How to encourage play



Sonny Stollenmaier



Parrots can be difficult to persuade to play with their toys. Many times well-meaning parrot owners spend small fortunes on toys for their feathered companions only to find that they are shunned and ignored by the bird.

There are a number factors that we can influence in order to encourage play. One such factor is to teach the bird how to use a particular toy, other factors include location of the toy and what kind of toys are being used.

Buying the right toys

Many parrot toys are advertised with promising descriptions, such as “…made of many pieces of wood, tied with sisal rope – guaranteed to entertain and keep your parrot chewing for hours…”. But what if you parrot doesn’t really enjoy chewing on dried wood?

There are many clichés telling us that macaws love chewing and cockatoos enjoy intricate metal puzzles, for example, and although I am sure this may apply to many birds it certainly won’t apply to an entire species.

Parrots are individuals and the key is to observe your bird in order to assess what he does enjoy doing. Does he chew on his perches? Does he carefully manipulate the cage lock or the wing nuts holding up his feeding cups? Or maybe he likes walking around on the cage floor, looking for interesting goodies that might have fallen down there.

Before buying any toys I would suggest that you conduct a few experiments first in order to find out what really fires your bird’s enthusiasm. I suggest you start with collecting the following:

·         Save a few plastic bottle tops such as those of milk containers, lemonade bottles and in particular bottle tops with a flip top, such as those on spice jars or washing up liquid bottles.

·         Wrap a favourite treat in a piece of paper and hold it together with a little sticky tape (much like a present) or scrunch the paper around the treat (this works best with hard treats, e.g. nuts).

·         Save your wine bottle corks.

·         Also hold on to the pumps of liquid soap dispensers (provided they’re all plastic and make sure to rinse them out well).

·         Just before you are about to run out of pasta leave two or three pieces in the bag they came in (e.g. fussily or penne etc.) cut the bag to make it smaller, fold it over and keep it shut with some sticky tape.

·         Collect some large stainless steel nuts and bolts and make sure that they are clean.

·         Hold on to old pieces of cloth.

·         You might have some off-cuts of wood from your last diy project and if not you can always ask your local carpenter if he’ll save you some.

·         Collect some pine cones and bake them in the oven for ten minutes to kill any potential pathogens.


The above represent an array of textures and shapes. Your bird probably won’t fall in love with all these suggested objects, but is likely to show an interest in at least two or three different items. This will give you an idea whether your parrot prefers metal toys to wooden ones or shreddable ones to chewable ones.

Toy types

The fact that your parrot is ignoring the wine bottle corks or the metal bolts is not necessarily because he doesn’t like them but could be simply due to the fact that they are not presented in the way that he would enjoy.

Try threading the bottle tops onto a piece of string to make a hanging toy however, leave some aside to be used as foot-toys. The wine bottle corks can also be threaded onto the string along with the bottle tops. Wedge the pine cones through the cage bars and, again, leave some of the smaller ones aside as foot toys.

I invested in a small wicker basket which I tied to the top of my pet bird’s cage using a little garden wire. I simply throw all the foot toys in there. I also got her a treat-cage (treat-dispenser) which I fill with the little odds and ends that I described above, for her to fish and tickle out.

The cloth and/or chamois leather can be tied in knots and tied to the cage or a favourite perch or a hanging toy.


Now that you have all the toys in place observe your parrot carefully to find out which ones he likes using the most:

-          Is it the wooden stuff or the plastic stuff?

-          Are they ones hanging up or are they the foot toys?

-          Does he make a bee-line for the wrapped up nuts?

-          Does he chew on the cloth or wipe his beak on the leather?

-          Does he ignore any particular items altogether?

-          Which items does he come back to the most?


If he does ignore particular items such as the chain of bottle tops that you so lovingly created, it may simply be due to the location. My pet macaw has a large play area set out immediately around her cage using ropes suspended from the ceiling. I have screwed hooks into the ceiling from which I hang her toys. There are two spots in particular which she likes the most. If I relocate one of her favourite toys from one of these places to a less favoured location she will ignore the toy altogether and turn her attention to the “new” toy (even if this is a toy she seemed to dislike in the past) in her favourite place. If on the other hand I don’t hang any toys in her favourite places she will then turn and attend to toys in less favoured locations.

On the whole, it is best to make sure that toys are about level with the bird when it is perched. Toys that hang too low are awkward to get to and toys that hang too high can become boring as they require endless climbing energy. Don’t take me wrong, it is important to keep parrots active, so do make sure that some toys require some climbing or stretching to get to. However, be sure to provide a variety of hanging levels.

Again, observe and assess your parrot’s behaviour and attitude towards the different toys in the different locations. Swap less favourite toys with favourite ones by varying the locations. Make your parrot work for the highly desirable toys by hanging them slightly higher, for example.

Introducing new toys

Many parrots are instinctively frightened of new objects. African Greys are well known for that. Other parrots, such as macaws, often are naturally curious and far more willing to explore the unknown. It is, however, always sensible to introduce new items sensitively. If you frighten your parrot with a new toy by introducing it too quickly he may associate this emotion with this particular toy and never approach it.

