Above: Blackpool Zoo’s great white pelicans. The study was based around their nesting between Oct 2016 and Feb 2017, and from July to Oct 2017. Photo: Paul Rose

 

SOCIAL SKILLS ARE an important part in the successful breeding of captive pelicans, say researchers. Analysis of this aspect of behaviour of great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) at Blackpool Zoo revealed that providing social choice within the flock, allowing partnerships to form naturally, led to improved breeding success.

“Social network analysis enables us to identify the strongest bonds and discover who is influential in the flock. Therefore, we can work out which birds might initiate breeding and encourage this activity in others,” said lead study author Dr Paul Rose (University of Exeter and WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre), of a recent study by the university, University Centre Sparsholt and Reaseheath College.

This is especially important for flock management in zoos where animals may be relocated, he said.

Dr Rose continued: “If birds are to be moved between flocks, we should preserve these important bonds and the experience they provide.”

The study, published in Zoo Biology, showed that pelicans chose their own specific social relationships, but that there was also a social structure across the flock: for example, that “teenagers” (sub-adults) preferred each other’s company to that of adults.

Data collected at the zoo on the birds’ behaviour, use of space and association preferences also allowed the research team to identify specific cues that might alert zookeepers when breeding is likely to happen. In one case, the information gathered showed that the flock was more vigilant before nesting began, indicating that increased alertness may be a precursor for courtship or nesting activity.

The breeding record of great white pelicans in zoos is poor; they are long-lived but hard to breed in captivity. Dr Rose concluded: “Alongside the good care the birds get from zoo staff, this experience of what to do and when to do it is likely why the flock we analysed nested successfully on multiple occasions.”

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