In college, a friend of a friend had a Mynah bird, and I heard many stories about its antics. From then on I wanted a talking bird-- but it had to wait until after college. However, I did come up with a name--Merlin (after the magician), Tewillager ( after Mr. Terwillager, some storybook rabbit in my childhood) and Wright (after me). This bird would have my initials, MTW.
More than a few years later, I went on this magical journey through Cornwall, England. I spent time in Tintagel where King Arthur was born, and I meditated in a cave where Merlin, the Magician taught Wart to communicate with animals. Then I went on to Glastonbury, the mythical Avalon and seat of the Holy Grail. It was quite a powerful week. During the entire trip, I kept running into parrots... a parrot on a man's shoulder on the trail to the Tintagel castle... parrots in the hotels... parrots in stores... pet parrots on people's hands. Bong...then I remembered.
I had had many pets growing up in North Carolina; but as a single "Corporate Executive" in New York City, it was difficult to have one. I was never home. But somehow this trip changed me, and I started thinking about birds. I visited pet stores in the city, bought many books and talked to as many people as possible. Then I decided to get an African Grey. However, I had to stop smoking first. I had smoked a pack a day for almost 15 years and couldn't seem to stop, just for myself. Perhaps I could for the health of a little tyke. So, I took acupuncture, stopped smoking and purchased my little Grey weeks later. To this day, I'm a non-smoker!!!
Merlin found me in a store just outside Manhattan. She was 12 weeks old, and she had been born the exact week of my Camelot trip. I remember when we first met. There were 15 babies from which to choose. I picked up two or three--- but then I heard this squealing. There was this little baby looking up at me with food gunk stuck on its back. I picked it (later confirmed as a she) up, and the connection was so powerful that I cried. I had found my partner..or she had found me.
The first six months were great. We were inseparable. Merlin became an appendage to my body, as her favorite perch was my right shoulder. It felt so good to have her there, a closeness that is difficult to describe. She was so sweet, so cuddly. When we were separated, I talked about her and showed pictures of her to friends, family and even strangers on airplanes and in restaurants.
At about nine months Merlin Tewillager knew she ruled the world. She was in total control and was going to prove it. She scared off many non-bird friends, just by barking at them. She attacked anyone or anything that came close to her cage. My right hand became raw and bruised from her abuse. Sometimes I had to roll on the floor (gently) to get her off my shoulder. The terrible two's had entered our home with a vengeance.
I called Avian Behavior consultant Gail Langsner to help us. First, we agreed that Merle would not be allowed on my shoulder for three months; the new favorite perch would become the right hand, as well as the knee when watching TV. She suggested that Merle's aggressive energy be focused on talking; so I spent many hours talking to her across the room, giving my bruised hands a break. Merlin and I had daily 5-10 minute sessions working on the UP/DOWN commands. The discipline that seemed to work best with her was the Sally Blanchard "evil eye and ladder." Specifically, when Merlin misbehaved, I gave her a disapproving look and made her climb many times from one hand to the other at the UP command.
The need to control stems from the fear of being out of control; therefore, it was important to help Merlin feel secure and confident. Gail taught me a technique which she calls "broadcasting." This technique helps Greys feel more confident and in control by knowing what will happen to them next. Very simply, this technique involves telling your Grey everything you're doing. For example, to move her from one perch to the other, I'd pick her up, point to the other perch and say "want perch," and place her there. Before long, Merle was requesting on her own to be moved and for many foods.
Parrots pick up on our thoughts, emotions and our auric energy systems. One of the most helpful tips was from Sally Blanchard in a behavior seminar when she said that parrots are empathetic creatures, instead of sympathetic like dogs. This means that if you're angry, your parrot will get angry back at you, whereas, a dog would try to appease you. This truism taught me to calm my energy around Merlin, no matter how much the bite hurt. One time I cried to make her feel my pain; but this strategy backfired when she started crying too---which made me laugh.
Merle "allowed" me to be the flock leader in new situations; so this provided opportunity for additional reinforcement of positive behavior. We traveled together in airplanes and cars to see family and friends. She obeyed the UP command consistently and learned how to charm strangers with her great talking ability. Our favorite trip was to Germany where she dazzled Germans with her animal sounds on command. But the funniest sight was to see this lady (me) walking through a German village with a gray bird that looks like a pigeon, and the bird is whistling Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer in late June.
Although Merlin was becoming calmer overtime, she was still nervous and frightened to be handled by other people. This is where the Round Table social group really helped. Members who were "confident bird people" spent time working with her. This consisted of laddering, praising, passing her to other members, praising, walking around the room with her--and more praising. Now she's the group show off.
I'm convinced that once these guys overcome their terrible two's, and feel secure and confident, they can become the calm companions everyone wishes for--but it takes work. Now at five years, Merlin Tewillager has become sweeter and more tame than ever. That's why it unnerves me to see or read about humans giving up on their Greys because they've become behavior problems. I learned most of my mistakes with Merlin. And similar to having second children, I've become much calmer and more knowledgeable in handling Sweet Pea.
Merlin, the Werla-bird, is my best friend and close companion. She makes me laugh; she makes me cry; she sings as poorly as I do but loves it; she calls me beauty and she loves me. But there was a time when I wasn't sure.... The message here is NEVER GIVE UP. Seek out the help you need, and work, work, work.
This article was published in the Spring 1996 issue of the Grey Play Round Table® African Grey magazine: www.AfricanGreys.com ; www.AnimalLoversUnited.com ; www.NaturesCornerMagazine.com .
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