Making changes to the early lives of young pheasants can help prevent them dying needlessly, University of Exeter researchers have found.
Creating a three dimensional environment for birds bred for field sports can help many more survive when they are released into the wild, a new study shows.
Giving pheasants raised perches in their pens during their first seven weeks helps them grow larger with bigger leg bones, fly higher and grasp, and roost off the ground safe from predators. This makes them less likely to be killed than birds bred without perches.
Researchers also discovered the introduction of raised perches helps pheasants develop better spatial awareness and memory. This may enable them to remember where good sources of food could be found, and therefore thrive in the wild.
The birds studied lived on a shooting farm in Hampshire, the Middleton Estate, and the research was carried out in partnership with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. They were observed over two seasons.
More than 40 million pheasants are released into the UK countryside each year, and around a quarter die because they come into contact with predators. This is thought to be because an intensive rearing environment does not allow the development of essential survival characteristics.
Experts involved in the study manipulated the environment of the pheasants in an effort to make it more realistic. This allowed intensively reared individuals to perform a greater range of behaviours and will better prepare them for release into the wild.
As part of the study academics had to follow the pheasants around the Hampshire countryside in the dark, wearing night vision googles, to discover where they had roosted.
Birds naturally use elevated perches to roost at night as a form of anti-predation behaviour and in the wild, pheasant mothers give calls which draw chicks up to roost on elevated perches. An absence of perches during early development may inhibit individual opportunities for learning and development.
The pheasants studied were less likely to die of natural causes in the six months after release into the wild, but differences in mortality were lost over the following breeding season.
Dr Joah Madden, from the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, one of the researchers on the study, said: “It is economically, ethically and environmentally very wasteful for so many pheasants to die so early on in their life.
“Our study shows that even when reared in the absence of their parents and under unnatural conditions you can help pheasants develop physically, behaviourally and cognitively which leaves them less vulnerable and more likely to succeed in the wild.
“The pheasants hadn’t had the same experience of learning to get higher up to escape foxes and other predators. We gave them opportunities to develop their muscles so they had stronger legs.”
GWCT research head, Dr Rufus Sage says: “A key aim of the pheasant research at the GWCT is to improve the sustainability credentials of releasing for shooting. In particular we want to minimise the unwanted impacts of releases on the environment. This research shows how we can achieve this by releasing fewer fitter birds. It may also be that these fitter birds can go on to initiate wild breeding populations and we have a new study with Exeter to look at this.”
This research carried out in partnership with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust aims to improve the conditions of game bird breeding. The research group at the University have already established pheasant health and survival prospects can be improved through changing their diet.
The study, Multiple behavioural, morphological and cognitive developmental changes arise from a single alteration to early life spatial environment, resulting in fitness consequences for released pheasants, is published in Royal Society Open Science.
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Photo credit: Mark Whiteside
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The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university that combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 21,000 students and is one of the global top 100 universities according to the Times Higher Education World UniversityRankings 2015-16, positioned 93rd. Exeter is also ranked 7th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2016, 9th in the Guardian University Guide 2016 and 10th in The Complete University Guide 2016. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the University ranked 16th nationally, with 98% of its research rated as being of international quality. Exeter was named The Times and The Sunday Times Sports University of the Year 2015-16, in recognition of excellence in performance, education and research. Exeterwas The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13.
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Notes to editors
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust – providing research-led conservation for a thriving countryside. The GWCT is an independent wildlife conservation charity which has carried out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife since the 1930s. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats. We employ 22 post-doctoral scientists and 50 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse.
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