly parrot owners make the mistake of thinking it is a luxury for their parrot to have all their food needs readily available in a dish. Although they should certainly have a daily source of food in their enclosure, just because you raise a parrot in captivity does not mean they lose the natural urge to pursue this behavior.
For the sake of enrichment and your bird’s quality of life, it is important to give them an outlet for this natural behavior within their enclosure since they can’t freely explore and forage in the wild.
Foraging means the food source you are providing is not easily accessible to your bird. They might have to search for it, solve some sort of puzzle, or simply move an object to access it. Not only is this a fantastic source of cognitive enrichment, but it also satiates this natural food-based instinct in your parrot.
How to Encourage Foraging Behavior
You’ll want to start by making the foraging process easy for your bird and then slowly increase the difficulty over time, so it is more challenging and stimulating for them. This is the time to give your parrot that tasty treat they crave, like seeds or fruit, as an extra motivator.
When it comes to foraging enrichment, you can buy foraging toys or use DIY methods.
Something simple as stuffing food in a toilet paper roll is a great place to start for your parrot’s foraging needs. You could also just cover a treat bowl or hiding spot with some paper or cardboard for your parrot to move.
In terms of toys, there’s a massive number of foraging toys you could easily purchase for your parrot. These range from wheels to hanging feeders to hallowed bamboo logs and so many more.
We highly recommend you purchase several and keep a few in your parrot’s cage at a time. Then, once they seem to get the hang of those too easily, swap them out for your other options. This will provide variety for your parrot and prevent foraging from becoming too easy or even boring.
Environmental Enrichment – Making your parrots home from home
Your parrot’s enclosure is their home, and you want to provide them with a space that is stimulating, safe, and, most importantly, theirs.
We’ve actually already touched upon some habitat enrichment essentials, like proper enclosure placement in our visual enrichment section, but there are a few other factors to consider.
The two most important ways to provide an enriching enclosure for your parrot are buying the right kind of enclosure and filling it with the right tools.
The Ideal Parrot Enclosure Size and Shape
As we said before, there are a vast number of parrot species, so the enclosure you have for a Budgie will not be the same as one for an African Grey Parrot. Be sure to consider your parrot’s size and how much space this means they’ll need before you buy a cage for them.
When determining how big your parrot’s cage should be, a general rule of thumb is that a single parrot’s cage should be at least one and a half times the width of its wingspan. Of course, it never hurts to give your bird more space, especially since they’re social creatures and will need a buddy to share their cage.
For those of you trying to do the math and comparing this measurement to the tiny cages in pet stores, you’d be right if you’ve concluded that every single one of those cages is abhorrently too small. In reality, those cages should be used for transporting your bird when necessary, not as their full-time enclosure.
In reality, an ideal and enriching parrot enclosure is massive, so keep that in mind when deciding if this is the pet you really want or if you can even accommodate them.
Now, if you’re unsure you have the vertical space in your home for such a cage, remember that birds fly horizontally for the most part, as seen in the wild when they flit from branch to branch. Therefore, it is much better for your parrot’s cage to be wider than taller if you have to choose one or the other.
Of course, height is also important, but if you can’t have a massive cage for your bird (you honestly probably shouldn’t have it), but you can opt for an extremely wide cage to give them the horizontal mobility they crave rather than a tall skinny cage where it’s harder for them to fly up and down.
You also want to make sure your parrot’s cage has corners where it can retreat and hide during times of fear and stress. Rounded birdcages do not have these corners, so your parrot is far likelier to feel unsafe in this space since they are prey animals that need security when they feel threatened.
As a side note, a fantastic enclosure is great for enriching your parrot’s life, but don’t forget you can supply them with other habitats and structures, like play stands and gyms, for the times they’re allowed to fly freely outside of their enclosure.
What to Put in Your Parrot’s Enclosure
We’re going to keep this section short and sweet since many of the things your parrot needs in their enclosure will be discussed in the cognitive enrichment section in the form of toys.
So apart from toys, your parrot will need several tools and structures within their enclosure, namely:
- Perches: These are great sources of exercise for your parrot’s feet. Natural wood is always best with plenty of textural and shape variations. Please avoid dowel perches as they can cause bumblefoot, arthritis, and pressure sores.
- Slabs: These are a kind of perch that allows your parrot to rest their feet.
- Ladders: Provides your bird with extra mobility and exercise.
- Swings/Boings: Great enclosure additions for playing and resting.
Variety is always best, so make sure you have multiple options of each of these in your parrot’s enclosure for hours of exploration, stimulation, and rest.
Speaking of rest, refrain from adding happy huts, beds, or other nesting spaces in your enclosure unless you are an experienced breeder intending to breed your parrot.
These environments can hormonally stimulate your bird and lead to aggression and chronic egg laying. Birds are not humans and do not need nests for rest. They are for laying and hatching eggs, so if this isn’t the goal for your parrot, you shouldn’t have nesting spaces.
