When we first adopted our Meyers Parrot Baby, she wouldn't play with anything. We tried it all. We even purchased the exact toy she had in her cage in the shelter. All left untouched for weeks. We tried toys made of natural items, plastic toys, soft woods, thin woods, foot toys and beads.
We were determined, but MAN, she was a "hard nut to crack".
Meh, no thanks!
Here are some of the things we tried:
- Toys of different sizes
- Toys of different colors and textures (including natural items (like balsa, pine, sola and mahogany pods) as well as acrylic/plastic toys.
- Hanging toys both inside and outside the cage.
- Toys on skewers
- Toys that attach, and lay flat to, the side of the cage
- Treat cages
- Foraging trays
- Puzzle Toys (Some birds love to manipulate things. Toys with doors that have to be opened, screws that can be unscrewed, knobs that have to be turned...usually to get a food item that's been placed inside, but some are just puzzles.)
Give them a little time to get acclimated to new toys you place in their cage. If a few weeks go by, move it to another area of the cage, or remove it and try it again at a later time.
We just kept trying. Sometimes giving random things, but we kept observing how she would interact with things in her environment and we used that information to figure out what our next step would be.
The day we adopted her I had looked all around her cage to see what was in her food dishes, what types of toys were hanging and what was laying on the bottom of the cage. The only thing I could make out on the bottom was some popsicle sticks that had been shredded. So I bought some of those and started making toys with them. Even that was left untouched.
It was frustrating and so sad. Especially because Baby had started plucking after her previous owner had to spend more time out of town for work (she was cared for by a relative). So I was even more dedicated to getting her active and playing in her new home. No matter how frustrating, giving up was not an option.
I chalked some of it up to the stress of the new environment, but as months passed she still would barely engage with anything in her cage. She did enjoy being out of her cage most of the day. She'd hang out and seemed very content watching what was going on around her. And she LOVED her head scritches. We also started some training with her and got her comfortable with stepping up and taught her to wave and give kisses. She caught on pretty quickly and at least that provided some additional enrichment.
Her favorite Treat
While training Baby, we noticed that her absolute favorite thing in the whole world was safflower seeds. She'd even pick them out of her Nutriberries. So we started reserving those to be used only for training and getting her interested in toys or new items we placed in her cage. If we added a new perch and she wouldn't use it, we'd place a few safflower seeds on it to lure her closer. Within a day or two she'd be using the perch. Same with new food dishes. So we thought we'd try it out on new toys. We'd balance a seed or two on new toys (making sure she would be watching), and within a day or two she was coming near them!
We kept at it, trying different toys and using the safflower seeds to lure her to them. At the very least she was foraging for her snacks. Sometimes she'd even shred a chunk of wood out of the toy. Finally the popcicle stick toy started seeing a little action. It turns out, that's the only harder wood baby likes. I tried softer woods again...sola sticks and very thin balsa slats and made a toy, alternating them on a skewer with the popcicle sticks. After a day or two she started shredding it!
High Value Rewards
Knowing that safflower seeds were a high value reinforcer for Baby, we got a few toys that we thought would be a good fit. The first was a toy that had a bunch of tiny buckets on it. Each afternoon we'd hide a few seeds in the buckets and she'd search them out. We also got a small dish and made a foraging tray for her, putting in foot toys, beads, small pine cones and other toy parts. We hide a few safflower seeds in it and she tosses out all the items until she finds them.
Celebrate every small successes
The day we found Baby coming closer to a toy we had put a safflower seed on was a HUGE win. It's something we've used going forward to show her that other things are just as interesting...like tree stands, bathing dishes and the little pet food dish we use as a foraging tray. Use small successes like these to keep you motivated to continue trying new things.
Something we've taught our birds is the word "Whee!". When we give them baths, we say "whee" very excitedly and dance around. Same when we introduce new toys. I hold new toys in front of our birds and say it while tapping on the toy to make it swing. I pretend to play with it by bumping my nose against it. I spend a minute or so doing this with any new item that will be going in their cages, paying more attention to the toy than the bird. Now they know when we say it, that it means something fun is coming their way. Give it a try and see if it works for you.
