"World Parrot Day" Special: Parrot Science at the Zoo

Parrots, of the order Psittaciformes, are fascinating birds that attract a lot of attention with their stunning colours and charismatic personalities. Sadly, these traits that make them so popular also contribute to their decline in the wild. Habitat loss and the infamous illegal pet trade are causing serious damage to the parrot populations in the wild, and a 2016 study showed that 28% of all parrot species are threatened with extinction, making them more threatened than other comparable bird taxa.

On the bright side... Parrots are common residents in zoos all over the world, and often part of managed insurance populations, which assist the conservation of their wild counterparts in numerous ways, from contributions to reintroduction and field conservation programmes to research and education (find out more about the missions of modern zoos here.)

I am one of the lucky people that get to do applied behavioural research on this fantastic bird taxon, as part of my PhD at the University of Birmingham. I started in October 2018, very excited with the project and its prospects, and I must say, one year and a half later, I am not disappointed! In order to join the "World Parrot Day" celebrations, here I give you an overview of what my parrot-themed research project is all about...

What am I doing?

I am investigating how to naturalise the behaviour of zoo-housed parrots, more specifically the south American scarlet macaw (Ara macao), the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) and the Australian swift parrot (Lathamus discolor). The aim is to find out what can we change within parrot enclosures to optimise their use and encourage natural behaviours that are under-represented in the captive parrots' behavioural repertoire. This project will enable a parrot extension to the Enclosure Design Tool (EDT), a web application created by the University of Birmingham and partners, to help captive facilities comparing the behaviour of their animals with their wild counterparts.

Why am I doing it?

We already covered that parrots are highly threatened, and that captive parrots can be part of the solution... However, to unleash the full conservation potential of captive parrots, there are problems that need addressing and challenges to overcome. First, long-term captivity may lead to loss and/or modification of natural behaviours. Second, captivity may also lead to changes in organ, muscular and skeletal morphology and function. If these problems are not addressed, in the future we may struggle to find "true representatives" of wild species in our care, which will likely affect the success of reintroduction programmes.

Let's also not forget another (very) important consideration: animal welfare, another mission and commitment of modern zoos! Parrots are cognitively advanced and, according to a 2016 study, have comparable to greater forebrain neuron densities than primates. This is definitely an advantageous adaptation to survive in the complex environments they live in the wild, where they have to navigate complex structures and reach and manipulate a diversity of challenging food items (e.g. fruit, seeds, flowers, nectar, insects, etc, depending on the species). In human care, if they are left physically and psychologically unchallenged, their welfare may be compromised, and abnormal behaviours such as stereotypies and feather-picking may occur. Giving zoo animals the opportunity to exhibit natural behaviours is fundamental for their welfare, as highlighted in the WAZA Welfare Strategy.

How am I doing it?

The study is divided in three phases:

(1) Collect baseline behavioural data at each zoo, to figure out what natural behaviours are missing or under-represented in those parrot groups.

(2) Compare baseline data with available data from wild parrots and suggest enclosure, husbandry and management modifications to enable and encourage the behaviours found missing or under-represented. These modifications include: adding and/or moving the enclosure's "furniture" around, altering and diversifying feeding techniques, adding specific enrichment strategies, etc.

(3) Once the modifications have been applied, collect post-modification behavioural data to assess how effective they are in encouraging the desired behaviours.

I am using three protocols, for cognition, locomotion and social behaviours. These protocols overlap, and therefore they can be combined into a mega data set of "general behaviours", but in each one I further record specialist behaviours. For example, in the cognition protocol one of the things I record is the type of food and objects they interact with, while in the locomotion and social protocols I record type of support use and proximity to other individuals, respectively.

Who is involved?

I have used the word "I" a lot throughout this article, but several people and institutions are involved in this research. My supervisors Dr. Jackie Chappell and Dr. Susannah Thorpe, who have of course been integral in the planning of this study, and are the creators of the EDT, from which this project arose. Also, this research is only possible thanks to the main funder, the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), CENTA, and my zoo partners, Drayton Manor Park & Zoo (UK) and Jurong Bird Park (Wildlife Reserves Singapore).

What's next?

I am currently still collecting baseline data but will be hopefully finishing "Phase 1" soon, once current lock down restrictions are lifted and I am allowed back in the zoo. If everything goes according to plan, I should start the post-modification data collection in October. I am very excited for that stage, as I am really interested to see whether the proposed modifications will work! I am leaving it with some suspense in the air for now, but I promise to get back to you with more information and conclusions from my project - maybe in next year's World Parrot Day? ... For now head to the "World Parrot Day" Facebook page and keep an eye out for the parrot-themed resources and activities planned to celebrate these absolutely fantastic animals:

Ricardo is a zoo researcher in animal behaviour and a PhD student at the University of Birmingham. Find out more about Ricardo's background here.


McPhee, M. E. (2004). Generations in captivity increases behavioral variance: Considerations for captive breeding and reintroduction programs. Biological Conservation, 115(1), 71–77. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0006-3207(03)00095-8

Mellor, D. J., Hunt, S., & Gusset, M. (2015). Caring for Wildlife: The World Zoo and Aquarium Welfare Strategy. Gland.

O’Regan, H. J., & Kitchener, A. C. (2005). The effects of captivity on the morphology of captive, domesticated and feral mammals. Mammal Review, 35(3–4), 215–230. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2907.2005.00070.x

Olah, G., Butchart, S. H. M., Symes, A., Guzmán, I. M., Cunningham, R., Brightsmith, D. J., & Heinsohn, R. (2016). Ecological and socio-economic factors affecting extinction risk in parrots. Biodiversity and Conservation, 25(2), 205–223. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-015-1036-z

Olkowicz, S., Kocourek, M., Luèan, R. K., Porteš, M., Fitch, W. T., Herculano-Houzel, S., & Nemec, P. (2016). Birds have primate-like numbers of neurons in the forebrain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(26), 7255–7260. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1517131113

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