Unfortunately, African Grey Parrots have garnered a reputation as a parrot species with a high risk of phobia. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a phobia is "an exaggerated, usually inexplicable and illogical fear of an object, class of objects, or situation." In this case our parrot friends develop an extreme fear of their human handlers... a fear so strong that the bird actually thinks it is about to die.
WHAT CONSTITUTES TRULY PHOBIC BEHAVIOR?
The Grey who throws himself to the cage bottom, screaming to hopefully drive us away is probably phobic if he consistently repeats this behavior whenever one or more people try to handle him. However, the parrot who simply runs away from your hand or the "UP" command, but behaves with confidence when you handle him is not phobic. He probably has just not learned what is expected of him and where his place is within the ‘flock.’
As we learn more about what triggers phobias in African Greys several patterns become evident. While there will always be exceptions, if someone calls me for a consultation about their African Grey, I already know that it is probably a domestically-bred, male Grey, who started showing phobic symptoms between one and a half and two years of age. I also know that it probably started after he fell to the floor and was picked up by his concerned human. If this sounds like the psychic side of me coming out, it isn’t. These are the statistics that fit the profile of a phobic African Grey Parrot.
Let’s look at each variable that contributes to the overall profile:
First, we seldom see phobia in wild-caught, imported Greys. I believe that is due to the fact that wild Greys are raised by the parents, rather than pulled from the nest at a couple of weeks old and raised by a human hand-feeder. Parrots, as with other animals, have two ways to express behavior. One is the instinctive or ‘hardwired’ behavior that all members of a species are with. For instance, the knowledge that a Grey’s primary predators are hawks and that attacks come from above is instinctive.
Besides instinctive, parrots use ‘associated learning’ or socialization from other birds for information about their daily lives. While a Grey may instinctively know that hawks are dangerous predators, it takes other birds to teach him about secondary predators, such as dogs, cats or even humans. All Greys, wild or domestic, know to fear hawks. However, wild-caught parrots may initially fear dogs and cats, because they are close cousins to predatory animals in Africa and are secondary predators taught to them by older wild Greys. Wild Greys probably have a ‘clear list’ of what is and what isn’t a danger to them, and humans probably are among the list. Humans do not ordinarily play an active predatory role in day-to-day African Grey life. Therefore, there is no reason for a wild bird’s parrot teachers to identify humans as predators.
Unfortunately, domestically bred parrot babies seldom have an opportunity to learn anything from another bird. They must rely only on their instinctive background for knowledge of how to be a bird. Therefore, domestically bred Greys are often armed only with their instincts, which tell them that danger comes from above. Instinctively, they know that flying is the escape route from an overhead predator.
Why is it that a young Grey, that has severely clipped wings and falls to the floor, can easily become phobic when it is pursued by a worried human owner?
Apparently, that is enough to trigger an intense fear of the person, who at that moment appears over the bird’s head. That fear may then easily become an associated learning response and the bird associates his person with that very same instinctive fear of an overhead predator.
Ivory poachers hunt male African elephants for their tusks, making the African elephant an endangered species. In an effort to save the African elephant, groups of juvenile males were transported to the safety of game preserves, where they could be guarded by game wardens. The plan was working well until wardens started finding dead black rhinoceros in the same area as the juvenile elephants. Before long it became apparent that the juvenile elephants were ‘ganging’ up on the rhinos and killing them. After observing this strange phenomenon, some experts felt the elephants would have to be destroyed before they wiped out the rhino population, another endangered species. Of course, this idea was counter to the original purpose of saving the African elephant.
One thoughtful warden had a theory. He had blood samples taken from the juvenile elephants and found their testosterone levels higher than samples taken from juvenile males living close to an established herd of females and older males. Testosterone, a male hormone or androgen is a primary contributor to aggression levels in many animals. His theory was that the juveniles, living in groups alone and far away from their natural social environment were developing unnatural behaviors and aggressions because they were not exposed to natural elephant social order and the associated teaching that came with it.
Based on his theory, they imported two older adult bull elephants from another game preserve and placed them with the young juveniles. The older bull elephants did exactly what they would do in their natural environment ...whipped the juveniles into a somewhat submissive mode toward the older elephants. This is required within elephant herds to keep young bulls from claiming and mating with female elephants. Only one bull elephant gets to mate and produce young and he is the strongest of the lot. When the senior bull is unable to defend his herd against challenges from the juvenile bull elephant herd, he loses his leadership place and a younger, stronger male takes over. This insures a strong gene pool, necessary for species survival.
