I sat quietly on the ground, behind a short bush. The White-bellied Caiques Pionites leucogaster were in a dead Bertholletia excelsa sapling whose trunk had been broken about 18 feet from the ground by a larger, falling branch from an adjacent tree. The scenario was typical. The fight in the Brazilian Amazon between trees is fierce, as they each struggle to work their way through the canopy to reach the sun. The cleft had created an opening in which termites were swarming. That activity attracted the caiques, which played, jumped, chased and interacted with the insects. I do not believe any were eaten; it was only a game—a means of burning energy for the three immature birds, whose species was possible to identify by the presence of black head feathers interspersed with the apricot colored feathers that cover the head. The parents preened nearby. The scene reminded me of a playground where the kids are brought to play and where the parents watch askance to insure that they do not get into trouble. After over an hour of watching, the parents called loudly. The chicks froze momentarily and then the group disappeared from sight. The cause of the alarm call was an agouti, a rodent about the size of a small cat that was looking for fallen food.
I have made similar observations across the globe. Parrots do not just live in their environment; they enjoy it, playing, chewing, exploring and interacting with it to stay occupied.
In captivity, this activity is not always possible. Birds maintained for breeding in a sterile environment have only a perch, possibly the ground if the enclosure is of the walk-in design, a nesting box if they are intended for breeding and their food. In the worst-case scenarios, the perch is plastic or metal and the nesting box is also metal. Pet birds do not invariably have a better environment in which to live. I have seen many pets kept in a metal cage with a metal or plastic perch and nothing else. The perception that the birds should not be distracted if they are intended for breeding or that the pet bird has its owner to interact with is simply not enough. These birds need far more.
Parrots kept for breeding do not need to be housed in a sterile environment. Indeed it appears that if the birds are mentally challenged they will be much better breeders. In trials using the ubiquitous Green-cheeked Conure Pyrrhura molinae I found a difference in the level of reproduction between pairs receiving no toys and no enrichment and those that received fresh branches for chewing, palm seeds, pods, section of green coconuts and toys. The two groups were housed in adjacent enclosures, fed the same diet and given the same nest design. The main difference was that the birds receiving enrichment seemed more content. Their level of fertility was 92.8% while those in cages receiving no enrichment had a fertility rate of 81.3%. One of the birds kept in what could be described as a sterile environment despoiled its chest feathers. Another chewed the crown feathers from its mate. Those receiving enrichment remained in immaculate condition.
This trial and the general experience gathered over more than four decades has taught me that keeping occupied does not deter breeding. Indeed, the desire to reproduce is not thwarted by having branches, pods, coconuts and much more being added to the cage. Instead I believe that the mental well being is developed and this will lead to more successful breeding. I state this because I firmly believe that for parrots to reproduce they must not only be healthy, feel safe in their environment, receive the proper diet and have access to a suitable nest, but that their mental well being will be the deciding factor. Boredom will not lead to breeding, but a natural state of euphoria will. This was evident in the aforementioned trial using Green-cheeked Conures.
In pet birds kept in a sterile environment plucking is not uncommon. The birds become bored and pluck as a result. They may also pluck to cause a reaction in their owner, who will typically come rushing and admonish the bird for chewing its feathers. The attention, albeit temporary, is enough to want more. In many cases the bird denudes itself completely. Other factors (including skin fungus, disease, etc) can cause plucking, but boredom must never be ruled out.
In addition, pet birds that can spend considerable time exploring, chewing and playing tend to exhibit less aggression when played with. They also tend to want to cuddle more than a bird that sits in a sterile cage and wants to suddenly burn all of the energy it has built up since the previous play session.
Because of my field experience, my own birds receive continuous enrichment. They are given coconuts (whole for large birds, split for smaller birds), palm seeds, pods, palm fronds and flower stalks, branches, flowers, pine cones, pieces of decomposing wood for chewing, sections of old perches that have holes drilled into the side where seeds are wedged, and much more. I try to be creative. The Galahs Eolophus roseicapillus receive trays of clean sand into which millet seeds have been mixed to encourage natural foraging. (Galahs like many terrestrial parrots have evolved to feed on grass seeds.) Seashells, pieces of PVC pipe, an old water bottle with a stone inside and a string that extends out from the cap so that it can be suspended from the enclosure ceiling, vertical swinging perches and more complement the enrichment. Chew toys and some plastic toys are also used. I want my birds to be occupied; to interact with their environment and toys and to burn the energy that they would normally use in foraging or exploring their environment.
Those that do not live in an environment where palm seeds, coconuts, palm fronds are more are available are not at a disadvantage. Look around your environment and see what is available. Branches with leaves are best, but branches taken from trees in winter are also suitable. Many birds appreciate pinecones. They can be offered in their natural state or seeds can be wedged throughout. Nuts can be wrapped in paper and inserted into a tissue or small cardboard box or the center of a roll of paper towels. There is no limit in what can be found around the home or yard that can help keep our birds amused.
The caveats when looking at enrichment are several. Always use items from an insecticide and pesticide free source, do not provide items with pieces that the birds can chew and swallow, never employ anything in which chemicals, scented products or fertilizers have been housed, disregard anything with a sharp edge that can cut, and never use plastic, twine or anything that can wrap around a toe (restricting blood flow) or can cause asphyxia. I avoid using ropes because they can come apart and the pieces can strangulate a toe, or the soiled rope can become a breeding ground for bacteria if the bird defecates on it. This is a personal choice but many birds do enjoy swinging from a piece of rope.
When acquiring toys, look them over for potentially edible parts, gaps where a toe or head can get stuck, which come from countries where lead is still used, or which have sharp edges. A friend recently lost a pet Cockatiel Nymphicus hollandicus who chewed metal pieces from a toy. The part was not well secured. The best toys can be chewed, but I also like those made of Plexiglas that the bird has to work to extract a nut or seed. Rotate the toys very frequently to insure boredom does not set in. You can write the date they are removed on toys containing wooden parts using a pencil. Other types of toys can be placed in a plastic bag onto which a date can be written or a piece of paper containing the date of removal can be affixed with tape. This will let you know not to return the same toy for some time. Those items that are badly chewed should be discarded.
With enrichment, a different situation applies. They can be left in the cage much longer. My macaws receive the seeds of the Foxtail Palm Woodyetia bifurcata regularly, as they eat the fatty interior. Some birds will start by eating the juicy outer covering and then leave the seeds to dry for several weeks, when they return and eat the flesh. Green coconuts tend to be eaten quickly, as the birds seek to get the meat and water. They often then neglect the coconut until it has started to dry, when they remove the fibrous covering. Branches can be denuded, the bark eaten and then the exposed wood chewed to slivers after it has dried. During the weekly cage cleaning we remove eaten items and leave those that still have a useful life.
In closing I always recommend that the bird owner or breeder place himself in the bird´s body. Do so while looking at the environment. Would you be bored or would you find sufficient enrichment and toys to be active, mentally challenged and content? Strive for the latter and your birds will be much happier pets and more successful breeders.