Parrot Play in the Wild,
Parrot Play in the Home
By Sally Blanchard
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Play is often defined as behavior that has no purpose in the sense that it is not necessary for survival. However, there is no doubt that play is extremely important for the emotional and intellectual health of our companion parrots. There is also increasing evidence that it is also important to wild parrots. Young wild parrots will play for hours with each other and by themselves. While there is no intentional purpose, play does expend energy, build their balance skills, develop their coordination and encourage their curiosity. Not only does play help teach them the skills they need for survival, but it also serves to develop their social skills and teaches them to get along with the various members of the family and flock.
For the first ten years or so that I was working with parrots, play and toys were not considered a necessary part of a companion parrot’s life. The toys that were available were unimaginative and sometimes dangerous. I remember discussions with various breeders and bird shop owners who believed that parrots didn’t really need toys. They especially believed that breeding birds didn’t need toys and that providing them with play objects would keep them from breeding. With more study of wild parrots, we now know that “play objects” are an important part of bonding and mating rituals of many parrots. Not too long ago I was looking through some old parrot magazines from the mid-1980s and, as I recall, there were only one or two ads for bird toys. Within a few years after that people began to realize that play was incredibly important to a companion parrot’s life and more and more toy companies started creating more and more toys and ways for parrots to play.
As we begin to learn more about wild parrots, there is evidence that they play. They play with objects and they play games with each other. In Australia, Rose-breasted cockatoos have been observed flying in and out of willy-willies (we call them dust devils). They fly in and let the spiraling wind take them up and around for a half a minute or so. The only plausible explanation for this behavior is simply because they have fun doing it. A flock of Galahs may actually follow these vortices for some distance until it dissipates or they are tired of the game. Rose-breasteds and little Corellas have also been observed playing by hanging onto the blades of windmills and going around and around on roof turbines. This game can be quite competitive among the birds as they vie for the best locations on the blades. Shoving another bird off of the windmill seems to be a normal part of this behavior. Various parrot family birds have also been observed rolling around and playing with objects. I have watched several videos of wild African greys landing in trees. Some of them land on very thin branches and when they land, the branches bounce the birds up and down and all around. It is obvious that some of these greys could have landed on more stable branches but choose the bouncy branches. After spending a great deal of time with companion grey parrots and watching how playfully acrobatic they can be, It makes sense to me that the wild greys like to land on the bouncy branches because it is fun.
In the wild, much of a parrot’s life is spent in survival. This includes foraging for food and staying safe from predators. Because we provide for their needs, our well-loved companion parrots are freed from concerns about survival. This means that they have more time and energy for play. It also means that we have to provide ways for them to expend their energy and stimulate their curiosity. In the last few years, there has been an emphasis on providing toys that simulate foraging activity as an essential part of a companion parrot’s life.
As we know, most wild parrots are highly social birds and interaction with other parrots in their family or flock is a significant part of their lives. This is also true of our companion parrots and we are their flock. While toys and foraging toys are an important part of a parrot’s life, I think that interactive play is the best way to win and maintain mutual trust with our companion parrots. There are so many ways to play with parrots. The best way to start is by teaching parrots fun new behaviors and rewarding them with praise. My caique, Spikey LeBec was game for just about anything I presented because he trusted me. He easily learned basic tricks and getting him to hop across a table or to do a somersault in my hand provided both of us with fun. I have taught just about every parrot that I have ever worked with to raise his foot when I say “Gimme Four.” If I have taught a parrot to do this and I haven’t seen him for a while, he will usually remember me once I say “Gmme four” and will do his trick for me right away. I spent a lot of time with a delightful Blue-fronted Amazon and when I saw him again, he would initiate the game with me by lifting his foot before I give him the cue. Most well-loved parrots initiate play in one way or another. Unfortunately, we don’t always recognize that they want to play and sometimes interpret their behavior as aggression. A friend of mine’s Moluccan cockatoo climbs down to the floor and comes running towards me when she sees me come into the house. At first, it may seem like she is going to be aggressive but after a few visits, it became clear to me that she wants me to play catch with her. I have played this game with her several times and she remembers. Sometimes she brings the whiffle ball with her and sometimes I have to get it but ultimately we have a lot of fun playing. One of the best ways to get your parrot to appreciate new toys is to play with them with the toy.