Sure enough, within a few weeks the testosterone levels of the young male elephants dropped to normal ranges and attacks on black rhinos ceased completely. What happened here that applies to male African Greys and phobias?
GREY TO ELEPHANT COMPARISON
Game wardens saw that male elephants kept with only other juvenile male elephants interacted with each other through natural elephant games that taught them confidence and aggression, exactly what they needed to become potential herd leaders in a natural environment. However, living by themselves wasn’t their natural environment. A natural environment requires older elephants to tone down the juveniles, while still allowing the game playing that teaches future survival skills.
Of course, our Greys don’t have the same social structure or survival requirements, as do African elephants. African Greys live in flocks, but bond to stay with only one mate for as long as that bird lives. Therefore, there’s no need to subdue young males around the flock. However, there is still some amount of aggression needed by Greys to defend their nests and drive intruders away. Where does that confidence and aggression come from?
My theory is that confidence for male African Greys comes from ‘game-playing’ and interaction with other Grey males in the formative time between fledging and when they start to mature sexually. This would explain why we don’t see phobias with wild-caught Greys, even those who were imported at a very young age when importation was still legal. Wild-caught birds grow up naturally with natural African Grey socialization and associative learning from other Greys. Domestically bred Greys usually don’t have an opportunity to socialize and ‘play’ with other Greys, so may be lacking the extra testosterone and confidence derived from roughhousing and playing with their peers. If it is in fact a question of testosterone levels and/or lack of confidence developed from interaction with other male Greys, that may also explain why we don’t see phobias with African Grey hens.
Why don’t we see phobias in other species, such as Amazons?
Again, a domestically bred parrot’s response to outside stimuli depends on how the bird is genetically programmed for survival in its natural habitat. For instance, it is very possible that African Grey juveniles are further ‘tutored’ by other, perhaps older, birds after they fledge, but before they reach maturity and join the flock as adults. We know this happens with Galah (Rose-breasted) Cockatoos, while some other Cockatoo species do not continue with heavily supervised education of juveniles. If there is another parrot species that can become phobic as easily and in similar numbers as the African Grey Parrot, it is the Rose-breasted Cockatoo. My friend and colleague, Sam Foster, has done extensive research into Galah behavior, especially phobias. Amazons appear not to have as much structure to their flocks as do Greys and Galahs, possibly because most South American parrots fly in ‘multi-species’ flocks that contain Amazons, Macaws, Conures and other South American parrot species.
While this isn’t the only reason Greys become phobic, it appears to be one of a short list of coincidences that lead to the final unfortunate result. If we clip a Grey’s wings or toenails too short, or provide perches that are too slippery or large for the Grey to grip, especially if it is at that very sensitive, clumsy juvenile stage, we may be undermining whatever confidence it instinctively has. This becomes an even greater problem if the Grey has not been allowed to learn to fly, fully flighted, at fledging age. Many responsible breeders let their Grey bappies learn to fly, land and navigate, before gradually clipping their wings and sending them off to new homes.
As discussed earlier, an African Grey who falls, due to a short wing clip or from toenails clipped too short to grip his perches may have the trauma its painful fall reinforced when the worried owner hurries to pick the frightened Grey up from the floor. A common scenario is that the startled Grey is ‘chased’ by the worried human. The parrot cannot fly to instinctively escape the person and initially becomes afraid of the owner’s hands. In this case, phobia starts with the hands, but if not corrected, soon develops into a full phobic reaction whenever that particular person comes near the parrot. Simply waiting until the bird on the floor turns to face the human might avoid future problems.
While no one can absolutely guarantee that a young African Grey will grow into a happy, well-adjusted adult bird, there are certainly ways to minimize potential problems. Perhaps we need to further study and duplicate natural parrot socialization as much as we can in a domestic breeding situation, rather than attempt to ‘shape’ our young Greys into ‘little humans.’ Everyone knows of wild-caught Greys who are ideal companions. My own Jing is a perfect example. If wild birds can make this adjustment so successfully into a very different environment there is something to be said for associative learning from other Greys...because that’s exactly what wild Greys receive as they are growing up.
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