Welfare Insights From the Field

Welfare Insights From The Field

LoraKim Joyner, DVM,  MPVM, MDiv

From Lafeber Conservation and Wildlife and One Earth Conservation, 3109 NW 35th Terrace, Gainesville, FL  32605, USA

Association of Avian Veterinarians, August 2011.


This paper overviews the relatively new fields of conservation behavior, cognitive ethology, and conservation psychology as they are applied to wildlife conservation.  These fields offer a multidisciplinary approach to conservation that emphasizes behavior, including the thinking and feeling lives of humans and birds.  By incorporating behavioral analysis and insight in the mentation of others and how it relates to behavior, conservationists can design research and implement conservation intervention strategies that include and support species as well as individuals, including humans.  This multidisciplinary approach of research and intervention can positively impact not only wild nonhuman animals, but those that live in closer association with humans, as well as the humans themselves.  Exploring observations from wild psittacines offers awareness of current trends, elucidation of clinical applications, and invitations for further research and collaboration.

Keywords:  avian welfare, avian conservation, wildlife, conservation behavior, conservation psychology, human dimensions, ethnoornithology, cognitive ethology


Fully instantiated, care includes cognitive, affective, and behavioral components.  In order to care..people must be informed, people must feel, and people should act in ways that will express both their knowledge and their emotions.1

In the last decades various philosophical, literature, and scientific realms of inquiry and learning have increasingly explored the behavior and minds of human and nonhuman animals.  This exploration has led to the emergence of new fields, such as conservation behavior and psychology, and cognitive ethology.  These fields seek insight into behavior, including how it corresponds to mentation, so that we use this information to improve the lives of nonhuman animals.  Just as nonhuman animal behavior in conservation is increasingly considered, so too is the behavior of humans.  We seek to understand human behavior as it relates to evolutionary biology just as we do with nonhuman animals in cognitive ethology.  In this light, anthropomorphism has less of a negative connotation, for common sense, evolutionary biology, and observation repeatedly tells us that humans are linked to other species in what we do and why.  The risk is that we may over interpret what we see as we project our thinking and feelings, that is, our subjective lives onto others.  On the other end of the spectrum, we are prone to anthropocentrism in that we may perceive what another species does, thinks, or feels cannot be like what we ourselves experience.  We perceive humans as uniquely unique.  Scientific methodology can help us diminish the error of over interpreting what we observe either in terms of “they think, feel, and act like us,” or “they don’t think and feel like us and don’t act like this.”  Three emerging fields offer insight on how to design and apply science in our conservation research and practices so that we might increase our effectiveness, decrease our chance of error, and more boldly open up our fields of inquiry.

Fields of Insight

Cognitive ethology

Cognitive ethology “emphasizes observing animals under more-or-less natural conditions, with the objective of understanding the evolution, adaptation (function), causation, and development of the species-specific behavioral repertoire2 and focuses on cognition, which is defined as the neuronal processes concerned with the acquisition, retention, and use of information.3 It involves the thinking and emotional lives of animals, and includes species with clear advanced brain development such as primates as well as red-eyed tree frog embryos  that  possess sophisticated abilities to assess and respond to cues of predation.  Remarkable similarities are found among the species, including humans. This is often an uneasy field for scientists, for we come to it with questions framed in our own subjective experiences which are linked evolutionary to the subjective experience of other animals. We ask, is the animal actually doing X  because it is thinking or feeling Y or because evolutionary pressure Z, and how is my own human subjective world impacting these questions and observations?  We design experiments, suggest causations, and derive conclusions  where we cannot ever know with 100% certainty the exact interplay of complex neuronal connections that constitute thinking, feeling, and behavior.  This should not deter us because we cannot know what humans think either, yet this does not stop valuable research that provides information which improves the lives of others.  The subjective world, though messy and not as easily observed or quantified as the objective world, impacts behavior, and hence well being.

Cognitive ethology contributes to conservation because it invites us to consider the range and complexity of behavior repertoire not just in a given species, but in a given individual.  In the past we might have ignored behavior, or considered what we saw as atypical or an anomaly, because we didn’t have a simple cause and effect hypothesis. Alternatively we might have projected our own motivations and subjective experiences onto animals. Either error can be present in avian conservation, and the rigor of cognitive ethology helps us to be as objective as possible about subjectivity.

