The pet industry is big business. Go into any pet store - even small independent ones - and you will discover a dazzling array of products available to buy for just about any animal. What may be surprising to someone not use to the stock that is sold in pet stores is that amongst all the essential items such as food and bedding materials and water bowls and medications and cleaning products, are items which are very obviously manufactured to appeal to the owner of the pet, rather than the animal itself. By these I mean things like coloured toys, cute outfits for your dog or cat, beds designed to look like palaces or pirate ships, and food treats which are clearly meant to represent human food - I've even seen bottles of "beer" for dogs in one store. Now I know that the people who buy these items do so because they really love their pets. Why else would someone be prepared to spend £10 on a dress for a dog, when you could spend less than this on a whole outfit for a human in some stores? I know they are very cute. But in all honesty, it truely isn't necessary. There is no real need to buy all these extra items for your animal. It will be perfectly happy without them. But we still do - and I know this, because it is very tempting to buy treats and toys for our birds! The bird toys in pet stores are often designed to look almost like the ones you can buy for babies. They are often brightly coloured and will have bells or rattles on them. They can be made of wood or plastic, and sometimes rope, paper or metal. And they aren't cheap - you can spend over £20 on some of the larger toys. And they are designed to appeal to us just as much as to our birds!
In fact while it is indeed very tempting to buy toys like this for our birds, we've learned that in truth they really don't want them. They are actually afraid of the very colourful toys, and apart from one very small teddy bear with coloured beads hanging from its hands and toes, they aren't interested in plastic toys at all. We think this is probably because, in the wild, birds like ours, native to Australia, just wouldn't come across objects like this. Their natural preference is for colours that you find in nature - browns, greens, yellows and beiges. They are afraid of very bright primary colours, and dislike large, immobile toys, because to them, they can be percieved as threats. Small birds like our cockatiels are prey animals, and anything large that hangs above or beside them, must be terrifying, especially if it is inside a cage with them. However, this being said, it is certainly true that captive birds benefit from having toys to entertain them. In the wild of course there is no need for toys because they are busy during their waking hours foraging for food, avoiding danger and flying very long distances in so doing. In captivity, none of this has to happen, and so their days could have the potential to be very empty. As their owners, it is up to us to compensate for this.
The answer to this, we have found, is to provide items for entertainment for our birds that will appeal to them and keep them amused whilst at the same time trying to replicate their natural environment more closely than the manufactured toys that the pet stores offer. We've found the ideal solution is to make the toys ourselves. And truely, it doesn't need to take much skill - or very much money, either.
Some of the things we've disovered that our birds really enjoy playing with aren't toys at all. The five senses in birds are not used in the same way as they are in humans. Sight and sound play a far greater role for them than they do in us, and their ability to see and hear is much more acute than it is in humans. Conversely, their sense of taste is much diminished. They will use their beaks as a fifth limb also - relying on it to test the strength or stability of something before they stand on it, and using it to manouvere themselves around their environment. Their toys need to exploit these senses, and we've found that some of the best are also some of the simplest. For example our birds adore sweet meadow hay. They don't eat it, but they love to pick it up with their feet and feel it with their beaks. If we weave strands of hay into the bars of the cage, or put them into an empty cardboard tube, they will enjoy pulling the individual strands out. They also like to play with hay cookies - large discs of compressed hay that are sold in packs of 6 or so at our local pet superstore. They are meant for rabbits and other rodents, but our birds really enjoy tearing the bits of compressed hay out of the disc and dropping them all over the floor for me to tidy up! In the wild they would be doing this in preparation to build nests, so we are careful to discourage other nesting behaviours by ensuring that our birds get at least 12 hours of darkness in every 24. This will all but stop egg-laying in chronic egg layers, something we have not had a problem with now since a very distressing (and expensive) experience when we were new bird owners and had a hen who became egg-bound. More about that in another post I think!
Other toys that are easy to make for our birds and which they enjoy are ...
- twisty spirals - these are so easy to make. Simply take the cardboard tube left from a kitchen paper roll and cut it into a spiral. Peg or clip it to the cage, and the birds will enjoy chewing it and shredding it. Our birds have also managed to work out how to pull it off the peg and throw it on the floor!
- clothes pegs themselves are another cheap and simple toy. Get the plain wooden ones, and clip them to the inside of the cage and the birds will happily gnaw at them. It's important to give birds opportunities to chew things like this - although they don't have teeth, obviously, they do need to keep their beaks worn down. An overgrown beak will prevent your bird from being able to eat or preen properly, so it is essential to keep an eye on this. Birds fed a correct diet generally don't tend to suffer with overgrown beaks.
- Preeny toys have the added bonus of also stopping your bird from becoming a feather-plucker. We have one bird that plucks, but it is intermittent. He particularly likes preeny toys. Pieces of natural sisal rope (ensure it is unbleached) can be used as preening toys - simply unravel an inch or so from the end and tie securely into the cage - be sure that it is not so long that the bird can wrap it around a foot or neck though. Alternatively you can make a "palm tree" out of newspaper, or simply cut strands of newspaper and clip them together.
- If you buy a foraging ball or cage, you can put the newspaper, string or other bits and bobs inside for your birds to pull out. Our birds have 2 foraging balls - one with leather strands inside which we did buy, and one which I fill with greens, pieces of millet spray, torn up newspaper, bits of kitchen paper, whatever I think they will like. They love trying to pull the pieces out and when it is empty it can easily be refilled.
- Human food like raw spaghetti, Cheerios and pieces of toast can also be used as toys. Our birds think it is a great treat to have a few Cheerios. They pick them up with their feet and play with them before eating them!
- Most birds like shiny objects, and in fact I've used the jewellery that I wear all the time as a taming tool when our birds first join our family. Their natural curiosity overcomes their shyness and they are soon climbing all over me to get to my necklace, earrings and rings. I would not recommend leaving metal jewellery in a bird's cage unattended - not only may it be delicate enough to get broken and become a potential choking hazard, but it might also contain harmful elements or chemicals that could be ingested through prolonged contact. However other shiny objects like human cutlery probably are safe, so you could try leaving a couple of teaspoons in your bird's cage and see what they think!