South Alabama Caged Bird Society
Six weeks after being postponed due to the tragic events of September 11 th , the First-Ever African Grey conference finally came about. Tom and I arrived at the Atlanta Hilton Northeast late that Thursday afternoon with our two birds, Taco and Heather, in tow. It was a long drive from Fairhope, Alabama but since our birds love to travel and think being cooped up with us in the car for 6 hours is a "fun" flock adventure, we ALL were excited about this unique conference and learning more about African Greys. Well, Taco, the Sun Conure, wasn't really all that interested in hearing anything more about her Grey cousins, especially since she's forced to share her home with a Congo "motor-mouth" named Heather Grace. But she IS always excited when she can be with Tom, her favorite person.
After getting our 'birdy girls' settled down in the hotel room for the night, we hurriedly made our way downstairs to the "Meet the Speakers" buffet supper. A few of the speakers originally scheduled in September were not able to come this time, but we recognized many on hand as nationally acclaimed avian experts. Most are regular contributors to the major bird publications and we were anxious to learn what they had to teach us during these next three days.
The African Grey conference was sponsored by the Equatorial Group, Ltd, the parent company to the Grey Play Round Table African Grey magazine. The Grey Play Round Table has organized a system of "Round Table" groups throughout the country where Grey pet humans and their Greys get together to share information and bond. The Atlanta Round Table group, headed up by Sherrie Miller, agreed to help host the conference in Atlanta.
Early Friday morning Sherrie Miller, Group coordinator for the Atlanta Group, introduced Maggie Wright from New York City. Maggie is the creator and editor of the Grey Play Round Table Magazine and author of African Grey Parrots: A Complete Owner's Manual , published earlier this year by Barron's. She acquainted us with her three traveling companions, her birds... Merlin Tewillager and Sweet Pea, as well as Wart, whom she was 'birdsitting' for Dr. Irene Pepperberg. All three Greys were extremely well socialized and enjoyed interacting with the conferees. Miss Merlin especially, is a real ham and kept asking the audience, "What does the rooster say?" so she could bask in the power of forcing 100-plus adults to cackle like a rooster. Now, that's GREY power!
Liz Wilson, a certified veterinary technician and avian behavior consultant from Pennsylvania, spoke next about "Breaking the One-Person Bird Syndrome." Since we now know Greys in the wild regularly assemble in large flocks, it is normal for them to have lots of social interaction with their peers. Liz feels it's contrary to their highly social nature and unfair to our companion Greys when we allow them to form an exclusive relationship with just one person in the family. This, in reality, is what constitutes a pair bond- found between two parrots in the wild who are nesting and raising young. Since that's impossible between a parrot and a person, a parrot pair-bonded to a human often becomes frustrated and can develop behavior problems. Biting and aggression against family members is the main reason most pet birds lose their homes. Liz recommends encouraging your companion bird to form a positive relationship with all family members and gradually introducing receptive friends into the social circle or "flock" as well. To encourage more interaction with the bird, she suggests you designate fun jobs for different members of the family---- one can be the 'shower person,' another can be the 'song and dance person,' and have another introduce any new toys, and so on. If there is already a least-favored person (or 'enemy'), let that person be the ONLY one to offer favorite treats or snacks to the bird. Ideally, you want to develop a nurturing lifelong parent-child relationship with your bird..... with YOU as the parent, of course!
Nancy Sheffer, also from New York State, a bird care and safety expert, shared her list of "Helpful Hints Around the House" and answered questions from the audience on product safety. She recommended using only beeswax candles in the house, not the popular perfumed candles, whose wicks can emit dangerous fumes. She also said that since birds tend to store any excess salt in their brains, we should strictly limit intake of salty foods and snacks. If you are a bird owner who smokes, she advises stepping outdoors into the fresh air when you light up. This limits your bird's exposure to the toxic fumes and side-stream smoke. And always wash your hands to remove traces of nicotine before handling your birds.
Arlene Levin, an admirer of Dr. Pepperberg's work, gave us an update on the famous Alex and how he's doing today. The current research at MIT is attracting lots of attention and they are presently searching for more lab space in which to continue their work with Alex, Kyaaro, Griffin and Wart. Alex, now 25 years old, no longer feather picks and looks really great in the current pictures.
We next broke into small "Round Table" discussion groups to share ideas for socializing companion African Greys, who have the reputation for being super cautious and sometimes stand-offish with strangers. With Maggie's encouragement, Tom and I ran upstairs on one of the breaks and brought Heather and Taco down to meet Merlin, Sweet Pea and Wart. By this time, the noise level in the room was extremely loud from the exuberant exchange of information flying back and forth. We worried that our two birds might freak out from the loud din, but they took their cue from the calm demeanor of the other three birds and took it all in stride. By the end of the session, you'd have never known this was their FIRST conference.
On Saturday morning, Diana May, a graduate student working with Dr. Pepperberg, briefed us on "Wild African Grey Behavior: How does it translate into the Home?" Diana has made three trips to the Congo specifically to observe Greys in their natural environment. A detailed report of her findings is featured in the January 2002 issue of Bird Talk. Cameroon is, by far, the largest exporter of wild caught Greys, many of whom are poached illegally for shipment to Asia, and Europe. Greys in the wild do not mix with birds of other species but congregate in large numbers with other Greys to forage on the ground. This habit makes them particularly vulnerable to being trapped by ground nets. It was heartbreaking to see Diana's pictures of locals snaring as many as 50 birds at one time in huge nets. Scenes taken just moments before showing the birds peacefully grazing on the ground interacting with their peers, blissfully unaware of any danger. When they retrieve the terrified birds, the captors roughly yank them loose from the netting by their wings to avoid being bitten, then jam dozens together in small wooden transport crates. Little wonder that of the 15,000 Greys taken from Cameroon EACH year, over half die because of the harsh way in which they are trapped and handled. Undoubtedly, the birds that survive are severely traumatized.
