Research Shows Brainy Parrots Have Unique Welfare Needs

Horst Dunkhorst, Pexels, free download.

Source: Horst Dunkhorst, Pexels, free download.

I'm always looking for detailed research that focuses on the welfare needs of common companion animals (AKA "pets"). I recently read an outstanding paper by the University of Bristol's (UK) Emma Mellor and her distinguished colleagues titled "Nature calls: Intelligence and natural foraging style predict poor welfare in captive parrots."

I was impressed by their research methods and the rigor with which they analyzed a huge database (115 species and 10,255 pairs in breeding centers, and 50 species and 1,378 individuals in private homes), and am pleased the University of Guelph's renowned animal welfare expert Georgia Mason, lead author on this piece, could take the time to answer a few questions on their landmark study. Here's what she had to say.

Why did you write this paper?

We wrote our essay because we were so excited about the project and its revealing results. And we aimed high with the journal of choice (this one only accepts less than 25 percent of the work submitted to it). Our behavioural data came from parrot carers from 47 countries, and nearly 2,000 birds. After some tidying, our final dataset contained detailed information on 1,378 individuals spanning 50 species.

What are some of your findings and major messages?

We learned that 21 percent of the birds plucked at or chewed their own feathers (something that can cause baldness or even damage skin). Many parrots also performed other abnormal, repetitive "stereotypic behaviours" such as chewing the bars of their cage, bobbing up-and-down repetitively, or climbing round and round in circles.

One overall theme is that for pet parrots, we can now identify types of species inherently likely to be resilient and easy to keep, and others that should be avoided unless you have lots of expertise, time, money, and space. Thus, some species seem really prone to poor psychological welfare–many cockatoos, for example, are at risk of all of the stereotypic behaviours for which we had data. We’re sure it is possible to keep these birds well, and that some experts do meet their needs. But getting it right can really be really challenging.

For similar size and glamour, some Amazons (e.g. lilac-crested and yellow-nape) are far more likely to do well psychologically. Other parakeets are also prone to doing well too—for instance, the Mandaya and barred parakeets. Cockatiels and budgerigars are also a great alternative–not least because they're actually semi-domesticated.

The research also highlights two important welfare needs: naturalistic foods and cognitive stimulation. Good carers know this already, and we did find that at-risk species were being given bigger cages. However, it's clear that not everyone is able to meet these birds’ needs, perhaps because it is challenging.

We also learned that species that naturally spend lots of time breaking into food items encased in lignin or chitin (seeds, nuts, fruits with thick peels, and insects) were most at risk of feather-damaging behaviour. This shows that plucking behaviours in birds are very different from those of mammals: hair-plucking in cats, dogs, primates, and rodents has its origins in normal grooming. \

But we can’t tell yet whether it’s the actions that are important to these parrots (crunching, tearing, or pulling), or instead the presence of key nutrients in natural diets (which could affect gut microbiomes, for example). So our advice is to provide nuts, seeds, whole fruits with tough skins, and make any processed food difficult to get at (e.g. encased in things that must be opened or destroyed).

For all other stereotypic behaviours, relative brain size was the key risk (our proxy measures for learning abilities because it correlates with pallium size, the avian equivalent of a neocortex). Brain sizes varied from around 2 percent of body weight to double that. This finding suggests a need for high levels of cognitive stimulation. Species at particular risk here include Monk and Nanday parakeets—both also are invasive species, as is typical of brainy birds—and blue-and-yellow macaws (who have more neurons in their brains than do rhesus monkeys). Goffin’s cockatoos are at risk too. We didn’t have brain weight data for them, but they’ve become famous recently for tool-making and we found they are highly prone to performing stereotypic behaviours.

We also wondered why intelligent species develop such a mix of stereotypic behaviours. We think this reflects several different processes, including boredom and attempts to self-stimulate; frustration and attempts to escape their cages; and even brain dysfunction caused by a lack of stimulation during development.

These results for brain size are also the first empirical evidence that clever species have unique welfare needs. They, therefore, suggest that brain size and a lack of cognitive stimulation could put other intelligent groups, such as primates and cetaceans, at risk too. Our data do not prove that the same issues apply here, but they do make it urgent to find out. And they show that worrying about the welfare of intelligent species is not just anthropomorphism.

How does your paper differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

The way we use data on evolved traits to identify risk and protective factors across species is pretty new. And it’s important because it generates principles that can apply to additional species outside of the original dataset. We can start predicting who’s going to be in trouble, and then even prevent welfare problems rather than just react to them post hoc.

This type of research can even generate practical recommendations about species to keep or avoid. For example, we would question the keeping of smart birds who are also invasive (e.g. monk, ringneck, and Nanday parakeets). The combination of invasiveness and welfare problems is a good reason to phase them out,


In conversation with Dr. Georgia Mason.

1) The abstract for this paper reads: Understanding why some species thrive in captivity, while others struggle to adjust, can suggest new ways to improve animal care. Approximately half of all Psittaciformes, a highly threatened order, live in zoos, breeding centres and private homes. Here, some species are prone to behavioural and reproductive problems that raise conservation and ethical concerns. To identify risk factors, we analysed data on hatching rates in breeding centres (115 species, 10 255 pairs) and stereotypic behaviour (SB) in private homes (50 species, 1378 individuals), using phylogenetic comparative methods (PCMs). Small captive population sizes predicted low hatch rates, potentially due to genetic bottlenecks, inbreeding and low availability of compatible mates. Species naturally reliant on diets requiring substantial handling were most prone to feather-damaging behaviours (e.g. self-plucking), indicating inadequacies in the composition or presentation of feed (often highly processed). Parrot species with relatively large brains were most prone to oral and whole-body SB: the first empirical evidence that intelligence can confer poor captive welfare. Together, results suggest that more naturalistic diets would improve welfare, and that intelligent psittacines need increased cognitive stimulation. These findings should help improve captive parrot care and inspire further PCM research to understand species differences in responses to captivity.

Bekoff, Marc. Prudent Parrots Delay Taking Food to Get More in the Future. (A set of creative experiments shows these bright birds are shrewd economists.)

_____. Parrots to the Rescue: How they Help Veterans with PTSD.

_____. Captive Grey Parrots Suffer From Social Isolation Loneliness. (This fascinating study on parrot DNA shows social isolation is very stressful.)