Angel the Jenday Conure was found one April day immediately under his cotton candy preening toy. He was standing perfectly still with strings of shredded cotton wrapped tightly around his throat. Angel also had his right leg hung in those same strings from trying to free himself from the ones around his throat and he was supported only by his left leg. Although Angel is not one to permit my husband to touch him, Angel was barely aware that my husband cradled him in one large hand while he cut those strings from his throat and leg. Angel lay exhausted in my husband’s hand from his struggle to free himself. But his story ends happily…. as Angel recovered.Angel’s near tragedy sparked my interest and study of what are appropriate preening toys for my birds. Hookbills, like our parrots, seem to be at a disadvantage for natural preening when compared to our North American wild birds. North American birds have long, thin, pointed beaks which are just right for getting into those hard-to-reach places. Cockatoos have been reported to improvise tools for preening resembling this long, thin, pointed shape. Some use splinters of wood which they tear off a toy, while others use a fallen feather retrieved from the cage floor which they hold in the beak and use to preen hard-to-reach places.
A bird preens to remove the dry, brittle shaft from a feather after the feather’s blood supply has receded. The shafts are prickly and can cause itching of the skin if not effectively removed by preening. The companion parrot that lives alone especially enjoys preening aids. A human who preens a bird or a bird which rubs its head on an object are aiding skin stimulation and removal of the feather shaft. Sometimes I see a parrot resting its head under an object that is not designed to be a preening toy. I think this feels good to a parrot who has shafts on its head and is not a behavioral act denoting insecurity. Both conures and cockatoos will hold their heads in their foot and rub their heads, yet since I only see them loosen a few flecks of shaft with this method, it does not appear to me to be as effective a method as a preening aid or toy.
A preening toy is one designed to aid a bird in scratching his back, head or neck. Normally, it is a hanging toy with parts or strands that hang down the back or onto the head. These enable the bird to move in and out of the preening toy to help “scratch where it itches.” Some parrot-keepers today do not consider the cotton string or cotton cloth preening toys to be desirable for our birds as designed. I find my cockatoos and conure accept the following preening toys:
- Untreated straw toys, woven hats and straw dolls
- Feather Dusters (undyed)
- Peacock Feathers
- Shredders (woven palm fronds)
- Leather strips with little beads or pieces of wood
- Jute rope toys
- Large circumference rope toys (cotton permitted)
- Toys with strands of plastic beads covering the rope
- Small acrylic toys even without strands
- Brown paper bags (cut the ends into attached strips and drape into the cage.)
Because toys serve many constructive uses for a bird, a preening toy can entertain and challenge our birds. Add a bell or some rawhide strips to it for interest and you can be satisfying your birds need to chew and need to vent aggression with the same toy.
Safety in our choice of preening toys needs to be addressed by each of us. I match my parrot’s styles of play and size to their preening toys now. My conure loves bells, so I add noise to his preening aids. My cockatoos love mechanical, complex toys so I try to find intricate preening toys for them containing leather or rope strands with plastic parts, bells or rawhide pieces tied onto the strands.
The birds I have seen that use their preening toys have glossier looking feathers and a happier, more content companion parrot disposition.