Enrichment for Breeders vs Pets

What is enrichment? 

Enrichment is an animal welfare principle that aims to increase a captive animal’s quality of life by going above and beyond the bare necessities (food, water, shelter). In particular, it strives to address the mental health of the animal as much as the physical.

Some common methods of enrichment:

  • providing toys/manipulatives
  • changing how food is offered
  • providing a more natural enclosure
  • training
  • opportunities to socialize
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A tiger plays tug of war with guests.

Techniques are going to vary depending on what species you are working with, and why the animal is being kept. You would not enrich a parrot’s life the same way you would an elephant or a snake. Some methods of enrichment can satisfy multiple drives for an animal, such as this vinyl ball for a giraffe. It encourages the giraffe to stretch its neck and simulates wild foraging behavior. It also provides something novel to explore.

In pet birds, enrichment often takes the form of toys.

Foraging has gained popularity in recent years, and not just with birds. The concept of foraging is that it makes the animal work to get its food, as it would have to do in nature. One of my veterinarian professors fed his dogs out of a tool box filled with rocks. They had to shift rocks around and to get every bit of kibble, rather than wolfing everything down in seconds.

Many foraging toys are available on the market. The options below are designed for repeated use, but it’s important to have destructible toys as this better mimics how parrots forage in nature.

Most psittacines have a desire to chew. Their beaks are specially designed to eat fruit/seeds in their green state. This gives them a competitive edge against other species that have to wait for food to ripen. Offering destructible items, be they wood or paper or food, can fulfill this need to chew.

With the wide variety of toys available to pet owners, it can be easy to associate enrichment with toys alone. This narrow view of enrichment has resulted in many laypeople criticizing breeding enclosures based on their distinct lack of toys. There are several problems with this.

Toys are dangerous. 

Safety is a huge problem with toys. Although things have gotten much better in recent years, the fact remains that birds, like children, are great at finding ways to injure themselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen birds hung up on toys, either by their band or a toe or a foot. Yes, they can get hung up without a band. Leave the band alone and check the cage and toys for hazards instead.

toe caught in toy

This is especially dangerous for breeder birds, who are generally not tame and may panic if approached, injuring themselves further.

As fun as toys may be for pet birds, they are still an unnatural element designed by humans and there are risks of injury, toxicity, and death. I’m not saying toys are bad, I’m saying breeders often employ safer enrichment options.

Nesting birds often ignore toys. 

Pairs that are actively nesting are generally too preoccupied with the business of raising the next generation to be bothered with toys. An incubating hen isn’t going to be playing with toys, but what about the male? Males will usually sit on guard duty outside the nestbox when they are not feeding. Play is not a concern for them at that time- safety and security of the nest site is. As soon as chicks are pulled for handfeeding, pairs will go back to playing with toys.

Safer, Alternative Methods of Enrichment

Tony Silva gives several ideas here. I’m a big fan of food enrichment. Psittacines are naturally destructive and offering whole food items is a great substitute for manufactured toys.

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This is a Brussels sprout stalk. I tie a rope around it and hang it in the cage. The right image is what it looks like after my ringnecks have been at it for a week. They LOVE edible toys.

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Here Loki is destroying half a pumpkin.

For smaller species, leafy greens work well. Skewers are also a favorite. I can throw several whole carrots in with my ringnecks and they will have great fun destroying them. It’s safer and gets birds to try a wide variety of foods. Chop is nice, but my birds have much more fun with whole items.

Planted aviaries are very difficult to do with psittacines. I tried putting a ficus tree with my kakarikis once and it didn’t go well for the tree. Tree clippings are a more realistic option. We have numerous citrus trees around our property and they give us plenty of fresh branches for play. Just make sure your clippings are from nontoxic species and haven’t been sprayed or collected next to a road (exhaust builds up on the plants).

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Social Interaction

Flocking is another method of enrichment. Pet birds are often kept isolated in small cages. Their owner may be their only source of social interaction. If the species is naturally very gregarious, this can lead to stress if, like most humans, their owner has a job away from home. This is why I recommend having at least two birds.

