Avian Marketplace: Foraging For Profits
Boost sales with toys that offer increased mental stimulation for pet birds.
By Laura Doering
Manufactured diets and caging, of course, top the list of pet bird essentials; however, parrot enrichment products prove to be worthy additions and increasingly are viewed as necessities instead of mere cage accessories. Thanks in large part to more first-time bird owners going online for basic bird care information and discovering the importance of enrichment, online shopping carts and retail store baskets now are more likely to include foraging toys. And today’s bird owners are more inclined to take the time to study a toy’s inner workings to see if it is a good fit their pets.
“The days of a simple bell on a chain and a set of Olympic Rings are long gone,” said Catherine Tobsing, president of Windy City Parrots Inc., which has an online store as well as an avian-specialty retail space in Chicago. “We have seen a larger offering of foraging toys on the market due to bird researchers and bird owners learning that parrots need more mental stimulation in order to prevent boredom, plucking and self-mutilation due to long hours of being left to their own devices.”
Courtesy of Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Also seeing a noticeable rise in the number of foraging toys being developed, Deb White, chief executive of Super Bird Creations in Grand Junction, Colo., said she the increase is a direct result of the abundance of sources touting the enhancements of creating foraging opportunities.
“I attribute this to the depth of discussion on the benefits of foraging to our bird’s overall mental and physical well-being within bird publications, as well as on Internet forums,” White said.
More information is available about parrots and their high intelligence than people could find 15 to 20 years ago, said Vicki Ballard, director of the avian retail store West Coast Tropical Bird Studio in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Owners are creating more fun and interesting environments for their pet birds now, instead of just setting up a cage, she added.
“Bird owners are starting to realize the importance of foraging bird toys and the need to enrich and stimulate their birds,” said Vickie Canepa, founder and CEO of Fetch It Pets, a toy manufacturer based in West Lake Village, Calif.
Foraging Supports Positive Reinforcement
The idea of offering foraging opportunities, in many ways, has been bolstered by the concept of positive reinforcement, which rewards a bird for doing a desired behavior, according to industry participants. For example, when given a puzzle-type foraging toy where the bird has to manipulate the toy’s pieces to reach a desired treat, the pet is positively reinforced for playing quietly by itself when it figures out the puzzle and gets the treat. This foraging challenge also gives the bird the satisfaction of reaching its goal (the treat).
“More avian vets, bird community activists and passionate bird owners have been pushing the idea of positive reinforcement, which is crucial to the health of birds in captivity,” said Terry Gao, president of Caitec Inc., based in Baltimore, Md. The company has put a lot of thought into making products that make it easier to carry out positive reinforcement and incorporate foraging for food into the daily feeding routine, he added.
“The ultimate goal is to make daily feeding foraging activity just like their counterparts in the wild who spend 60 percent of their time foraging for food,” Gao said. “Foraging for treats is far from enough, but it’s a start.”
Small Birds Need a Challenge, Too!
Another trend in foraging toys is the increasing number of products that cater to smaller pet bird species. When foraging products, such as puzzle-type toys, first hit the marketplace, many were geared toward larger, “brainy” parrot species, such as African grey parrots.
While larger parrot species traditionally have been viewed as having a greater need for mental stimulation, Windy City Parrots’ Tobsing said that more people now see that smaller birds also need the mental stimulation.
“Large birds have a larger need for more mental stimulation than small ones, but it also is being found that foraging toys geared toward littler birds, such as conures and even cockatiels, are needed, especially if these birds are in one-bird households. They, too, need something to keep them active and healthy.”
Owners Start at Easy, Then Challenge Their Birds
Foraging toys range in difficulty levels, and plenty of products exist to fit each level.
“Destructible foraging toys especially are great for ‘novice’ foragers who discover the hidden treats while simultaneously fulfilling their instinctual need to chew,” said White of Super Bird Creations. “Our most recent line addition in this category is the Foraging Pouch, which consists of a large sea-grass mat stuffed with colorful crinkle shred, which the bird owner can hide treats in.”
