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by Carole Precious
Of the approximately 9000 species of birds found on Earth today at least 2500 have been kept in captivity. Often in his attempt to domesticate birds, man has devised ways to keep the birds from flying away; birds are pinioned, clipped, tied to a leash, blindfolded, or caged. Of course not all birds fly so escape by flight was not a problem. Many of these birds have effective forms of defense and aggression, however. (Beware the kick of the Ostrich!)
In this paper I wish to present various ideas about the benefit and necessity of exercise for captive birds, especially psittacines. I have noticed some alarming trends in the keeping of captive parrots. More and more private individuals are successfully raising many of the macaw and parrot species; the hand raised babies are in turn offered to the public as pets. Advertisements in parrot magazines and newsletters boast that the birds for sale are hand-raised with "tender loving care from day one." Qualities of sweetness, submission, cuddliness and the ability to "talk" outweigh fitness, genetic bloodlines, purity of the species, or inherited programming from the natural parents. Similarly, aviaries are more often designed with husbandry requirements such as ease of cleaning and ease in feeding taking priority over considerations such as simulating a natural environment or providing a space which facilitates activity and stimuli deserving of the creature inside it.
It is very easy, as keepers of captive birds, for us to impose human values, or mammalian values, onto our birds. For example, we keep our aviaries at a very comfortable 23 degrees; comfortable for us, that is; but is it really very healthy for the birds? Let us consider temperatures in the "real world." Many of the psittacines are native to the southern hemisphere and live at a tremendous range of altitudes. Many of them are native to regions (i.e. southeast Asia) where the temperatures remain at 20 to 30 degrees and the humidity fluctuates from 50% to 95%. Again, in the rain forests of South America we find varying temperatures due to the seasons and altitudes and changing humidity levels. Here the birds simply use their feathers as natural thermoregulators with a sophisticated system of muscle groups so that they can lift or lay flat each feather on their bodies, thereby locking in or dispersing their body heat. In many aviaries, especially the indoor models, the parrots literally do not need their feathers. They are all dressed up with nowhere to go. All healthy birds spend at least some of their day preening their feathers. Preening ensures that each feather is maintained in tip top condition for insulation/airconditioning, and more often that not, for flight.
Although not all parrots are capable of flight, e.g. the Kea manages quite well to avoid most predators and gather food by running very quickly and staying camouflaged near vegetation, the greatest majority are well designed for flight. I would estimate that many of the Asiatic parakeets which tend to find security in numbers are often travelling at least eight to thirty miles each day in search of food and safe roosting sites. While it is difficult to track the activities of wild birds we know that many macaws will fly several miles a day in search of food, potential mates, ideal nesting sites, fleeing from dangerous predators such as birds of prey and venomous snakes, and they are well designed to do so.
Birds have a highly efficient respiratory system, much more efficient than a mammal's. With each breath a bird replaces nearly all of the air in its lungs. Avian lungs are not like the inflatable baglike lungs of a mammal. Instead they are small, compact and spongy structures. Avian lungs have proportionately the same weight for the size of the bird as a mammal of equal body weight but there is a much greater tissue density in the avian lung so it occupies only half the volume. Birds are also equipped with thin-sided extensions of the lungs called air sacs which are found throughout the body cavity and stretch into the wings and legbones. These air sacs vary in number according to the species. A bird will have anywhere from six to twelve air sacs, which help to provide a highly efficient flow of air to all the body parts. When a bird is flying it has an increased oxygen demand of ten to twenty times the resting demand. Birds also have a very efficient circulatory system. The avian heart is fifty to one hundred percent larger and more powerful than a mammal's of the same size. The walls of the heart are thin to facilitate a quicker exchange of gases and blood. The avian heart's ventricle has more muscle fibre than a mammal's so it is designed to provide a greater capacity for aerobic work and endurance. A bird's average body temperature is ideally maintained at 40 to 42 degrees C.
