Olfactory Enrichment

by Robin Shewokis

Editor’s Note: this article is from a 2013 edition of In Your Flock pet bird magazine. Notice that Robin is NOT talking about essential oils. In Your Flock parrot magazine does NOT recommend using essential oils near birds.

For many years I wrestled with whether or not it was a waste of time to offer parrots olfactory enrichment. I was told that scents were dangerous for parrots and not to even consider offering scent enrichment.

I took my wonderings to the research desk and started hunting for scientific studies and evidence that would support either the ideas of most or my hopes that olfactory enrichment was another way to stimulate our parrots in captivity. My research didn’t take long as the information was slim to non-existent. There was plenty of information about vultures and sea birds and their senses of smell but very little on parrots. In preparing to write this article I looked to science once again.

The research that I found before was still about it for scientific studies. In “Olfactory Discrimination in Yellow-backed Chattering Lories Lorius garrulous flavopalliatus: first demonstration of olfaction in Psittaciformes” by T.J. Roper 2003 it states that these lories were able to discriminate artificial nectar from water and were able to use plant odor cues to differentiate foods. This made me hopeful. In a study by Julie Hagelin, “Observations on the olfactory ability of the Kakapo Strigops habroptilus,” the critically endangered parrot of New Zealand it was concluded that by offering a male kakapo three bins that could potentially contain food the bird was able to identify the food bins by scent. The kakapo used olfactory cues to forage. Again, there was hope. My other research lists parrots as very low on the olfactory food chain but they do indeed have olfactory receptors that allow them to differentiate scents.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence I did have one personal experience several years ago that keeps my hopes alive. On a trip to New Zealand, after presenting at the Auckland Zoo I had the opportunity to see and interact with a native parrot species, the kaka. While interacting with the bird we were told by the keeper that the bird responded to scent enrichment. I was able to observe the bird engaging in olfactory enrichment with myself and Barbara Heidenreich of Good Bird, Inc. The kaka would place its nares on our hair or skin, audibly inhale, and then preen. It did this several times with both of us. This experience fed my need to pursue olfactory enrichment options for captive parrots.

With these new bits of information in hand I began thinking of ways to present scent enrichment that was both safe and enriching. In all my work I try to get to the heart of what the bird does in the wild. Although our birds are mostly captive bred they are not that far removed from their wild counterparts.

A key element in creating any enrichment offering is safety. We want to enrich our parrots but we need to be sure that we are doing it safely. With the latest trend toward offering essential oils it is crucial that you are aware of safety. 

Natural food items can be used as olfactory enrichment. You can rub a chili pepper on a perch or toy. This may be olfactory and/or tactile, as the bird may taste the scent as well. If you have a bird that is reluctant to play with toys, you may be able to lure her to play by rubbing a strong scented food item on the surface of a toy. Be sure you are using scents that are pure and bird safe when using this option.

Take some of your bird interaction time and do some experiments of your own. The next time you create a great foraging opportunity for your parrot put a food item inside that has a strong scent. Create an identical opportunity that has a food item with no discernible scent. Be sure that your parrot doesn’t watch you create the foraging item or that you don’t give him any cues. They’re pretty tricky that way! Present both choices to your bird and see which one he goes for first. Make sure to make the opportunities equally accessible and attractive visually. Try this several times and see what your results are. Send an e-mail to me with your results at birdelves@aol.com. Maybe the next time I’m asked to write an article on olfactory enrichment I’ll be citing your research!

Robin Shewokis, a board member of IAATE, is the owner of The Leather Elves, which started as a family business that creates enrichment for companion parrots. After working with several facilities that housed collections of parrots Shewokis realized there was a need for enrichment targeting other species. Since then Shewokis has consulted at zoos in the United States, Canada, Holland and New Zealand. She has spoken at numerous parrot clubs and conducted workshops that help companion bird owners and aviculturists create a stimulating captive environment.

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