"I can't seem to get my Grey to eat his vegetables. He'll eat a piece of apple or grape every day, but that's about it. I'm at my wits end. What do I do?"
This is one of the most frequently asked questions that I get from new and "old" pet humans. Remember how hard it was to get your human children to eat 'the good stuff?' Well, it takes work, planning and scheming to get our 'fids' to do the same. But most of all, it takes teaching them proper living skills.
WILD BIRD TEACHING SKILLS
There have been many past articles that discuss the ways in which birds learn in the wild. We know that they have many millions of years of 'instinctive learning' hard wired into their systems, but we also know that much of their knowledge is also taught 'associatively.' That is, they may have an instinct about something, but the true way to do it must often be taught by another parrot, such as the parents or older siblings. Flying is one example..... there is the instinct to do it, but it also takes practice and observation to learn to do it well. Preening is another example. Ever noticed any young Greys that look a little SCRUFFY???? Observation of a competent preener can help dramatically.
Jane Hallander wrote frequently that one problem we have with our domestically bred Greys is that they lack the "associative" side of the learning that their wild cousins get from their parents and siblings. And for a parrot species which we believe requires a "long development process" (live within the family unit for at least the first year), our Greys that are raised domestically can tend to suffer with insecurity/neurotic problems more than many other parrot species that require shorter development periods. That's because they are generally bred for the same short periods (three months or less) as the quicker maturing parrots. They are forced to 'grow up' before they are ready.
Although we 'pet humans' can never replace the parent bird, it is important that we provide as much associative education as we can to our 'gray feathered ones'. So, how should we do it? Watch the birds in your backyard and you'll notice that the parents teach by guidance and demonstration. I grew up on the coast of North Carolina, and I remember one day watching a Marsh hen teach her babies "hunting" skills. She waddled through the tall marsh grass and stuck her beak into a fiddler crab hole. There were four chicks following her. The first three followed her path exactly, right through the grass that she had trampled down, and each chick stuck its beak into the same fiddler crab hole, one at a time. Then the fourth one came along. He was a different color and obviously followed a different drummer. Instead of copying mommy, he attempted to mow a new path. He turned to the left and bumped into the tall grass...turned right and bumped into more grass...finally he fell back into mommy's path and stuck his beak into the hole. Human nature, excuse me... "nature" doesn't change, but that's material for another article.
Anyway, baby parrots learn in a similar way in which human children learn. First, there's the fear and anticipation about trying something new, but after constant encouragement by the parent, the first attempt is eventually made. And the parents don't give up on their babies. We don't have a lot of research on the wild behavior of Greys, but it is suspected that they don't breed every year. Instead, they possibly spend the time required to help their babies develop their skills.
The babies are given constant supervision and encouragement. Once the chick has perfected a skill, the YAHOO-I-DID-IT reaction comes and confidence in the bird then builds. Again, watch the backyard birds. They teach their babies to eat by doing it first. Then they sit on a nearby branch in close supervision. You can hear the constant chattering: "How am I doing???" "You're doing fine.... concentrate!!!" Also realize that most back yard birds are "quick maturing" species that are born and quickly learn their survival skills over the summer. Their parents must be exhausted by early fall.
Diana May observed many 'small groups' of five or six Greys within the overall flocks in Africa. These small groups are hypothesized to be the 'family units,' consisting of the parents, a few chicks and possibly adolescent siblings who assist with the chicks' education. It is hypothesized that the chicks do not leave their family units until they feel totally secure in their daily living skills. Their parents provide constant support and security.
This is what we must attempt to replicate. This teaching mode extends into all aspects of living skills, including eating, playing, showering and so on. I think two of the most important aspects of successful teaching are: 1) constant verbal and telepathic encouragement and 2) the willingness to sit down there and do it first.
IN THE HEAD
By the time my first Grey, Merlin Tewillager, was nine-months-old, she had become a pit-bull-with-feathers. She constantly bit everyone who came near her. A part of her problem was that I believe she lacked confidence in me as the 'mommy bird.' Although I had learned the basics, such as the UP/DOWN commands and so on, I lacked the confidence in what I was doing. This obviously came through loudly telepathically. I would say "UP," but had a fear she would bite and projected it in my head. What did she do? She did what I told her to do telepathically. She bit me. But once my confidence grew and I learned to VISUALIZE her getting onto my hand without biting, she became more relaxed and stopped biting. Now, she is my 'beautifully behaved partner.'
Think about the backyard birds again for a moment. Whether or not we want to believe in the 'weird stuff' about telepathy, it is one of the many ways in which wild animals communicate with one another. In fact, I believe it is the common language through which all animal species in the forest communicate with each other. After all, it would be impossible to communicate across lines through their own verbal languages, since they are all different. Therefore, I strongly assume that when the mommy bird is teaching her chicks, she also uses telepathic communicative skills. In other words, she shows them by demonstration, then possibly, she coaches them in how to do it both verbally and telepathically.