Exercise can be classified as "anaerobic" which involves sprinting, or any physically intense activity lasting usually just a couple of minutes; or "aerobic" which involves endurance activities. Birds in captivity are lucky if they get any exercise at all! Coming from a tradition of regularly conditioning birds of prey for free-flight I tend to look upon birds as athletes and consider myself to be their coach. By regularly "working" the bird to fly stronger and better each day we can often condition birds to fly several miles and several times a day and return to the trainer. These birds which are exercised on a regular daily basis for two hundred days of the year have often come into breeding condition and maturity one and even two years earlier than other birds of the same age and species which were simply left alone in aviaries. Although it is scientifically difficult to prove this thesis I am convinced that it is not just because these birds become well adjusted to this active life of modified captivity that they feel safe, relaxed and stimulated to breed, but because the exercise itself causes them to feel healthy and fit enough to know they are survivors. In nature only the fittest can survive and almost all creatures are in a constant state of challenge and testing. Juvenile bull elk challenge the lead bull to try to steal away his harem. Young lions strike at the dominant male to try to take over his pride. A female Golden Eagle tests her potential mate by dropping sticks and stones in midair to see if he is agile enough to catch them.
Salmon swim against deadly currents before they are able to safely lay their eggs. Most young hawks are motivated by hunger to follow their parents away from the nest to learn how to hunt for themselves. In other words, establishing the bird in a flying programme offers it a fitness/survival test. How do you think your birds would fare if given a fitness test?
Obesity is the number one problem with most species in captivity and research on humans, laboratory animals and birds alike show that obesity can lead to problems with circulation (snakes often die of gout in captivity) if given a high fat diet and no room or reason to exercise; cardiac congestion, arterial blockages and kidney failure, gall bladder failure and joint disease.
Fortunately there are some things we can do to get our parrots onto an exercise programme, a Jane Fonda Workout, if you will. Exercise research using laboratory animals (rats, dogs) and humans, reveals that physical exertion serves to release various hormones, reduces the need for the pancreas to release insulin, increases muscular strength and flexibility. Usually the primary reason why it is difficult to give captive parrots enough exercise is lack of space but when designing an aviary for most birds try to keep these ideas in mind. A bird exerts himself most when trying to fly upward. If you are pinched for space place the perches reasonably high so the bird has to pump his shoulders upward to reach the perch. Situate feeding stations off the ground. Even if the bird has to hop up six inches or use his beak to hoist his body up to the feeding station, it is better than just having to walk over and dig in. Consider suspended feeding stations so the bird has to fly over and land on it in order to eat. This exercise increases the bird's ability for precise anaerobic sprint flying, as well as its sense of balance. We are using more and more "swinging perches" with all of our birds and they love them. This helps the birds learn to balance.
I am reminded of the story of the first time efforts were made to release Golden Lion Tamarins to the wild in Brazil. These group-raised animals were fed from stainless steel dishes and their pen consisted of various stationary branches. When the monkeys were released they had literally never balanced on a branch that was being blown by the wind. Although they had eaten fruits native to Brazil they were not conditioned to forage and they were terrified by the sounds of their new environment. Soon each animal was rescued and a great deal was deduced from the experiment. Today these animals are conditioned very differently for release. They hear taped jungle sounds, including the calls and distress calls. They are housed on various swinging and moving branches and vines. Their food is hidden for them to find. They are often housed in mixed species enclosures. And the temperature and humidity is altered to replicate their natural environment. We can learn a lot from this lesson. For parrots in captivity eating becomes about the single most important daily activity but usually due to time constraints we feed the birds their ration once or maybe twice a day. Consider that in the wild the smaller parakeets, lovebirds, and lories are constantly foraging and flying about seeking a safe food supply.
A distress call cries up as one of the flock spies an intruder or predator and suddenly they flee, often flying for several minutes before they are able to land again, only to repeat this activity dozens of times each day. I remember years ago in Barbados seeing that a man who kept several pairs of St. Vincent parrots had a woman hired whose job it was to walk into the plantation to collect ripe fruit and then to walk among the aviaries offering a single piece of fruit to each bird several times each day. Since we can't have that luxury, why not consider having several feeding stations in one aviary. Make the bird have to find his food and alternate where you leave the food, leaving some stations empty. Even if it is a matter of walking a few feet or flying a short sprint here and there at least the bird is exercising. Often monkey keepers will set up intricate plastic mazes on the front of the cages so the animal has to figure out how to get the treat from the top of the maze through the passages until it falls from a hole at the bottom. Maybe we can construct a physical maze so the bird cannot just walk in a straight line to the food. Maybe you can position some clever (and safe) obstacles so the bird has to manoeuver his way to the treat. People often anthropomorphize parrots, thinking that they want to supply the bird with everything it could possibly need. So the parrot receives his designer nestbox and Gucci toys but it is discouraged from flapping (it sounds awful and makes a lot of dust). All healthy birds will stretch their leg and wing muscles and flap their wings as if it is in their programming to maintain a "ready position." We often see birds in captivity hanging upside down by their toes from the roof of the aviary or hanging by their beak alone to the side of the cage. I wonder if they are really doing isometric exercises?
