The field of parrot behavior is new and constantly changing. Due to the contributions of Chris Davis, Sally Blanchard and many other avian behavior consultants, we finally started getting our arms wrapped around how to work with parrots in the eighties and nineties. We learned many important concepts, such as the need to have hand control through the UP/DOWN commands and the importance of the neutral room for working on behavior issues. But as of recent years, it has also become clear that we cannot work on behavior in the vacuum of the home. In order to understand why a parrot does as it does, one must also understand its wild instincts and behavior.
Since most of our experiences with companion animals has probably been with dogs or cats, we tend to forget the significance that parrots are not domesticated animals. The purpose of domestication is to alter the personality and instinct of an animal so that it adapts to man. This is done by selective breeding. Many believe the dog, for example, was domesticated by taming wolves, which began as early as the late Glacial period (14,000 B.C.). Some believe the process may have started even earlier, one hundred thousand years ago. That’s a lot of years of taming the wolf, generation by generation.
By contrast, we know that our parrots are, at most, only one or two generations removed from the wild. For the most part, “domestic breeding” did not really start en masse until approximately the past thirty years. Therefore, we are dealing with tame, wild animals whose personalities have not been altered and who have not lost their wild instincts. It will be a very long time before we can call parrots domesticated, definitely not within our lifetime.
Not only that, we are learning that parrots behave differently by species. Depending on their habitat, life circumstances and territorial competition, wild parrot species adapt and create different social flock behaviors, in order to survive. Let’s take how they raise their young, for example. The Yellow-nape and Blue-front Amazons of South America receive intense survival training in a very short period so that they become independent in their flocks when they fledge. By contrast, Rose-breasted (Galah) cockatoos of Australia take longer periods to raise their young. The fledglings are kept in large creches after they fledge and their parents continue to feed and teach them. Cockatoo expert Sam Foster believes this is because there is more competition for food and nest cavities in South America; therefore, the amazon fledglings are forced to grow up more quickly than the Galahs in order to survive.
Again, species behave in ways that help them survive whatever life obstacles they face. They follow these patterns generation by generation, until life circumstances force them to re-adapt to something else. Although our domestically bred parrots are socialized to adapt to our homes, their wild behavior and instinctive tendencies are also reflected in their personalities.
WILD AFRICAN GREY BEHAVIOR
Unfortunately, we do not have a lot of research on the wild habits of African greys in Africa. However, we do have some information that helps us theorize and better understand why they may behave as they do in our homes. Here are a few examples:
Partial ground feeders: In addition to eating fruits, berries, seeds and leaves from the forest canopy (trees), wild African greys have been observed eating on the ground. Diana May, a Ph.D. student advised by Dr. Pepperberg, and Carolyn Bentley (a graduate student accompanying Ms. May) observed groups of them ground foraging at a marsh clearing in the Lobéké Reserve, located in southeastern Cameroon. They watched individual groups of parrots gather at a barren tree, until the tree was totally full of hundreds of parrots preening, climbing, vocalizing and socializing. Then the greys descended to the ground in waves with the entire group never being on the ground at the same time. The parrots were observed eating roots, plants and soil. Soil eating is known as geophagy, and according to Ms. May, the soil tested at this reserve in Cameroon is rich in minerals.
Ground feeding is very dangerous because it is more difficult to escape from the ground in a predatory attack and it is easier to be seen from the air by a predator looking for food. On top of that, it also opens up the possibility of attack by ground predators, such as a cat that sneaks up on its prey, one slow movement at a time. For this reason, ground feeders must be even more cautious, observant and react quickly to any movements or even objects that may appear foreign.
In the home, many greys have a reputation for acting nervous, jumpy and fearful of quick movements, new objects and even familiar objects that have been moved out of place. These are instinctive reactions, based on millions of years of genetic programming. A book that has been moved out of place in the home, for example, could represent a ground predator in the wild that has “inched” toward the prey animal.
High dependence on the flock: Wild greys live in large flocks upon which they are very dependent. At night they roost (sleep) in tall trees or palms in flocks that range from hundreds to thousands of individual parrots. During the day, they break up into smaller flock groups and fly long distances to forage. When they meet at the marshy grass clearings to ground forage, they appear to congregate in large groups for protection. For instance, Diana May observed them arriving at the clearings in small flocks, eventually forming groups as large as 300 and 800 parrots, before coming to the ground.
There are some differences between the flock behavior of African greys and many of their South American counterparts. The biggest difference is that African greys are “single species” flock birds, which means they only associate with their own kind. By contrast, many of the New World parrots, such as macaws, amazons and conures, congregate together, across species in “multi species” flock groups. Again, it is believed they cross-congregate because of the immense competition for nest holes and food.
