Reflections on Parrot Behaviour

Parrot Behaviour

Reflections on Parrot Behaviour

Parrot BehaviourWhen we look in the mirror, we know who looks back. Children learn that a mirror image is not a real person by the age of two. It takes them another year or so to recognise their reflection as themselves. Humans take this ability for granted, but it is in fact quite rare in the animal kingdom. So, what does your pet bird see in the mirror?

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

The vast majority of animals will respond to a mirror as though it is another animal, at least at first. Some will attack their reflection, which of course fights back. Many birds fall in this category. Others will try to make friends and may even court the mirror image.

Most animals will soon realise that the reflection is not real. In experiments with African Grey parrots, the birds will at first try to talk to the mirror, but give up when it doesn’t respond. They then start to look behind the mirror; some of us have seen cats do the same. The image has no scent and makes no sound, reducing its credibility.

An animal needs to have a certain sense of self before it can recognise itself. Researchers test this by applying a mark to the animal in a place that is only visible in a mirror. The animal is unaware of the marking process. When it sees itself in the mirror, a self-aware animal will immediately touch the mark on its own body. Think of it as that moment in the bathroom when you spot the cappuccino foam on your nose.

The only mammals, other than humans, that can do this are the great apes, elephants and dolphins. Monkeys do not recognise themselves. In the bird world, some members of the crow family show self-recognition. A magpie will remove a coloured sticker from its body when it spots the offending mark in the mirror, and so will pigeons. However, most birds, including parrots, don’t show this behaviour.

Smoke and Mirrors

Dr Irene Pepperberg has spent a lifetime working with African Grey parrots. She studies learning and language as part of the Harvard Animal Studies Project. Experiments in her laboratory looked at mirror use in parrots, with intriguing results.

The researchers placed either a treat or a scary object in a small box. The open side of the box faced a mirror. Alo and Kyaaro, both African Grey parrots, took turns to approach the box from behind. The birds were quick to check the reflection in the mirror; and if the mirror showed a scary object in the box, they retreated, but if they spotted a treat, they retrieved it. Neither parrot ever mistook the reflection for the real thing – they looked at the reflection, but went straight for the hidden treat inside the box.

In a second set of experiments, the researchers used a series of up to four boxes. They placed a treat in one of these. Alo and Kyaaro couldn’t see into the boxes, but they could view the contents in a mirror angled near the boxes. The birds were able to use the mirror to identify the correct box, containing a treat. Without a mirror, they couldn’t find the right box.

This research shows that birds can use mirrors to solve problems. They somehow know that the reflection represents the real world. At the same time, one wonders how they explain the aloof but handsome stranger in the mirror.

Budgerigars and Mirrors

Budgerigars are not able to recognise themselves in a mirror. Not only do they seem to think the mirror is another bird, they also want to get to know it better. Budgies may even prefer a mirror to a real bird. Experiments have shown that, far from familiarity breeding contempt, this affection increases over time.

Before cutting screen time for your pet, take heart in some positive effects of mirrors. Researchers at Saint Joseph’s University put mirrors with colonies of budgies. Birds who spent more time with their reflection also had stronger bonds with their mates. It seems that these individuals are more gregarious in general. For them, a mirror is good company when their mate is not in the mood.

The intelligence of birds is well recognised. Pet birds often become bored, especially when housed alone. Cage enrichment by providing toys, including mirrors, is an excellent way to provide stimulation and in some cases may help prevent abnormal behaviour such as feather plucking. Mirrors may be even more effective with added sound, such as a bell.

We may never know what our feathered friends are thinking as they look in the mirror.
You are the fairest of them all, perhaps?

With thanks to LoveMyVouchers.co.uk for this revealing look into how birds and other members of the animal kingdom react to mirrors.

To equip your bird cage with mirrors and keep your pet parrot enriches visit www.ParrotEssentials.co.uk/Mirrors

