Vice President and Festival Director, National Parrot Rescue & Preservation Foundation (


Parrots exhibit four main behaviors: socializing, grooming, sleeping and foraging.

Two thirds of their day is spent foraging for food. The parrot in captivity has his food served to him in bowls and doesn’t need to spend time foraging, or does he? We wonder why our parrots pick their feathers or have behavioral problems? Perhaps they are bored?

If we take away the three of their four natural behaviors or limit them they can still groom or preen. This could lead to over preening or feather picking. Perhaps we need to evaluate our parrot’s quality of life in captivity and see what we can do to meet more of their natural behaviors; perhaps we can reduce their over- preening or feather picking.

A flock of wild Pionus parrots was observed in Mindo, Ecuador. Below is a chart of their daily routine:

Dawn to 10:00 A.M. – Foraging for food
10:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. – Resting, napping, preening, socializing
2:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. – Foraging for food
6:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M. – Roosting, sleeping

As we can see, parrots spend the greater part of their waking hours foraging for food and eating. We can enhance their lives and stimulate their minds by giving them some of the challenges that they have in the wild. (Also note that wild parrots roostand or /sleep for about 12 hours a day.) Let’s offer some ideas to our parrots to stimulate foraging and create an environment that encourages and develops motor skills and curiosity.

In the wild, birds need to be inquisitive in order to find certain foods. We can increase this natural curiosity by hiding food in different places, but don’t immediately start hiding their food. They might not find it right away. Remember their foraging skills haven’t been used or are rusty and we need to encourage that curiosity. You may need to show your parrot several times at first where the food is or that by tearing open a folded dixie cup there will be a treat inside which will be a positive reinforcement for foraging.

For hand-raised birds who’ve never had to forage, some give up fairly easily when things don’t come as easily as they’ve become accustomed to, so working with these birds to help them discover the reward can be discouraging for their bird-parents when the birds don’t pick up right away. Encourage foraging inside and outside of the cage.



Foraging Trees – Place a large branch from a tree in a Christmas tree stand and tuck various foods in and on the branches. You may already have a play gym type stand that you can do this with. Be creative. Make the food somewhat obvious so that they know it is there but have to look. Vary the location of the foods each day to encourage them to look around. They know that there will be food on that tree just where is it?

Multiple Food Stations – Start out by having several bowls of food in the cage at various levels and places. In each dish, put just a little bit of different food. This will stimulate them to begin looking around in other areas for their food.

Once used to the different feeding stations, you might want to place a loose piece of paper or cardboard on top to “hide” the food from view. Give the parrot a few days to get used to the idea of not “seeing” the food. Then cover the bowls in a manner that makes it more difficult to get into – where the parrot needs to tear the paper to get to the food. He now knows that there “could” be food in that bowl but gives him more of a challenge to get to it.

•  Hide food in toys and offer more puzzle type toys
•  Put an almond or nut in a small paper cup and let the parrot retrieve it by tearing up the cup.
•  Twist some pellets in corn husks and place between the bars of the cage.
•  Buy some foraging type toys that tempt the parrot to unscrew or open the toy to get to the food – wooden or cardboard tubes stuffed with food and/or seeds.
•  Hide some nuts in a bowl of wooden beads or small wooden chunks. The parrot will rummage through the wood and find the nut. You might want to let the parrot see you hide the nut the first couple of times.
•  Place food on the sides of the cage bars; e.g., carrots with the tops on are good. Not only can they tear up and munch on the carrot but the tops can also be torn up and possibly ingested. Skewers are also good.
Use your imagination. Think of other ways to make forage and play fun. And remember, our companion parrots may have a more difficult time taking their own initiative so keep trying – they may need to be encouraged to try again and again until they get it.



Dr. Marty Smith received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree at Iowa State University and is a member of the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association. In addition to co-authoring four books with Dr. Foster, Dr. Smith has written hundreds of articles on pet health, care, and behavior and is very involved as a consultant with pet organizations, breeders, trainers and other writers across the United States.


Caged birds share some of the same behavioral characteristics as their wild cousins, but their environments are hugely different. Our birds have every meal available to them. Although a controlled environment may seem ideal – providing food and safety from predators and inclement weather
– in this type of environment, your bird may be denied the one thing he enjoys the most in the wild: hunting for and pecking his food, known as foraging.

Foraging provides the environmental enrichment caged birds require. Environmental enrichment creates a more natural environment and in return, stimulates natural behaviors in your bird. It also keeps your bird’s environment a challenge, so that your bird stays busy and active like he would in nature.

Wild birds spend up to 6 hours foraging for food and additional time manipulating the food with their beaks and feet. Denial of environmental enrichment through foraging may cause boredom- related problems, such as feather picking, sleeping too much, screaming or squawking.

It is easy to give your bird foraging opportunities. Start with foraging treats and progress up to using your bird’s favorite foods. You can do this by incorporating foraging opportunities in his everyday life.

If foraging is new to your bird, you may have to start slowly, making the food items easier to access at first, and then work towards more complicated and challenging methods that will keep him stimulated. In the beginning, let your bird see
you hide his food or treats; he’ll be curious as to what you’re doing and will want to investigate.

 1.  Integrate foraging activities into familiar items, such as your bird’s food dish or crock. Place
 a small amount of food in the bird’s food dish
and bury it with polished stones, wood, beads, or shredded paper. Make sure items you are using to bury the food are too large for your bird to eat.

2.  Next, cover or wrap the dish with something light and easily shreddable – like a coffee filter, a paper towel, or even a lettuce leaf. Don’t forget to let your bird see you hide the delicacies initially, to tempt him to investigate. Once your bird understands the foraging game, you can go on to more interesting challenges.

3.  For a more interesting challenge, use the NEW Foraging System and NEW Foraging Treat Box. These multi-compartmental food and treat dispensers make eating a long-lasting event. Fill some or all of the compartments with food or treats, so your bird has to chew his way through one compartment to the next, hunting for his food. At such an economical price, you can afford to use these boxes daily. Place multiple boxes throughout the cage and change
their location often for even more of a challenge.

4.  Initially, have your bird forage for partial meals. Depending on how much fun he is having, you can gradually move to feeding most of his food through this method. Check the foraging items daily to make sure your bird is getting the nutrition he needs.

5.  Another step up might include a refillable treat toy that contains some of his favorite food. Perhaps puzzle toys to make his playtime educational and enjoyable. Puzzle toys are usually made of acrylic and have openings that you can fill with your bird’s favorite foods. Some of these toys have openings that your bird needs to reach into to get the food out. Others require your bird to move panels or manipulate the toy in certain ways before the food is made available to them.

As you can see, there are a lot of different ways to encourage foraging with your bird and it does not have
 to cost you a lot of money. “Finding” his own food makes the search for sustenance personal and challenging. Have fun thinking of new ways for your bird to forage and be creative.

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