The Captive Foraging Thread aims to offer an introduction to what captive foraging is and how it can benefit you and your parrots, a quick guide to bought toys, and the basic parts to make homemade ones, a guide to teaching your parrot the basics of foraging, a list of websites and articles about foraging, and a place where members of Talk Cockatiels can share foraging toys and photos.
In the wild, all animals spend a portion of their time searching for food. This is known as foraging. Captive foraging is when pet owners (as well as zoos and wildlife parks) provide the animals in their care with the opportunity to search for their food, rather than just filling a food dish for them. There are many different ways to present your parrot with foraging opportunities and this thread aims to give you an insight into captive foraging, teaching your parrot to forage and to share ideas and pictures with other Talk Cockatiels members.
Why is Captive Foraging Important for your Parrot?
The parrots we keep in our homes are essentially wild animals, although the majority have been bred in captivity. They have not been domesticated like cats, dogs and farm animals. As a result, the pets in our homes are exactly the same as their wild counterparts, with the same instincts. Foraging is a great way to enrich your parrot’s life, using their natural instincts to stimulate them both mentally and physically, and prevent boredom which can lead to behaviours like feather plucking and excessive screaming.
A wild pionus flock were followed and their daily routine recorded. They would awaken at dawn (6 am at the equator) and forage until 10am. From 10am to 2pm, the flock would gather together to rest, preen, nap and socialise together. To end the day, they would forage again before going to roost as it got dark (6pm). This example shows us a wild parrot flock spending two thirds of their daylight hours in searching for food. In pet parrots, this has been replaced by a full food dish, and 15 minutes sitting at it eating. As a result, behavioural problems resulting from boredom are not uncommon in pet parrots. Captive foraging is designed to give our birds a more natural way to eat and pass the time. I have taught my small flock of parrots to forage, and have found that they, especially the cockatiels, preferred to forage for their food, even when they had the option of just eating from a food dish, despite the food they were foraging for, being exactly the same as the food in the dishes. To me this illustrates how important foraging is for our parrots, and demonstrates how much they enjoy it.
How do Parrots Forage?
In the wild, different species of parrot foraging in different ways and at different heights. Some, like cockatiels and budgies are ground foragers, while others, like conures, forage at different levels in trees. This can give you a starting point for foraging, encouraging your parrot to use its natural instincts. You can also teach your parrot to forage at other levels, for example, a cockatiel will climb to the top of its cage to reach a treat, or a conure go down to the bottom to forage on the cage floor. The more different foraging techniques you teach your parrot, the more different options you can offer them.
What do Parrots Forage For?
You can use anything your parrot eats or plays with as a foraging reward – pellets, seed, millet, nutriberries, pumpkin seeds cinnamon sticks and dried chillies are just a few examples of dry food items that can be used. Wet food can also be used, but only use it if you’re sure your parrot will be able to find and eat the food before it spoils. You can also use favourite foot toys, like shredders and munch balls as foraging rewards.
There are many foraging toys on the market that you can buy for your birds. When buying foraging toys, you need to be aware of the size of the toy and of your bird. A lot of the toys on the market are designed for large parrots like Amazons and Macaws, and require strength or large feet to manipulate them, which small parrots like Budgies, Cockatiels and GCC may not be capable of. As always when buying toys, you need to be aware of the size of them, and whether they have any holes that are likely to catch heads, beaks, toes or nails. Some great toys that I would recommend for all parrot owners are the Nutcase and Foraging Sphere. Piņatas are another great toy on the market, although if you don’t mind a little mess, they are easy and fun to make yourself. Spears/skewers/kabobs are another great toy. You can simply hang fruit/veg on, which will sway away from your parrot as it tries to eat, or you can use them to make more complex toys. The advantage of buying toys is that you can get ones made of acrylic and plastic that are long lasting and come in styles that it is not possible to make yourself.
Homemade Foraging Toys
Foraging toys are cheap, easy and effective to make at home. They can take minute up to an hour or so to make, and the number you can make with relatively few parts and expense is astounding. Some basic foraging toy essentials are:
Wooden blocks and beads
Paper – shredded and sheets (any paper that is not glued or shiny – like magazine paper – is safe)
Plastic beads (make sure these are too big to fit in your parrots beak, and too tough for them to snap)
Leather strips and seagrass, cotton, sisal or hemp cord
Any foot toys that your parrot enjoys playing with are great for using to fill foraging toys. A few foraging toys described in the following post will need other parts but these can generally be bought for only a few pounds.
