Canadian Parrot Symposium

Canadian Parrot Symposium



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The Role of Zoos in Parrot Conservation
Tim P. Birt, Ph.D.
Curator of Birds Metropolitan Toronto Zoo

Statement of Purpose

The Metropolitan Toronto Zoo is founded for the purpose of exhibiting and conserving a diversity of species within the animal and plant kingdoms:

· to convey a broad perspective of their zoogeographic and ecological relationships

· for the enjoyment of the visiting public as an educational experience and resource

· to promote the public's awareness of and involvement in conservation

· to undertake scientific research for the advancement of wildlife management

· for the conservation of irreplaceable genetic resources, both animal and plant

The objectives of the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo (MTZ), as expressed in the Statement of Purpose, fall into three main categories: conservation, education and research. As will be seen, because these categories are inter-related, Zoo activities cannot always be categorized neatly. MTZ is not unique in promoting conservation oriented objectives. Most major zoos in North America, and elsewhere, have adopted a similar outlook.

Unfortunately, zoos have not always fostered such a progressive program and this history has helped to foster a persistent misunderstanding of the role of modern zoos in society. Zoos have existed for hundreds of years. Until relatively recently, captive animals were held largely in private hands for the purposes of either the gratification of the owner or to make money. Husbandry practices in the past were often deplorable in regard to both the physical and behavioural requirements of the animals. Zoological collections were usually assembled for their entertainment value and animals were regarded more as curiosities rather than as living creatures having much in common with their human custodians. The image of the Victorian menagerie, in which animals lived out their often brief lives crammed into tiny iron and concrete cages that did not come close to meeting their biological needs, is both powerful and enduring. While facilities such as these can still be found today, a profound change for the better has occurred in the zoo world. The foundation for the improvement in zoos lies not only in better standards of husbandry, but more profoundly, in a new philosophy that has taken shape largely during this century. Modern, legitimate zoos have adopted as their ultimate role the promotion of biological conservation . There is no doubt that this mandate can be fulfilled only if sufficient public understanding of, and sympathy for, conservation efforts exists. Modern zoos are therefore striving to transform themselves into conservation centres, primarily by providing public education. In that sense progressive zoos contribute indirectly to conservation through public education and scientific research initiatives. Zoos also make significant direct contributions to conservation through participation in efforts such as field projects and captive breeding programs for select species (i.e. in situ and ex situ efforts, respectively). In the following sections zoo based efforts in education, conservation and research are examined in further detail.


Major zoos, including MTZ, employ staff for the sole purpose of conducting programs in public education. Zoos welcome more than 100 million visitors annually in North America (more than attend all professional sports events combined), hence they have the opportunity to deliver the conservation message to a huge audience. Activities in the area of education are varied and often innovative. At the most basic level zoos expose people to living animals and plants, ideally in surroundings that simulate the natural environments. This can instill respect and empathy for nature in a way that no other approach can. Exhibits need to be interpreted effectively to achieve the end result of informing the viewer. Graphic displays are widely used to convey information relevant to the live display. Carefully thought out signage can achieve this objective while placing only modest demands on the viewer. Modern interactive displays are popular with visitors and can be an extremely effective approach to public education. While expensive, they are used in increasing frequency at many zoos.

A very popular method of education at MTZ is the Meet the Keeper program. At set times each day, keepers offer informal presentations about certain species in their care. During these sessions visitors have the opportunity to interact directly with Zoo staff and sometimes with animals. This format is effective in providing interesting information for the visitor to take home. The free flying bird demonstration at MTZ regularly draws large crowds. Over the years, this Meet the Keeper event has emphasized birds of prey, however some effort is being made to employ additional species including free flying macaws and perhaps other parrots.

A high proportion of zoo visitors are children, therefore much effort is expended to provide information relevant to their needs. Many zoos have set aside areas dedicated to providing, for children, educational exhibits and activities that foster an appreciation for nature and its conservation. These areas offer opportunities that combine play with learning about the natural world. Animal demonstrations can feature prominently in the children's area and parrots can be used very effectively. Friendly birds can provide excellent opportunities for interaction between children and animals that effectively deliver the conservation message.