Many parrot species live together in large groups and break off into pairs for breeding. This can be mimicked by housing birds in smaller cages for breeding and then flocking them together during the off season. It gives them a chance to socialize, but also exercise.

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Which brings me to another source of enrichment…

Aviaries

My first batch of show cockatiels came from a breeder whose husband developed Bird Keeper’s Lung. She already sold most of her stock by the time I got to her, and was considering taking the leftovers to a bird mart. But then she lamented that pet owners might buy them and keep them in tiny cages. After living the good life in an aviary, fully flighted with an actual flock, being stuck indoors in a pet cage seems a cruel fate.

I want to be clear–there’s nothing wrong with keeping birds indoors, in pet cages, or clipping wings. My own personal pets are kept that way. BUT, nothing beats an aviary for enrichment. Nothing. They can fly–not in a house, where there are lots of hidden dangers–but in a space designed for birds. They can feel the sunshine and fresh air. They can feel the seasons change (yes, even winter). It’s a whole different level of care, and if you have the ability to build an aviary, even just for nice summer days, I highly recommend it.

© 2020 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Indian Ringneck Colors

These are some of the colors we produce. All of these are babies from previous seasons. Ringnecks are seasonal breeders, so we have a limited quantity each year. In 2020 we should be able to get cinnamon, green, lutino, and albino as well. Please check here for availability.

blue and violet

Blue (left) and violet (right)

blue pallid

blue pallid (white head with sky blue wash)

grey turquoise

grey turquoise

grey

grey

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turquoise

violet pallid

violet pallid (white head with faint lavender wash)

violet

violet

© 2020 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Care Sheet: Indian Ringneck

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Personality: Playful, inquisitive, intelligent, independent

Experience level required: Moderate

Approximate Lifespan: 30 years

Puberty: 12-18mo

Sexing: Dimorphic. Males develop a ring anywhere from 18mo-3 years. If you want to know before that you must DNA sex your bird. Some colors, like albino, never get a ring.

Vocalizations: They can be loud (see video below).

That said, they usually do not make noise all day every day. Vocalizations are typical in the early morning/late afternoon, if the bird feels separated from the flock, or if it is frightened.

Talking ability: Good. Both sexes talk.

Diet: Standard

Minimum recommended cage size: Ringnecks have long tails that are easily damaged in cages that are too small or cluttered. They need large cages with plenty of clearance for their tails.

Cautions: Ringnecks do not form the same strong pair bonds seen in other species. Most parrots will pair off with a buddy or mate. Ringnecks generally don’t do this outside of the mating season. This can make them seem standoffish. Do not buy a ringneck expecting a cuddly, sociable bird!

After weaning, ringnecks go through a bluffing phase in which they bite and show aggression. It is critical that the owner NOT react to the bites. The first year is critical to ringneck development. They go wild very easily if not consistently and amicably handled during the first year.

Don’t get me wrong, ringnecks make wonderful pets, they just aren’t for everyone. I’ve had to steer many potential clients over to conures because they had unrealistic expectations of what ringnecks are like. They are playful, highly intelligent, and curious. They enjoy spending time with people but can also play well by themselves. The best ambassador bird I ever had- the one I could trust to be pet by children and adults alike- was an Indian ringneck. They require an owner who understands their behavior and is willing to give them a lot of time that first year. With ringnecks, you get out what you put in.

Sexing

If you want to know whether your bird is a male or female, there are a few different ways to go about sexing. Considering that hormonal behaviors can cause issues it can be important to know how your bird will react to certain stimuli.

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Eclectus parrots. Photo by Doug Janson.

Visual

The first thing to determine is if your bird is dimorphic- in which males and females do not look the same. The above Eclectus parrots are probably the most striking example of sexual dimorphism. In most species it isn’t quite so pronounced. Budgie males have a blue cere, while females’ can range from white to tan to crusty brown. In cockatiels the male has a yellow head and the female does not. Indian ringneck males have a ring around their neck. Kakariki males are about 15 grams heavier than hens, have a stockier body, and wider beak. Even if a bird is dimorphic, if it is not the wild type color then sexing may be difficult. For instance, in cockatiels you can rarely sex lutino, albino, or pied birds visually. Lutino ringnecks can still be sexed, but pieds cannot. You need to know not only the species but the color mutation in order to accurately sex your bird.

