Enriching the Birds

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Enriching the Birds

The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center’s sanctuary (named the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary) provides a safe home for several species of birds who are unable to return to the wild due to injuries, illness, or displacement. Daily life at the sanctuary revolves around the care of the many raptor, seabird, shorebird, and songbird permanent residents that now call their enclosures home. Caring for a wide variety of birds with different diets and habits can be hard and challenging work. Everyday we have to make sure each bird’s habitat is clean and safe, make sure new food and water is given out, and make sure that each resident is healthy and happy. This means working in the heat and humidity, amidst the mosquitoes, and lots of physical activity involving scrubbing cages and carrying heavy objects. But, even though it can be hard work, working and spending time at the sanctuary offers a plethora of rewards. Not only do I receive the satisfaction of caring for and providing a decent life for the residents, each day I work at the sanctuary I am provided a glimpse into the life and behavior of these birds. My favorite part of the day is watching the birds to make sure they all appear to be eating, are healthy, and are tolerating their cage mates. One of the best ways to take a break from the everyday tasks, to keep the birds healthy and active, and to examine their behavior, is to offer a variety of enrichment.

Animal enrichment involves creating different activities, objects, or environments that enhance the care of captive animals through creating a stimulating atmosphere and eliciting some of their natural behaviors such as foraging, exploration, or social interaction. Enrichment can involve rearranging or adding new substrate to a habitat, or enrichment may be activities or objects ranging from cardboard boxes, crumpled newspaper, or tree branches to balls, toys, or feeder puzzle boxes. There are many types of enrichment that can be used to enhance an animal’s behavioral, physical, cognitive, social, and psychological well being. At the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, we aim to provide a safe, healthy, and humane environment for our residents and are always looking for ways to better the experience of the birds. Through offering enrichment for our birds at the sanctuary, we are trying to encourage beneficial natural behaviors, discourage negative behaviors, and reduce the stress, depression, or boredom of captivity.

Enrichment can fall under several categories involving environmental, habitat, sensory, social, behavioral, and food related enrichment. Environmental enrichment mainly involves providing objects that can be manipulated by the animal, while sensory enrichment can involve enrichment designed to engage an animal’s sense of touch, taste, smell, hearing, or vision. Most birds rely mainly on vision and hearing, and have a poor sense of taste and smell. Vultures, however, do have excellent senses of smell, and sensory enrichment involving scent would be interesting to explore with them. Enrichment involving food is by far the easiest to design. Everyone’s got to eat, and enrichment that offers food is a great way to encourage hunting and foraging behaviors. Food can be presented in a variety of ways and can be incorporated into toys, puzzle boxes, or can be buried in the substrate. With food enrichment though, you have to be careful to plan the enrichment around the animal’s diet. You want to give out healthy items they would normally eat and also prevent animals from gaining an unhealthy amount of weight.

Most enrichment is designed to elicit species-specific responses that can play crucial roles in their survival. When planning or designing enrichment for the birds, it’s important to keep in mind the differences in habitat, habit, and behavior between the many different species of birds housed at the center. What the songbird species might enjoy for enrichment may not be suitable for raptor species, and what may be safe and fun for a larger bird may be dangerous and scary for a smaller one. However, general ideas for enrichment can overlap. For instance, one day I may give the songbirds a Kong toy filled with fruit, and the raptor species may each receive an appropriately sized Kong toy filled with meat. Some of the enrichment items may be things the birds would never find naturally in the wild, but, for animals who unfortunately will be spending the rest of their lives in captivity, as long as the object is safe and enjoyable it may be suitable for enrichment.

While most importantly when planning enrichment I contemplate what the birds will get out of it (a good natural behavior, exercise, fun, etc.), safety is another concern when creating enrichment. I am always cautious about every new object or material I consider for enrichment, and am always careful when deciding whether or not something may be dangerous or frightening before I ever give it out. I make sure to not put anything into the enclosures that have sharp edges, anything with toxic chemicals, anything they could get caught on, anything that may be wrongfully ingested or a choking hazard, or even anything that may be scary or stressful for the birds.

Another consideration is whether or not the enrichment will make a mess. While some mess may be encouraged, I try not to use anything that will create a mess that will either harm the health of the birds or that will be too messy to clean up. Cardboard has been an extremely tricky material to work with down here in the humid Florida Keys. I thought it would be a good, slightly natural base to build many of my enrichment projects from. Unfortunately, water from the coastal environment as well as heavy rainstorms have thwarted my plans by turning it into mush shortly after I place it in an environment. However, placing cardboard in the enclosures for a short term when the weather is good seems to work out fairly well. Often times I only want to keep enrichment in an enclosure for no more than twenty-four hours anyway. By constantly removing and changing up the enrichment, the birds are kept interested and stimulated, and the more often some of the old enrichment can make a reappearance and still maintain its appeal for the birds.

