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Parrots' behaviours mirror human mental disorders

The bird doing loop-the-loops in the cage and pulling out its feathers is not just playing and preening. Stress may cause these activities and also may provide insight into similar human behaviours, according to researchers.

A study of abnormal repetitive behaviours practiced by Orange-winged Amazon parrots indicates that environment plays a role in two types of behaviour that the caged birds perform. One of the behaviours, feather picking, closely mirrors compulsive behaviours in humans, according to Purdue University and University of California at Davis researchers. The study also helped debunk a time-worn belief that parrots teach each other feather picking.

"There is a lot of merit in studying abnormal behaviours just in terms of figuring out ways to control them for the welfare of both companion animals and those bred for production agriculture," said Joseph Garner, a Purdue assistant professor of animal sciences and the study's lead author. "Another benefit is that if animal abnormal behaviour is caused in the same way as in humans, then we may have a whole new range of model animals for studying human mental disorders."

The researchers initially were trying to determine if parrots' abnormal behaviours are of two categories. One category is composed of a constant repetition of meaningless gestures or movements called stereotypies, and the other is a repetition of inappropriate complex behaviour that normally would have a specific goal, such as feather picking.

"I've thought for awhile that we should start looking at these behaviours in animals as if they are two different types," Garner said. "Then, if we treated stereotypies and compulsive behaviours as if they were in humans, maybe we would improve our treatments in birds."

Behaviour problems, including feather picking and screeching, can be very distressing to owners and contribute to birds being surrendered for adoption, Garner said. Many of these birds are euthanized because their behaviour is untreatable. People often mistake the stereotypies, such as walking circles on the sides of cages or twirling pieces of feed in their beaks, as playing.

All of these behaviours are abnormal and often are a reaction to environmental factors, the researchers said. The major factor triggering an increase in stereotypies in parrots was a lack of neighbors for socialization, according to the study.

In contrast, physical environment, including cage placement, was a key factor generating feather picking by the parrots used in the study, Garner said. The scientists found that parrots with cages that didn't allow a view of doors where people entered the room were less likely to engage in feather picking.

"For parrot owners and breeders, one thing our research shows is that it might be worth putting a lot of thought into where the cage is positioned in the room," Garner said. "I think with a lot of care and a lot of forethought, these behaviours are manageable and preventable, especially considering our earlier work that demonstrated the positive effects of social housing and environmental enrichments, such as foraging and climbing devices.

"We're just translating what the animals are trying to tell people through behaviour. We hope the breeders can turn it into something practical."

Sixty-four birds were used in the study, evenly divided between males and females. They ranged in age from 5-11 years old. Lights were on in the rooms from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. each day, and the birds were videotaped from 9-11 a.m. Each bird was given a score depending on how much it picked at its feathers.

The results showed that birds with no view of the entry door showed no difference in feather picking no matter how close they were to the door, the researchers reported. In contrast, birds that faced the door feather picked more depending on the distance of their cage to the door.

The researchers also found that feather picking was more common in female birds, which parallels compulsive hair pulling in people, called trichotillomania. According to the study results, age didn't impact the amount of feather picking.

"Behaviour is like an organ as much as a lung or a heart is," Garner said. "Like an organ, behaviour highly affects us, and it's the animal's first and last resort for defense. Animals change their behaviour in order to meet challenges in the environment."

Abnormal behaviours can have a major impact not only on private owners, but also on entire industries.

A study conducted in Australia a few years ago showed that feather picking by hens caused them to eat more to make up for loss of body heat. This resulted in an 8 percent loss in income, or as much as a $50 million loss for the Australian egg-laying industry.

People often think animals teach each other certain bad behaviours, Garner said. But he and his research team took into consideration a number of factors, such as age, genetic relationship, placement of cages and sex, and it became clear that the parrots were reacting to their environment and/or to a genetic malfunction.

"We busted the myth that feather picking is socially transmitted, at least in the birds we studied," he said. "This is exciting because with the strong heritability of feather picking that we found, it might be possible to breed parrots that don't have the propensity to develop this behaviour."

The other researchers involved in this study were Cheryl Meehan, Thomas Famula and Joy Mench all of the UC Davis Department of Animal Sciences.

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