Budget Enrichment


By Dot Schwarz in England

(an earlier version of this article appeared in Parrots Magazine.   All photos courtesy of Dot)

Why bother making toys?

Why make or purchase toys for parrots? - Such intelligent and active creatures have to make an enormous adjustment to adapt to a human-orientated life. In their natural environment, through thousands of generations, parrots have developed acute senses and elaborate social behaviour. A wild parrot needs to find food, safe roosting spots, nesting sites and a mate and watch out for dangers including droughts, hurricanes, snakes, rats, hawks and other hunters. The captive parrot faces none of these challenges, although she retains the inborn potential to do so. In captivity her life may well be lonely and monotonous for a large part of her day. The provision of an environment that mimics some of the challenges and benefits of the wild state is something worth aiming for; a well-stocked cage, the provision of toys for active minds and if the bird has use of an aviary, sufficient enriching items kept inside. The following items have all been tried and tested and you can make them yourself without encuring heavy costs

Making your own toys, foraging and enrichment activities makes good financial sense. And the parrots will love you for it. When you construct toys in their presence, they will try and help by opening jars and boxes and removing tools to safer spots on the table. Your flighted parrot will enjoy flying off with your tools – so beware. Expensive bought items are not necessarily preferred to humble household ones. If you have ever had the rueful experience of buying a brand new toy for a toddler, you’ve probably experienced that moment when the child starts absorbed playing with the box and the wrapping paper and ignores the costly gift. With ingenuity you’ll find inexpensive household items for your pet birds everywhere you look - empty toilet rolls, wooden cooking spoons, plastic plant pots, corks, Christmas cards, junk mail. The list goes to infinity.

Ropes and Swings

My favourite parrot attraction has to be ropes. Our four pet birds live in an adapted conservatory but have regular out times where they are at liberty in certain rooms .Bedrooms and husband’s office are off limits. In their permitted rooms, ropes are stretched across the ceiling. In the sitting room these ropes are looped onto hooks so they can be taken down for non-parrot occasions. Since ropes are not stable but sway like branches in a wind, they provide an immense amount of acrobatic activity. I find hemp clothes lines are the best value for money. A skipping rope stretches across my office ceiling; its plastic handles are nearly chewed through by Perdy and it will soon need replacing. Another useful, inexpensive climbing toy can be made from wooden coat hangers. Hook a clothes hanger to the bottom of the first and hook a third to the second and you have a dangling climbing frame that attaches to a rope or a ceiling hook. When Artha and Casper were younger they loved weaving in and out of the coat hangers. We called it ‘playing circus parrot’. In their young maturity they seem to have grown out of this beguiling habit.

When you allow your parrot out-of-cage-time, ropes are a marvellous way to discourage her from landing on places you’d prefer she didn’t. Stretch the rope in the right place and hang enticing items from it. I have managed this (just) in the sitting room. Casper and Perdy will stay on their ropes but Lily the Lesser Sulphur Crested cockatoo, the most recent arrival who has come from a sanctuary, is not yet confident or agile on ropes. She prefers solid footing beneath her. She has been given her own bookshelf furnished with a collection of unwanted paperbacks. She will spend literally hours chewing through the books. There is a 20 cm deep hole. I know this is nesting behaviour which it is not ideal to encourage, but it keeps her content and helps prevent her plucking out her feathers.


Ropes can be a danger if the ends are frayed and if they are not kept taut. Parrots have been injured and even killed by badly maintained roped ropes so they must be checked regularly for wear.

Local charity shops

There is a bonus in patronising local charity shops. The charity benefits and your birds enjoy many low cost objects. Baskets are our best buy. The lady in our local charity shop saves baskets for us and these make attractive, practical receptacles for toys; they provide hours of chewing until the birds chew through the handle and the basket falls to the floor.

Some people maintain that babies’ plastic toys bought second hand are not bird-safe. That has to be each owner’s individual judgement. Let’s face it - unless the bird is kept in an empty, sterile, padded cage, any object or activity can become a cause for injury. Whenever I buy rattles, balls, wooden trains or other plastic toys, I check for a safety label. Something curious I’ve noticed with a variety of soft toys like teddies, dollies, cute animals; the two Grey parrots and Perdy the cockatoo pluck out the eyes, whether these are buttons, sewn on or painted. Does anyone know the reason for this?

Food as a time-consuming activity

In training your bird you are probably using food treats as the primary reinforcer. But using food as part of an enrichment strategy is also successful. Even if the birds are in cages for most of the day, their food can be delivered in ways that makes them work for it rather than having a bowl of food delivered like a takeaway. One simple gimmick is to cover bowls with brown paper, poke a nut through to show the food is underneath and let them tear away the paper to get their food. One owner who started wrapping food into tiny parcels and hiding them amongst the leaves of her homemade parrot tree reported how much more willingly the birds ate these items they had foraged for themselves. Artha and Casper, my Greys, do not readily eat greens. I have chopped enticing spoonfuls and put them in their food bowls only to find when the cage was opened for out time, both birds flew happily onto the kitchen counter and ate a bunch of spring onions.

