Having seen photos in recent blog posts or on the BirdTricks.com Facebook page, a few people have been asking about the foliage in my cages? What exactly is it? What do the birds do with it? What do I do to prepare it before I give it to them?
What is taken for granted and normal here at my place is apparently not normal elsewhere in the world. That’s going to largely come down to exactly what foliage is available to people in different parts of the world. I have to admit I do make use of Australian native foliage frequently. Living somewhere where the species of birds I keep as pets are found living wild does significantly help with this. Ironically though, the main thing that I use as foliage is easy to grow and available in most places in the world. My birds’ favourite foliage is simply: grass. Boring every day green grass.
In the wild, many species of parrot eat grass. They spend a significant part of the day pulling up large tufts of it. They sift through the dirt and eat any bugs they find in the roots. They eat all parts of it, from the stalk, to the seed. They shred it. They throw it at each other. They use it to line their nests. They look for food caught in or under it. They fight over it. In short, they love it. My pet birds are no different; they love it too.
Most pet birds don’t have the option of free flight. They might fly around the house, but that is not the same thing as flying out in the wild. The result of this obvious – without a decent diet weight issues can easily develop. In addition to a decent diet, a bird needs to be kept active. Foliage plays a very big part in that in my household.
I try to have some form of grass or foliage in my cages in between meal times. I find it keeps the birds occupied and is just enough of a food reward in itself without causing the weight problems that foraging for too many treats can cause.
I also have to admit that there is a financial side to doing this too. Decent bird toys in Australia don’t come cheap. Many of the toys that we might buy from overseas contain natural woods or bits of shell that we can’t legally bring into the country; so most people have to work with what is available here. 10 birds live with me. If I buy a single toy for each of my birds, it instantly costs hundreds of dollars. Many of those toys will only last 10 minutes. That’s a very expensive 10 minutes. So if there is a free alternative available that keeps my birds entertained for hours on end…
The best thing about using grass for enrichment is the number of different ways that you can present it. You can throw on top of your aviary and make the birds climb up to get it (forcing them to pull it into their cage themselves). You can stuff it into a stainless steel bucket (I like to wrap an orange in grass, shove the pile of it into a bucket and give it to my macaw). You can hide it in a box; you can gift wrap it; you can present it in the tray it was grown in; dump it on a high platform in the cage… The list is only limited by your own imagination.
As with anything, the safety of your birds should be something that you need to look at. Different places around the world are going to have different risks associated with local foliage and grasses. Not all weeds, grasses and plants are safe for birds – some can be toxic. Know exactly what you’re giving your birds. An example local to me in Australia is that rattle pods are extremely poisonous but look safe. Most countries have a department of Agriculture or Primary Industries who will have a website or some sort of local warning if there are weeds that might be toxic to cattle. Cattle are different to birds, but it does help you identify what to be wary of in your area. Failing that, you can always contact customer service (info@BirdTricks.com) and ask us for a list of safe/toxic foliage.
Make sure anything you give your birds is pesticide free. If you live in an area where aerial herbicides and pesticides are used – it’s something to think about. Birds will enjoy digging through dirt, but if you’re using a potting mix be wary as many contain chemicals, bacteria or fungi that can be dangerous for your birds.
A good trick can be to grow your own grass, or even purchase a tray of wheat grass from a health/organic store. When sprouting my own grass, I use a simple parrot or pigeon seed mix. It takes me a little over a week to grow a couple of inches of “grass”, longer if I let it grow to full length and go to seed.
I realise I’m lucky. I live where foliage is available at all times of the year. Native Australian trees don’t lose their foliage in winter. If you live somewhere where deciduous trees are predominant, where it snows a lot, or branches are hard to get, then grass might be an easy option for you. It’s not hard to grow, even if you have to grow it in a small pot or tray inside. (I say this assuming you don’t have a cat that takes the attitude “Woohoo new type of cat litter!!!” My cat and I have our moments sometimes.) If you can’t get foliage all year round, you can even cable tie grass to your perches, allowing your birds the fun of yanking it off, in the way that they’d yank leaves off branches.
In terms of preparing foliage for use here in Australia – I’m careful to wash it and make sure it is insect free. If I’m worried about wild diseased birds having been in the foliage I’ll rinse it with F10 (an avian safe vet-grade disinfectant), or if it’s particularly dirty foliage I might rinse with diluted white vinegar. If you live in a place where pesticides are common, you might want to read this post by Patty for more information on how to prepare foliage.
If you haven’t already, come on over to the BirdTricks.com Facebook page. It’s a great place to share ideas and I’d love it if you posted pictures of ideas of how you use foliage with your birds. We all learn tons from each other’s ideas.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.