We often read of the importance of "the flock" to our companion birds, and we understand that this applies to most parrot species. They are essentially wild creatures to whom the flock is synonymous with safety. My observations of African Greys; however, lead me to believe that "the flock" carries even greater importance and significance to them, than it does to other psittacines.
I believe that we might rightly begin to speak of an African Grey society, because this is what they appear to manifest amongst themselves. Synonyms of the word "society" include association, brotherhood, circle, fellowship and fraternity. These words would be an apt beginning for any definition of the manner in which Greys relate to one another.
This conclusion is based upon observations of my own Greys, both companion birds and breeding pairs, as well as those of others. I have also been privileged to view a video tape, made by Dr. Pepperberg’s students, of African Greys in the wild. This underscored my growing suspicion that we have not yet begun to fully appreciate the importance of "the flock" to our Grey birds.
In our home, many different parrot species live with us. Almost without exception, they prefer to relate to each other from afar, and vigorously defend their own private "space" from intrusion by any other. This holds true even if they are the same species. My African Greys are the exception to this rule. Greys seem to have an affinity for one another; they accept each other readily and with little friction.
In breeding Greys, I use my older companion Greys to assist me in raising the babies. I now have three Greys who interact with these babies appropriately and with interest. They preen them, feed them and teach them...welcoming them into their little society of three as they grow and fledge. They have a large area on which to climb and play, and there is no territoriality displayed as the birds climb onto one anothers’ cages.
I have brought adult Greys home and have observed a similar case with which they were integrated into my Greys’ living space. A case in point was the day I brought Sterling home. This was a blind, elderly Grey male. I introduced him to Rollo, my adult male, and they became fast friends almost immediately. In the first few minutes, Sterling established his dominance by placing his beak on the back of Rollo’s neck firmly. Rollo accepted this without question, even though he was the long established resident here and Sterling was the newcomer. Then they lived side-by-side until Sterling’s death from a stroke a few months later. In fact, Rollo served as Sterling’s "eyes" during his life with us. He deliberately led Sterling around on his "walkabouts," always waiting patiently for Sterling to catch up if he fell behind.
Other supportive evidence for this theory lies in the success of the Grey Play Round Table groups. It is recognized that the Greys who belong enjoy their interactions with each other and at times, seem to communicate to each other during the course of these get-togethers. They clearly benefit from their time together.
A GROUP OF ONE
Watching breeding pairs provides further insight into the manner in which African Greys live cooperatively with each other. When walking amongst a group of aviaries populated with Central and South American parrots, most will come to the front of the flight, screaming and talking with excitement both at the intrusion and the possibility of something interesting occurring.
Walk amongst aviaries containing breeding pairs of Greys, and the quiet will be most noticeable. You wonder where the birds are, until you see them sitting closely to each other, watching to see what will transpire during this visit. Perhaps a whistle will be offered, but that will be all. They sit together, observing, acting more as a team than as autonomous birds.
Upon reviewing Dr. Pepperberg’s video, I was startled to observe a couple of things which convinced me further that African Greys don’t just enjoy flock dynamics as other parrots do.... but that they form a very tight society. First, I was impressed when watching a flock of Greys in flight. The varying shades of gray and small patches of white reflect the sunlight with such different intensities that, viewed from above, any predator would be hard pressed to identify a single bird to attack. Even their coloration appears to have evolved in such a way that they are safest in the wild when living and flying in large groups of only other Grey birds.
Further, when feeding on the ground in flocks, they hop and fly about, often landing almost on top of one another. The birds already on the ground barely take notice. This is a stark contrast to the behavior exhibited by Central and South American birds feeding together. In these groups, when a new bird lands, those closest often strike out with a warning, which indicates "don’t get too close because this is MY space." When African Greys fly and feed together as a group, they almost appear as one entity....many acting as a group of one.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO OUR COMPANIONS?
If we accept this assertion, we must then look at the ramifications this might have for us as Grey owners. Using this information can enable us to better understand our birds, as well as provide optimal care for them. They interact with us differently than other parrot species kept in our homes, and have some different needs.
Although this theory might lead us to wonder whether we can best provide for them by acquiring another Grey, I do not believe that this is valid. Despite their closeness to others of the same species in the wild, our Greys form primary bonds with us. Acquiring a second African Grey could very well lead to competition for the human’s attention, resulting in a display of territoriality. When two Greys do reside in the same household, acceptance of each other comes after the newcomer has been there long enough to become accepted as a flock member. [EDITOR’S NOTE: And their level of acceptance is dependent on how well the human helps them work through their territorial issues, see Living With Merlin: Introducing the Second Parrot, Summer 1997 and on the internet in the Miscellaneous Article section.]
Instead, I think that this information has some direct applications to our relationships with them. Anyone owned by a Grey can verify the "intensity" of the bond they seem to develop with us. This is a direct reflection of the quality of the bond they share with each other in the wild. They want to know where we are all the time. They keep tabs on their humans in the home. They observe us so closely that they can often predict our behavior and manipulate us accordingly. They want to be included in all our activities.
For this reason, we can have more contented Greys if we include them as much as possible in our activities, especially those which, in the wild, they participate in with flock members...eating, showering, preening and moving about. In addition to these more "active" pastimes, it is equally important for them to be in places in our homes where they receive a lot of ambient attention.
Many of us are discovering that African Greys love bathrooms. In my home, each bird takes turns coming in with me in the morning to shower. However, Rollo comes in with me every morning. If I forget, he comes to find me. I am convinced that there is a quality to the experience, which he finds attractive and satisfying. I am essentially "preening" myself, and he is aware of that and enjoys being included by being present.
He also insists on eating with me. The other birds enjoy this; but Rollo insists as if this is his right. His need is to live very closely with me. The other birds enjoy the attention they get, but they have a more autonomous manner of interacting with me.
African Greys want to be where the other flock members are, if not to participate....then to observe. We now know that in the wild, even when nesting, Greys prefer to be with other Greys; breeding pairs often nest in groups of hundreds of birds. Many of our companion Greys experience stress when separated from their families. This carries some worries for those of us who travel. I advocate taking a Grey on vacation whenever possible. I know many Greys who are good are good travelers. If this is not possible, any caretaker should be familiar enough to the Grey to be known as part of the "extended" flock, at least.
Cage placement is another issue to be considered. African Greys most enjoy being located in the living area...not so much because they want a lot of interaction...but because they like to monitor things. They want to know what the rest of the flock is doing. Many Greys confined to "bird rooms" exhibit problem behavior.
There is yet another aspect of their flock dynamics which may manifest in behavior confusing to us. Greys have a tendency to sit back and observe newcomers or intruders carefully at length. In the wild, they do this as a pair within a group. In our homes, we often confuse them by our ready acceptance of new people, and further outrage them with our insistence that they should as well. Knowing the importance of keeping exotic birds well socialized, I encourage my other parrots to go to new people during a first meeting. However, I use a more conservative approach with my Greys. I believe it appropriate and kind to allow them the time they need to observe my interactions with visitors before asking them to do the same. This may take many visits from the same person.
Let’s honor the Grey Society..both by including them in our daily activities...and by trying even harder to understand theirs. Perhaps they have something to teach us about living in "society"...in fellowship with others.
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This article was first published in the Spring 1999 issue of the Grey Play Round Table® Magazine.