Parenting and cognitive ethology:

The behavior of parenting is an important one in psittacine conservation as most species’ chicks are quite altricial, needing a long time in the nest and as fledglings, requiring months to learn behavior, vocalizations, flight patterns, and foraging techniques and location  The more we  understand the dynamics of parenting, the more we could improve chick surviability and learning. Unfortunately our research design does not usually include tracking parent behavior in any objective way.  Instead we often are left wondering why a certain pair behaved in a certain way, without determining what the parenting behavior repertoire is in a particular species or group, and how we might impact it and improve upon it.

For instance, we observed a pair of orange-crowned conures (Aratinga cancicularis) who nested in a termateria in Guatemala. The male continued to care for 5 chicks which successfully fledged despite having the top of the nest hacked off by a human poacher, the chicks surviving a termite swam and multiple bites, and the death of the female.  A third adult appeared after the female died and repeatedly entered the nest, supposedly to feed the chicks.

At another nest,  a pair of yellow-naped amazons (Amazona auropalliata) was raising 3 chicks.  When the oldest chick climbed to the rim in anticipation of fledging, the female (or what we thought was the female) made aggressive movements and vocalizations at the rim of the nest. When this chick fledged, this adult drove it to the ground. Now vulnerable and unprotected by parents, the chick  was killed that night by a predator.  The remaining two chicks refused to fledge and the male abandoned the nest.

At another nest a pair of yellow-naped amazons left the nest for hours at a time, when other pairs usually stayed closer to the nest for longer periods of time.  A collared forest falcon  (Micrastur semitorquatus) began exploring the nest area and one day entered the nest and removed one of the chicks.  A few biologists were heard to wonder out loud, “Why aren’t they good parents?”

In a scarlet macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera) nest in Guatemala we discovered that the youngest chick was small, weak, and malnourished. I thought the chick was going to die and one of the biologists commented, “These are good parents, they won’t let the chick die.” The chick did die a week later.  Also, some scarlet macaw parents preen quietly in nearby tree while we climb the tree and examine the chicks, while other parents circle and call out for most of the time we are in the area.

In scarlet macaws in Peru the researchers found a lot of intrapair fighting (conspecifics as well as heterospecifics) and that the more the pairs fight, the greater the likelihood of chick death and nest failure. (D. Brightsmith, oral communication, November 2010).  In Belize, scarlet macaw nests are more likely to get poached the closer the parents choose a nest to a reservoir that is exposed to human disturbance.  In Mexico, red-lored amazons  (Amazona autumnalis) are less likely to be poached because the nests are harder to find due to the species overall wariness and inconspicuousness around nests.4

These instances raise these questions:  What makes some species or individuals more wary?  What causes some birds to abandon nests, and others not?  What is the maximum number of chicks parents can raise? Are there extrapair copulations or bonding, or polygamy?  How does behavior vary between parents and species, and how does behavior differences impact nesting success?  How does our interpretation of the behavior impact our conclusions and actions? How can we use this behavior (ours and the birds’)  to adapt our strategies for greater reproduction?

Conservation behavior

Knowing the answers to these questions can help us practice conservation behavior, which is the “application of knowledge of animal behavior in order to solve wildlife conservation problems.” 5 It focuses typically on the conservation and management of single species, unlike conservation biology that addresses habitat preservation and ecosystem health.  In the ideal world, we would like to take care of all species by keeping ecosystems healthy, however, increasingly we find that we need to intervene extensively for a single species to keep it on the planet.  Knowing about a species’ social behavior, reproductive behavior, and antipredatory behavior helps us improve the effectiveness of conservation interventions.  For instance, knowing behavior helps us improve the reproduction of wild species bred in captivity and how to prepare them for translocations and reintroductions.  In addition, knowing the behavioral patterns of birds helps us assess and mitigate anthropogenic impacts such as urbanization and other human disturbances such as  birds running into buildings, towers, and wind turbines. Although behavioral cause and affect can be difficult to determine given the complexity of many behaviors, individual variation across a species, cognitive and emotional influences, and probable heavy resource use of time and equipment to assess behavioral patterns, current research and its applications promise exciting possibilities to improve conservation efforts.

Foraging and conservation behavior:

Many species rely on public information to estimate quality of patches for foraging.  We might ask if individuals using public information are more successful in terms of survival or reproduction, and if so, what density of conspecifics is necessary of individuals to take advantage of the enhanced information about patch quality? This is important for rare social species and those species living at the edges of the distribution ranges or in isolated fragments. Unfortunately, many parrots meet the criteria of rarity and living on edges or in fragmented ranges.  If there are too many psittacine birds in a group, this could lead to depletion of resources and decreased food intake, or if there are too few, there is not enough public information to inform food intake.  Each habitat, altered or otherwise, might support an optimal group size, and we won’t know unless we design the research to answer these questions.

