Enrichment for Breeding Birds

by Robin Shewokis

Enrichment for Breeding Pairs – A Three Year Study at Three Facilities

Historically many aviculturists have stayed away from providing enrichment to their breeding pairs due to fear that the enrichment would disrupt the breeding cycle. The theory went that the pair should be concentrating on building the nest and each other rather than being interested in other objects presented as enrichment. A second obstacle to providing enrichment in large breeding facilities was the lack of time available in a day to create and present the enrichment. Finally, interaction with breeder birds was kept to a minimum with the thought that the birds should be socialized to their mates and not their human care givers. This study hopes to look at all of those dynamics and measure whether providing enrichment to breeding pairs has any effect, either positive or negative, on the breeding success rates over a 3 year period. Well being of the birds over the 3 year period of the study will also be recorded. Well being will be measured by a decrease in aberrant behavior such as feather destructive behavior and an increase in breeding success and good physical health.

Creation of the protocols for the study has been challenging. Initially there were two facilities participating but a third facility offered to take part as well. This caused a need for more site visits to set-up and monitor progress. The facilities are Longo’s Aviaries in Meaford, Ontario, Canada; Hill Country Aviaries in Austin, Texas, US; and Hagen Avicultural Research Institute in Rigaud, Quebec, Canada (herein referred to as HARI). Choosing the aviaries to participate was based on their locations and climate differences. In order for the study to have validity it needed to be shown that climactic differences and therefore varied housing didn’t affect the ability of the facilities to provide enrichment. It was also important to choose facilities that had varied species so that the study didn’t focus on one particular species of parrot. Finally the facilities had to be willing to embrace the idea of the study for 3 years and commit to following through with the protocols that had been established.

Longo’s Aviaries is located in a cold climate where the weather dictates that the birds are housed indoors for an average of 5 months per year. There are outdoor aviaries but they do not have access in the colder months. Lighting is a challenge in some of the buildings but artificial lighting is provided. There are two primary care givers who are offering the enrichment in addition to providing daily husbandry. The species pairs being studied at Longo’s are Moluccan Cockatoos, Umbrella Cockatoos, White-bellied Caiques, Lilac-crowned Amazons, Blue-fronted Amazons, Double Yellow-headed Amazons, White-fronted Amazons, Red-billed Toucans, Edward’s Lories and Blue-throated Conures.

Hill Country Aviaries is located in the warmer climate of Texas. This allows many of the birds to be housed outside all year long in large flights cages. Some of the pairs are housed in barns with smaller cages but still plenty of space for short flights. There are 6 primary caregivers at Hill Country. The species pairs being used for the study at this facility are Greater Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Moluccan Cockatoos, White-bellied Caiques, Lilac-crowned Amazons, Double Yellow-headed Amazons, Blue & Gold Macaws and-----------.

Hagen Avicultural Research Institute is located in Quebec province of Canada. They face many of the same challenges that Longo’s does regarding the climate. They are housing their Amazons and Quakers inside for the next 3 years due to a weather related issue with their outdoor aviaries. The size of the cages is similar to that of the inside aviaries at Hill Country. The macaws being studied do have access to outdoor flights. There are 6 caregivers at HARI with 3 living at the facility. The species pairs being studied at HARI are Blue-fronted Amazons, Quakers, Double Yellow-headed Amazons, Yellow- fronted Amazons, Green-winged Macaws and Orange-winged Amazons.

After meeting with each facility the next step was creating an enrichment program that was manageable for the staff at the facilities while addressing the needs of the species chosen for the study. In an avicultural setting the work load can be overwhelming at times when there are babies to be fed, aviaries to be cleaned, weaning, and training to be done. Adding an enrichment program can be a task that can very easily fall by the wayside. The creation and presentation of the enrichment needs to be as simple as possible while meeting goals set for that enrichment. A calendar of enrichment is essential to keeping the program running. For the purposes of this study a single calendar (available from the author) was created that will be followed by all three facilities. Staff receives the calendar for the upcoming month so that they can prepare or acquire the materials needed for the enrichment offerings. The schedule of presentation can be varied to meet the needs of the facility but enrichment should be given twice a week. The exact days presentation occurs will differ among the facilities. Each month, four categories of enrichment are addressed in a rotating schedule. The categories include tactile, auditory, dietary, and visual enrichment. Specific devices and offerings are listed for each week. The specific items are provided to insure continuity for the study. In future enrichment programs facilities can create a list of offerings to choose from and allow staff the freedom to pick and choose what to offer based on categories. This will keep staff invested as they will have some input into what the birds receive. The calendar will also help with record keeping as staff can refer back to the calendar to see exactly what was provided on a certain date.

