Josh Loeb and Alice Roberts report on new research that is aiming to assess whether preventing birds from flying in captivity is a welfare concern
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This work has the potential to improve the wellbeing of millions of birds
For many captive birds, flight is a constrained behaviour. Although the Animal Welfare Act states that animals must be allowed to exhibit normal behaviour patterns, flight restriction continues to be a common practice in many captive environments where birds are kept, such as in wildfowl collections.
In short, species that in the wild would take to the wing have their flight hampered, using methods like wing pinioning (amputation of the wing tip). This has been a source of growing controversy in recent years, so it is perhaps no surprise that the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) is now attempting to help answer the question of whether birds need to fly – or, rather, whether preventing them from flying is a welfare concern.
UFAW has awarded a £50,000 grant to professor of behavioural ecology Innes Cuthill from the University of Bristol and colleagues at the universities of Guelph in Canada, and Utrecht in the Netherlands, for an 18-month study testing the theory that restricting flight leads to welfare problems in caged birds.
The focus will be on parrots, since these birds are well represented in captive collections, are commonly kept in restrictive cages and may also be physically prevented from flying by wing clipping or pinioning.
Current UK regulations allow the use of reversible methods such as wing clipping to prevent flight in all birds. Irreversible methods such as pinioning are allowed for all birds except those that are farmed.
The most commonly deflighted zoo birds include flamingos, pelicans, storks, cranes, some grebes and ground hornbills. These species typically spend much of their time on the ground or in water and will mainly only fly to migrate, source food or avoid predation – situations that are not applicable in captivity.
Parrots are an exception. In US zoos in particular, it is common practice to present deflighted parrots on perches or ‘parrot islands’ – a form of exhibit that is rare in European zoos.
The popularity of parrots as companion birds has caused the question of deflighting to enter the pet sector.
The issue is ethically complex. Although closed-up aviaries might be viewed as a viable alternative to deflighting methods (in zoos at least), the issue is not straightforward. Not all aviaries enable flight as some species require large amounts of space for take-off, landing and mid-flight changes of direction.
If deflighting were prohibited, few zoos would have sufficient funds to build new and larger display aviaries to accommodate flight in all species. This could cause zoos to give up keeping, breeding and exhibiting affected species, preventing public education, jeopardising the security of a genetically stable ex-situ back-up population and limiting the possibility of gaining scientific knowledge about these species.
Deflighting is also a handy technique for preventing the escape of zoo birds. Escapees from zoos can potentially present an ecological threat to indigenous species, for example through the introduction of new diseases and through predation.
According to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria there is little published evidence as to the welfare effects, positive or negative, of most forms of flight restraint. Therefore, the Bristol research is important.
UFAW’s chief executive and scientific director Huw Golledge said: ‘This work has the potential to improve the wellbeing of millions of birds from a variety of species by testing our assumptions about the effects of captivity on different species.’●
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