The company also manufactures some easy-to-fill and retrieve acrylic toys that do not require birds to perform multiple complex puzzle-solving maneuvers, she added.
New bird owners might initially offer their birds simple foraging toys and up the challenge by buying more complex foraging systems, West Coast Tropical Bird Studio’s Ballard said. She and other retailers reported that customers generally start out with an easy forage toy and soon return for a more difficult one because they are amazed at their birds’ abilities and want to continue to challenge them.
“Birds are extremely intelligent,” Gao said. “Once they figure out a foraging device, the owners and the birds are longing for a new one with new challenges.”
Natural Foraging Toys
The trend in “natural products” for humans and companion animals extends into the foraging product arena. Fetch-It Pets, creator of the Polly Wanna Pinata foraging toy, recently launched its Foraging Pockets, which is made from hand-woven bamboo and filled with natural materials, such as coconut fiber and confetti paper, Canepa said.
“The outside of the pocket is decorated with crunchy wooden shapes and beads,” she added.
Product-material safety is one of the reasons customers have an interest in foraging toys designed with natural products, as well as those made from materials manufactured domestically, according to Dena Tucker, president of Greenfeather Bird Supply LLC, a bird toy manufacturer based in West Hartfield, Conn.
“I’m a big supporter of ‘made in the USA’ and ‘vet-certified’ so you don’t have to worry about the product,” Tucker said. “It’s a part of what I push; some stores have customers looking for products made in the United States.”
Also in the natural bird product category is Wesco Inc., a Carlsbad, Calif.-based company and manufacturer of the Bird Kabob. The company recently expanded its product line to 24 items.
“For years, we had 11 products,” said Wes Payne, company president. “We stuck with natural, and the Natural Bird Kabob was a big hit.”
Although consumers are attracted to the natural look, some people still want products as colorful as their parrots, Payne stated, adding that Wesco’s consumers asked for color added to the products, so the company added color.
“The addition of color addressed a segment of the buying public that likes colorful toys,” he said.
When it comes to merchandising foraging products, Mitch Rezman, general manager of Windy City Parrot Inc., stressed the importance of product demo videos.
“We’re 95-percent Internet, so we have to communicate our message to someone in front of a computer,” he said. “Besides product listings, we also do product videos.” The store’s weekly emails to customers explain the benefits of offering foraging opportunities to pet birds.
Another good way to market and display foraging toys, according to Canepa, is for retailers to place them near the bird-treat section.
“That way they have a double sale,” Canepa said. “Our Polly Wanna Pinata Foraging Bird Toys have a door in the back that can be filled with treats, so they are toys and treats in one.”
The UPC labels on Greenfeather Bird Supply’s toys include information on the parts Tucker uses, including that they are vet-certified and made in the United States, she noted. The labels also offer suggestions on how to get the most usage out of the toy, she added.
“Our honeycomb toy is quite popular, so I’ll suggest that bird owners put millet pods or pine seeds in it because they might not realize the full-foraging potential,” Tucker stated.
Foraging toys, perhaps more than other pet bird products, are an easier sell when seen in use, industry sources said.
“The best way to sell any product is to have the ‘sales birds’ in the store demonstrate it in action,” White stated.
While the number of foraging toys on the market has exploded in recent years, there hasn’t been as big an increase in food-foraging products, Tobsing reported.
“The appropriate treats that fit into these toys are lagging,” she said. “Generally, regular food pellets, small nuts, large seeds and some formulated snacks are used, but there could be more products on the market to serve these needs. We carry at least 15 to20 food and bird treats that can be used, but we always are looking for more.”
Unexpected Foraging Toys
Some manufacturers are hearing from customers who have used their toys to create foraging opportunities, even though the toy is not marketed as a foraging toy. One such product is Wesco’s Bird Kabob.
“We’ve found that people are pushing treats, such as sunflower seeds, into the kabob, which is made of soft yucca pieces that are strung together on a sisal rope,” Payne said. “It’s nice to see our products used in a foraging way.”