Blue-throated Macaw – Reinvigorating wild population

Blue-throated macaw

Blue-throated Macaw Background Information

  • Bolivia is home to 12 species of macaws, and most are thriving. Not among these healthy parrot populations, however, is the Critically Endangered Blue-throated macaw (Ara glaucogularis), with less than 15 breeding pairs known to be nesting in a remote, widely dispersed range in the north of the country.
  • Years of intensive effort using traditional conservation methods to protect wild Blue-throated macaw from predators, raise chick survival rates, and engage local human communities have not significantly boosted the wild population nor have new breeding pairs been discovered.
  • Rethinking a long-held view that captive-bred parrots released to the wild have little hope of surviving there, James Gilardi is working with local and international partners to select and prepare captive, pet trade and confiscated macaws to join their wild counterparts.
  • Although there haven’t been any releases of captive Blue-throated macaw as yet, Gilardi is confident that wild populations of the species can recover if the captive birds are carefully chosen, health screened, and fully prepared for the wild.
Pair of blue-throated-macaw
Blue-throated Macaws at nest cavity. Poachers knew where to find this species when the conservation world did not. The Critically Endangered Ara glaucogularis was rediscovered in 1992 when a former trustee of the World Parrot Trust posed as a wildlife photographer to get a poacher to reveal the location of a single nest. Photo by Darío Podestá

After relentless trapping for the pet trade reduced wild Blue-throated macaw populations to mere rumors, the bird was rediscovered in 1992 in a remote area of Bolivia. Endemic only to this nation, Ara glaucogularis lives in hard-to-reach places that are flooded much of the year. Unable to easily survey similar locales, conservationists could only hope that more of the Critically Endangered parrots existed than the hundred or so they originally found.

An intensive regimen to protect the remaining birds was put into action by local NGOs —including the Conservación de Loros de Bolivia, and the Research Center for Biodiversity and the Environment — along with academic collaborators and the World Parrot Trust.

However, more than a decade of hands-on conservation yielded frustrating results, with no significant population increase or recruitment of new breeding pairs.

At that point the World Parrot Trust, under the guidance of executive director Jamie Gilardi, began to consider the captive population they had been managing for more than 15 years in a different light. Under the right conditions, perhaps some of these birds could be readied for release to the wild. If captive-reared bird releases were successful, then parrots rescued from the illegal trade might also help create a bit of bird “restitution.”

James Gilardi in Bolivia
James Gilardi (right), executive director of the World Parrot Trust, a global conservation organization founded in 1989, trains Dr. Oka Dwipo, WPT’s Indonesia Program Coordinator, to climb to parrot nests in Bali, Indonesia (not a Blue-throated macaw project). Gilardi was drawn to conserving parrots because, in addition to being the most endangered bird group, they are often impacted by local problems that are often solvable. “I was hopeful that my fieldwork could have direct and meaningful consequences for the conservation of the species I was working on,” he explained. Photo courtesy of Wild Parrot Trust

Now Gilardi and his colleagues hope to add more breeding pairs back into Bolivia’s Beni Department, in the northeast corner of the country, by carefully selecting healthy birds in captivity that have retained enough wild ways to be returned to the un-caged life.

“In the past, the thinking was that the only real way to achieve honest-to-goodness conservation was to protect wild birds where they are, and then hope they can recover with human assistance or on their own,” says Gilardi.

But the Blue-throated macaw is in too precarious a position not to explore every possible option to rebuild its population. With likely less than 300 birds scattered across a vast and inhospitable terrain, waiting for nature to take its course might allow the species to slip into extinction. Researchers hope to release a first test group of captive Blue-throated macaws as soon as possible.

Group of blue-throated macaws
Blue-throated macaws have been protected by the national legislation of Bolivia and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1986.
Map with borders
Map showing all known active breeding pairs of Blue-throated Macaw (black dots) from 2007–2012. The birds occupy an area about twice the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut. With so few birds scattered across such a large area, it’s hard for them to meet and mate, reducing chances for population recovery. Reproduced under Creative Commons license from: Reproductive Parameters in the Critically Endangered Blue-Throated Macaw: Limits to the Recovery of a Parrot under Intensive Management. PLoS ONE (2014) Volume 9 (6)

Mongabay: What made you look beyond the usual approaches to protecting wild populations?

Gilardi: When we started out, about 16 years ago, it seemed to us — as had been the case for so many other parrot conservation efforts — that if we just left the birds alone and protected them from people and other predators, then they’d bounce back pretty quickly. Maybe not as fast as rabbits or sea turtles, but certainly over the course of years, we expected the population to stabilize and then start growing.

But with the Blue-throated macaws, we were working with such a small group, and every year some new thing became a big problem [threatening the species with extinction]. One year it was other parrots harassing the nesting pairs. Another year it was predation from small mammals. By the time we got to year ten, we realized there still weren’t that many birds and new recruits weren’t joining the breeding population.

So we slowly came around to the idea that we had to switch our approach because these birds are not only very small in number, they are also spread broadly across the landscape, making it even harder for them to form breeding pairs. These and other factors were apparently preventing the expected recovery.

