Unleashing the conservation potential of captive parrots by enabling wild behaviours

views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Many species have benefitted from these programmes, and some of them, like the Przewalski’s horse and the Californian condor, would have gone irremediably extinct if they had not been reintroduced from captivity.”

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A group of five African grey parrots adopted by Lincolnshire Wildlife Park hit the news recently when it was reported that they had been encouraging one another to swear. Many species of parrot readily mimic human speech and are motivated by getting a reaction from their audience. These African grey parrots not only mimicked swearing but also the laughter of keepers and visitors that would inevitably be provoked by their performance. Then the parrots’ laughter would encourage other parrots to swear, perpetuating the cycle of foul-mouthed (or should that be fowl-mouthed?) misbehaviour. Parrots are incredibly popular birds, and not just because of their aptitude for swearing. Their vibrant colours, diversity, intelligence and charisma attract a lot of attention and interest.

Sadly, there is a dark side to this popularity. In order to meet demand for these animals for the illegal pet trade, they are often snatched from their natural habitat, causing serious declines in their wild populations. Many pet parrots end up neglected or are confiscated and must be cared for by sanctuaries or zoos. This is exacerbated further by habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation through human activities such as logging, mineral extraction, the clearing of forest for agriculture, and climate change. As a result, over a quarter of all parrot species are threatened with extinction.

On a more positive note, more than 60,000 individual parrots of many species, some of which have been rescued or confiscated, are kept in carefully managed populations in zoos all over the world. But how can these captive parrots be of help to their wild counterparts? Zoos act as ‘arks’ or ‘insurance populations’ to preserve and increase breeding populations of endangered animals, but they may also be involved in reintroduction programmes, re-establishing or boosting populations in the wild, if and when necessary. Many species have benefitted from these programmes, and some of them, like the Przewalski’s horse and the Californian condor, would have gone irremediably extinct if they had not been reintroduced from captivity.

However, reintroducing captive-bred individuals is not an easy or straightforward task. Animals’ brains and bodies evolve specific adaptations to their natural habitat and the challenges it poses for survival. Captivity can result in loss of natural behaviours and modification of organ, muscular and skeletal features. If captive individuals no longer have the physical and behavioural abilities to navigate the complexities and overcome the challenges of their natural habitat, they are unlikely to survive once they have been released. Encouraging and enabling expression of natural behaviours is also positive for the welfare of those parrots which will remain in zoos. We are therefore increasing parrots’ conservation potential for reintroduction programmes, and also having a positive impact on the welfare of zoo-housed parrots.

In order to help zoos, sanctuaries and other ex situ facilities (like rehabilitation centres) in this challenging task, the University of Birmingham partnered with several institutions to develop the Enclosure Design Tool, or EDT. The EDT is a web application that compares the behaviour of captive animals with their wild counterparts, and proposes enclosure and management modifications in order to enable the natural behaviours identified as missing or underrepresented. It was first developed for great apes, and several zoos, rehabilitation centres and sanctuaries are already using it for their chimpanzees and orangutans. However, that was just the beginning and a parrot extension of the EDT is already under development.

In order to set up the EDT, extensive research on wild parrot behaviours and a solid scientific evidence base are necessary. An on-going project with zoo partners Drayton Manor Theme Park and Zoo and the Jurong Bird Park, part of Wildlife Reserves Singapore, is helping to determine what natural behaviours need to be encouraged in parrots, and what enclosure modifications are most effective in enabling those behaviours. Selecting representative parrot species was a challenging task, but a few species were selected from different geographic locations (Australia, Africa and South America), and with different behavioural ecology. While some are frequently kept in captivity, others are less common but of more immediate conservation concern.

Once the EDT is up and running for parrots, zoos and sanctuaries will have a useful tool to assist them in encouraging natural behaviours in their parrots. By providing parrots in our care with enriched and stimulating environments, closer to what they experience in the wild, we are ensuring they stay as similar as possible to their wild counterparts, improving their welfare and greatly increasing their conservation potential.

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