Welfare and mate choice in zebra finches: effect of handling regime and presence of cover
Much attention has been focused, quite rightly, on the welfare of laboratory rodents and farm animals but certain other groups have been less well represented in welfare research. Small birds, for example, are often kept as pets and used in a wide variety of behavioural and physiological
experiments where 'best' housing conditions are based on advice from experienced keepers as opposed to being tested experimentally. We investigated the effects of two husbandry conditions on the welfare of captive zebra finches: a) optional cover and b) rewarded handling versus random rewards.
As a correlate of welfare in the four conditions (cover + reward, cover, reward, nothing), we recorded the time to settle and perform normal behaviours after an experimenter entered the room throughout the study (ie habituation to disturbance). In addition, we measured female preference for
males in the four conditions to see whether welfare situation affected attractiveness as a mate. Birds in the two conditions where a reward was provided settled most quickly; and their settling time decreased across the study. Birds provided with cover alone became more disturbed by the entry
of the experimenter as the study progressed. However, the birds taking longest on average to settle were those in cages with no cover and no reward. Females preferred males in the reward conditions as mates, either due to the fact that these males settled more quickly or because less-stressed
males are more attractive in some other way. Thus, rewarding birds after disturbance is an effective and simple way to improve habituation to handling and human presence. In addition, these birds are more attractive to females, implying that males more habituated to captivity may be preferred
as mates. Provision of cover may help under certain circumstances, but appears paradoxically to lead to increased fearfulness over time under the conditions studied here.