If a bird cannot be visually sexed, or if it is too young (most need to molt into adult coloration before sexing can be done), then you need to use one of the methods below.

DNA

DNA sexing is easy and non-intrusive. Avian Biotech is the company I use. You can go on their website and ask for a testing kit. There are a few different methods: blood, eggshell, and feather. I prefer blood collection, as you can easily do it while grooming and it doesn’t involve plucking (yes, plucking!) 5-7 feathers.

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A blood card for Avian Biotech.

All you need to do is restrain your bird as you would for grooming (see instructions here). Make sure you have Kwik Stop or flour on hand to stop the bleeding! When you clip a toenail, clip it a little further up than normal. You’re intentionally trying to clip the quick. When it starts to bleed, touch the nail to the circle on the blood card. You don’t need much. Mail it out, along with payment (currently about $25) and you’ll get your results back within a day or two after they receive the sample.

Surgical

This method is usually requested by breeders who want to know the actual health of the gonads and other organs. The bird is briefly anesthetized, a small incision is made and a scope is inserted into the body to allow a veterinarian to observe the internal organs. After the bird is sexed, a tattoo is placed on the wing corresponding with the sex. Males are tattooed on the right and females on the left.

Behavior

Sexing by behavior is not always accurate, especially if you are a pet owner with two birds of the same sex, in which case one may potentially exhibit more opposite sex characteristics. That said, I’ve found it very useful in sexing my own birds. Cockatiels and Indian ringnecks can usually be sexed long before they molt into their adult coloration. This is the Indian ringneck mating display. Both sexes demonstrate very specific body language and behaviors (in both videos the hen happens to be yellow). This is male cockatiel behavior. It takes experience though as you need to know what to look for in a particular species.

Handfeeding FAQ

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What kind of brooder do you use?
Unless you are raising chicks from the egg, you don’t need a fancy brooder. Very young chicks need strict temperature control. Older chicks in pinfeathers do not. My preferred brooder is a small fish tank or Kritter Keeper on top of a heating pad. This set up is cheap and very easy to transport. If you’re a hobby breeder this allows you to take chicks to your day job (if they allow such things).

I set the heating pad to Low. Medium can sometimes be alright if the bottom of the container it sufficiently padded. Always test with your hand to make sure the chicks won’t be burned. Chicks can be kept directly in the container or further divided into margarine tubs or baskets. If chicks are kept directly in the container then the pad should only be under 1/3 to 1/2 of it. This allows the chicks some movement from warm and cooler areas, though most don’t figure this out.

For bedding I use a paper towel and then a layer of shavings on top.

Which is best: syringe, spoon, or tube/gavage?
The syringe is my own tool of choice. It allows quick feeding and minimal mess. The spoon is much slower and messier. I don’t care for it because it may involve dipping back into the formula (contamination risk) and because it allows the formula to cool, but mainly because it’s tedious. Many people like the spoon because they think it gives them more of a chance to bond with their chicks. However, bonding can be achieved more freely outside the feeding time.

Tube or gavage feeding is frowned upon by many aviculurists. This is because it is often used by large breeding operations to quickly feed chicks in an assembly-line fashion. The problem is not with the method itself (though this instrument can be deadly in the hands of an amateur), but with the people who tend to use it. Often they won’t properly socialize their chicks at all. It also bypasses the chick’s normal feeding/swallowing and shoots food directly into the crop. I don’t recommend it for day-to-day feeding. Nevertheless, every breeder should own at least one tube. It is invaluable for feeding stubborn/ill chicks who may have no feeding response, and for administering medicine to an uncooperative chick.

How much do I feed?
You want to fill the crop but not stretch it out so much that it won’t drain properly. I suggest looking at parent-raised chicks for reference. My cockatiels are certainly more daring to swell chicks’ crops than I am. By the way, some chicks continue to beg even if they’re ready to burst so begging cannot be used as a reference. This is a good guide on crop health.

