It’s time for another in our interview series and this time we’re talking to Kris Porter, author of the Parrot Enrichment Activity Books, which are available for free as PDFs from her website. She came to Phoenix Landing last year to give a parrot enrichment seminar, which gave us all tons of ideas for integrating foraging and stimulus into our birds’ lives.
Kris is a graduate of the online class in behavior analysis called Living and Learning with Parrots. She is an enrichment specialist on the World Parrot Trusts expert panel of parrot specialists, has written enrichment articles for Good Bird Magazine, and her ideas with photos of parrot enrichment activities have been featured in articles in Parrots Magazine and Australian BirdKeeper Magazine. Kris is well-known in the avian community for her talent for coming up with ideas and using photos and video clips to enlighten, motivate and inspire all of us who are looking for ways to enrich the captive parrot environment.
She was kind enough to spend some time to give us an interview. Read on to learn more.
Q: What is parrot enrichment and why is it important?
Kris Porter: Enrichment is an integral part of responsible parrot care. It has everything to do with how we keep our parrots happy, healthy and active as well as intellectually and instinctually challenged. For me that includes providing them with foraging opportunities; different play areas set up in more than one room in the house; toys and positive reinforcement training sessions.
We recently moved from Alaska to Minnesota. Before the move we renovated the Alaska home and then completely remodeled the new home in Minnesota. I believe the enrichment practices in place in our home helped our own parrots deal with the challenges and stress associated with the move and the ongoing construction work in a more normal less fearful way. In Alaska we had many different perching and play areas throughout the house as well as an outdoor aviary where the parrots experienced new sights and sounds like lawn mowers and children playing next door. During construction and remodeling of the new home we made use of the playtops on their cages, made a play area out of the upstairs banister and offered foraging opportunities inside and outside the cage. I’m convinced being exposed to a broader range of experiences helped them cope more successfully with the stress of the move and construction.
Q: Where did you get the idea to create your Parrot Enrichment Activity Books and distribute them online for free?
I worked with a parrot adoption organization volunteering to staff educational booths for them. While sitting at the booth I would bring toy parts and make toys to pass the time. So many parrot owners wanted to learn how I came up with ideas to make toys that I thought I should photograph some of the toys I made with brief how to instructions to have as a handout for them. As I worked on the handout I found myself wanting to focus on ways to engage parrots in productive activity. Providing them with toys was one way, but there is so much more to enriching our bird’s lives than just putting new toys in the cage.
I asked Dr. Susan G. Friedman if I could quote from her article, “Straight Talk About Parrot Behavior”. She said yes and she was interested in seeing the final product. I sent a copy to Susan and received a very enthusiastic response from her. She wanted to know how I intended to market the book. I had been so involved in creating the book that I hadn’t given a thought to marketing. I thought it would cost a fortune to publish with all those color photos. I wrestled with ideas to keep costs down so I could sell the book at an affordable price and not compromise on the color photos when my husband, Jerry, asked, “Why don’t you just print it to a PDF file and e-mail it?” Which is exactly what I did and Susan Friedman was instrumental in promoting and distributing the book through her students worldwide. The first book was so well received by the companion parrot community that I wrote the second book and later created the website ParrotEnrichment.com.
Q: What advice do you have for people who say that their parrots just don’t play or forage at all?
This is one of the very reasons I created the website. I would hear from so many parrot owners that their parrots didn’t play with toys or forage. At the “Teach To Forage” page on my website I address this subject. I had an opportunity to parrot sit two Pionus who were not experienced foragers. I made a video demonstrating how I would go about getting them to forage. I also have video demonstrating how I got my newly adopted Timneh, Irving, to learn to play with toys and forage. Throughout the website I try to show examples of how you might get parrots to play with toys and engage in foraging opportunities.
It is also important to realize that every parrot is a study of one. What appeals to one will not be of interest to another. Also realize that parrots unaccustomed to foraging may quickly give up it the foraging opportunity presents too much of a challenge for them. My advice is to start with basics. Start with a simple toy and work up to more complex toys. With Irving, for example, I hung a mini bird bread muffin on a rope and put it in his cage. When he regularly ate the bird bread off the rope, I added a cupcake liner to the top of the muffin. Next I sandwiched the muffin between two cupcake liners and so on – gradually increasing the complexity of the toy. Irving, today, is an experienced forager often chewing through wicker baskets to get to his piece of apple or carrot.
