Some birds have the strangest fears: a certain color, a leather jacket, a particular chair, sunglasses, flies. As random as these might seem, each of my birds has had nightmares over one of the items on this list at one time or another. Fear of toys is frustrating because it leaves your bird with nothing to do all day while you’re away. Many resort to feather destructive behaviors, and worse. Such was the case with Theo, my re-homed Goffin's cockatoo.
When I took her in, she had never been caged and sat all day on the perch that had been her “home” for 22 years, waiting for her people to come back from work. In an effort to entertain herself, she would barber her feathers down to the skin. She never went further into mutilative behaviors, and I am very grateful for that. This wasn’t a situation of neglect. She had been very loved and well cared for in her previous home. She simply didn’t know what fun parrot toys were. To her, they were strange objects in her space and she preferred that they not be there. Her owners obliged her.
The solution seems simple enough: get her some fun stuff to play with! That proved to be easier said than done as everything I brought to her, no matter how small, caused her to retreat in fear. She was in a new environment and was understandably on high-alert and I didn’t want to do anything to cause her any discomfort or reinforce her fears.
I decided that a shredder toy would be a good starter toy for a bird that was new to chewing. I cut several four-inch lengths from a roll of shredder tape and strung it onto a leather strip with a knot in between each piece.
The toy was ugly but perfect. I made sure she could watch from a comfortable distance (about 25-30 feet) as I made the toy. I played with it off and on all day, each time setting it down a foot or so closer to her cage. I tried to make it clear that this was my toy and that I was interested in it. This is usually enough to drive a normally curious parrot nearly insane by evoking the “mine” complex: nothing is “yours”. Everything belongs to your parrot, and sometimes he’ll allow you to use it.
The next day was more of the same in the morning but by the afternoon the toy had made its way to about 10 feet from the cage. Her cage door was open and she was inside preening. I sat on the floor with the toy, still about ten feet away, and played – gleefully and vocally (and a little embarrassingly if I’m going to be honest.) I squished it in my hand till it made a wonderful crunching sound, I batted it around just a little bit, I pulled pieces off and just when I was running out of things to do with it, my smaller birds swooped in to save the day. They had Theo’s full attention.
As the cockatiels chewed on the pieces I had broken off, the Quaker and I had a tug of war with the rest. During all the excitement, she cautiously stepped outside of the cage to get a closer look.
After playtime was over, the toy stayed on the floor and she showed no signs of stress. I decided to keep it there, and on the third day, she ventured down by herself to check it out. This was the only toy she would accept for several months, and never inside her cage, but it was a great beginning, and the first positive step in teaching her that new things don’t have to be scary.
This toy was finally allowed on top of Theo’s cage. I strung in some little wooden spoons to start the introductions to wood.
Theo’s fear was of the unknown, not toys specifically, because she didn’t know what a toy was. It was just an object that frightened her. The slow, deliberate introduction to this new object taught her that it meant her no harm. It hadn’t snuck up on her as she napped, it hadn’t tried to hurt the small birds during play, in fact, it hadn’t done anything at all, except provide a good time.
The assumption from her point of view would soon be that an unfamiliar thing isn’t necessarily a potential threat, but a thing of interest. While it’s smart to be cautious, curiosity kills cats, not birds.
Note the fanned tail: swing = good, camera = bad! The swing only lasted a few weeks. She chewed on it till it was dangerously frayed.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.