For instance, in Guatemala and Honduras, scarlet macaws once ranged over the entire country, and now are only found in small areas where populations have been reduced from thousands to a couple of hundred.  The same is true of the Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata) who once may have numbered one million birds on the island, and now only approximately 250 (both captive and wild) exist.  The yellow-naped amazon of the Pacific Slope of Guatemala is declining dramatically while the habitat fragments and degrades at an alarming rate.  We do not know if there are adequate numbers of birds interacting to teach one another of food sources and availability, or what the optimal group size may be for a given habitat.  If we did have this information, we could judge better how to translocate or reintroduce birds, or which areas on which to concentrate our efforts.

Conservation psychology

Being open to, learning all we can, and manipulating  avian behavior impacts the well being of birds.  The same is true for human behavior.  Clayton and Myers in response to the 60% of the earth’s ecosystems being used unsustainably, urgently asked, “Where are the psychologists on conservation research teams?” 1 I too ask this question, as one recent study reported that up to 30-50% of conservation projects in Mexico fail not due to funding restrictions or characteristics of the species or habitat, but due to interpersonal conflict and lack of social capital.6 If we could change human behavior, then we might not only have more effective conservation strategies, but we might not need them in the first place as we could reduce human’s negative impact on ecosystems and individuals.  Conservation psychology aims to reduce this negative impact by understanding human mind, brain, and behavior so as to promote well being for all species within our ecosystems and communities of mixed species.  The goal of conservation psychology is to understand the interdependence between humans and nature and to promote a healthy and sustainable relationship between the two.

Psychologists look at this interdependence by studying the link between values, attitudes, and a plethora of cognitive constructs, and behavior.  Although cognition is an important aspect of their work, how people think may not be the key influence on any specific behavior impacting the environment or animals.  Instead, emotion drives moral behavior and reason comes in afterwards in what we would call “rationalization.”   Research suggests that emotion is an important indicator of sustainable behaviors.   For example, by encouraging students to “try to imagine how a bird feels”  researchers were able to increase emotions associated with empathy and this empathic response in turn correlated to a greater willingness and obligation to help nature.1 Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in the place of conspecifics or hetrospecifics.

Human structures of values also impact our behavior, often subconsciously, and “understanding every human group’s structure of values is a prerequisite for conservation work.”1 Generally, two value orientations predict behavior towards wildlife in North America, that of domination and that of mutualism or egalitarianism.7 “The stronger one’s domination orientation, the more likely he or she will be to prioritize human well being over wildlife, accept actions that result in death or other intrusive control of wildlife, and evaluate treatment of wildlife in utilitarian terms.  A mutualism wildlife value orientation, in contrast, views wildlife as capable of living in relationships of trust with humans, as life-forms having rights like those of humans, as part of an extended family, and as deserving caring and compassion.”   Differences in  these orientations result in conflict and difficulty in developing conservation strategies that address different needs and desires.

Conservation psychology helps us understand and normalize why we are different and then helps us engage in individual and social processes that enable us to work together.  These processes help people communicate and hence gain knowledge, feel, and integrate cognitive and emotive functions with behavior. One process of behavioral change is Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), popular with companion birds as well as with humans.  If people can be given frequent positive feedback in discrete small steps, their behavior can change.1

Other processes include environmental education (including offering practical and doable actions to care for animals and ecosystems), practice in ethical and moral course, such as socioscience8 and wildlife ethics,  learning and applying emotional and social intelligence, promoting Autonomy Supportive Environments1, knowing and using local knowledge of birds (ethnoornithology), promoting opportunities for meaning making and hope, and studying societal structures such as group identity, power differences in wealth, politics, privilege, and biophilic and spiritual tendencies.

Ethnoornithology of conservationists in Central America:

Ethno-ornithology  “explores how peoples of various times and places seek to understand the lives of the birds round them.”9 It studies the relationships between humans and birds.  I sought to understand how the people working in the complex and often discouraging situation of conservation in Central America thought of  birds so that I could see what motivated them to do this work, how they made meaning in of their work, and how we could use this understanding to support and improve our efforts.  In 2009-2011, therefore,  I conducted ethnoornithological research targeting the conservationists working in Central America.

