First I want to start by saying that although I will be using the word “toy”, I feel the common meaning of the word to be insufficient to convey the importance of giving captive parrots objects, items, activities, and opportunities, to replace those that would occupy the day of wild parrots. And these items, “toys”, are not frivolous, optional things, but are critical to the mental, emotional and even physical health of our companion parrots.
This brings back to mind one morning when a friend was visiting my house, and I was getting ready to put the birds away for the day, and telling them it was “time to go to work” and she asked me exactly what that meant. I explained that “going to work” was for them to go into their cages for the day and chew-up / interact with their “toys”, that is their “job”.
So with that said, I think I’ve made clear how I consider “toys” very important, but that does not mean that they can’t also be fun, fun for my parrots to interact with, fun for me to make.
Those of you who know me, already know how much I enjoy making toys for my birds, and many of you I’ve already infected with this passion, now let me try to convince the rest of you….
If you think toy making is too hard, or time consuming, or you are not “creative” enough, let me show you some tips that will change your mind. And for those of you who say that your bird doesn’t like toys, or is afraid of new things, I have some suggestions there too.
So just WHY should you bother to make your own toys, when there are so many out there that you could buy? Commercially available toys that are affordable are usually very low quality, and good toys tend to be expensive. When you make your own toys, you can make safe high quality toys at a reasonable price. This saves money, which means you can make more toys, for your birds, to give to friends’ birds, or donate to parrot rescue groups.
For the birds who are uninterested in toys or afraid of toys, having them watch you while you build a toy for them, watch you handle and play with the parts so they see that there is no danger, watch you threading, tying, constructing parts may peek their curiosity and encourage them to try and deconstruct the toy, or at least touch it, which is a good start. Our birds are very social creatures and want to be involved in what we are doing. Most of us have noticed that our birds want most what they see us interacting with, a writing pen, the tv remote, the telephone, our glasses, etc. These tend to be the first things they reach for when given the opportunity, so a bird who watches you make a toy, will usually want to check it out and see exactly what you’ve been doing with that “stuff”.
For birds who only play with one toy or one type of toy, you can expand the variety of toys they like by adding their favorite parts/materials to new types of toys, or adding new elements to existing toy favorites one at a time. Let me give you a couple of examples…
When Trixie, our Blue & Gold Macaw, first came to live with us, we bought her tons of toys, but she totally ignored them. Then one day while she was out and about, exploring her new home, somehow (daddy?) she ended up on the kitchen table with a roll of papertowels, and erupted in a delighted squeal, then proceeded to shred the roll, the first time we had seen her play! I then tied papertowel bows to, and wrapped papertowels around her toys, which she was happy to rip off and tear into tiny bits. Slowly she began to chew and play with the rest of the toys, but I still use lots of papertowels in the toys I make for Trixie.
I knew of one old Amazon who for many years had only a chain with a bell on the end of it, having long ago chewed off all the wooden blocks. When his new owner took this out of his cage and gave him some great new toys, he became very distressed, shying away from the new toys and looking in the directions of his old chain and crying. She removed most of the new toys from the bird’s cage, cut off a few small pieces from them and tied them onto the old chain and gave it back to the bird. Within a few days he had chewed up most of the new parts on his old chain, so she added more, increasing how much and the variety of things she added each time, and he gradually began exploring other toys as well.
Some parrots become bored with toys long before they are completely destroyed, sometimes leaving long partially empty chains or ropes which can be dangerous or even deadly if your parrot becomes entangled in them. Adding new parts to these toys or removing remaining parts from these toys to make new toys, makes then not only safe again, but new and exciting to re-explore. Reusing and recombining parts to make new toys saves you money and saves the environment by recycling and keeping items out of the landfill.
While we’re on the topic of recycling, many items around the home, especially clean food containers, can be used in making bird toys, most especially foraging toys, then once thoroughly chewed and mangled, tossed into the recycle bin.
Construction skills and creativity increase with practice.
To start you really only need to be able to use scissors, tweezers, thread things on rope, and tie knots. As you gain more confidence you will probably want to learn to use power tools, like saws and drills. If you ask around you will probably find someone, spouse, sibling, parent, friend, neighbor, or co-worker who has some tool experience and would be willing to help, or if not, most larger stores that sell tools will have someone on staff to show you how to use them, and may even have classes you can take.
Creativity can be borrowed! I have taken much inspiration over the years from Kris Porter and her Parrot Enrichment website, free books, and now blog and facebook page. I trade ideas for toys with friends, one in particular, Judy, makes some wonderfully creative toys that my birds love!!! When I see a cool toy at an event or on a website, I will often buy one and use it as a template, to see how it’s constructed, for making something similar myself. (As I am not selling these toys or trying to pass them off as originals, I don’t think I’m in violation of any copyrights laws.) The more toys you make, the more you will find yourself thinking of substitute parts, how to recombine elements, until you are coming up with your own unique ideas.
Your toys do not have to be perfect or beautiful, and even if you do have a pair of lovebirds named Siskel & Ebert, they will not be looking at the new toy you just gave them and saying, “those knots are not symmetrical, the colors don’t match, look she put two red beads next to each other” nope, just, is it fun, is it chewy, does it make noise? Those are the kind of things they are looking for, our standards are not parrot standards, so stop judging yourself so harshly, and have some fun.
Henry Ford taught the world that the key to productivity is an assembly line. This is as true for bird toys as it is for cars. When I make toys I rarely make just one of anything. I usually make between 6 to 20 of a given toy at a time, depending on the quantity of materials I have on hand. Repeating each step with each toy, one at a time, so all toys are at the same stage at any given time. For example, if I’m making a toy where the first step is to cut holes in the head and bottom for a rubber duckie, then thread a string through the duckie, then thread a block of wood under the duckie…etc… I will cut holes in All the duckies, cut All the strings, thread All the strings through All the duckies, the thread All the blocks of wood…etc… This way the movements become more automatic, with less thought and concentration required, so it goes pretty fast. When I’m done I have a pile of toys and a great sense of accomplishment. This allows me to build a good supply of toys too. And for those fear new things birds, this can be very helpful if you have made 6 of a toy (which will all have minor differences, which we may not see, but the bird will) it will be easy for you to replace them when needed. You can even find a group of friends to get together with and have toy making parties, and exchange toys, or through the internet form a group to do a toy exchange by mail. Parrot rescue groups are always in need of toys for foster birds and would be happy for your donation.
I will make a pledge to you that I will post step by step directions for at least one toy a month. I would be thrilled to hear back from you, see photos of toys that you’ve made and post any directions that you’d like to share. We can all learn from each other. Happy toy making!