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Pet Connection: Parrots love toys – let 'em have fun

Published: Tuesday, Sep. 11, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 4D

Parrots are incredibly intelligent. For anyone who doubts this, we point to the late Alex, Dr. Irene Pepperberg's well-known African gray, who showed by matching words to objects that parrots are anything but "bird brains."

And yet, we too often see these brilliant beings kept as little more than decorative objects, prized for their plumage and locked for nearly all their lives in cages that are too small, no matter how large. Is it any wonder so many pet birds die young, or rip out their own feathers in frustration?

Toys are essential to maintaining the physical and mental well-being of parrots large and small. Playthings help keep pet birds fit while fighting the boredom that can contribute to behavioral problems such as feather-picking.

Although you can buy toys by major manufacturers from the big chain stores, it's also nice to choose from the variety of playthings lovingly made by a cottage industry of bird lovers and available from independent bird shops, through catalogs and on the Internet.

Some basic rules apply when shopping for toys to ensure they are suitable and safe for your bird.

Look for the following when choosing bird toys:

Materials: Toys are subject to your bird's healthy urge to destroy, which means safe components are a must. Wood, rawhide, plastic or stainless- steel chain, rope, cloth and hard plastic are among the more popular materials that make up safe toys. Choose toys that break down into pieces that can't be swallowed. An exception: Toys made to hold food items, such as dried corncobs or fruit chunks. With these, eating is a large part of the fun.

Construction: Challenging toys, the best choice for busy birds, feature pieces combined in ways that make it hard for the birds to pull the whole product apart – but not too hard. Indestructible toys are not appropriate for most birds, because the time and energy used to rip apart the gadget is part of the reason toys fill such a need.

Size: Little toys for little birds, big toys for big birds. A big bird can catch and lose a toe in a toy made for a smaller bird, and small birds can get their heads trapped in toys made for their larger relatives.

Some birds are apprehensive of new toys. If yours is one of them, try to set the toy outside the cage (but within eye range) for a day or two, and then put it on the floor of the cage for another day or two. Once your bird starts to play with the toy, you can attach it to the cage.

Don't overwhelm your pet with toys. Instead, keep two or three in the cage and rotate new ones in regularly. Shopping for bird toys can be fun, but the costs add up, especially if you have one of those gleefully destructive parrots.

With some creativity, you can make your money go further by complementing store-bought bird toys with alternatives.

The cardboard cores of toilet paper and paper towel rolls are perfect for shredding, especially for smaller birds. Other cheapies include ballpoint pens with the ink tube removed, pingpong balls, old plastic measuring cups and spoons, and plastic bottle tops.

Toothbrushes are another bargain toy, sturdy and colorful. The hard plastic keys on a ring sold for human babies are also a budget-wise buy that birds love. (Wash in hot water and soap, rinse well and air-dry before offering such items to your bird.)

Keep your eyes and mind open for playthings your bird can enjoy – you may surprise yourself with the possibilities.

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