Friendly Pelicans Have Better Luck Mating

Great white pelicans are more successful when they choose their own partners.

great white pelicans at the Blackpool Zoo
Great white pelicans at the Blackpool Zoo nesting area.

Dr. Paul Rose

Animals in captivity often don’t get much say when it comes to choosing a significant other. Breeding programs are set up and matches are made based on genetics, health, age, and other key criteria. But what if a bird just wants to choose a buddy for a partner?

Research led by the University of Exeter in the U.K. found that great white pelicans are much more successful mating when they are allowed to choose their social groups and let their partnerships form naturally.

Great white pelicans are commonly found in captivity: There are about 1,600 birds in 180 zoos around the world. But these familiar birds don’t have a lot of luck breeding in captivity, and they don’t get a lot of research attention.

“They are long-lived and so the zoo housed population is made up of aged birds that are coming to the end of their natural lives. It is not ethical to take birds from the wild for animal collections, so zoos need to work together to increase breeding success,” lead author Paul Rose, of the University of Exeter and Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) Slimbridge Wetland Centre, tells Treehugger.

“There are not too many research papers around on their behavior and welfare in the zoo. Given that zoos like to exhibit them, we felt this to be a useful and relevant exercise in assessing what they do, who they hang out with, and what behaviors might predict breeding, as this could help other zoos prepare their flocks for nesting.”

Studying Friendly Neighbors

For their study, Rose and his colleagues collected data at Blackpool Zoo in the U.K. They observed the birds around two nesting events in 2016 and 2017.

“We collected data on their state behaviors (this means the long duration behaviors that make up most of their day, e.g. preening, swimming, etc.). And we observed where the birds were in the enclosure so that we could evaluate where they preferred to be at specific times of the day,” Rose says.

“We counted the number of birds in different areas of the enclosure and these enclosure areas were identified based on the resources available to the birds. We measured associations by looking at who was nearby to each other, within a neck and bill length of their nearest neighbor. This allowed us to build up a social network.”

In analyzing the birds’ social networks, they were able to identify the most influential birds and see which birds had the strongest bonds.

“If there are some more experienced birds in the flock that has bred before, and they are associating with younger birds, they can pass on this experience and ‘teach’ the younger birds what to do,” Rose says.

“Other published research has identified that great white pelicans can use social learning to gain new behaviors, so the social environment of the flock is clearly very important to how they develop new behaviors. If we understand the social mix of a flock that is important for breeding, we can recommend to other zoos to keep a similar mixture and number of birds.”

Happier Birds with More Successful Mating

Evaluating how birds use their space and allowing them to choose their own “friends” and mates can lead to happier birds and more successful breeding programs, the researchers suggest.

“This is an important component of animal welfare. To give animals control and choice over what they do and how they do it,” Rose says.

“By providing a big enough flock size for each pelican to decide who they want to spend time with and who they would prefer to avoid, this reduces stress and provides a more stable flock. Just like people, animals like to have autonomy over their social behavior, and allowing the birds to decide who to pair up with means the long term outcomes of the pairing are likely to be more successful.”

The results of the study were published in the journal Zoo Biology.

In the wild, great white pelicans are very social birds. They do nearly everything in groups, including foraging, preening, migrating, and nesting.

“They have unique group fishing behaviors, where birds move together to herd fish into the flock so they can be scooped up in the pelican’s bill pouch. The birds work together so that fishing is more effective and saves energy,” Rose says. “When they are housed in zoos, they are provided with large lakes or ponds that allow them to go through the actions of foraging (even though live food feeding is illegal) and they will be kept in groups so that birds have plenty of social interaction.”

The researchers hope these findings will not only help birds in captivity but will also help those in the wild.

“Whilst this species of pelican is doing well in the wild currently, other pelican species are not,” Rose says, “So this research could be useful to kick starting research ideas suitable for conservation of more threatened species in the future.”

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