Another example is at the “Adding Food To Toys” page of the website where I have a downloadable pamphlet illustrating ways to use small pumpkins as foraging opportunities. I show how I had to modify the pumpkin for my Timneh, Elvis. Elvis was afraid of a whole pumpkin being placed in his cage. When I cut the pumpkin in half and hung it on a skewer, he was receptive to the pumpkin. The take away message here is apply some keen observation along with patience and persistence and you can get your parrots to play with toys and forage.
Q: What inspires you to constantly create new toys and activities?
I’m fortunate to live in a house where I can have the parrot’s cages in the living room so I’m able to watch them throughout the day and see what they play with and what activities interest them. I also place what I refer to as “strategically placed clutter” around the house for them to discover when they are out of their cages and I pay attention to what holds their interest. I like watching them keep busy and I’m a great observer of what interests each individual parrot. Some of my parrots have very good flight skills and some cannot fly so I’m challenged to come up with activities and play areas to suit the needs of each. I think the more you create toys and activities, the better you get at it and the more ideas come to you.
Q: Can you give us some tips for putting together a “parrot enrichment” starter kit? (And if you purchase any supplies, where do you get them?)
I would start with a Stainless Steel Skewer . My favorite is the one with the acrylic ball on the end. Available at www.chopperstoys.com ; www.greyfeathertoys.com. The skewer is a base for making quick and easy foraging toys. You can use wicker basket parts (small bread baskets from Michael’s craft stores) threaded on the skewer with fresh fruits and vegetables hidden in between. Many examples are given in The Parrot Enrichment Activity Books and at www.ParrotEnrichment.com.
The toys I have the most success with are toys that incorporate food and shreddable material. I always have a supply of vine balls, vine cups, maize mats and vine rings on hand. I usually purchase these at www.makeyourownbirdtoys.com because I can also get a supply of a favorite plastic toy part called a plastic gear.
Q: What are your favorite bird-safe materials or toy parts? Are there some toys or materials that are worth just buying instead of trying to make yourself?
My favorite material is the shreddable material such as maize mats, vine balls and also natural wicker baskets. I’ve also discovered a natural hemp rope in the bead craft section at Walmart that is great for making hanging toys. The hemp rope sold at Walmart is a larger diameter than most hemp ropes. I like it because it doesn’t fray like other ropes can and a parrot could conceivably chew through this rope if need be. For me it is the next best thing to leather.
I also use items found around the house, toilet paper and paper towel rolls, cardboard boxes, apple sauce cups, cottage cheese containers, yogurt containers, etc. The containers are washed out and thoroughly dried and make great foraging toys when filled with vegetables, fruit, foot toys or nuts. My mother moved here to live with us and she makes some of the most amazing toys out of items you would otherwise throw in the trash.
I find that toy part safety is particularized to the individual parrot. There are toy parts I would consider safe for my parrots that may not be safe for another. Many of the online stores that sell parrot toys and parts have sections on toy safety that identify the obvious safety hazards as well as what is appropriate for different species and size of parrots. I would advise you to know your bird and not just what he uses, but how he uses it. Monitor any new creative uses for items and check all toy items he has access to regularly for safety, including rope strands, ceiling hooks, wing nuts on perches, latches, etc.
Q: Any other resources you would recommend?
I highly recommend Pamela Clark’s new blog “Parrot-Speak with Pamela Clark”. Pam has a unique set of skills and insight when it comes to improving the quality of life of the companion parrot. Pamela Clark’s articles set me on the course to sharing my life happily and successfully with my own parrots and her blog posts are a continued source of inspiration for me. I would suggest that everyone who wants to learn more about how to provide an “optimal environment” for their birds subscribe to Pamela Clark’s blog. You can access Pamela Clark’s blog at her website, www.pamelaclarkonline.com .
For more info:
Kris Porter’s books are available as free PDF downloads at www.parrotenrichment.com. Her books are full of photographs, suggestions and ideas to enrich the lives of parrots and promote activity rather than stillness.