For the Birds: Can Toys Reduce Stress and Improve Science?

Laura West

Masters Candidate, Biology

Enrichment is a common way to reduce stress in captive animals. Examples of enrichment include novel food supplements, or opportunities to exercise and play. Such environmental stimulation is an important part of keeping animals mentally and physically healthy. If animals are bored, they can become stressed and sickly, which hurts the animals, and can reduce the accuracy of results that are meant to be studies of normal rather than stressed animals1. Because the way zebra finches learn to sing is similar to how humans learn language, they are popular animals to study in labs. Living in a lab can be stressful even when given basic necessities such as food and water. Stress, in turn, can harm birds’ learning abilities2, encourage repetitive behaviors1 and make them more afraid of new places and things3. Enrichment may counteract these effects, but it has not been well-studied in zebra finches.

In my research, I will see if providing finches toys and natural perches can lower stress levels over time, improve learning, reduce boredom, and decrease anxiety and fear of new things. These toys include a silver bell, linked plastic rings and a small wooden ball. I will compare stress hormone levels in birds given enrichment to those in standard cages. I will video record the birds daily, and quantify repetitive behaviors such as pulling out their own or others’ feathers, which are signs of boredom. To see if having toys makes the birds less afraid of new things, I will do a test in which I put novel object in the birds’ cages, and record how long it takes for birds to investigate the new object. Anxiety is measured by comparing how long birds spend in the open center portion of an unfamiliar box to the amount of time they spend clinging to the walls. Finally, we will test the birds ability to remember a rewarding location by having them escape from a clear cylindrical maze. This task is particularly important, because this part of the brain used to record these types of spatial memories, the hippocampus, is especially harmed by stress.

This research is important for the the welfare of the birds and for the validity of scientific research. Happy birds make happy researchers.

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