How often do I feed?
(based on the smaller species)
For the first few days chicks will take formula every 1 1/2 to 2 hours around the clock. Over the next week you can probably up this to every three hours, still around the clock. By the time the pinfeathers start coming in they should be up to every four hours, with only one night feeding (or none at all if you stay up really late and wake up really early). If I’m home I let the chicks decide- when they cry I feed them.

When do I pull the chicks for feeding?
Some breeders believe that in order to be tame chicks need to be hatched from Day 1 so that the first thing they see is people. This is utter nonsense. Tameness is directly related to how much time you spend with the chicks and what you do. Socialization during and directly after weaning is key. Leaving the chicks with their parents for a while is generally much healthier for the babies. I pull my chicks when they have pinfeathers, but well before the feathers start opening. For something like cockatiels this would be about two weeks. For larger species it will be later. Go by developmental stage.

What temperature do you feed the formula?
I go by Parrots: Handfeeding and Nursery Management with all my measurements. I begin sucking formula into syringes at 110 degrees. It cools quickly. Birds will often refuse formula if it is too cold. Too hot and it will burn them. You can keep formula warm by floating your formula cup within a larger dish of hot water.

What disinfectant do you use?
There are many on the market- each killing it’s own type of pathogens. I use bleach. It’s like duct tape- works for everything. Add one teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water. The only problem with bleach is that it tends to corrode your stuff over time.

What formula do you use? Do you add anything to it?
I use Kaytee Exact formula. Commercial formulas are designed to have all the nutrition a bird needs and you’re not supposed to add anything to them (it will upset the balance). Still, I add Spirulina because I hear it’s good for the immune system and sometimes peanut butter during weaning (the babies eat less so I want to make what they do eat more fatty).

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Most food will be played with at first. Remove uneaten soft foods after an hour so they don’t spoil.

How do I wean babies?
Weaning is probably the most stressful part of a bird’s life and the most agonizing for the feeder. Weaning starts when your babies start refusing food. They’ll beg to be fed just as usual and then as soon as you point the syringe at their mouth they’ll clamp their beak shut. Even before the bird begins refusing formula you should be adding solid foods to the cage. Try softer things, or things that are easy to pick up. I start with bananas, Cheerios and parsley. Check the chick’s crop a couple times a day (just move those feathers aside) to see if it’s eaten anything. Once they actually start eating the food I offer a wider selection, starting with softer foods and then working up to harder. Expose them to as many different textures and foods as possible.

The chicks should naturally cut back on formula on their own, though many will beg for formula as a comfort thing. In the wild parents may continue to feed their chicks well past the point when they can fend for themselves. I’ve heard that macaws have been witnessed feeding their offspring for up to two years. My own Goffin cockatoo enjoyed comfort feeding until she was a year old. I can’t say when to stop formula completely- whenever the bird is eating completely fine on it’s own. You may still want to offer formula on occasion just in case.

Weaning is not something to be pushed. Birds will wean at their own pace. Forcing them to wean faster than this will result in poorly-socialized chicks with attachment issues.

Additional Tips:

  • Aim your syringe from the left side of the birds mouth to the right. The trachea (windpipe) is on the left. You want the syringe to point over it towards the esophagus on the right.
  • Mixing formula and then heating it in the microwave can develop “hot spots” that can burn your chicks. Instead, heat the water first and add this to the dry formula.
  • Wipe your babies off! Formula turns to cement when it dries. I’ve seen many a chick develop nasty a formula chunk mustache. Tissue paper works good for this. Be gentle.
  • Formula cools quickly as you feed. Make some system to keep it warm. I heat up the water in one cup and mix the formula in another. Then I fill the syringes and drop the ones I’m not using into the hot water cup. This keeps them nice and warm.
  • Dispose of any leftover formula.
  • For sanitary reasons, it is best to use one syringe for each bird. If you absolutely must use the same syringe for multiple birds, at least stick to clutch mates and don’t double-dip.

Links:

Slow, Sour and Yeasty Crop Remedies– Great read that goes into more detail about handfeeding.

Handfeeding Birds from Conure to Macaw

Handfeeding Cockatiel Babies (video)