Roughly half of the world’s estimated 100 million parrots now live in homes, zoos and breeding facilities and many of these birds have a difficult time adjusting. The results of an important new study help to explain why many intelligent birds–and perhaps other animals–struggle in captivity. More specifically, the results revealed that the smarter the bird, the more unique welfare needs it has in captivity*. In other words, greater intelligence — a benefit in the wild — can hinder large-brained parrots’ adjustment to captivity. This finding may apply to other brainy captive creatures including great apes, elephants and whales, among other intelligent creatures. Additional findings of this study are also important to owners of intelligent birds, and that is to ensure they provide them with naturalistic diets rather than processed foods.
*Cockatiels, Jandaya parakeets and yellow-naped Amazons typically thrive in domestic settings. But relatively large-brained parrots such as Nanday parakeets, monk parakeets and some cockatoos suffer more psychological welfare problems.
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 behavior, 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.
Overall, parrot species with relatively large brains were more at risk for all forms of stereotypical behavior. The results of the new study highlight the need for (1) cognitive stimulation and (2) natural foods that require more complicated physical handling by the birds.
Cognitive stimulation: Most parrots are highly social but are often housed alone and sometimes in monotonous and predictable conditions. Researchers say that owners should provide more stimulation to birds, including more naturalistic aviaries along with puzzles and other enrichment items.
Natural diet: Researchers also found that species whose natural diet involves nuts, seeds and tough-coated insects were more likely to pluck, chew or even eat their feathers when they did not have these natural food sources. That finding suggests that owners need to ensure naturalistic diets rather than providing processed foods to domestic birds. Why are processed foods a bad idea? Wild parrots normally spend 40 to 75 per cent of their time in foraging. Researchers say that parrots may have evolved needs to crunch and manipulate with their beaks –rather than food that is ready-processed and presented in a bowl.
Scientists say, “Some species seem to adapt well to captivity, but maybe some should not be kept unless you have lots of time and creativity…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.”
Journal Reference: Emma L. Mellor, Heather K. McDonald Kinkaid, Michael T. Mendl, Innes C. Cuthill, Yvonne R. A. van Zeeland, Georgia J. Mason. Nature calls: intelligence and natural foraging style predict poor welfare in captive parrots. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2021; 288 (1960) DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2021.1952