If other facilities choose to implement an enrichment program similar to the one used for this study then the specific devices and enrichment opportunities offered are open for creativity based on species needs and the facility’s resources. All enrichment offered should be goal oriented and strive to elicit naturalistic behavior. The following are just some suggestions for getting started. These opportunities are taken from the calendars used by the facilities involved in this study. As with any enrichment program safety is the first consideration. No enrichment should be offered that can present a safety hazard for the birds. In a large facility this can present a challenge as many aviculturists have large collections and are unable to monitor the enrichment as closely as a pet owner or smaller aviculturist. Knowing the limitations and abilities of staff and birds plays a key role in deciding what to offer. In the tactile category items can be presented such as touch boards with a variety of textures for the birds to investigate, chewable wood toys, wet browse or water pans/misting for bathing. This is a very short list and it is limited only by the creativity of the individuals creating the calendar. The auditory category is often underutilized and can be the easiest to provide. Ideas for auditory offerings include same species vocalizations, predator vocalizations, and nature sounds. Dietary enrichment is a challenge in an avicultural setting. Most times aviculturists have very specific diets that they provide for their breeding birds and they may not choose to interfere with those diets. Since this is so often the case dietary enrichment should focus more on how the diet is presented rather than what is presented. Foraging opportunities, food item size, and moving bowls are a few presentation options. More ideas can be found on the study calendars. Visual stimulation/enrichment is another category that gets overlooked. In many facilities there are visual barriers between the cages housing breeding pairs. This is understandable but offering visual stimuli can still occur in this setting. Images of same species birds, movement of perching and the opportunity to view some of the great visual DVDs offered in the bird community are a sampling of how to offer visual enrichment.

All three facilities have extensive records of breeding history for the past three years on the pairs being studied and that will be factored into the study results. The study will show what if any effect following a structured enrichment program has on breeding success rates. The data collection form (available from author) will track reactions to enrichment offerings. This simple step is critical to evaluating the enrichment program and its effects. Maintaining good records of the birds’ reactions to the enrichment helps manage the program and allows the facility to gauge what should be continued and what needs to be modified or discontinued. Systems of recordkeeping will vary among facilities. Each aviculturist needs to create a system for recordkeeping that works in their particular setting. The forms should be user friendly and not detract from the time spent caring for the birds at the facility. In most cases a numbered scale of observations is the most easy and efficient method. If longer comments are needed there should be space provided on the form but asking staff or volunteers to make lengthy observations may cause frustration or disinterest in the project.

The first facility to begin the study was Longo’s Aviaries Inc. The birds at this facility had received somewhat minimal enrichment opportunities (natural browse and auditory enrichment) prior to implementing this study. Initial observations show varied reactions by the birds but none have been negative. Initially the birds were cautious about interacting with the offerings as well as the individuals presenting the enrichment. This has changed as the study has continued and the birds are less apprehensive about interacting with both staff and devices. There has not been any observable change to this point in the birds’ interactions with each other. At Hill Country the initial response has been similar. The birds at HARI have received some of the enrichment offerings in the past and are more accustomed to some interaction with staff so this hasn’t been as great a challenge at that facility. The responses to the enrichment and the care takers will be monitored as the study progresses.

The future of this study is based on the assumption that the facilities continue to follow the calendars and record the observations they make of the birds with the enrichment. The length of the study was determined based on the aviculturists’ experience with breeding cycles of the pairs chosen to participate in the study. Visits to all three facilities will be done on regular intervals by the author to observe the study and to provide support to the facilities where needed. A report covering all three facilities’ experiences will be generated after all three aviaries have been presenting enrichment for six months in the manner outlined by the study. This report will detail the reactions and condition of the birds after having enrichment provided on a regular schedule. Periodic updates will be generated at six month intervals after this initial report to assist in the final assessment of the study at the end of the 3 year period. In the event that a facility sees issues arising from the study protocols or a particular enrichment offering that facility is certainly at liberty to discontinue a particular offering or discontinue their participation in the study. The results of the study will be used for papers that will be submitted to various avicultural organizations in order to enhance aviculturists’ and companion parrot owners’ knowledge of parrot care. At the end of the study the author hopes to present the findings to the avicultural community in order to increase the use on enrichment in an avicultural setting.

Author: Robin Shewokis Affiliation: Owner/Enrichment Specialist, The Leather Elves Date: April 29, 2010
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