For Baby, fear wasn't really an issue. She's a little bird with a big attitude! But when she IS unsure of something, I start by putting the item next to her cage for a few days until I see that's she's moving towards it without looking at it as though it's the enemy. I can usually move it inside her cage within the week.
If the item is larger, like a treat cage, you may have to break it down into smaller steps. Start with it a few feet from the cage, moving it closer every few days or so. I usually try to get them interacting with it somehow before I even put it in the cage, so I know that they're comfortable with it. Placing the toy on a small TV try near the cage works well for this. Then you can see if they start going near it or reaching for it as you move it closer and closer to their cage.
If your bird doesn't play with any toys, start small by identifying things that your parrot DOES interact with and using that as clues as to what to try next.
Every day observe:
- What are they chewing on? (If it's perches, what are they made of? If it's smaller things, maybe bigger toys are too intimidating for now.)
- What are they ignoring? (Do they chew up their wood perch but leave the colorful toy alone? Try more natural items pine cones, coconut toys and cork bark.)
- Was there was ever a certain type of toy (or toy part) they preferred to play with (was it on a rope toy, foot toy, something on a skewer, etc). Then try making something similar using only items they were interested in. You could also try adding those preferred items to a foraging tray or making them into a foot toy. Starting with something they're already a bit familiar with is a good first step.
- Alternate WHERE you put the toys. Try different areas of the cage. Put some near perches so they're easy to reach. Put others farther away so they have to do a little climbing to get to them. Hang toys outside of the cage. Baby actually loves toys we place outside her cage. If you have a bird that spends lots of time outside the cage, like Baby, give it a try. Some toys bolt and lay flat to the side of the cage. Try them inside and outside the cage.
- Add an extra food dish. You can add a few non-food items to the extra dish so they have to sort them out before they get to their food. This works well with a few of their favorite treats as well as mixing in some dried veggies, fruits and greens. This will get your bird familiar with different toy parts.
- Use luring in a small training session. Sit at a table with a new toy and place some treats on it. If your bird steps closer to it, say "good" and give a treat. Reward for steps they are taking to get near it. And if they take a nibble out of the toy, say "good" and give an extra reward. If your parrots favorite treats are larger items (like Almonds, Nutriberries or Oven Fresh Bites), break them into tiny pieces so that you can use them throughout the day, without having your bird fill up on too many treat foods. We prep some ahead of time in small snack size baggies.
For your bird, a certain food item might not be the thing that would reinforce these behaviors the most. Maybe they respond better to praise and attention. In that case giving a head scritch may be the reward that gets you the most results. Remember, your bird decides what is the best reinforcer. We just have to figure out what that is.
- Use food as toys. Put fresh foods in the cage that can be shred. Hang wet kale leaves at the top of the cage so they can "bathe" under them and then shred them. Stuff a bell or jalapeno pepper with other foods and hang it on a skewer. You can use luring with this as well and add a few favorite treats on top. Take the end of a cucumber and hollow it out a bit, stuffing it with other foods. You can also get a small food-grade pumpkin, hollow it out and stuff it with other fresh foods. Be sure to put some of the seeds back in as it's usually their favorite part.
- If you have other birds (and they like to play with toys), take your non-playing bird close to them and have them observe them while playing. Birds are social animals and this will often create curiosity. They will often begin to imitate their flock-mates.
- "Capture" behavior that you want. Capturing is a great way to train certain behaviors. If you happen to see your bird engaging with a new toy, reinforce that behavior while they're doing it. For example, while they're poking at a new toy, say "good" and then immediately offer a treat.
Baby hasn't completely stopped plucking. BUT she's been plucking less and even had a few of her colorful yellow and teal feathers grow back in.
It's still a bit of a challenge to find things that baby enjoys interacting with. It probably always will be. That's kind of the nature of these interesting creatures we love so much. Baby will LOVE chewing up cardboard pieces one week, only to completely ignore them the next. It keeps us on our toes for sure. Her favorite "toy" this week is the storage bin we use to hold supplies under her cage. LOL. Not ideal, but hey, I'm happy when she's picking at ANYTHING other than her own feathers.
Keep trying and be patient! Don't take the failures personally. Think of the process like an experiment and just keep working at it.
Disclaimer: Be sure there is no medical reason your bird isn't playing before attempting other strategies. This article It is not intended to take into account any medical issues your bird may be having.