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A Pinata for the Birds

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Animal Updates | Birds | Enrichment

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Birds are smart. Some species have learned to use tools, many have the ability to count, and even more keep track of large social groups and hierarchies (without social media to help them!). Some birds have even shown the ability to reason their way through problems, such as unlocking a box to get to a tool to help them unlock another box to get to another box to get a tool to finally get to some food. I’m pretty sure I know some people who can’t even do that. And birds (at least ours) like to chew. A lot. This keeps their beak, which is essential for their survival, fit, clean and in good condition. Chewing is also an instinctual behavior, something they would do when foraging or building nests.

However, this high intelligence and drive to chew causes our birds to go through a lot of enrichment items very quickly, whether it’s tiring of toys, chewing through items, or tiring of and then chewing through items. This means we regularly have to create safe and stimulating enrichment items that can withstand some serious chewing.

Staccie, one of my fellow enrichment volunteers, created an engaging enrichment item for one of our toughest “clients”—Lola the Sulfur-Crested Cockatoo. Lola is incredibly smart and a master of chewing up toys, so Staccie needed to come up with something fun and destructible. What’s perfectly designed for fun and destruction? A piñata.

To create the “bird piñata,” Staccie used a small, empty box and stuffed it with the sort of treats a cockatoo would love. Not candy, but textures. Rough rope, flimsy string, soft fabric, crinkly paper, smooth wicker. What a sensory treat!

Hanging down from the main body of the piñata, as though caught mid-burst with treats flying everywhere, were some of Lola’s favorite items like keys, washers, bells and wicker wreaths. Staccie even wrapped many of them in paper to resemble pieces of candy. This wrapping or “hiding” an item can be a great way to mentally stimulate a bird, or get it to think. Is there something in there? What is in there? What do I have to do to get it out?

After the piñata was hung up for Lola, we found that the bird was a little shy at first. Lola’s trainer played with the toy a little bit to show the bird it was safe. Lola very nervously began to explore. Pretty soon Lola must have realized what a prize he had! He grabbed, unwrapped, tugged, and chewed. Lola played with the toy for several days before he destroyed it, a bit of a record for the bird that normally chews through things quite quickly.

Although we can’t ask Lola, it seems as though the piñata was very enriching. It definitely prompted a lot of curiosity and exploration and stimulated his intelligent bird brain. It also served its purpose as a piñata, with nothing but bits of chewed cardboard and colorful paper left to show for the mentally engaging fun and destructive excitement it provided.

A Pinata for the Birds
Lola unwrapping a "candy" from his piñata.  | Kristen Marshall
A Pinata for the Birds
What remained of Lola's piñata when he was done playing.  | Kristen Marshall

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