Olfactory (Smell & Taste) Enrichment
There is minimal research regarding olfactory enrichment for birds as they are incredibly sensitive to smells and could easily perish from the wrong fumes floating around in their environment they can’t escape.
Therefore, many parrot owners turn more towards safer forms of enrichment, such as toys and social interactions, than focusing on a source that is as potentially dangerous as this one.
However, there are safe sources of olfactory enrichment, mainly in food.
Pungent foods, like freshly cut fruit, are great sources of olfactory enrichment for your parrot as they are a safe treat that not only smells good but tastes good too.
Another potential option is the use of essential oils. Remember, parrots are extremely sensitive to smells, so you don’t want to spray these oils directly on them or objects within their environment. However, a researcher named Robin Shewokis placed essential oils in a diffuser function in the same room as his parrots as a source of olfactory enrichment. You’ll want to ensure you use safe, high-quality oils for this that won’t risk your parrot’s safety or health.
Tactile and Manipulative Parrot Enrichment
Parrots are brilliant manipulators. Their feet and beaks are very strong and can crack open nuts and pick up toys and climb vertically up most surfaces at great speed.
Toys are undoubtedly the easiest way to give your pet parrot tactile and manipulative stimulation, and they are absolutely essential to their quality of life. The key to a happy and stimulated parrot is to provide them with a wide variety of toys in their enclosure and a number of toys you set aside for rotational purposes.
Rotating your parrot’s toys can help ensure they aren’t easily bored with what is in their enclosure and can even extend their toy’s lifelines as they aren’t being played with constantly.
Common toys you can use for tactile enrichment are:
- Bells/whistles (also great for auditory enrichment and visual enrichment if they’re shiny)
- Rattle balls
- Wooden blocks
- Wall nets (make sure they’re appropriately sized, so your parrot doesn’t get stuck)
In addition to these, some of the most important toys you need to provide your parrot, apart from foraging toys, are shredders or chewing toys.
Shredders and Chewing Toys
Parrots have extremely sharp beaks and talons that they use to help them forage, grip items, and even defend themselves. Toys designed to be shredded are a great source of stimulation as your parrot can essentially destroy or chew elements of the toy, and they love it. I’ve never had a parrot that didn’t like to rip things apart.
Not only are chewing and shredding toys great for helping your bird express their natural behaviours, but it also prevents them from getting bored or frustrated in their enclosures.
It is important to note that some sources suggest it is unwise to provide shredder toys to sexually mature parrots as it could hormonally stimulate them and cause them to nest. So, keep that in mind.
Social Enrichment for Parrots
Research indicates that birds spend 25% of their waking hours socialising with other birds. Because birds travel in flocks, they are extremely social animals that thrive on interacting with other members of their species.
The answer to this one is simple: get your bird a companion. Or even better, provide them with a whole flock of companions if you can accommodate them and your bird is comfortable with more members.
If you’re a new bird owner and this is your first pet, you should probably purchase your parrot either with a companion or with the intention of getting them one very soon.
Having another bird to interact with is vital to your parrot’s mental and emotional help, as it reduces their odds of being bored and depressed from sitting in their enclosure alone every day.
Research has shown that “parrots housed with a ‘companion’ were more active, had a larger behavioural repertoire and did not exhibit stereotypical behaviors.” They also refrained from self-injurious behaviours such as feather-plucking.
Overall, when you acquire a parrot, you remove it from some form of flock, either their natural one or the company of other birds in the store or breeder you purchased them from. Therefore, it is essential to provide them with a flock of your own, so they feel safe and content in your care.
Human-Interaction Enrichment for Your Parrot
Providing your parrot with a companion or two is absolutely fantastic, but don’t forget that you are also a main source of enrichment for your pet, and they enjoy interacting with you just as much as anything in the enclosures. Oftentimes, even more.
Taming and bonding with your parrot are often mutually beneficial. Not only does it help you have a pet you can trust out of the cage and enjoy spending time with, but it gives your parrot another trusted member of the flock they can rely on for stimulation and fun.
Some parrots will even bond so closely to their human that they will develop disorders like separation anxiety, causing them to scream for their owner’s presence or self-mutilate out of frustration.
While this is certainly a concern, having a companion bird can help reduce the effects your absence might have on your parrot, and it’s certainly no reason to limit your interactions with them. Taking your parrot out daily and interacting with them can greatly increase their mood and give them a social outlet they might not be receiving from their other companions.
Parrots deserve an enriching environment just like any other animal companion because without it, their chances of being healthy and fulfilled animals will diminish. Common sources of enrichment for these intelligent and social animals include a properly sized enclosure, foraging and shredding toys, companions, and more.
We strongly recommend you consider these elements before acquiring a pet parrot or, if you already have pet birds, consider if your level of enrichment hits all these marks. Parrot enrichment is extremely easy for any pet owner, and pairing it with a great deal of dedication will ensure your beloved pet has a long and fulfilling life.