I would suggest that you place new items within visible distance from your birds cage or play area – 2 meters should be fine. Watch your bird’s reaction. If he seems uncomfortable, increase the distance. If he seems indifferent about it you can edge the toy closer and closer to the cage over a period of a few days. Always observe your parrot’s reaction and don’t be pushy in the approach – any sign of discomfort, go back a few steps. Many birds accept new toys within a day or even hours - it is down to the individual.

Once your parrot seems interested in the new item, or at least appears indifferent about it, you can hang the toy on the outside of the cage and eventually on the inside.

My bird won’t play with anything

Older birds that have never had access to toys, as well as some younger birds, need to be taught how to play first. Think of the last time you bought a toy for a tiny toddler; the first thing you probably did when you gave him the toy was to play with it, making excited noises and demonstrating every wheel and button. Teaching a parrot to play works in a similar way. I would suggest that you play with the toy in front of your parrot and excitedly talk about the toy at the same time. Often this awakens a sense of curiosity in pet birds and he may want to participate. Keep playing with the object while your bird approaches and starts to partake. Reinforce every positive move he makes in this procedure, even just him looking at the item should be reinforced by rewarding it with a favourite treat, for example. Once he actively engages in play with you and the toy reward him greatly by praising him enthusiastically and treating him.

If your pet doesn’t show any interested in toys even though you are playing with it yourself you can try and get another person involved. One of you plays with the toy while the other person talks about it and requests the toy. You eventually hand the toy to the other person who then engages excitedly in play, again talking about it at the same time. This is a model/rival situation (Irene Pepperberg’s Alex is taught to associate language with objects in similar ways). Your parrot may get more exited by watching the two of you and would like to become part of this flock activity. Irene Pepperberg has found in her research with Alex and two other African Greys that learning takes place more easily when the bird can watch two people interacting with an object as opposed to one person handling the object or by watching and learning via video and television.

Foraging – a natural behaviour

Utilizing a parrot’s natural instincts can also help to engage a bird in ‘play’. Foraging for food is a natural behaviour that we can easily encourage at home.

As mentioned above I hung a basket on my bird’s cage which holds her foot toys. From time to time I place a nut at the very bottom of the basket, or the crunchy pasta in the bag (which crackles when chewed), and then top it up with the foot toys. She has learned and remembers that sometimes there is a great surprise at the bottom of this basket which causes her to check and turn it over at least once a day. As she goes on she stops and plays and investigates many of the foot toys on ‘her way’ to the food treat.

You could also bury dry food treats in wood shavings or sterilised soil, although this can become quite a messy affair.

Spiked toys

Favourite food items are always eagerly awaited. You could make your bird work for his treats by combining toys and treats.

I keep large plastic bottle tops (for example those on liquid washing powder bottles) and wedge a suitably large nut into the centre of the bottle top for my macaw. As she is busy trying to prise out the nut she inevitably simultaneous chews on and plays with the bottle top itself. For smaller birds one can wedge a piece of walnut into a lemonade bottle top.

Birds that have never used their toys tend to be more easily persuaded to do so when food is involved. Practically any toy can somehow be spiked with food. I have tied nuts to toys using thin garden wire, or you could even glue food items to plastic toys by making your own edible glue. Simply mix a little plain flour with a little water into a smooth paste. Place a pea sized drop of flour-glue onto the toy, lay it down on a table and sit a favourite treat (nothing moist or wet) in the centre of the glue and leave to dry.

These suggestions may seem a little unusual; however, it forms an easy way of encouraging your parrot to use and work with different items. In this way learning how to play is a coincidental side-effect of foraging for and obtaining food.

The process of manipulating a toy and to be rewarded by it at the same time by receiving a food treat makes this way of learning to play self-reinforcing. Your bird will associate whichever items you use with positive, desired experiences and outcomes and is therefore likely to return to such toys again and again and may eventually find joy playing with the toy whether there is a food treat attached or not. I would, however, recommend that you keep on spiking the toy occasionally in order to maintain the interest in the item.

To summarize

Some of the manufactured toys are cleverly designed, well-made and look great and can provide hours of fun provided that you choose toys made of materials that your parrot has already shown an interest in. A fairly safe bet is to buy toys that contain a variety of materials, such as wood, cloth, leather and metal.

You might have assessed that your bird loves wood to nibble on and went out and bought him an enormous wooden toy at great expense, only to find that after a gentle introduction he ignores it.

If after you having played with the toy yourself in front of your bird he still ignores it, try hanging it elsewhere or at a different height. Always remember to reward any signs of interest, such as a move towards the toy or even just your bird looking at the item, with praise or a treat.

You can spike the toy with treats, by tying them on or by gluing them using flour-glue, depending on the material.

And finally, if your bird likes chewing on fresh fruit tree branches take a few thin, fresh, juicy twigs and weave them through and around any toy where possible (willow is also very good for this). For any bird that likes chewing and de-barking fresh twigs, getting involved with the toy in this way, again makes this a reinforcing activity.



Please note that you should always remove loose, tangled pieces of string hanging from toys to avoid accidents.