Providing the opportunity to work for food is extremely important for all captive animals in order to keep them happy and healthy, whether it’s searching for the food to begin with, working to get at it, or working for it during training and performing. In their natural environment, an animal’s food doesn’t just turn up in a bowl ready for them; a vast amount of their time and effort is put into getting something to eat, so simulating this foraging activity provides a valuable form of enrichment (mental stimulation).
The picture below shows two of our Green-winged Macaws (Ruby at the top and Alfie at the bottom… and also the top of Bonnie’s head in the corner of the photo!) tackling their favourite foraging toy. This is a recycled piece of wood that used to be part of a long hanging perch in the aviary that had come loose, we drilled holes into it which are the perfect size to shove a walnut almost to the middle, making it a real challenge for the Macaws to get to.
After watching Jamie’s video on Beginner Foraging Tips, we also began placing items in our parrots’ food bowls; for example small pieces of paper, rope, wooden blocks etc. so that they had to pick them out of the way in order to reach their dinner. The video is definitely worth a watch if you’re yet to start providing foraging opportunities for your bird!
It’s not just our birds who are provided with the opportunity to work a bit for their food; this sort of enrichment is offered to almost every animal at the centre. Meerkats are well known for being curious and playful (and adorable!) and they love foraging activities; the pumpkin foraging toy was a real favourite! Visitors are able to purchase small pots of mealworms when they arrive at the park which can be fed to the residents of ‘Meerkat Mansion’ – the great thing about mealworms is that they tend to fall between the rocks, so the Meerkats have to dig to get at them (which is exactly what their long front claws are made for doing, of course).
Our Meerkats, Prairie Dogs, Striped Skunk, Red Squirrels, rabbits, tortoises and many other animals are scatter-fed, meaning they are not given a bowl full of food, but their food is scattered around their enclosure and often stashed somewhere for them to try to locate. As you can see in the picture above, our Egyptian Fruit Bats are treated to ‘fruit kebabs’, perfect for eating upside down and way more fun than a bowl!
It’s not just the larger animals we provide foraging activities for though, even our Turkish Spiny Mice have food placed in tricky-to-reach places in their enclosure to offer a bit of a challenge. And let’s not forget the really small… below is a picture of our Leaf Cutter Ants who have a huge network of elevated twigs to climb along, connecting them to two sources of food, these ants travel back and forth up to about 10 feet at a time collecting food. Encouraging and allowing natural behaviour in a captive environment means they are doing what they were designed to do, what they know how to do, and that can only be a good thing.
Some of you may have heard of stereotypic behaviour; this is essentially where a captive animal keeps repeating a movement or action with no obvious purpose, for example pacing back and forth – it basically tells you that the animal is bored out of it’s mind to put it simply. Providing natural forms of mental stimulation, which food foraging is a big part of, helps to keep the animal’s brain ticking and keep them occupied; it also means that visitors get to see the animal’s natural behaviour.
I hope that seeing the effort made to provide food foraging for our animals at the centre, even those as tiny as ants, will encourage those of you who don’t already provide foraging for your birds to start now; you will have a much happier bird as a result