Teaching Your Bird To Play Independently


I remember seeing a heart-wrenching meme a few years ago that left a huge impact on me. It pictured a bird inside a cage with the following caption: “You have your job, your family, your friends. I only have you.” I actually lay awake that night thinking about the truth of it. How many birds spend the majority of their days unmotivated and inactive waiting for their humans to come home from work?

It makes sense that these same birds are the ones who insist on your attention the minute you walk in the door at night and are unwilling to spend any time alone on the weekend. Who can blame them for their demanding behaviors? They have 40 hours of utter boredom every week to make up for.

As I am writing this, my cockatoos are about 5 feet behind me. They are both happily engaged in activities inside their cage, and neither is clamoring for my attention even though I am close enough that they could bounce their pellets off my head.

Every now and then Linus will pull himself away from his busy work just to say "hi". I return the greeting, he goes back about his bird things, and I go back to my human things. This is “independent” play. My birds do not NEED me to fill their day for them. That makes me very happy because when I am gone for long stretches during the day I know my birds will still have a satisfying life. No bird should be so reliant on their human companion that they languish in their absence.

The idea of teaching independent play reminds me of the old Chinese proverb: "Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.” In this case it’s: “Be your bird’s entertainment, and he will be happy for an hour; teach your bird to play, and he will entertain himself for a lifetime.” My version is a little awkward, but you get the point.

Teaching a bird to play is a tricky business for a human. First, you might have to spark an interest in toys in general before going on to make them an indispensable part of your bird’s everyday life. Our part in this procedure is providing the toys, offering encouragement and seizing opportunities.

The first thing you have to do is come to know what types of toys I have never known a bird that couldn’t be interested in a paper product once its potential is revealed. The sounds of wadding paper into a ball or tearing it into strips catches the attention of pretty much any bird. Once you have their attention, you only need to encourage them to approach.  From there, strips of paper can be tossed into the air or paper “soccer” balls batted back and forth on the table.

Inside the cage strips of paper can be woven into cage bars or placed on top of the cage for your bird to pull inside. Balls of paper can be hung on metal skewers or stuffed into the ends of paper towel rolls. You can then graduate to phone books, paper plates, etc. The list is endless.

Congratulations! You have shown your bird the magical world of toys and the value of play.

Now you have to teach your bird to be happy to play inside the cage when you are in sight. Why? Because you are not a bird toy. Even though you have an obligation to give your bird time out of the cage and meaningful interaction, it is unrealistic to presume every moment of the night or weekend can be spent lavishing attention on your bird.

Since evenings and weekends for the average working person requires that at least some time be spent on cleaning or meal preparation, you will be miserable if the soundtrack of your weekends is your bird screaming at you. Your bird will be miserable also when his expectations for your undivided attention are not met whenever you are in the same room.

The next step towards independent play is more than teaching your bird to accept being in the cage when you are home. It is about your bird being content with that arrangement. This is something that develops over time.

If it has been your practice to always respond to your bird’s insistence for out of cage time when you are home, then you can imagine his reaction if you were to just stop responding one day. You will have to slowly set new standards.

There are a few things you can do to push the idea along:

  • After you have had your bird for a while, you will notice patterns of typical behavior. Take advantage of these patterns! One thing that is true of all birds is that right after a bath comes quiet preening and often a nap. Give your bird a drenching bath. While he is otherwise occupied arranging his feathers, stay in the room to get some housework done or sit and read. This will help him adjust to the notion of him remaining in the cage while you are in the room.

  • Foraging is a perfect in-cage activity. Not only does this help a bird learn how to play with toys because it teaches that there is a positive result from interacting with something in the cage, but food is very motivating and engaging for a bird. When you get home from work, you can offer a favorite food in a forager which will keep your bird busy in the cage while you remain in the room.

  • You can hold back a favorite toy or in-cage activity and only offer it on the nights or weekends when you plan to stay in the room. For instance, right before washing the dishes would be a good time to cover the top of the cage with paper strips. Also, if your bird loves a particular shredder toy, put it in the cage just before you sit down to sew on a button.

As time passes and you continue to show your bird how to be both apart from you and with you at the same time, eventually it will feel right to him. Some of my most cherished interactions with my cockatoos have been while they were in their cage. We have fun together no matter where we are physically situated in the house.

The fact that my birds do not NEED to be out all the time to be happy gives me the freedom to do things I need to do without feeling guilty. When I am gone, I know they can keep themselves occupied. It is the ideal arrangement.

Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.


1 comment

Anne Stous

Wow. So true. Our birds need to be able to self-entertain. Sadly, many children don’t have this skill that is so important for their happiness. I found that your information can easily be adapted to help both your specific birds and your children.

Anne Stous

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