Natural State Aspects of Avian Foraging

by Kathleen Snipes
This post is reprinted from the Phoenix Landing Summer Newsletter.

Introduction

Birds in the wild are savvy consumers with foraging goals and methods that incorporate spending the least effort to obtain a days’ needed calories and nutrients. All is to be of course accomplished in ways that are the least hazardous to the bird flock. No two species forage in exactly the same way. Water and mean average temperature play key roles in wild-side foraging, as well as the prevalence of nutrient dense foods, dawn and dusk UV lighting, the foraging bird’s wariness of predators, and both his or her flocking behavior.

Methods of foraging encompass all the excitement and pleasure of a whole splay of action verbs. What fun is brought to mind by “swoop, fall, catch, pry, pull, twist, investigate, crack, poke, extract, spear,” etc. It all begins with the excitement of searching for and discovering a local food source. The next step is obtaining and handling the food. Which is followed by ingesting the food until crops are full. All occurs over a period of a few hours or more. This routine happens twice a day. The confident problem-solving and curious nature of pet birds is certainly related to their wild-side instincts and learned behavior. Our reward as pet owners is bringing it into the home for our birds—creating an atmosphere that in many ways replicates that of nature.

Let’s see how light and times of day affect wild bird feedings. Also how the scent of predators and a bird’s desire to avoid poisonous, sometimes unripe, foods affect his feeding habits.

1. How wild birds avoid poisons in the diet and teaching pet birds to eat new foods.

The wilderness areas of the world are not entirely Gardens of Eden. The wild is all at once toxic, poison, medicinal, life supportive and destructive. Plus life is seasonal – dandelions are sweet some months and bitter and sickening later in the year. Bees will not approach blossoms or even whole plant beds that bloom “too early” in the year. In the wild birds must consider if it is the right time of year for them to eat certain stems, leaves, nuts, seeds, or fruit. Neophobia, or “fear of what’s new,” is sometimes seen in feathered pets, just as in human children. This tendency to fear new foods can be life preserving in the jungle. We all want our pet birds to relish their seeds and pellets, but also be brave enough to sample a varied diet of healthy proteins, starches and some of the sweet and spicy foods we enjoy ourselves: especially carrots, broccoli, yams, other veggies, fruits and juices. Studies show that parrots don’t like sour flavors, perhaps a sour smell or taste is a dangerous red flag. Pods and coverings of seeds/peas can be toxic in the wild. The foraging goal in this case is to get to the “inside treat,” but without eating the pod. My parrot will remove the covering of a green pea and then go to work on the
pea itself, actually consuming only its tiny inner core. At home I wonder if a banana is still green enough to appear attractive to my parrot. Is the orange sweet enough to juice, but not overripe? I notice many times if my bird won’t eat the melon offered – it might be going “off.” So I never force any food or limit home feedings to only a single item which should
in some cases be rejected.

All the fresh market foods whether offered raw or cooked, need to be washed before feedings. I use a GSE and water mix to cleanse the fruits and veggies that my Red-Lored Amazon, Spunky, likes. To introduce a new, nourishing fresh food, I first enthusiastically eat the food myself, which Spunky carefully observes. I’m his canary in the cage – if it doesn’t kill me, he might try it too. If I make a great fuss, he thinks that is all for the better—any food worth shouting over must be ready to eat. With introducing a new pellet brand, I sprinkle it with a few familiar and favorite foods. The parrot will become more energetic about eating once he starts, and when the familiar pellet or treat is gone, he will start consuming the new untried brand. Repetitive verbal encouragement also helps here — holding up a pellet, viewing it and exclaiming over it. New foods should be offered with companionship, not just left in a dish.

2. How birds keep free of predation during foraging and increasing relaxation during pet bird feedings.

Parrots can be pursued by hawks during the day and by owls after dark. During the day fruit, twigs or seeds and pods may often be picked and then flown to a safer or more comfortable location for consuming. When predators are in the area, bird flocks eat “faster” and more “on the wing.” Flocks do return to the feeding area, but any foraging is more guarded and done as quickly as possible with “guard” birds on look-out and designated.

Being the guard bird is an ever-changing role taken in turns by the flock members. Recent studies supervised by scientists showed that air blown over stool of meat eating animals into bird cages caused birds to eat faster than birds whose air source went over just grass and other non-predator feces, such as rabbit scat. Our avian friends probably can detect the presence of predators in the wild by the smell and possibly also the sight of stool. Birds seem to like to forage within about 20 feet of sheltering bushes and trees.