School groups visit MTZ in large numbers, particularly during the spring months. The Education Department provides special resource materials to these groups (prior to their arrival) that ensure that students focus on learning about the natural world and why its conservation is important.

MTZ does not confine its activities to the zoo site. We frequently send representatives (human and animal) to outreach functions to take advantage of additional education opportunities. The nature of these functions is varied, but our goal is always to present the animal in an informative way. Sinbad the scarlet macaw (and other birds) is a frequent participant in our outreach program.


Research is an often overlooked role of the modern zoo. Despite the fact that animals have been kept in captivity for hundreds of years, we know little about the basic biology of many species. Observations made on captive specimens have often revealed aspects of their biology that were previously unknown. Several research programs are underway at MTZ in the fields of animal nutrition, reproductive physiology, animal behaviour and genetics. Zoo biologists are also frequently involved in field-based research activities.

Animal nutrition is an area of zoo-based research of obvious importance. Most species maintained in zoos are not domesticated, hence their precise dietary requirements are not known. Given the large number of species involved, we have much to learn in this area. Research is directed at such problems as determining acceptance and digestibility of various food items, optimal energy intake and species-specific nutrient requirements. One project undertaken recently at MTZ was a quantitative assessment of food intake in captive Leadbeater's cockatoos.

Animal behaviour is another fertile area for zoo-based research. Much effort has been expended to learn how conditions can be provided that stimulate the intellects of species ranging from great apes to reptiles. Parrots are very intelligent and can develop serious behavioural problems resulting from boredom. These problems can be reduced by devising and employing techniques to keep birds busy. Parrots can often be kept occupied for a considerable period by such simple methods as providing them with appropriate items to chew or to play with.

Reproductive physiology is an active area of research in zoos. MTZ employs a reproductive physiologist whose primary activity is research. To date most efforts have been devoted to mammals, although efforts have been devoted to parrots at other facilities. For example, several years ago researchers at San Diego Zoo investigated fecal sex steroid hormone levels in Puerto Rican parrots and eclectus parrots (and California condors too) as a noninvasive sexing method in birds of mixed ages. Similarly, work to develop protocols for artificial insemination in birds has been done in a zoo setting (Patuxent Wildlife Centre). Using similar methods the first psittacine to be produced by artificial insemination, a cockatiel, was successfully raised in 1982.

As captive animal populations become increasingly important for conservation, the need for research into genetic management of such populations has increased. The hazards of inbreeding have been well known for many years, yet methods for making quantitative estimates of loss of genetic diversity in small populations maintained in captivity over multiple generations were developed only relatively recently. Genetic researchers at the U.S. National Zoo have developed computer methods that are now used for this purpose. Just as inbreeding can lead to reduced fitness of captive populations, outbreeding can also cause difficulties. Despite the real danger that outbreeding depression represents, for most bird species (including parrots) we know nothing about population structure. For example, many believe that the taxon currently recognized as the blue fronted amazon parrot consists of more than one species. If this contention is correct, then many captive raised offspring represent hybrids that may well have reduced fitness relative to either parental species. There is therefore a need to characterize the population structure of many parrot species, particularly those with large geographic ranges. There is little doubt that previously unknown species will be discovered when these data are collected. Research sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society (Bronx Zoo) is aimed at determining population structure for several endangered birds, notably Asian hornbills. Similarly, the new Curator of Birds at MTZ is in the process of establishing a molecular genetics laboratory that will concentrate on similar problems.

Genome banking is an additional area of zoo-based research. This is also known as the frozen zoo concept. Reproductive biologists are working to define protocols for storage of frozen gametes and embryos. This technology is expected to have a major impact on conservation efforts. Unfortunately, the nature of the avian egg places some limits on the use of these techniques in birds that do not apply to mammals.