Sensitive owners have long known that an active bird with challenges and choices will be less likely to develop plucking, screaming, biting, anxiety or other behavioural problems. This was given a scientific basis by an experiment with 16 young, parent-reared Orange winged Amazons. The researchers found that the birds with foraging and enrichment in their cages feather plucked and screamed less than the control group with no enrichment. And they also found that the feather plucked group, allowed their feathers to regrow when they were put into the enriched cages.

As well as bought toys that provide hiding places for treats, it is quite simple to make your own. You can drill holes in a piece of untreated pine wood and insert nuts in the holes. Plastic drinking cups are excellent items for creating foraging opportunities for you birds. An artichoke with different foods tucked into the leaves, a cabbage treated the same way, a whole ear of corn. A breeder told me, “My birds like runner beans when they are in season, they bite at the swollen area where the bean is located, also they like knuckle bones of lamb,”

Natural Items

Since we have a large garden, I have a surfeit of natural items available to make toys. After tree branches of course the most popular are fir cones (Casper) and rosehips (Artha) Perdy is champion flower muncher. Give her a rose to shred and she is a happy bird. I also notice that when in the aviary, the indoor birds, especially Casper, like to chew on clumps of grass and dandelion roots and leaves.

Here the line between foraging, toys and enrichment becomes blurred. But indoors or outside the more activity you can provide the better the birds enjoy it.

Tip Make sure that branches or natural materials have not been sprayed with chemicals. Branches can be washed in a weak (1 to 10 parts dilution) bleach solution, dried naturally or baked in an oven at 180/200 ° for 50/60 minutes.

Willow wreaths

A homemade toy - useful both for exercise and chewing and also pretty is a willow wreath. A wreath takes about 40 minutes to assemble and will last a few months before the stems are chewed back to the wire and it looks grotty. You need a metre or so of stout fence wire bent into a circle or an old hula hoop will do as well. Depending on their thickness and length, you need 20 to 40 stems of willow. You just weave them round and round the wire tying loose ends in with a thinner piece of wire of twine. Once the stems have been in position for a day of so you can take off the ties. You can decorate the finished wreath with flowers or fir cones or plastic balls. Parrots seem to appreciate willow - perhaps they are aware of its medicinal properties. And if you have no willow trees handy or a generous neighbour who will donate some, an equally simple swing can be made from a broom handle cut in half. Plastic chains make excellent swing ropes. My parakeets in the aviary also like swinging on a tyre with the inner tube removed.

Home made parrot trees and towers

Parrot towers are splendid contraptions but can hurt the budget. You do not need a great deal of DIY expertise to construct your own parrot tree. I have used a sturdy metal bucket and a clean stem of a tree. You can use sand or cement to anchor the tree in the bucket. For smaller birds like conures you can use a chimney flue. One owner I know ties live branches to the tree and hides the parrots’ food amongst the leaves. Her three pet birds took to this foraging idea immediately.

Another friend, wanting a high and stable perch, bought a hat stand from Ikea, anchored it into a base tray of pea shingle and hung toys and food bowls from the top wooden struts. Her African grey, Cleo, better disciplined than mine will stay on this perch and play rather than destroy objects in the sitting room.

Another comparatively easy tower to make is one made of various widths of PVC tubing. You can cut it with a ratchet tool and stick lengths together using unions or plastic cement. Stainless steel quick links are the best and safest to use when making parrot items. Yo use these to vary the toys and objects that you hang from the plastic tu8be frame..

Many pet parrots will have to spend a large part of the day with their owners out at work. This is where ingenuity can really help keep your birds happy and content in your absence.

Out of date phone books. Don’t discard them. Let your bird have them as part of her shredding activity. For small birds you will need to saw them in pieces but a macaw can play with a full size phone book for several days; the same applies to boxes and cartons. It does not take long to wrap some corks in paper and hide them in a box which you slip into another box. It takes longer for the parrot to work out where the cork is hidden. I have watched a Blue and Gold macaw work her way through six boxes to get at the honey stick in the innermost. And no, she didn’t clear up the mess of wrappings, string or cellotape. Formerly, this bird had screamed frequently for attention but now fully occupied for 30 minutes was a more contented pet.

Our local zoo recently held an enrichment day. Those of us, who were helping with items for the parrots, made up parcels of one wrapped box inside another and so on - like the children’s game of Pass the Parcel. Later I watched the pair of keas unwrap each layer with utmost concentration.


Well socialised birds do get bored with the same environment. Outings with a well trained bird are great fun. The best present you can give your birds costs nothing – your presence. I am not one of the tiny number of owners who can take their birds out and free fly them. But I do take mine out wearing harnesses. They are accustomed to stay still on my shoulder. I am often asked, ‘Are they real?’

Resources and references

The Parrot Enrichment Activity Book by Kris Porter only available on the web

Foraging opportunity and increased physical complexity both prevent and reduce psychogenic feather picking by young Amazon parrots by C.L. Meehan, J.R. Millam, J.A. Mench, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 80 (2003) 71–85

Good Bird Magazine! Empower the Human/Animal Bond with positive reinforcement

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An excellent |DVD on how to provide a foraging tree has been compiled by an American vet

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