Smarter Parrots Need More Stimulation

The study could apply to other animals.

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The smarter the bird, the more unique welfare needs it has in captivity, according to a U of G first-ever study.

This finding may apply to other brainy captive creatures including great apes, elephants and whales, said the study’s lead author, Dr. Georgia Mason, director of U of G’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare.

“This study provides the first empirical evidence that intelligent animals can struggle in captivity,” said Mason, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology.

The study also revealed for the first time that greater intelligence — a benefit in the wild — can hinder large-brained parrots’ adjustment to captivity.

Roughly half of the world’s parrots now live in homes, zoos and breeding facilities.

“What’s new in this study is that we’re showing why some species are at risk and others are fine.”

Published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the study highlights the need for cognitive stimulation and foods that require more complicated physical handling to improve care of birds.

Co-authors are Heather McDonald, a former U of G PhD student who is now with Mount Sinai Health in Toronto, as well as researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K. and Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

The researchers examined two main data sources.

One was an early 1990s survey on captive breeding success involving more than 30,000 birds in the United States. The team also ran an online survey involving almost 1,400 pet parrots in 50 species for stereotypic behaviour, or abnormal activity such as biting at cage bars, chewing or even eating feathers, and swaying, bouncing or rote pacing in cages.

They looked at housing conditions, brain size-body weight ratios (a marker for intelligence), diets and other factors, and used a form of analysis that allows evolutionary biologists to tease out inherited traits that predispose species to risk.

They found that species whose natural diet involves nuts, seeds and tough-coated insects were more likely to pluck, chew or even eat their feathers. Parrot species with relatively large brains were more at risk for all other forms of stereotypic behaviour.

That finding suggests that owners need to ensure naturalistic diets rather than providing processed foods to domestic birds. Wild parrots normally spend 40 to 75 per cent of their time in foraging.

Mason said parrots may have evolved needs to crunch and manipulate with their beaks — even when their food is ready-processed and presented in a bowl — or may need particular nutrients in natural diets.

“We don’t know which is the most important to feather-plucking birds. So ideally owners should provide naturalistic food items intact so that parrots really have to break their way in and do extractive foraging as they do in the wild.”

Cockatiels, Jandaya parakeets and yellow-naped Amazons, for instance, typically thrive in domestic settings. But relatively large-brained parrots such as Nanday parakeets, monk parakeets and some cockatoos suffer more psychological welfare problems.

“These intelligent species are more invasive, too — another reason to treat them with extra care,” said Mason.

Most parrots are highly social but are often housed alone and sometimes in monotonous and predictable conditions.

“Some species seem to adapt well to captivity, but maybe some should not be kept unless you have lots of time and creativity.”

She said owners should provide more stimulation to birds, including more naturalistic aviaries along with puzzles and other enrichment items.

“Good parrot carers are doing this already. But if you’re new to parrots, pick a species likely to thrive. Don’t pick parrots that are not a good fit for your place and lifestyle.”

About half of the world’s estimated 100 million parrots live in captivity, most as pets in private homes. In the wild, more than 40 per cent of species are threatened or near threatened, said Mason, who has discussed her new study with the World Parrot Trust.

“It’s really important from a conservation point of view to have good parrot welfare.”

Parrots That Show Selfless Kindness

A good study has recently been done on grey parrots.

experiment

According to Charles Darwin, helping others just doesn’t make sense. Yet we’ve seemingly seen altruism time and again in the animal kingdom: in primates, in canines, in cetaceanspinnipeds, even vampire bats. Now, for the first time, it’s been demonstrated in birds.

The kind bird is one of the titans of avian intelligence, the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). New experiments have shown these birds happily helping each other acquire treats, without any assumption or anticipation that their altruism will be reciprocated.

“We found that African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves,” explained behavioural biologist Désirée Brucks of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.

But the birds take it one step further. Unlike primates, for example, the parrots display no anger or envy if one of their friends receives favourable treatment, instead seeming quite content that good things are happening to a buddy.

Among the bird kingdom, it’s the corvids – such as crows and ravens – that are probably the most famed for their wicked smarts, and with very good reason. In fact, corvids have demonstrated skills previously only observed in primates.

However, the researchers said, corvids have failed tests of altruism. But there are other smart birds out there – like parrots. Cockatoos can make their own tools, and have even demonstrated playful creativity. And African grey parrots have proven to be smarter than a human child in some tests.

So, the research team designed a test for altruism, and gave it to two different types of parrots – eight African greys, and six blue-headed macaws (Primolius couloni).

The birds had been previously trained to exchange tokens (metal washers) for treats. This training was refreshed, and the scientists assessed their subjects’ relationships with other birds of their species. Each bird was tested with one bird with whom they had a close bond, and a second bird with a less close bond.

The birds were then placed in a clear perspex enclosure, with a dividing wall between them. The front of the box had holes through which items could be exchanged with a human; and the dividing wall between the birds also had a hole, through which the two birds could also exchange items.

All the birds quickly understood the concept of swapping the washer for a piece of walnut, and were able to do so. But, when only one of two birds was given tokens, only the African grey parrots, not the macaws, also deliberately gave tokens to their buddies.

“Remarkably, African grey parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend, so they behaved very ‘prosocially,'” said zoologist Auguste von Bayern of Oxford University.

“It surprised us that 7 out of 8 African grey parrots provided their partner with tokens spontaneously – in their very first trial – thus without having experienced the social setting of this task before and without knowing that they would be tested in the other role later on. Therefore, the parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting reciprocation in return.”

In all, they voluntarily gave other African grey parrots 157 out of 320 tokens – nearly half. And, interestingly, although they passed tokens regardless of their social bond, they did give more tokens to birds with whom they shared a close bond.

The macaws, by contrast, rarely passed their tokens through to the other parrot. If they did, they dropped it through the hole; and they did it more often when the human experimenter was present. This led the scientists to believe the macaws were trying to pass the token to the human, not their buddy.

The difference could be due to social differences between the species in the wild, but there was one more interesting thing. In a separate recent study, the researchers showed that, when an African grey parrot sees a friend getting a better treat, they didn’t seem particularly bothered. This is in contrast to animals such as chimpanzees, who tend to get riled up about it.

According to von Bayern, this could be because the parrots monogamously mate for life.

“Given that parrots are so closely bonded with a single individual and thus so mutually interdependent, it does not make any difference if one of them gets a better pay-off once in a while,” she said.

“What counts is that together, they function as a unit that can achieve much more than each of them on their own (in addition to raising their joint offspring). This is probably why parrots are much more tolerant towards unequal treatment than species that are not long-term monogamous, while still being excellent cooperators.”

The research has been published in Current Biology.