I do think our pets like excitement around eating, but need to be out of a stream of traffic and with a wall behind or to one side, away from a window, especially if it has no blinds. Spunky definitely goes on guard, hissing, if he spots a vulture or hawk above from a window. Even if a flock of crows lands too near the kitchen window, he’s wary and changes position frequently. I need him to relax as he eats — so that we can both finish dinner at the same time and he won’t be tapping his toes wanting seconds on my rice or veggies. Also I like him to take time to carefully wipe his beak after eating, either on his perch branch or with some clean rolled up white paper stuffed around his stand. Feeling safe is a component of relaxed
avian eating habits.

3. How times of day affect foraging: diurnal feeding, UVA light and daily routine.

Parrots wake with “get up” gusto!! Perched amongst the leaves and branches of tall trees as the sun spots them, they begin to twist and turn, stretching legs and spreading wings. Flock members want to be sure their buddies have survived a night. They shake out, fluff and swirl, calling to each other. Some grooming can occur before the birds fly off from roost in search of food. In nature, the most prevalent time for avian flight is around dawn, when the food search begins. Birds have been noted to fly several miles to their favorite patches, both in large flocks of up to 200 birds or small subgroups. Two daily
feedings occur: from dawn up until midmorning and then again in the afternoons before dusk. At my house, early in the morning I’ll sometimes hear Spunky crunching and munching a pellet, but more likely he just sits on his branch and says “Wake up, wake up,” until I call back and putter around the corner. He likes to preen on my arm looking out the blinds for about 20 minutes before going to forage.

Several well performed natural setting studies have indicated that birds may not only see UV reflective lighting on each other’s feathers, but on their food supply. UV light may indicate “ripeness” in blueberries. The surface of some berries is UVA/B reflective when ripeness is high. Birds apparently send out “scouts” to search for ripening fruit as they forage in flocks over known feeding grounds. Feeding areas are many times close to roosting and watering areas and frequented with the least possible effort on the part of the birds. However, at the same time, the flock scouts will be out and about, searching for
just right beans, pods, fruits and grains. Probably one of the eight to ten calls wild birds commonly use is from the
foraging scout-team indicating “The food’s ready over here.” “Come and get it.”

4. Taking our relationships with our avian friends to a healthier level.

Offering foraging adventures constantly gives our birds an incentive to use their brains and coordination to “go figure” getting the meals they enjoy. Recent studies in humans indicate that new brain cells are born even as we age, but these cells must be used and employed to keep them from dying back. I’m sure that’s true with birds as well. Many species can learn and form new behaviors and meet new challenges as they age.

To instill enthusiasm in Spunky, I combine foraging with trick training, and give reward treats wrapped in a small paper cup. (We use cups that aren’t toxic, the small bathroom ones). He knows he can look forward to his a.m. and p.m. foraging each day and a trip around the condo. We both enjoy being the “scout” and sounding off “come and get it” calls. I think
having routine expectations supports his happiness.

I keep pellets in my parrots’ cage at all times, but foraging on stands in other rooms seems so natural for my bird. In addition, we have a flock of about 20 small birds outdoors, with wild bird feeders in front and back. Prior to foraging Spunky gets to peer out a window to observe them. A few flight exercises or wing flapping routines can be employed before the feedings, even a daily bath, if the bird isn’t exhibiting strong hunger. We have a tape recording of parrots calling and singing to one another in the wild which I play during my Amazon’s morning meal. It does cause him to warble and chatter as if part of a hungry flock. And of course the UVA/B lighting can be used in the home for our birds. It may give more brilliance to their food and could be used morning and evening around dawn and dusk – replicating the naturally most brilliant UV times of day.

Conclusion:

A recent study done in Hawaii showed that a threatened species of bird bred in captivity and released into its former natural habitat had poor foraging habits. Compared to the generations prior of wild bred birds, the captive releases did choose similar pods and foods, but foraged less effectively, leaving parts of the foods uneaten. They are planning at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center to begin more adequate pre-release preparation before reintroducing the birds to their habitat. Survival wisdoms have been found to be a product of experience in wild birds, as older parrots display habits in some cases
young adults have not yet learned. Hopefully the avian future is bright and full of crop-filling eating adventures both for wild and caged birds! We are all still wild at heart.

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