Dr. Tammy Parker, a veterinarian, talked to us next "From a Vet's Perspective" and offered many excellent tips for making vet visits more productive.
Phoebe Linden, renown owner of Santa Barbara Bird Farm in California and a staunch advocate of the practice of non-stressful "Abundance Weaning," spoke on "Teaching your Grey How to Learn." Phoebe believes there are optimal learning periods in each parrot's life and we should respond appropriately to these different stages of development. They are: the Neonate (tiny babies should be housed in total darkness under a coverlet, similar to the wild nest cavity); a Neophyte (alert and ready for interaction - should be kept with others the same age in an enriched environment and offered a variety of food and toys to investigate); the Fledgling (should be allowed to fly and learn proper navigating and landing techniques- this helps them gain long-term critical thinking and overall confidence); the Adolescent (should have already learned to follow simple requests - to come when called, step up, down, etc,-- before hormonal pressures of puberty set in); and finally, the Adult (well-socialized lifelong companion, cherished for its own unique personality). And we should always remember that our companion birds are subject to occasional seasonal hormonal influences that must be respected. A two-hour panel discussion followed in which all the speakers answered questions from the audience.
Saturday evening at 7 P.M. we gathered in the elegant hotel ballroom for the big CAMELOT BANQUET. After a delicious dinner, we were treated to the amusing antics of Joe Tyler and Buckwheat, his trained African Grey. The amazing Buckwheat can perform over 30 tricks and loves to visit schools and retirement homes where he wows the audiences. Next, we viewed a remarkable film produced by Maggie Wright called African Grey Parrots: Nature's Ambassadors. It explained the history of the African Grey parrot: how it was revered by many of the indigenous tribes of Africa who believed the Grey bird (Red Tailed parrot) was sent down from the heavens to deliver speech to mankind and serve as an intermediary between God and man. The evening's entertainment drew to a close with a fantastic concert by a local percussion group called The Choir , composed exclusively of 12 talented drummers. Their enthusiastic rendition of rousing African music soon had Maggie leading a long line of dancers weaving their way around the tables and chairs in the ballroom. Everyone had a GREY'T time---- a perfect way to end a fun-filled day!
Sunday, the final day, was scheduled for a number of two-hour "How-To" workshops from 9 to 4PM. Since we only had time to attend three, Tom and I chose Liz Wilson's "Biting and Other Behaviors," Phoebe Linden's "Teaching your Grey to Shower," and Nancy Sheffer's "Teaching your Grey to Play" workshops. Other workshops included: "How to Handle Emergencies," "How to Make Toys," and "Trick Training with Buckwheat." The three we participated in were extremely helpful and very entertaining. In Nancy's workshop on play, she arrived dressed as a bird, complete with a feathered boa, to demonstrate ways of enticing a reluctant bird to accept and enjoy playing with its toys.
Most of the speakers and conferees headed for home shortly after the last workshop, but a few of us planned to spend the night and get an early start back on Monday morning. We made plans to all meet in the hotel restaurant for an early supper. When we arrived, the restaurant was practically deserted so Maggie, Tom and I decided to let our birds join us for dinner. The hotel staff had been quite accommodating and accepting of us "crazy bird folks" over the past few days and enjoyed interacting with the visiting birds. The waiters arranged our tables so the five birds could hang out together and socialize. Once the food arrived, the birds enjoyed their own 'banquet'--- running back and forth from plate to plate, helping themselves to whatever appealed to them. The Caesar salad was a big hit, as was the pasta with veggies. After a couple of hours, some of the other hotel guests started straggling into the dining room. Though most were enchanted at finding a gaggle of miniature feathered diners in their midst, we decided it was probably a good time to quietly make a departure. We got busy cleaning up the incredible mess generated by five free-roaming "bird kids." Meanwhile, Miss Merlin - who loves to flirt with tall dark men---- had spied a likely candidate across the room. She was definitely not happy about having to leave without him and did her best to entice him into coming with us. But, he obviously couldn't speak "bird" and was oblivious to her not-so-subtle invitation. Sweet Pea, Wart, Heather and Taco, however, had enough excitement for one day and were more than ready to hit the sack!
The next morning, during the seemingly endless task of loading up our respective vehicles before heading in opposite parts of the country, we commiserated with Maggie over the only downside to traveling with companion birds. The marvel that such little creatures can require SO MUCH stuff!
On the long drive home, Tom and I reminisced about this memorable conference and how it had more than met our expectations......superb speakers, first-rate hotel, outstanding meals, wonderful vendors, sensational raffle prizes, great comradery and enough information to keep our minds busy for a long time to come.... the incredible effort it took to put it all together and how grateful we are for such dedicated folks....the sheer enjoyment of getting together with others who are equally passionate about their birds and swapping "amazing Grey" stories- and recognizing that no one is exaggerating ONE BIT! Nor did anyone's eyes glaze over with boredom, as so often happens when you're trying to explain to your non-bird friends the joy of sharing your life with such unique and awesome creatures.... It was an extraordinary conference worthy of an extraordinary species!!!