Briefly summarizing hundreds of pages of notes, I found that the major meaning activity was the work itself (collecting data and applying knowledge to improve the lives of birds) and the times when team work was most manifest.  Meaning making also happened frequently around meals when stories were told of the work and experiences.  Also, meaning evolved during the collection and review of media, such as photographs and videos.  While watching media, the gathered to partake in both silent storytelling as well as spoken meaning making as they talk about what they are seeing.  Meanings that frequently surfaced regarding their efforts included:  love, conversion, calling, insiders/outsiders, interconnection, death, hope, end times (eschatology, apocalypse), sacrifice, service, suffering, compassion, worth and dignity, awe, wonder, social justice, prophetic voice, resistance, solidarity.  Having time for meaning making activities allowed the team to work together more affectively across differences of class, ethnicity, language, gender, religion, age, values, and behavior patterns.

Welfare Applications For Captive Birds

Of the three broad scientific approaches to studying avian welfare, the fields of behavior presented here impact two:  “feeling-backed approaches which equate an animal’s welfare with its subjective experience” and using the behavioral repertoire of animals in the wild as a guide for evaluating the welfare of captive counterparts (the third being evaluating the biological state of the animal to judge welfare). 10 Studying wild parrots helps us determine species specific behavior and its variability.  The more we know the less likely we are to assume that all parrots are the same, or all individuals.   Knowing species specific behavior and its variability and range will help us adapt our captive environments to promote full expression of behaviors that lead to individual flourishing.

The fields of behavior presented here also inform us of the importance of understanding and manipulating human behavior.  Changing human behavior has become a major focus of conservation, and falls under the general field of human dimensions of conservation and wildlife management.  If we can motivate changes in human behavior and reduce poaching and habitat destruction, many parrot conservationists would be greatly relieved, if not out of work.  Alternatively,  changing human behavior in regards to companion birds has received very little attention. One study showed that the greater the general empathetic ability of human handlers, the greater the impact on preindicators of stress (defecation and respiratory rate).  Birds were calmer around humans who tested for greater empathy.  How might we change human abilities in empathy, or other behavioral or mental capacities so that they can become more effective care takers of birds?


I invite us as a profession to learn more about human behavior, or collaborate with those that do so that we can train ourselves to take better care of birds.  I also encourage us to support behavioral research, in the wild and in captivity so we can as objectively as possible understand avian behavior, and apply this understanding concretely and practically in conservation and companion bird medicine.  By doing so we improve human heath as well, for we are happier knowing the bird for who he or she naturally and amazingly is.  Providing an environment that preserves and promotes their well being, promotes ours as well.


1.  Clayton S, Myers G.  Conservation Psychology: Understanding and promoting human care for nature. Oxford, UK:Wiley-Blackwell;2009.

2.  Tinbergen, N. Tinbergen. On Aims and Methods in Ethology. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. 1963;20: 410–433.

3.  Dukas R, Ratcliffe JM. Introduction.  In: Dukas R, Ratcliffe JM eds.Cognitive Ecology II. Chicago, IL:The University of Chicago Press;2009:1-4.

4.  Enkerlin-Hoeflich EC, Snyder NFR, Wiley JW. Behavior of wild Amazona and Rhynchopsitta parrots, with comparative insights from other psittacines. In: Luescher AU ed. Manual of Parrot Behavior.Ames, IA:Blackwell Publishing;2006:13-25.

5.  Blumstein DT, Fernandez-Juricic E.  A Primer of Conservation Behavior. Sunderland, MA:Sinauer Associates, Inc Publishers;2010.

6.  Rubio-Espinosa M et al. El capital social como herramienta de conservación communitarian de los recurosos naturales in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mesoamericana. 2010;2:114.

7.  Manfredo JM. Who cares about wildlife?  Social science concepts for exploring human-wildlife relationships and conservation issues. New York, NY:Springer;2008.

8.  Joyner L.  The socioscientific arts of avian medicine.  Proc Annu Conf Assoc Avian Vet. 2009:239-250.

9.  Hunn ES.  Forward. In: Tidemann S, Gosler A (eds). Ethno-ornithology:  Birds, indigenous peoples, cultures, and society. London, UK: Earthscan;2010:xi-xii.

10. Cramton B.  Handler attitude and chick development. In: Luescher AU ed. Manual of Parrot Behavior.Ames, IA:Blackwell Publishing;2006:113-128.