Roughly half of the world’s 100 million parrots currently lives in zoos, breeding facilities, and homes. A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that many of these captive birds suffer from mental health issues caused by an insufficient amount of stimulation. These findings suggest that the more intelligent a bird is, the more needs it has in captivity.
“This study provides the first empirical evidence that intelligent animals can struggle in captivity,” said lead author Georgia Mason, the director of University of Guelph’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare. “Some species seem to adapt well to captivity, but maybe some should not be kept unless you have lots of time and creativity.”
Dr. Mason and her colleagues examined an early 1990s survey on captive breeding success involving over 30,000 birds in the United States, and created an online survey about 1,400 parrots from 50 species. The team wanted to investigate the rates of stereotypic behavior or other types of abnormal activity (such as biting cage bars, chewing or eating their own feathers, or rote pacing in their cages).
By using methodological frameworks from evolutionary biology that allowed them to identify inherited traits that predispose species to risk, the research team found that parrot species whose natural diets involve nuts, seeds, or insects were more likely to chew or eat their feathers.
According to Dr. Mason, such abnormal behavior might be caused by parrots’ evolved needs to manipulate and crunch foods with their beaks, or by the lack of some particular nutrients found in their 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,” she advised.
Moreover, the larger the brains parrots had, the more psychological problems they seemed to experience in captivity. While species such as cockatiels, Jandaya parakeets, or yellow-naped Amazons typically thrive in domestic settings, large-brained and more intelligent parrots like Nanday parakeets, monk parakeets, and some cockatoos suffer more from mental health issues.
Thus, greater intelligence, which is clearly a benefit in the wild, seems to hinder parrots’ capacity to adjust to captivity. Such birds might need more cognitive stimulation (through naturalistic environments, puzzle, or other means), as well as foods that are more complicated to handle in order improve their mental health.