While thinking about what enrichment is, how it is beneficial, and all the important concerns that go into creating enrichment (species-specific, safety, health, etc.), I can begin to plan out forms of enrichment that might be nice to offer our birds at the sanctuary. When I offer enrichment I am sometimes able to watch for reactions, and can start to observe what certain birds like or dislike. I also have begun to get a sense of each bird’s own personality. Through these observations, I am able to get a better idea of what types of enrichment these birds would enjoy.

The wild bird center currently has one permanent resident parrot, Fredricka, a Yellow-Naped Amazon Parrot, but occasionally will get other parrot or parakeet patients to care for at our hospital. Toys and puzzles are great enrichment for these birds, and can often help to distract a bored bird from the harmful behavior of feather plucking. The best enrichment for Fredricka, however, is social interaction. She is quite a talkative parrot and loves watching and talking to all the visitors that stop by the sanctuary.

Much of the enrichment for the residents living in the Songbird Enclosure involves a variety of seed, insects, and small toys, and is focused on encouraging foraging and exploration of their enclosure. Some possible enrichment for songbirds include trays with sand or dirt with insects, cardboard puzzle boxes, ice cubes with fruit frozen inside, balls or toys, crumpled newspaper, or small mirrors. Blue Jays are a Corvid species in the same family as crows, and are intelligent birds with important social behaviors. They enjoy enrichment aimed at play and developing cognitive skills, and like foraging challenges, mirrors, and occasionally will play with a ping-pong ball. Caching behavior, such as storing seeds for later, is common in Corvid species. I once watched one of our Blue Jays spend ten minutes carrying around another bird’s feather and hiding it under leaves or sticks. He kept picking it back up and moving to a new spot trying to find the best place to cache the feather for later.

The Wild Bird Center’s shorebird enclosure has several kinds of birds, many with different habits. I have had the most fun making enrichment for the shorebirds. I almost always get a reaction from at least one bird after I deliver them enrichment. The Laughing Gulls love any new object or container that easily provides them with food. One day I took a dead tree branch and hung pieces of cut fish on the twigs. The gulls loved snatching off the fish pieces. One day I created mounds of dirt around the enclosure and stuck dried mealworms in the mounds. The gulls loved running around, gobbling up the mealworms. The Cattle Egrets surprised me one day by their extreme interest in one of my foraging enrichments. I took an egg carton and filled it with different kinds of food on the bottom and on top of the food I put different types of substrate (sand, mulch, dirt, pebbles). The Cattle Egrets seemed to really enjoy digging around to get the food out. Another time I took fresh cut tree branches and vegetation and placed it around the enclosure. The new branches caught the Royal Terns attention, and a few of them tried to peck at and drag off some of the twigs. Other enrichment ideas for the shorebirds include ice cubes with fish chunks inside, a misting or shower to encourage preening, or puzzle boxes.

I find designing enrichment for the raptor species and the pelicans and cormorants to be quite challenging. Our raptors are on a strict diet I don’t want to alter or mess with too much for enrichment, so I often try not to use food for enrichment too often. As I was mentioning earlier though, sensory enrichment involving sight, sound, or touch could work well in peaking some interest. Sometimes just placing something new in their environment might make them want to investigate or explore their surroundings. Raptor enrichment ideas include newspaper or other shreddable objects, tennis balls, Kongs, ice cubes with mice chunks inside, cardboard puzzle boxes, or paper mache feeders.

As for the Brown Pelicans, whose lives mainly revolve around eating fish, they occasionally benefit from a change of scenery, and don’t seem to mind having fresh cut tree branches or vegetation placed around their habitat. I have seen a pelican picking up and tossing around a stick once, almost as if he was playing with it. The Double-crested Cormorants love to bathe and splash around in water, and, along with the pelicans, enjoy the two smaller kiddy pools we place in their enclosure. Other enrichment ideas include balls or toys, cardboard puzzle boxes, or ice cubes with fish inside.

Overall, enrichment can be fun and challenging for both the human designing it and the animals receiving it while enhancing their care and creating a stimulating environment. I came to work as an intern for the center in order to learn more about bird care and behavior, and have been very fortunate to be able to spend time with, observe, and help care for these magnificent birds. The next time you visit the Florida Wild Bird Center make sure to keep an eye out for any enrichment activities. Also, if you have any suggestions for any enrichment ideas feel free to let us know.

Sarah Biesemier, FKWBC Intern, 2015

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