Teach your Bird to Forage

Little Critters Veterinary Hospital

1525 N Gilbert Road Suite #C-101
Gilbert, AZ 85234



Teach your Pet Bird Foraging Behavior for Enrichment & Mental Health

Foraging in the classic sense is the time in which a bird spends its day flying to and looking for food. Little of its time is spent in actual eating and much of the time is spent in the process of looking for the food. Foraging is a great way to stimulate the parrot’s mind and also encourage more movement and exercise.

Our pet birds are the same birds in the wild that spend all day expending a lot of energy in flight looking for food (the act of foraging) and engaging with their many flock members. We take this same bird place them in a cage alone with a full bowl of food and water and ask them to be happy.  Thus we see many social and behavior problems in pet birds. How can you avoid this? Provide environmental enrichment for your birds and teach the to forage. 

So, how can a caged pet bird forage?

flying bird
It is important to note that foraging must be taught to most of our pet birds and advanced foragers take months to develop and not days. Teaching a caged bird to forage involves a series of very simple changes to the bird’s cage and or free standing tree. Keep using the bowl in which the bird was typically fed, but don’t fill it to overflowing, put in just enough food for the day, and don’t put the most favored treats in the bowl. Now add several smaller foraging bowls all over the cage. Place these small bowls in the cage such that the bird must fully traverse its cage to get to all the bowls. Now place only a very small amount of a favorite treat in each of these bowls. It is important that the bird not reach the first bowl and eat its entire daily ration. We want to encourage the bird to move to and explore all the bowls. At this point you are already providing the bird with more exercise than our formally sedentary parrot who sits on its one favorite perch all day. When the bird has mastered finding treats in all the little bowls, begin to add a small piece of paper on top of each bowl so that the bird must push it off to get to the treat. Advance from here to taping the paper on the bowl so the parrot must chew through the paper to get the treat. Some retail foraging bowls come with lids that can be placed tightly so that the bird must work out how to undo the lid to get the treat. The idea being that as the bird masters each stage the foraging is made a little more physically and mentally demanding. Many excellent foraging type toys can be purchased from retail stores such as www.birdsjustwannahavefun.com, but toys can also be easily and inexpensively made at home.

  • Paper cups make a great foraging device. Use small paper cups and place a small treat in the cup, wad the cup into a ball and place in the cage or on the tree. The parrot must chew through the cup to get the treat. Advanced stages of this include placing a tie around the cup and suspending it from the tree so that the bird must pull the cup up by the tie to allow access for chewing.
  • Tamale wraps can be used to make a great hidden treat. Again, place only a small amount of treat in the corn husk and wrap until fully covered and tie closed. Then allow the parrot to chew the tamale until the treat is revealed. Commercial type piñatas are available from retailers and serve much the same purpose as the tamale wrap, but come in interesting shapes and colors.
  • Cardboard rolls are another easy foraging toy. The roll should be appropriately sized so that the bird can easily pick the roll up in its hand and chew out the treat that is hidden inside. Also, thicker cardboard is better as it requires more time for the bird to get the treat out. Many commercial products are available and now come in various colors and sizes.
  • Paper can be weaved in the cage bars
  • Adding machine tape can be hung on a perch
    bird toys toys toys

When your bird has become a master forager you can start to vary the routine somewhat and place a large variety of foraging toys in the cage. Some of the toys are now empty, some are filled with actual toys, and some are filled with small treats. You can also introduce some of the acrylic type toys that require an action such as opening a drawer, turning a wheel, or lifting a lid to get to the treat. A few of the better toy retailers include birdsjustwannahavefun, The Bird Brain, and Parrot island which makes a variety of treasure chests with various toys to fill them with. Also take a look at Parrot Problem Solving for more information. 

The result?

So, as a result of these small changes you have implemented you will have a more physically, emotionally, and mentally fit companion bird with which to enjoy your life. The bird has gone from spending its day plucking out feathers and sitting on one perch to roaming all over the cage and discovering many yummy and interesting treats in its now much more exciting world


The photos used in this article are a combination of patient photos, my own birds and wildlife photos that I’ve taken in AZ and IA. Much of my own education has been through extensive reading on just about anything involving bird behavior. I’ve learned greatly from the published materials of Dr. Echols whose work has contributed greatly to the well being of captive birds world wide. I’ve gathered foraging & behavior information from various journal articles involving avian behavior, the Association of Avian Veterinarians Conferences, Exotic DVM, and Captive Foraging DVD . Most importantly, keeping and raising birds throughout my life has provided me with unlimited opportunities for learning. My love and awe of birds is largely what lead me to become a veterinarian and the care I’ve provided my birds has been paid back a thousand fold with the knowledge they have shared with me, allowing me to utilize that knowledge repeatedly when caring for my patients. I thank them all - Jill M. Patt, DVM  - Little Critters Veterinary Hospital