Parrots are very intelligent birds and can be taught to forage at any age. Some will jump straight in and understand everything very quickly, others will take longer to get the hang of things. If your parrot is tame, letting them watch you set up their foraging toys is a good way for them to learn how to get the food out. A good way to start is with their natural instincts or a using a behaviour they already do as a starting point. For example, some birds will walk around on their cage floor. For birds that enjoy playing on the floor, a foraging tray can be a great starting point. The link will take you to my blog post, with photos of a foraging tray and many things you can put in it. To make a foraging tray, you’ll need a good sized flat dish, with sides an inch or two high. For mine, I’ve used a plastic drip tray, meant for sitting potted house plants in. In this dish, scatter a treat, like some seeds (a teaspoon or less should be plenty). Place the dish on the bottom of the cage or play gym, making sure there are no perches directly above it. Leave it there until your bird is comfortable with it, and has learnt to associate it with food (refill it and wipe it down as needed). Once they’ve eaten everything in it a few times, half cover the bottom of the dish with dry pasta. As you parrot gets used to this, you can add to the tray, by increasing the amount of pasta, adding wooden beads, blocks, stones, and foot toys, so they have to dig down a bit and push things out of the way to get to the bottom. It’s best to go at the speed of your own parrot – some will adjust quickly and be digging through the complete setup in a couple of days, others may need several weeks before they’re confident enough to do it. I also do this with my birds food dishes now they’re comfortable with it.
Another favourite for foraging is wrapping a treat, like a nutriberry, in a piece of paper. Using a small rectangle of paper, roll it around the nutriberry, (so the nutriberry is in the middle of a tube of paper) and twist both ends closed, so it looks like a sweet. To begin with you can now rip a small hole in the paper, so your parrot can see the nutriberry, but still has to rip some of the paper away to be able to eat the whole thing. Once your parrot gets used to this you can stop ripping holes in the paper. At this point, you can also wrap up wooden beads the same rough size as the treat, and mix them all together so your parrot has to rip them all open to see if it’s a treat or a fake. This adds a challenge, and they can be used in most foraging toys.
Another style of foraging is to hide the treat under toys. Foraging cups is an example of this. To teach your parrot how to do this, you can use any container. Show your parrot the container with a treat at the bottom. Once they’re used to the idea that the container holds a treat, place some wooden blocks and beads at the bottom, with the treat, but make sure the treat is still obvious. Again, wait until your parrot is comfortable with this before moving on. The next step is to put one block on top of the treat. Hopefully your parrot will move the block off and find his treat, but if not, lift the block off the treat, and show it to him, then replace the block on top. Repeat this until your parrot is comfortable finding the treat under one block, then move on to two. This step should be easier for your parrot after they’ve got used to moving one block. Slowly bury the treat under more and more wooden blocks until the container is full. You don’t want your parrot to get discouraged or bored by not finding its reward as quickly as it expects. Once they’re happy with this, you can increase the number of containers. We have three paper cups, a coconut and a hanging bucket for this. Every morning, Lofty empties them, throwing wooden blocks and beads all over the cage floor. Every day we put a treat in one of these, and occasionally we put a treat in two or three, so every day, our cockatiels go around and empty all five, instead of just stopping once they’ve found the first treat. Again, this toy can take anything from half an hour to a month to introduce to your parrot, depending on the speed they pick it up at and their confidence.
These are just a few ways to start your parrot foraging. There are more ideas contained in the following websites and e-books.
Great thread, thanks so much! Here's a photo of what my tiels and conure get for foraging most days.
The pellet dish is void of beads for now, while Zoe gets used to eating them. I have started using less seed and more pellets as foraging rewards the past couple of days though and she's happy to work for them.
I'm glad your birds are enjoying everything Bea. We made so much of the seed/pellet mash last time, that we've still got some in the freezer, lol. You're so lucky to have all the native plants around for your 'tiels.
Here's some new ones I've made. The swing, thanks to xxxSpikexxx and a muffin cups one. Details are on my blog.