Overview

Parrots, of the order Psittaciformes, are key species in tropical ecosystems around the world. They are important determinants of plant species richness (through seed dispersal and predation), and may play a role in pollination of trees. However, many species are critically endangered because of anthropogenic impacts such as habitat loss or degradation through logging, agriculture, or mining activities, or because individuals are captured illegally for the pet trade. Zoos and other captive collections therefore play a vital role as ‘arks’, preserving the species (both its genome and the unique adaptations that are fundamental to its success in the wild), and complementing in situ conservation efforts.

However, parrots are challenging to keep in captivity. In the wild, they forage over large areas, exploiting ephemeral and extremely diverse food sources. Their dietary breadth means that in the wild they must learn to identify and handle many food types, searching for food items in complex canopy environments. They are generally long-lived species, reproducing slowly, and pair bonding depends on individuals finding a compatible mate. The challenges and opportunities provided by natural environments are thus difficult to replicate in captivity. Parrots need both clear flight space (to replicate travel between feeding patches) and complex climbing supports (to replicate foraging in the canopy), and these contradictory needs are difficult to fulfil in constrained captive enclosures. Breeding success (vital if zoos are to preserve the species) is often low, and with a small pool of potential mates, some individuals never pair bond.

In a previous project, we have created an Enclosure Design Tool (EDT) to elicit wild-type behaviours in captive apes by replicating the physical and mental challenges of tropical forest within captive enclosures in zoos and sanctuaries. This studentship will allow us to extend these principles to parrots by providing a research base on the extent to which wild-type behaviours are missing or constrained in captive parrots. This will enable zoos and other captive collections to preserve both the genome and the unique behavioural adaptations of the species they care for.

 

Scarlet macaw (Ara macao). Photo: Belizian, Wikimedia Commons

Methodology

Literature review of the behavioural ecology of the chosen parrot species, including aspects of cognition, locomotion, and social behaviour.

Where specific data is missing from the wild, it may be possible to undertake field studies, or captive studies on free-flying populations, or those in very large enclosures (e.g. at the Parrot Zoo).

Field work in zoos to quantify how the behaviour of captive parrots differs from that of their wild counterparts, in both frequency and diversity. This will use observational protocols to build a dataset that can be compared to the behavioural ecology of wild parrots.

Use the data generated in points 1-3 to develop enclosure modifications and enhanced foraging opportunities to elicit missing or reduced wild-type behaviours.

Compare behavior pre- and post-enclosure modification to evaluate success in eliciting a behavioural profile closer to that of wild parrots.

Training and Skills

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to CENTA research  themes. 

Training in the specialist methodologies required for behavioural fieldwork will be provided by Chappell and Thorpe. Chappell will provide training in sampling and recording cognitive and social, while Thorpe will provide training recording movement and ecology. They will provide additional intensive training in the specific advanced statistical techniques required for this project (e.g. linear modelling techniques such as GLM, GLMM and log-linear modelling), and statistical programming using R. This will also be required in order for the student to develop aspects of the project, through modelling the data and programmatically identifying key behavioural elements.

Timeline

Year 1: Literature review of the behavioural ecology of the species selected. Development of observational behavioural data collection protocol to target key wild-type behaviours identified in the review. Training in this protocol at UK zoos.

Year 2: Fieldwork at zoos to quantify how captive parrot behaviour differs from that of wild conspecifics. Use this data to modify enclosures to elicit missing or under-represented behaviours, then collect post-modification data. Publish on this work.

Year 3: Iterate modification and evaluation process from Year 2, and/or undertake fieldwork in the wild or on more naturalistically-housed populations to gather data on missing aspects of wild parrot behavioural ecology. Write and publish resulting papers.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

This PhD studentship is part of a broader research programme in which we are working with a number of organisations involved in conservation and rehabilitation of a variety of species. This includes zoos in the UK (e.g. Twycross, Chester, and Drayton Manor Zoos), as well as NGOs involved in ape conservation in range countries. Thus, the student will be embedded in an existing network of organisations, with the opportunity to extend the network to NGOs involved in parrot conservation. We do not currently have a CASE partner for this project, but one may develop during the course of the project.

Further Details

We expect candidates to have a Merit or Distinction at MSc level in a relevant subject. Experience of collecting behavioural data on birds would also be an advantage, and field work experience would be desirable.

Dr Jackie Chappell

School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham

+44 (0)121 414 3257

j.m.chappell@bham.ac.uk

Dr Susannah Thorpe

School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham

+44 (0)121 414 5040

S.K.Thorpe@bham.ac.uk