In addition to contributing to conservation indirectly through research and efforts to raise public awareness, zoos are also involved in more direct conservation projects. The most obvious efforts are in the area of captive propagation. Breeding endangered animals in captivity as a conservation initiative usually requires participation of several, sometimes many, institutions due to space limitations. Few, if any, zoos would be able to sustain any bird species in sufficient number to ensure long term population viability. For this reason zoos must cooperate with each other to achieve this goal. Unfortunately the resources available for this purpose do not meet the demand because of the high cost of maintaining captive populations of wild animals. The degree of population management required dictates the appropriate level of cooperation. Many birds held in zoos are not endangered and are held in large numbers. Captive populations of these species are not managed intensively (e.g. blue and gold macaws). Other species are managed more closely with the aid of studbooks. The latter are used to record important information about individual specimens in the captive population including age, sex, identity of parents (if known), location (present and previous), and transfers. This information is used when setting up breeding pairs and for monitoring captive populations. North American zoos presently maintain approximately 105 stud books, 12 of which cover parrot species. European zoos maintain a number of regional studbooks covering several additional parrot species.

Some species are managed more intensively through Species Survival Plans (SSPs). An SSP is a cooperative population management and conservation program that North American zoos use for selected species. The objective is to maintain a healthy population that is self sustaining, genetically diverse and demographically stable. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association currently administers 18 SSPs for birds, covering 21 species. Three species of parrot are managed under SSPs: palm cockatoo, thick billed parrot and St. Vincent parrot. Each SSP has a coordinator who looks after day-to-day activities and a management committee that makes decisions regarding such things as pairings for breeding, research, and reintroduction (if appropriate). Management decisions are based on the SSP masterplan which details the specific goals for the population. Studbooks are maintained for each SSP species and husbandry manuals have been prepared for many species. Some SSPs also incorporate reintroduction projects.

On the whole, traditional zoos have had rather limited success breeding rare parrots. There are likely several reasons for the low production, one being the popular view that zoos don't need to concentrate on parrots due to the success enjoyed by private aviculturists. To a great extent private aviculturists have been successful, however selected species still warrant attention from the zoo community. For example, there is little likelihood that species such as the echo parakeet from Mauritius or the St. Lucia amazon will be available to the private sector. Captive breeding programs for such species will most likely remain under the control of government agencies which may or may not involve zoos. MTZ maintains one SSP parrot species; a single St. Vincent amazon was acquired recently and represents a new founder for the captive population. The SSP presently has only eight birds registered, with the sex ratio skewed in favour of females. Unfortunately, the MTZ bird is a female so a mate cannot be provided immediately. Additional birds are held in North America outside the SSP, and a captive breeding program on St. Vincent has achieved success. There is a very good chance that a mate can be found sometime in the future. Other endangered parrot species are bred in zoos. Some success has been achieved by other zoos in breeding rare parrots. For example, the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust have successfully reared the St. Lucia and thick billed parrots while Loro Parque has reared many species, notably Spix's macaw.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS, formerly the Bronx Zoo) has been a leader for many years in field oriented conservation efforts. Many aviculturists are aware of the important field work conducted by WCS biologist and conservationist, Dr. Charles Munn. During the past few years Munn's work has revealed much about the basic biology of natural populations of several species of large-bodied macaws. In particular, he has demonstrated how the low reproductive output of these birds makes their populations extremely sensitive to trapping. In addition, Munn's group has worked to rehabilitate habitat occupied by the critically endangered Lear's macaw. Aviculturists are probably less aware of the global impact that WCS has had on conservation. This organization has been in existence for some 100 years and has enjoyed remarkable success in raising funds for conservation work. To illustrate, WCS spent in excess of $13 million last year on field projects around the world involving a diverse group of species and problems. A number of other zoos are involved directly in conservation initiatives in the field. Other notable examples concerning parrots in particular include Paradise Park in the United Kingdom, Loro Parque in the Canary Islands and the San Diego Zoo. These institutions work to raise funds to be used for various aspects of conservation of wild parrot populations around the world.

Dr. Tim Birt

Tim completed his PhD in fisheries and genetics in 1991. He then spent three years at the Royal Ontario Museum where he worked in evolutionary genetics of several groups of birds, including parrots. Afterwards he lectured for a year at Queen's University in Kingston. He is presently the Curator of Birds at Metro Toronto Zoo. In addition to his research activities he has been an aviculturist for more than twenty years, concentrating mostly on psittacines. An article 'Red-lored Amazon: Maintenance and Captive Breeding' by Tim, appeared in Bird Breeder May/June 1996.

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