If you have parrots and potted plants in your house, you have probably watched in awe at the speed with which your feathered backhoe can empty the contents of the plant pot onto your carpet. You likely have a ground foraging species like the cockatoo, cockatiel, budgie or african grey to name a few. Digging is a natural behavior for a ground forager and if he’s found his way into your secret garden, you will have to pretty clever in your attempts to keep him away from it. Me, I gave away the plants. I miss them.
I was thinking about new foraging opportunities for my birds the other day, and my former plants popped into my mind. It occurred to me that since I do have ground foragers, maybe I should give them some ground to forage in. Why not a box of dirt? Maybe some rocks and twigs. Maybe some some plastic and acrylic toy parts that might be amusing to unearth. Maybe place some flat rocks on the top for them to overturn.
There’s no law that says foraging has be about food, although that is their motivation when they forage in the wild. In captivity, it can be all about an enriching activity that keeps them occupied and provoked. For a bird that loves to dig, why not digging for the fun of digging? There are no food rewards in your houseplants, just the pleasure of kicking dirt around your living room and enjoying the look of horror on your face.
So you’re thinking: “But dirt is …dirty. Isn’t that bad for my bird?” This is where you have to be smart. Before you take your shovel out to the front yard, think about the fertilizer you might be using on your lawn. This is bad for your bird. If you live in a city where pollutants or chemicals might have fallen onto or saturated the ground, this is also not a good source of dirt. Local parks may be treated with pesticides (not to mention that city officials would probably be opposed to you digging holes on their soccer field).
I, myself, would find a nice rural woodland to take the dirt from. To be sure that there is no mold or fungus in the dirt you can put it into baking pans and bake it at 200 degrees for a couple of hours, rocks and all. If you are comfortable with the quality of the dirt, don’t bother – and a few bugs in there are okay, in fact, they are a fun, yummy source of protein! If the dirt is crawling with bugs, you’ve probably dug up a colony and should look elsewhere. Let me add quickly that I heard of a parrot that was rushed to the vet after “foraging” in a fire ant mound. They may all have that wild wisdom, but they didn’t all graduate at the top their class.
For the container, a wooden or cardboard box would be perfect, perhaps a new kitty litter type box, if your parrot doesn’t chew through plastic. You will want to be sure it is at least five inches deep for your larger parrots because they will be digging and tossing the dirt behind them with their feet, like a dog in the petunia garden. From a distance of ten feet, I have been hit in the face with a wood chip that Linus, my umbrella cockatoo, launched from the couch while making a nest there one day. This could get messy, and you might want to put the box on the bottom of the cage with the seed guards in place.
If dirt makes you squeamish, how about making a box of foraging stuff, like plastic and wood toy parts, paper or muffin cups, shredder pieces, balls of newspaper, Popsicle sticks and foot toys? Something in a big, flat box that they can climb into and rummage around in.
This is a work in progress for me here. I still have yet to collect the dirt, but I have been scouting the neighborhood for just the right rocks and stones. I already know my cockatoos are going to have a blast playing in their box of dirt. If you decide to give this idea a try, or have another version of ground foraging idea, I would love to see them. You can post a comment below with a link to your picture. I think your ideas would make a great future post!
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.