As a result, if it is the case that wild chicks also learn through telepathic instruction, our Grey 'fids' instinctively learn from us by listening both verbally and telepathically. If we give them one teaching verbally and the opposite teaching telepathically, they become confused and probably follow the direction most easily understood.... the telepathic (visual) image of biting the human.
Visualization is so simple. Even if you still lack a little confidence in what you're doing, positively visualizing a well-behaved parrot teaches your Grey how it's supposed to act. You don't need instruction on how to do it. All you need to do is to imagine your Grey getting onto your hand without biting when you say UP. That is, say UP and then create a mental image in your head of your bird stepping up with its head up (not down biting you). The key is to do this exercise frequently.... eventually making it an unconscious act.
EXPOSE THEM TO NEW ACTIVITIES/REINTRODUCE OLD ONES
Another issue that I have observed about my Greys is that if they are not consistently exposed to an activity, they may revert to nervous behavior when exposed to it again. Specifically, when they haven't experienced a certain activity for a long time, they seem to act as if they have forgotten it. That's why it is so important to introduce them to new activities and constantly re-introduce old activities.
African Greys tend to become myopic. Remember they ARE creatures of habit. A part of this may relate to being partial ground feeders in the wild. If you're on the ground, you want everything to stay the same..... if anything moves even an inch, it could be a hawk waiting to pounce on its prey. Ground prey animals study every twig and stick....everything must be in place.
Accordingly, in the home, if we keep their day-to-day activities exactly the same, they will revert to nervous, neurotic behavior the moment anything different is introduced. However, if we continue to introduce new things, they will become relaxed and comfortable with being exposed and re-exposed to new activities, people and environments.
TEACHING EATING SKILLS
So, how does all of this relate to teaching our Greys to eat 'good stuff?' I've tried everything, but nothing works..... Well, try it again. But try it differently. Here are a few ideas for teaching your Grey to eat his vegetables:
- When preparing the food, talk about how good it is. Get really excited...sing and dance around. Be silly.
- Invite your darling to participate in the preparation. Taste something and get really excited. Offer something. If accepted, after a moment of curiosity, grab it back. Be possessive. It's MINE!!! When the curiosity builds, offer it again.
- Sit by the cage or at the dinner table and eat the food you're introducing. Again, you've gotta love it. Offer some. Imagine in your mind your parrot getting into the food and eating it. Keep that mental image. Wow! Love those carrots!!!
- Be supportive and compliment your Grey, even if he tries only a nibble. That's better than yesterday.
- Stay open. Sometimes my girls eat lots while I'm preparing and do not want it in the cage because they've already eaten it during the preparation.
- Disguise the 'good stuff' by mixing it with the 'yummy' stuff.
- Sweeten the flavor with a variety of fruits. I add a squirt of orange to my girls' mash every few days. Citrus should not be given every day though, no more than twice a week or so.
VARIETY IS THE SPICE
- Serve the foods in as many different ways as you can dream up. Try serving raw: try tiny pieces, larger pieces. Try steaming. Try
casserole choices. Try mashing in food processor.
- Turn the food into toys. Clip a large chard leaf onto the top of the cage and let your Grey rip it down. Twist it onto the cage bars like vines. Hide it in certain toys (that can be cleaned) that your parrot loves.
- Turn it into games. Do the above, but play a game with it first. For example, clip a chard leaf to the cage. Get on your knees and grab a piece of the leaf with your teeth. Chew it up and get really excited. "This is good!" Then put a new leaf in the cage for your companion. Egg him on to attack and CHEW the leaf.
- If your Grey loves to take baths in a casserole dish, put a leaf in the water for him to tear up ...and chew. Again, you do it first. Put your hands behind your back....and grab a leaf with your mouth. Get excited and CHEW! You've got to CHEW! Egg him on to copy you.
- When playing the games, you may also want to also act a little possessive. Don't let him get your leaf....possibly take his leaf, if he doesn't act very interested. Then let him know how good it is and how much you love it.
Teaching eating skills is just like all other skills. Our Greys need repetition and constant reinforcement in order to get them to adapt to these new behaviors. They depend on us to try everything and NOT to give up. Therefore, DON'T!!!
- Experiment with the times of day that you serve. Identify the times when your bird is the most hungry and serve the 'good stuff' then. Some Greys have been known to prefer to crunch on veggies late at night, after being covered.... others in the early morning when really hungry....others like to graze on it all day.
- Some people serve the different foods at single times. For example, the morning meal may represent the vegetable bowl and water....then dry foods, like seeds/pellets, come in the afternoon. It all depends on your schedule and lifestyle....AND the lifestyle of your Grey.
- Bring in a Grey that loves to eat. There ARE Greys who love to eat, believe it or not. Eat with him and get really excited about it. Make sure your companion sees every single action.
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Margaret T. Wright (Maggie) is the author of the book, African Grey Parrots: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual. You may learn more about African Greys at her site: http://www.AfricanGreys.com Get an autographed copy of her book here: http://www.africangreys.com/greyplace/autographbook.htm Also, visit her other sites: www.AnimalLoversUnited.com ; www.NaturesCornerMagazine.com ; and www.AfricaNature.com
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