IT SEEMS TO BE NATURAL FOR PARROTS TO PLAY WITH THEIR FOOD
by Sally Blanchard
When I was a child, my mother often scolded me for playing with my food. I have to admit that as a budding artist, I did like to sculpt with my mashed potatoes. We, humans, are certainly not the only ones who occasionally play with our food. I have worked with companion parrots for over forty years and in that time I have seen them play with their food in some very interesting ways. I have always been curious to know if these behaviors are related to natural behaviors in the wild, but there is not a lot of information about the ways that wild parrots actually eat. We know that they spend a great deal of their day foraging for food and “processing” it so that they can eat it. Wild parrots have to search for their food and then pick it from the tree, vine, or field. Then they have to shell or unwrap it, and finally, they chew on it for a while before they swallow it. In comparison, most companion parrots have an easy life with their food provided for them in a convenient bowl. Perhaps some of their strange food behaviors are a substitute for foraging and “unwrapping” foods, but I think a lot of them are simply playing. Play is often defined as a frivolous activity that has no purpose. However, it is obvious that there is a very significant purpose for play even if it is unintended. With humans, play tends to suspend time and when we are involved in play we tend to forget the worries and demands of our lives. I would guess that on a level that obviously has some differences, play accomplishes the same things in parrots. Playing with food is just another way that our avian companions keep themselves busy. I believe that some of the strange food behaviors our parrots indulge in are just for fun. Food is not just nutrition for the parrots I have had in my life and they clearly enjoy a variety of fresh foods with different textures, colors, and shapes. I don't like pelleted diets (except for one) because all of the seriously questionable ingredients, but I also I think that feeding a pellet only diet to parrots takes away a lot of necessary activity and stimulation.
From my experience, cockatoos seem to develop some of the most interesting food behaviors. Many years ago during a consultation, I watched an Umbrella cockatoo stuff small seeds into the feathers on his chest. The chest feathers are attached to muscle tracts that the bird can control. As he tucked the seeds into his feathers, he tightened the muscles to hold them in place with his feathers. Some seeds did fall out but many of them stayed until he was finished stuffing his feathers. Then he carefully walked across his perch to his water bowl. He leaned over the bowl and released the seeds. Many of them fell into the water and he proceeded to eat them one at a time. Wild bare-eyed cockatoos have been observed dipping their food in water before they eat. I could find no information as to whether it is to wash the food or to soften it, but both are possibilities ... including the possibility of play. Many companion parrots make “soup” by dipping food in their water bowls. Sometimes they eat the softened food, but sometimes it appears as if they are just amusing themselves, especially when the soup also contains toy parts, wood chips, and feathers. Of course, parrot soup can become a health hazard as bacteria develop in the water if it is not changed frequently.
I visited with a client who has a lesser sulfur-crested cockatoo that has his own game with food. The bird will start piling small pieces of food and other items like wood splinters on his shoulder. As he piles them on, he hunches his wing into his neck so that his loot doesn’t fall out. He then climbs to the top of his cage or play gym and simply drops everything and watches it fall to the floor. The cockatoo will repeat this many times until he tires of the game. At this time, I don’t think that anyone has observed a wild parrot transporting food in this manner. I can’t figure a logical purpose for the behavior but then I think that parrot logic can be very different from human logic. Another cockatoo, a Moluccan, stuffs his rubber Kong toy with fresh food from his bowl. Then, with great effort, he climbs to the top of his cage holding the Kong in his beak. Once he is on the top, he squeezes the food out and eats it. Obviously, it would be much simpler for the cockatoo to just eat his food from his bowl, but it appears that the cockatoo prefers the challenge of working (or playing) for his food.
My caique, Spike, had a game that he plays with his pellets. My parrots get a lot of fresh foods but they usually have TOPS pellets in their cage. Spike often seemed to think that his pellets are toys rather than food. His favorite thing to do with them was to grind them into his cage bars. Sometimes he did it with such force that the powder ends up across the room. Spike also developed a unique way of drinking. Often, instead of putting his beak into the water dish, he would form a “cup” with his foot, dip it in the water, and bring it up to his beak to drink it. He did this repeatedly but lost a lot of water on the way from the dish to his mouth. I have never seen another parrot do this although I wouldn’t doubt that there are others.
Many parrots will quickly remove anything they don’t want to eat by throwing it to the bottom of the cage or the floor. Others will throw food on the cage floor because they want to eat it later. My late great African grey, Bongo Marie, used to do this. The foods that she really liked would usually end up on the floor of her cage and then she would climb down to eat them. It finally occurred to me that she might prefer to eat from a shallow bowl on the cage bottom and this was the solution to her throwing good food on the floor. I would often find bits of food underneath the papers in Spike’s cage. These are not discarded items but seem to be something that he put there for later.
Bongo Marie also made the decision to share her food with one of my dogs. She would whistle for him to come over and then drop food into his mouth. African Greys are not the only parrots that are known to feed other animals. A friend of mine has a Moluccan cockatoo that feeds about half of his soft foods to her schnauzer. As soon as the woman walks out of the kitchen with the cockatoo’s food dish, the dog runs to the cage and patiently waits for the Moluccan to give him his share. The schnauzer is quite healthy on a diet that includes whole grains, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables … so is the cockatoo.
Anyone who lives with companion parrots knows how wasteful they can be with their food. This may serve a purpose in the wild, where their scattering of seeds plants the food sources for future generations. Of course, we don’t want future food sources planted in our living room carpets. Food flinging seems to be a favorite game for many parrots but African greys seem to be the champions. It always amazed me how far Bongo Marie could fling her moist foods. Sometimes I would find desiccated carrots and other veggies over 10 feet away from her cage.
I am fascinated by the variety of ways that various parrots eat their foods. When my Amazons were young, I gave them each a live mealworm for the first time. The two Double-yellows were a year apart but had the same parents and were both raised in the same manner eating the same diet. I was fascinated that Rascal ate the mealworm whole without even chewing it. Then he made a food pleasure noise asking for another and another. In the meantime, Paco delicately peeled hers and took as long to eat hers as it did for him to eat several. Some parrots are quite fastidious while others end up with food all over their faces. My Amazons eat their fresh foods and mashes with great gusto and often for some time after they have finished, they still have globs of food all over their beaks. Rascal often looks like he has strange growths on his beak but he eventually wipes it off on his perch. This, of course, is a matter of manners. My mother would have been appalled if I had food all over my face and then wiped it all over a dining room chair. I think that parrots are the masters of playing with their food.