A bird’s eye view on how a little enrichment can go a long way

The 3Rs – Replacement, Refinement and Reduction – are a widely accepted ethical framework for conducting scientific experiments using animals humanely, and have become a focus for academic funding in recent years. As a result, there have been thorough housing and management guidelines for keeping different animal species for research purposes published and enforced by the UK Home Office. However, surprisingly few species-specific guidelines for housing birds have made it into scientific policy or legislation, although, at least in the EU, they make up approximately 25% of animals used in research and over 100,000 procedures are carried out on birds every year under the UK Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Parrots are one of the most popular companion animals in the world after dogs and cats, and their confinement for research purposes, especially for behavioural tests, are on the rise. Among birds, psittacines are distinctive for their intelligence,, anatomy, manipulatory abilities and strong exploratory tendencies. The amount of exploration a captive animal displays is widely accepted to be a good behavioural indicator of its welfare and cognitive well-being. We have observed exploratory behaviour in two captive groups of the social New Zealand red-fronted parakeet, or 'kakariki' (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae) housed indoors in a laboratory environment, and tested their individual cognitive performance on a variety of behavioural tasks. Both groups received a baseline level of environmental enrichment and the same varied feeding regime, but one group received a wider variety of materials in their cage (e.g. saw dust, different perch diameters) and more 'causal problem-solving' toys were provided on a rotation basis. We found that the more enriched group with a greater experience of a wider range of materials and toys explored for significantly longer and displayed a greater diversity of behaviours than the less enriched group of kakariki. We also found that the enriched group showed greater cognitive performance on the individual behavioural tests. We believe this shows that, at least for psittacines, a few changes in the captive research environment, often by simple, easy and economic means, can have large positive effects on an animal's natural behaviour and cognitive well-being. We will discuss the practical implications of how this can be put into effect and how it can be extended, particularly to other avian species.

Zoe Demery 2012