At that point, [we saw] the captive population we’d been managing for 15 plus years as something that might be essential to the species recovery. So even though our top priority is protecting the wild birds and supporting breeding pairs to help them produce as many chicks as possible every year, we’re also focused on getting captive birds back to Bolivia, breeding them, and releasing those progeny back to selected areas of the wild.

Jose Antonio Diaz Luque
José Antonio Díaz Luque, World Parrot Trust Bolivia program manager, surveying for Bue-throated macaws. Photo courtesy of Wild Parrot Trust

Mongabay: When will you start releasing the birds?

Gilardi: As soon as possible.

One thing about eradicating a species from its former range, is there’s a lot of room for them to return. But lots of things have to be sorted out before any releases happen.

Initially we would want to create a “proof of concept” release site where we build up the number of birds at a site that’s working for them; a place where they’re finding each other, breeding, and raising chicks.

Once we do that, we can start augmenting the existing groups of birds out there, putting two nests here, three over there… until hopefully we’d create a situation where there’s enough population density that the birds can find each other. We’d like all these birds to be in contact with each other, exchanging genes and see the whole population growing. If we got to that point, we’d be well on our way to success.

But first, we need to get the [captive] birds back to Bolivia. Although some birds are in the country, many [confiscated and pet trade birds] are elsewhere: about 50 Blue-throated macaws are in Florida, 30 are in Canada, maybe two dozen are in England, and another two dozen are in the Middle East.

Adult with young Blue-throated macaw
An adult and a young Blue-throated macaw (Ara glaucogularis) in their natural habitat. What makes a releasable bird? Every individual has a different history, said Gilardi. A bird that was a pet for many years and only recently learned how to fly might be better to keep as a breeder, while a younger bird that fledged with a bunch of other macaws and developed flying skills early will likely do well in the wild — hopefully finding a mate, breeding, and taking care of itself. Photo courtesy of Wild Parrot Trust

The birds need to be biologically ready to go, too. Besides getting acclimated to a new place, screened for diseases, and oriented to wild foods, the macaws need to be in good physical condition to fly. Most people don’t realize how a bird’s physical condition plummets in captivity. A wild parrot can fly 40 to 50 kilometers [about 25 to 31 miles] without stopping, but a bird that’s been caged, even for just a few months, would have a hard time flying even one kilometer. It takes time to get the birds to develop that condition, so when they do go out they can fly with confidence, land appropriately, and aren’t completely exhausted by flying 100 meters.

Mongabay: What made you consider returning confiscated and pet trade birds back to the wild?

Gilardi: Up until about ten years ago, the dogma was that parrots are really hard to release back into the wild, and if you do they’re never going to eat properly and survive.

However, apart from the work we do with Critically Endangered species like the Blue-throated macaw, we also work really hard to stop the wild bird trade. One result of enforcement is that large groups of birds get confiscated and many of those birds are common species.

Over time, we learned how to prepare these birds for release [back into the wild]. We tracked them and found they were doing well, so we realized it’s not that hard to do, so long as you get the details right. For example, we’ve successfully reintroduced African grey parrots in Uganda, and Scarlet and Great-green Macaws in Central America.

Blue-throated-macaw in Bolivia
Blue-throated macaw (Ara glaucogularis). Photo by Darío Podestá

Recently, the Ara Project in Costa Rica discovered that Great-green macaws (Ara ambiguus) released over the past few years currently have at least eight active nests. That’s more than 25 percent of the total number of nests for the species in the entire country.

In the case of the Blue-throated macaw, we’re eager to apply this reintegration method that we’ve developed as a result of our work on stopping the wild bird trade. Now we feel very comfortable releasing birds that were kept in captivity, whether they were confiscated or captive bred. That’s why we’re confident that releasing Blue-throated macaws can be a very productive way to get more birds back into the wild so their population recovery can take place.

We kind of got here sideways; it wasn’t intentional, but we ended up developing a lot of confidence in this new tool. For us, it’s really exciting because it opens up a ton of possibilities, not only for getting the job done, but also for allowing all kinds of partnerships — with the London Zoo, Africa Lion Safari in Canada, Natural Encounters Conservation Fund based in the U.S., and other NGO’s all around the world.

Compared to ten years ago, we view the whole conservation landscape differently [and more positively]. We never dreamed we’d be able to put lots of these birds back into the wild. Now we can.

For more information on the Topic Visit: World Parrot Trust

Food, Toys & Accessories Suitable for Macaw Parrots

Source: Mongabay.com