An advantage to being a “single species” flock is that the individual parrots can blend together, looking one color, which provides much protection when they are on the ground. Being partial ground feeders, Congo greys cannot accept other species in their flock that do not look like them. They appear to rely upon the flock group for protection, more than the independent parrot species, huddling and flopping around on the ground to eat. Wild caught breeder greys have been described by many breeders as being so connected and in tuned with each other that they appear to operate as a “one group mind.”
As a result, domestically bred greys are not genetically predisposed to deal with the personalities of other parrot species. This helps to explain why some greys that are the first birds of a family flock may have difficulty accepting the addition of another species, once the flock has been established in its mind. This does not mean greys will never get along with other species, only that the introduction should be monitored. The overall mind set of a single species flock bird is different from that of a multi-species flock bird.
Another difference between greys and their New World counterparts is that many of the South American parrots raise their young in much shorter periods, again probably due to the immense competition. As stated earlier, many amazons teach their young everything they need to know so that they become independent at fledging. It is believed that Congo greys are raised similarly to the Galah cockatoos where they remain in family groups for longer periods. Diana May has observed smaller flock groups of five or six parrots, which are believed to be the family groups within the larger groups.
As a result, many aviculturists believe Congo greys need a longer period of development and instruction before being ready to join their human flocks. It has been theorized that their “shorter breeding period” in captivity than in the wild may account for the high sensitivities, lack of confidence and other neuroses, such as phobias, that some Congo greys are reported to have.
There have also been reports that many Timnehs appear to be calmer and more stable than their Congo cousins. Avian behavior consultant Jane Hallander believes that this may be due to the possibility that wild Timnehs are brought up similarly to some of the New World parrots, instead of their Congo cousins. They are taught their survival skills in a shorter period and are prepared to leave the family group closer to the fledging period (at an earlier age) than the Congos. Similar to some of the New World parrots, this prepares them to be more balanced and harder to “screw up” in captivity than the Congos.
Although there is no proof of field research, Ms. Hallander’s rationale was that as birds become more independent in the flock and are ready to venture outside the family group, they start vocalizing more extensively. For example, Yellow-nape Amazons are known to begin talking (phrase making) when they fledge, and in the wild, this is when they leave the family group. According to an informal survey comparing vocalization patterns of the two grey sub-species, Timnehs appear to begin phrase making closer to the fledging period than the Congos. Although many Congo chicks may say their first words or phrases at an early age, they tend not to begin chattering or appropriately phrase making until they are one to two years old. The thought is that perhaps, in the wild, this is when they leave the family group to find a mate. This does not mean Timnehs are better talkers or smarter; but they have been genetically predisposed to develop a little earlier than the Congos.
Life in the wild is dangerous, and sometimes it is difficult for us humans who are comfortable in our lives to understand this reality. A prey animal could be “snatched up” by a predator at any moment of its daily activities, especially a partial ground feeding prey animal. Food may be plentiful one month and scarce the next. Therefore, species live in the “now” and adapt their behaviors in order to survive. Although we socialize our greys to our homes, they still operate from an overlay of instinctive reactions. The better we can understand this, the better we can help them feel secure.
We know that wild greys are highly sensitive flock animals that rely upon the group for physical and emotional protection, more than many other parrot species. They are psychically attuned with one another at every moment, as well as physically connected with one another, particularly when at their most vulnerable position, which is on the ground. They are incredibly observant, and if one bird picks up on a predator, they all move at once.
The same is true in the home. Greys have a reputation for being psychically tuned in to the thoughts and feelings of their human flock. If a favored human is stressed out about a job or relationship, the grey picks up on it. Although it may not understand what exactly is going on, it does pick up that “something is wrong.....there’s danger.” It is important to be aware of this tendency and to comfort our greys when there is something stressful going on in the home.
The key is that greys need to feel safe in whatever situations they face; however, they are not fragile birds that need to be over-protected. It is important to introduce change in increments and at the parrot’s pace; but variety and new experiences are a must. Think about it. If a grey sits in the same livingroom day after day, with little variety in activities and venue of the room, it probably will instinctively freak if a vase has been moved to the other side of the room, as it could be a predator. However, if that vase is moved every now and then, the grey would probably be more relaxed and used to the change.
It is our obligation as caretakers to introduce our greys slowly into situations so that they can handle whatever comes along in the human environment. In my next article, we will explore ways of teaching them how to adapt to this new environment.
Maggie Wright is the creator/publisher of the grey magazine, The Grey Play Round Table®. She also is the author of African Grey Parrots: A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual. For more information, write to: GPR, P.O. Box 190, Old Chatham, NY 12136 or http://www.africangreys.com
All rights reserved.
No part of this article may be reproduced in any form or by any means, without permission of the author.