In nature a pair of macaws may aggressively have to defend their nesting site from other birds and predators. The male has to fly and work hard to quickly eat enough food which he can in turn bring back to the nest to feed the female. He must be a master of anaerobic sprint-flying. Ideally an aviary should be at least two times the width of the occupant's wings and at least four times the wingspan for the aviary's length. The aviary should be designed with as much height as possible. Birds feel safe when they are at least higher than our eye level. Flight is encouraged by limiting the number of perches. We can learn from the ways in which other animals are exercised -- horses and greyhounds race on a track, gerbils and hamsters run on a wheel, birds of prey are trained on a line and conditioned to a whistle. We have successfully used falconry techniques when training macaws and parrots for free flight. Leather jesses are tied to the bird's legs and a training line is attached to the jesses. When the bird is not in training the equipment is completely removed. The parrot is encouraged to fly further each day, landing on the trainer's arm or on a perch. Often the bird does not even need to be rewarded with food. The fitness level of the bird improves dramatically over a couple of weeks as it becomes a more coordinated flyer, not panting so heavily when it stops flying. When training a bird to fly be sure you are calling it to fly into the wind (if you are outdoors) so that the wind can help to give it lift. Even the large macaws have little problem flying at a level flight of five feet from the ground when they are indoors.
Of course they have to work harder because they don't have the wind's help. Despite their huge beaks and rather stocky bodies macaws are excellent flyers and it is necessary to clip many flight feathers in order to prevent them from flying. We have found it is useful to raise birds with a buddy system so that when one bird is being trained for free flight his buddy remains in a cage or with clipped wings, serving as bait for the flying bird who wants to return to his buddy. We practice "interval training" with the free flying macaws, repeatedly encouraging them to fly the same distance many times before we increase it, and noting that the recovery times decrease.
Flying is not the only exercise which can be encouraged. I know a Black Vulture who kept spraining his ankles when he was tethered to a perch so rather than give up on his flight training I decided to reward him with pieces of food on the ground when he ran after me for the food. Each day I made him run further until he could easily run twenty-five yards. Today, fifteen years later, he is an excellent flyer and can easily outrun a ten year old child even though his legs are only nine inches long. Many studies of laboratory animals show that physical training strengthens the attachments of ligaments and tendons to bones. Similarily our baby macaws are already starting their fitness programmes once they are taken from their parents at seven to nine weeks of age. They are encouraged to walk a few steps to the food syringe. The distance is gradually increased. Once one bird figures it out they are all stampeding across the floor to the food syringe. In a matter of days the birds easily run several yards. By three and a half months they are often trying to run and fly to the food. Exercise and play are often one and the same thing. In nature we find that the young of most intelligent creatures spend much of their youth at play and wrestling with siblings, increasing their coordination and learning from these games.
Exercise and diet must be practised in tandem. All birds except the tiniest species with high metabolisms benefit from regular fasting. In the wild birds rarely find the same amount of food each day so sometimes there are lean days. Be sure that birds are always offered a fresh water supply as they are sensitive to dehydration. All birds transported on airplanes seem to be requiring water once they land.
In conclusion I have highlighted a few key points about the importance of "activity in captivity" so that we can be keeping birds in a healthy environment. With a little bit of creative thinking many private breeders and bird owners can modify their cages and enclosures and husbandry regimes to maximize exercise activities of their birds, and maybe themselves too!
Carole J. Precious
Carole Precious, B.A., M.A., B.Ed. is manager of birds at African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ontario. She is responsible for a collection of approx. 500 raptors and psittacines and is involved in artificial insemination, incubation and rearing of approx. 100 birds each year. African Lion Safari has successfully bred 35 avian species, of which 10 are considered endangered or threatened. Carole is committed to teaching bird handling to others, and is currently producing a video about the practical handling of raptors. She is interested in all aspects of animal training and animal enclosure design. She has assisted in establishing Birds of Prey and Parrot Paradise Demonstrations for many other zoos and attractions in Canada and abroad. Among her other interests are falconry, wood carving, painting, photography, travel, skiing, gardening, and driving horses, and she is responsible for the management of 800 rare Shetland sheep. She is married and has one son.