Above: Hyacinth macaws could benefit from AI. Photo: Cezar Correa

 

DR DAVID WAUGH explains how scientists are refining the technique of artificial insemination (AI) in endangered parrot species to improve the chances of successful breeding. It’s a method on which the very future of some wonderful species may one day depend

 

THE opinions of parrot breeders on how to get their birds to breed are many and varied, but they overwhelmingly agree that natural breeding by the parrots themselves is best. Natural breeding can be a challenge, but it provides the motivation to create the right conditions for success, and the sense of satisfaction and delight when this is achieved.

However, there are situations where the breeder needs, or desires, to intervene to prevent a breeding failure or to improve the productivity of the breeding. Examples of such intervention are the double-clutching of eggs or the artificial incubation of eggs and hand-rearing of chicks. These are ways to assist the reproduction of the parrots, but are so widely practised as to be considered part and parcel of husbandry and management. However, other aspects of assisted reproduction generally require a higher level of research and technological application, at least in the exploratory and testing stages, before ways can be found to make them accessible and affordable to breeders.

To research these other aspects of assisted reproduction, from 2010 the Loro Parque Foundation (LPF) established a partnership with the Clinic for Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians and Fish (CBRAF), Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Justus-Liebig-University Giessen of Germany. In addition to its direct financial support of more than $215,000 to the research, the LPF has made parrots in its breeding centre – the world’s largest and most diverse – available as research subjects, has assigned staff to help in research procedures, and has created a separated research area with aviaries and basic laboratory space.

For its part, the CBRAF, under the directorship of Professor Michael Lierz, has provided the experienced scientists, the highly specialized equipment required for the research, the essential liaison with other university departments when necessary, the training of LPF staff, and a breeding group of a model species: the cockatiel.

The research has focused on the use of artificial insemination (AI) for parrot reproduction. Furthermore, it has given priority attention to the species in need of conservation action, given that 28 per cent of the psittaciformes are threatened with extinction, due especially to the loss or degradation of their natural habitat or the poaching of young birds from nests. Many of the threatened species maintained in zoos and other collections have captive populations which are too small, and it is important to improve their reproductive output so as to preserve their genetic material and to increase the possibility of returning captive-bred birds back to the wild.

Obstacles to improved reproduction include incompatibility within forced pairings and lack of available fertile partners of the same species. Clearly AI is a technique that may help with these problems and has been successfully performed in some other avian groups such as birds of prey and cranes. AI has also already been successful in cockatiels and budgerigars, but its application in larger species of psittacines has remained a challenge. An intention of the research has been to meet this challenge.

Semen collection
How do you collect semen from a male parrot? In the first place, it makes sense to try to collect within the known breeding season of the species involved. Within this period, a technique which has proven successful in cockatiels, budgerigars and a few other small psittacines is to massage the area of the lower abdomen of the male However, the massage technique appears to be unreliable for larger species of parrots. Limited success has been reported, for example with blue-fronted Amazons (Amazona a. aestival), but overall the technique is unsatisfactory.

To deal with this limitation, the CBRAF developed a novel method to collect semen from parrots large and small by electrostimulation. Semen collection by electrostimulation has been demonstrated to work in domestic and other wild animals. A small, portable apparatus was designed to include a metal probe attached by cable to a power-supply.

The probe is inserted into the cloaca of the male parrot and, by means of a potentiometer, a variable but very mild electrical stimulus can be applied to the bird. To be considered humane in its application, the research had to conform to the ethical standards set by the University of Giessen and the LPF. In no cases were physical irritations or negative changes of behaviour after electrical stimulation observed. Each sample of semen resulting from electrostimulation is collected from the cloaca using a capillary tube.

Dr David Waugh is a former curator and a current correspondent for Loro Parque Foundation.

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