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Research Update: Stress Experienced by Finch Chicks Affects Adult Behavior

Research at the University of Glasgow (March, 2009) has established that zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) exposed to stress as chicks exhibit a more intense and longer stress response as adults than do birds raised in a stress-free environment.

The Effects of Early Exposure to Stress

Pairs of sibling finch chicks were used for the experiment.  To simulate a stressful situation, one member of the pair was injected with corticosterone, a hormone produced by birds in response to stress; the other sibling was used as a control.  As adults, the resting corticosterone level of the birds was identical.  However, when subjected to a stressful situation, all previously-stressed chicks produced greater amounts of stress hormone than did their siblings, and their stress response lasted for a longer period of time.

Stress and the Health of Pet Birds

Pet keepers should take an important lesson from this research, as an unnaturally strong stress response has been shown to be damaging to health in a variety of species, humans included.

Stress arises from disturbing situations that evoke fear as well as from poor diet, improper hygiene, disease and inappropriate housing.  Exposure to these and a host of other factors can shorten your pet’s lifespan dramatically by weakening its immune system.

The effects of stress on the immune system are well known.  While working at the Bronx Zoo, I learned that birds transferred to a new exhibit (a major stress) invariably came down with a severe Aspergillosus infection, despite the fact that this fungus is ever-present in the environment yet rarely causes health problems for birds living in secure situations.  The current research findings are significant in highlighting just how serious and long-lasting are the effects of exposure to stress.

Captive vs. Wild Caught Birds

This research also highlights the importance of purchasing only captive-bred birds, as wild-caught individuals are exposed to the highest degree of stress imaginable.

Lessening Stress – Knowledge and Nutrition

Knowing and meeting the needs of those bird species which you keep is a vital first step in providing them with a stress-free environment.  Please write in with any husbandry questions you may have.

Vita Flight Vitamin Supplement, specifically formulated for birds under stress, should be kept on hand to help see your pets through the difficult situations (new arrivals, breeding, molting, illness) that arise in every collection.  Please see the article noted below for more information on the interplay between diet and stress.

Further Reading

An interesting article on the importance of proper nutrition to birds in stressful situations is posted at http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/515888?journalCode=pbz.


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