Comparing the wild and the zoo; a multi-zoo, multi-species study of duck time activity patterns

- 21st Jun, 2023

Collection and evaluation of information on the evolution and ecological characteristics of wild animals is essential to the development of husbandry and management practises. Although natural behaviour outputs are not the only measure of animal welfare and of husbandry relevance, they are a large part of how we can assess a species’ responses to their home in the zoo.

This project involved two forms of data collection to compare captive and wild individuals of a popular groups of birds, ducks (Anatidae), to help provide evidence on how different species respond to zoo enclosures and management. The first method collected data via a meta analysis of the existing literature on species of duck time activity patterns that had been published. The second form of data collection centred around direct observation of specific species of captive and wild ducks. This project was a multi-institutional study that involved populations of ducks at three Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) centres (Arundel, London, Slimbridge) and at one of the nature reserves also at one of these WWT centres (London).

Across different ecologies of duck (dabbling, diving, sea, perching, sawbill, stifftails) data were collected on key state behaviours (e.g. feeding, socialising, abnormal behaviour patterns) that would indicate overall welfare states within a captive enclosure. Commonly, captive ducks have been displayed on open-topped ponds where birds are managed by being flight-restrained (e.g. pinioned or feather trimmed). A key aim of this project was to identify any behavioural differences between wild birds (time budgets analysed from the literature and from direct observation of representative species) and of captive flight restrained birds. This would enable assessment of what captive ducks spend their time on when they are unable to fly. We used a standardised method across all three WWT centres with the same categories of behaviour being observed for wild and captive birds, except for flight which was only observed in a wild birds. Although abnormal behaviours are rarely seen in wild animals, this category was used for wild birds too in case any behaviours caused by human factors was noticed. As different observers were utilised across different years and at different WWT centres, training in the observation and recognition of duck state behaviours prior to data collection commencing was conducted for all involved. Data collection occurred across all seasons of the year to provide information on changes in seasonal and physiological (e.g. moult) variables on duck behaviour.

Our results showed very little to no abnormal or stereotypic behaviour occurring in captive duck populations. This suggests that, behaviourally, the welfare of birds is not negatively impacted by by flight restraint. However captive ducks were much more inactive than wild birds, both from analyses of the literature and from direct observation. Therefore, suitable environmental enrichment and alterations to enclosures (e.g. increasing the variety and quality of managed habitat) needs to be provided to captive flight-restrained ducks to increase opportunities for foraging, exploration, and positive social interactions, and to decrease inactivity that can lead to obesity, mobility and foot problems, and overall poor health.

This research is useful to both private bird keepers and to zoo staff because it identifies the importance of wild information (collected by a standardised, validated method) to the advancement of species-specific husbandry and management techniques for captive birds. This research has also shed light on the application of controversial management procedures (i.e. flight restraint) to show how birds respond and what potential impacts on welfare there may be. This research needs to continue and be conducted across other commonly flight restrained bird species (e.g. geese, swans, and wading birds) and include measures of emotional welfare outputs (e.g. personality and behavioural expression) alongside of the behavioural measures that we have investigated.

This project won Gold in the BIAZA Research Awards category in 2023.

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