Can playing video games improve parrot’s mental and physical health?

Illustration: Research Communications and Public Relations

Playing video games has been a favorite pastime of young and old alike, and now the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences is investigating the benefits of video games on an unconventional gamer—birds.

Researchers at the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center are in the process of developing video games that can be played by birds on a tablet.

Using vocalizations or movement, birds can play the game and win a treat that is dispensed upon completion of the game’s task. For birds like pet parrots, video games can be more than just entertaining; they can also provide much-needed mental stimulation as well as other potential health benefits.

“The problem is that these are incredibly intelligent birds, and it is challenging to provide them with all the stimulation that they require,” said Donald Brightsmith, an assistant professor who is leading the project. “Owners need to provide intelligent birds with as much mental stimulation as possible. Then, there’s the physical aspect. If you sit around on the couch all day, it’s not good for you, and it’s not good for a parrot to sit on a perch all day either. Getting the parrots to continue to move is extremely beneficial.”

“Birds face some of the same health issues humans face,” said Constance “Connie” Woodman, a doctoral student working on the project. “They can get brittle bones; they can get problems with arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries; they can get fat. This is why exercise is important.”

The first game the researchers developed is similar to the popular game “whack-a-mole,” they said. In scientific terms they call it a stimulus discrimination test. “Picture a pop-up on the screen, and if the birds yelled at the pop-up to ‘scare’ it away, then the picture would go away,” Woodman said. “Then, the bird gets a reward from the dispenser. We tested whether or not the animals could learn on their own how to utilize the tablet to play the game and gain a reward. They showed all the signs of being a content, happy animal during that process.”

The device could eventually be programmable, so the owner could set the times in which the game would be played while the owner is away. Additionally, the tablet could be sold with the feeder as a package, so the owner would not use their own personal tablet.

“It would be nice to come home and know that your animal had been exercising during the day,” Brightsmith said. “Video games such as this would allow pet owners to increase the bird’s activity and increase the bird’s mental stimulation, with an interest in improving the physical and mental health of the birds.”

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