Smart Parrots Need More to Keep Their Minds Busy

Intelligent birds need stimulation in captivity.

blue and yellow macaw eating
A blue and yellow macaw has more neurons in its brain than a rhesus monkey. Oleksandr Zaichuk / EyeEm / Getty Images

Smarter birds need more stimulation in captivity than their not-so-brilliant counterparts.

Researchers recently uncovered that brainier parrots have greater welfare needs when they are confined. The more intelligent they are, the more difficult it can be for them to adapt to not being free.

The study’s lead author, Georgia Mason, says she was intrigued by the question of why some species adjust readily to captivity and others do not. 

“We humans have known this since our first domestication attempts (it’s no accident that we don’t farm gazelles, for example: it just didn’t work!),” Mason tells Treehugger. Mason is the director of the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

“And now we have neat statistical tools for identifying why the nature of some wild species is to be resilient, even to thrive, when kept by us, while others instead risk stress and poor welfare. Parrots seemed like a great group to apply these methods to because they’re so diverse.”

Mason says she was also curious whether parrots could be a type of “weed species” like rats and rhesus monkeys that just thrive everywhere.

“Each time I visited my parents in the southern suburbs of London (in the U.K.), despite the grey skies, houses everywhere, and sounds of planes coming in and out of Heathrow, there would be more and more ring-necked parakeets everywhere—flying overhead and squawking on their birdfeeder. Amazing!” she says.

“I suspected these birds might be so superbly adaptable that they’d thrive in captivity too. (But it turns out I was totally wrong… these clever species have unique and often unmet welfare needs in captivity).”

Studying Parrots

Because pet owners rarely breed their birds, researchers examined data from a survey from the early 1990s about captive hatch rates involving 31,000 parrots in 1,183 private breeding collections.

They also conducted an online survey of 1,378 bird owners that included 50 species, asking about behavior or abnormal activity like biting the cage bars, chewing their feathers, or swaying and pacing in their cages.

They collected information about factors such as diet, housing conditions, and the ratio of brain size to body weight, which is a marker for intelligence. They used that data to look for traits that may make the birds more susceptible to risk.

They discovered that parrot species whose natural diet typically included seeds, nuts, and hard-coated insects were more likely to pluck, chew, or eat their own feathers in captivity. Species with larger brains were more at risk for all forms of repetitive behavior.

The results were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The Role of Diet

What birds eat may play a role in how they react in captivity. In the wild, birds spend about 40% to 75% of their time foraging for food.

Researchers aren’t sure if the type of diet provided may have an impact on how some parrots thrive in captivity or whether it might be important for these birds to have food that requires work to eat.

“One of the main patterns we found was that feather-damaging behaviours like self-plucking were absent from some species (e.g. some of the lovebirds [Fischer’s and yellow-collared], and the military macaw), but really common in others (e.g. seen in two thirds of Solomon’s cockatoos),” Mason says. “The reason related to natural diet: birds that naturally spend their days wrestling their way into tough food items (e.g. fruit with thick skins, nuts, tree seeds) proved to be most at risk of feather-damaging behaviours when kept as pets.”

That confirms, she says, that bird plucking behavior is very different from cats, dogs, primates, and rodents, where the behavior is related to grooming. For chickens, the roots of plucking at feathers are in diet and foraging. And now this new study suggests that’s also the same for parrots.

“But we still can’t tell whether it’s the actions that are important to parrots (being busy busy busy crunching, tearing, pulling …) or instead that particular components in their natural diets are missing from commercial ones (and this could then affect their gut microbiomes, which it turn could affect their brains),” Mason says.

“So in the meantime, our advice is to provide naturalistic diets—nuts, seeds, whole fruits if they have tough skins—as well as making their processed food hard to get at (e.g. encased in things that must be opened or even destroyed).”

Which Birds Are Brilliant?

Some of the brainiest parrot species most at risk of these behaviors include monk and nanday parakeets and the blue and yellow macaw which has more neurons in its brain than the rhesus monkey, Mason says.

Researchers don’t have brain weight data for Goffin’s cockatoo, Mason says, but points out that the species is known for its ability to make tools and is at high risk for repetitive behaviors in captivity.

On the other hand, cockatiels, jandaya parakeets, and yellow-naped Amazons usually do well in domestic situations.

Mason points out, however, that the whole taxonomic group of birds is pretty smart and the behaviors were seen in 23% of the birds they studied.

“Why do brain parrots develop these types of stereotypic behaviours? There are a mixture of behaviours happening here, which could reflect several different processes including boredom and attempts to self-stimulate; frustration and attempts to escape from their cages; and perhaps even brain dysfunction caused by a lack of stimulation during development,” Mason says. 

Using These Findings

Half the global population—about 50 million birds—lives in captivity, the researchers point out. Knowing how to keep them happy and stimulated can improve the welfare for many of them.

We can identify types of species inherently likely to be resilient and easy to keep, and others that pet owners should probably should stay away from unless they have a lot of expertise, time, money, space, etc.,” Mason says.

Now owners know that when these birds don’t have natural-like foods and cognitive stimulation that can result in poor welfare.

Researchers suggest that these results apply to zoos and anyplace parrots are kept and bred because there are conservation implications.

“These results are also the first ever empirical evidence that clever species in captivity have unique welfare needs, which could be important for primates, cetaceans, and other intelligent mammals,” Mason says.

In addition to choosing food selectively, pet owners and parrot keepers should also make other considerations to help their birds thrive.

“One reason they have big brains is because they are ‘extractive foragers,’ so feeding ‘enrichments’ of the type we suggest for feather-damaging-prone birds could well help. Also give them puzzles, and other opportunities to learn (perhaps via training, as long as they can opt out whenever they want). Social housing and outdoor aviaries with natural stimuli could also provide them with constant stimulation, in a way that adds to what the carer can provide,” Mason suggests.

“Some compare parrots to small children: It seems they really do need lots of interaction and chances to learn.”

View Article Sources
  1. Mellor, Emma L., et al. “Nature Calls: Intelligence and Natural Foraging Style Predict Poor Welfare in Captive Parrots.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 288, no. 1960, 2021, p. 20211952., doi:10.1098/rspb.2021.1952

  2. "Intelligence Can Hinder a Bird's Ability to Adapt to Captivity, U of G Study Reveals." University of Guelph, 2021.

  3. Georgia Mason, director of the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada