Muvhali, P. T., Bonato, M., Engelbrecht, A. et al. 2018. The effect of extensive human presence at an early age on stress responses and reactivity of juvenile ostriches towards humans. Animals 8(10), 175.
The effect of extensive human presence and regular gentle handling performed at an early age (0–3 months old) on stress responses and reactivity of juvenile ostriches towards humans was investigated. A total of 416 ostrich chicks over two years were exposed to one of three treatments for three months after hatching; namely, Human Presence 1 (HP1, N = 144): extensive/prolonged human presence with physical contact (touch, stroking), gentle human voice, and visual stimuli; Human Presence 2 (HP2, N = 136): extensive/prolonged human presence without physical contact, but with gentle human voice and visual stimuli; and the Standard treatment (S, N = 136): human presence limited to routine feed and water supply as a control. At 7.5 months of age, the plasma heterophil/lymphocyte (H/L) ratio was measured before and 72 h after feather harvesting and feather clipping to determine acute stress responses, while chronic stress was measured by quantification of corticosterone (CORT) concentrations in the floss feathers of the birds. Birds’ behavioural response towards a familiar or an unfamiliar handler was evaluated at 12 months using docility and fear tests, and through behavioural observations conducted on random days between the ages of 8–13 months. Willingness to approach, and to allow touch interactions, aggressiveness, and exhibition of sexual display towards the handler, was recorded. No difference in the H/L ratios before and after feather harvesting and clipping was observed in HP1 birds, whereas H/L ratios showed a significant increase 72 h post feather harvesting and clipping in HP2 and S birds (p < 0.05). Birds from the S treatment exhibited a significantly (p < 0.05) higher feather CORT concentration compared with HP1 birds, while HP2 birds had intermediate responses. Birds’ reactivity towards humans and temperament as evaluated using behavioural observations, docility, and fear tests was not affected by treatment (p > 0.05). However, HP1 and HP2 birds were more inclined (p < 0.05) to approach a familiar rather than an unfamiliar handler during the behavioural observations, indicating an ability to distinguish between a familiar and an unfamiliar handler. Overall, the results indicate that early gentle human interactions with ostrich chicks can be beneficial in reducing physiological stress sensitivity later in life and facilitate the ability of ostriches to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar handlers.