Enrichment? What do we mean?

(As first published in Good Bird Magazine Volume 1-4 Winter 2005)


Iíve found myself very interested in the idea of food management, training, foraging and enrichment in the last little while. Iíve been reading and trying to come to terms in my mind about what all this means and how they might all relate to each other and to our birds. It seems that by the definition of enrichment, they all fit together to help form the bigger picture.

So what does enrichment mean? From the website http://www.kerwoodwolf.com/ENRICHp3.htm they state there are two categories of enrichment. "Animal enrichment is defined as activities and tasks provided directly to the animals, for example, foraging for food, exploring a scent, solving a puzzle to obtain some sort of reward" and Environmental enrichment is any change produced within the animalsí environment which (a). Simulates the wild or is otherwise interesting in some way or is conducive to the animalsí ongoing comfort and physical and/or mental stimulation, and, (b). Facilitates the animals in exhibiting both species-specific behaviors and also, facilitates them in the completion of tasks and activities provided them as part of the animal enrichment program.

With that in mind, what would be the natural behaviors of a bird in the wild? What are the main concerns that occupy their days? I think it comes down to a few basic things. Finding food, finding safe roosting spots and territory, finding mates and nest sites. These would be the basics to survival.

Each of these things, we look after for them in our homes. We generally put food in a dish right beside their perch, we keep them safe and we offer them a mate (when desired) In other words, we have taken most of their normal days away from them.

This is where the enrichment starts to figure in. Since we have taken away the greatest concerns of their wild counterparts, what do we do to fill their time, fulfill their species-specific behaviors, keep them mentally stimulated?

My reading tells me that birds evolved to forage for their food. Recently, I took my thoughts a bit farther and decided I would see what happened if I used foraging to add enrichment.

I've often given my birds clean branches in the past so they could rip and shred the leaves but on this occasion, I took it a step farther. I made Foraging Branches. I used raffia to tie individual peanuts to the branches. I made up little cups of veggies to hang. I tied some carrots and hung them. I cut some zucchini into large pieces and then inserted grape pieces into the flesh. When all was done, I fastened the branches to a hanging stand that 3 birds (Goffin, Meyers, Red Bellied) had free access to.

Once I had all the branches up I just sat back and watched (and took pictures) to see what the birds would think. Oh, it's important to tell that since I've had the goffin, he hasn't ever had branches. Actually, he is a quiet, relatively inactive goffin. Also, my birds haven't actually foraged for their food. I had recently made some little foraging surprises and hidden them in toy bowls when I went away for a week but on my return, 2 of the 4 birds that had the toy bowls with foraging treats, hadn't found them. This also was for a toy, not actually to get their food. I decided I would have to take smaller steps when adding the foraging treats to toy bowls or teach them about foraging first. These branches were for the purpose of beginning that process since several things were just hanging in sight and not wrapped or hidden.

Within moments, the Meyers and Red Bellied were both on the branches getting peanuts;

not that astounding a thing as they are very used to branches and I knew wouldn't be intimidated by them. The goffin though, did surprise me. As mentioned, he'd never had branches since he had been here and from what I know of his previous history, branches were never there either. While it did take him a few moments longer than the other two, that could possibly be because I was within his comfort range of proximity. After looking for a few moments though, he hopped onto those branches and what was most surprising to me, went straight for a little cup hanging down, pulled that raffia up, got the cup and began eating the veggies.



I continued to watch. The foraging opportunities were embraced in full, especially by the Red Bellied, but all 3 birds were enjoying themselves. No position was too difficult. No food was too hard to get at.


Even after all the food treats were gone, the foraging and playing continued with the branches and leaves.


I was so amazed at how readily they all foraged for the food. No learning had to take place. It seemed so natural. This was such an enjoyable activity for them, why haven't I done it before? Why don't I do it more often? This reflection made me think even more about enrichment. Previously, I thought I kept my bird's environment fairly enriched, with a variety of toys, a variety of different perches and play areas but when looking at this, I saw how flawed my thinking was.

The following day I made another foraging tree for these same birds. This time I made it a little different. Green beans, orange segments, grapes, apple slices and carrots were skewered to different branches. I also hung some broccoli and again, a few little cups of mixed veggies. The reaction was the same. All three birds were excited to get the tidbits, regardless of how they had to stretch or hang to get them. It was interesting to watch them snip leaves off to clear the way to the treat. In some instances, you could almost see them deciding the best way to get to an item.


While toys and a variety of stands are a good start, I think we need to go farther. We tend to make these things static. We leave the toys in the same place for days. The play areas remain in the same location probably with many of the same things on them. When I reflect on their natural curiosity to the foraging branches I realize that for the toys and the stands to be considered enrichment on a day to day basis, things need to change. Enrichment needs to encompass their life, not just a moment in time. I think we need to learn to make each moment, each segment of time, enriching and yes, to me, this includes foraging.

So what can we do? How can we make their lives in captivity more rewarding, more challenging, more ENRICHING? I believe some things can be easy. Move those toys around each day, putting them at a different height, different location. Make some simple food foraging items. Iím going to make a playstand cage top into a sand foraging area on occasion. Hang some of their food in different areas. Make them need to climb and reach for those food items. Hide toys and food in out of the way spots. Let them watch at first if you aren't sure they know the idea. Redecorate those play stands. Even moving things a little is a change. Hiding things in different containers is a change.

Do some training. No matter how simple, the learning is enriching their lives. They appear to thrive when their minds are challenged. We own these intelligent animals, and too often, proceed to let them stagnate. Let's see if we can all start thinking a little outside our boxes we have made. I'm quite sure our birds will be happier, more content if we can begin to do this.