I often hear African grey owners say they want to get a second parrot to keep their current greys company. If this issue has not been well thought through, it can result in many problems. I learned this lesson the hard way. This is what happened:
Meeting Sweet Pea
My first African grey Merlin Tewillager and I had been together for three years. As described in my last article, her behavior problems were finally settled and we were a tightly bonded pair. We did everything together, including travel, and Merlin was perfectly content with her small flock of two. At times I would bird sit greys while friends were on vacation and Merle was very relaxed about that. The visiting birds were usually buddies and she knew the “intrusion” was only short-term. We were in a wonderful situation.
One day I met a neighbor down the street who had a young Congo African grey chick. The grey’s name was Leah, she was eight months old and she had been purchased a few months earlier from a pet store for the man’s son who had just gone off to college. Two months later, the neighbor asked me to keep Leah for the weekend. The following Monday I was told that he had to find a home for this precious little bird because his next-door neighbors had served him with a lawsuit about the bird’s noise. I agreed to keep her and find her a new home.
Leah was shy, cuddly and precious, with her baby sounds and clumsiness, and I fell in love with her immediately. She had enormous energy, and I was entertained for hours watching her growl at, attack and chew her toys. She was a bit smaller than Merle and underweight, so I enjoyed spoon feeding either pureed sweet potatoes, carrots or butternut squash to both birds at night. Late at night, after I put Merlin to bed, I cuddled with Leah. I could feel her confidence exude every time I told her how special she was and that I loved her.
As the days went by I became more and more attached to this shy, clucking chick. But Merle’s and my one-on-one relationship was so strong that it was difficult to decide to keep Leah. Merlin’s reactions to the bird made me think my decision was correct. She was so jealous that she started feather picking. One day “Miss Every Feather in Place” pulled a red tail feather, right in front of me. I took it from her and she pulled another one. I took the second one from her, and she pulled a third one. I let her keep it. As the days progressed, there were more feathers than usual in the bottom of her sleeping cage. Weeks later, as I was cuddling Leah, Merle yelled at her, “Yick! You’re lucky!” That unnerved me, and I finally realized how deep Merle’s jealousy really ran. So, every night, I took Merle into the bedroom for our special time, reminding her “You’re the lucky one....we’re partners.” To this day, “we’re partners” is her most important phrase.
A friend wanted to take in Leah to be company for her male Congo grey. However, she did not like the parrot’s name, so I changed it to Sweet Pea, a nickname I had been calling her all the while. We agreed that if it did not work out I would retrieve Sweet Pea and somehow make it work with Merlin Tewillager. Letting go of Sweet Pea was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but for the sake of Merlin, it had to be done.
The First Trial
My friend Dale’s grey named Burrdo was two years old and about twice Pea’s size. Dale wanted Pea and Burrdo to live together in the same cage. She hired a behavior consultant to oversee the process and a plan of introduction was made. Then we began slowly introducing Sweet Pea to Burrdo.
After a few weeks of afternoon visits, Sweet Pea and her cage were finally transferred over to Dale’s apartment. The parrots were brought together physically on a play-stand for a few hours per day and under supervision. A few weeks later, they were introduced to a new large cage. Individual sections had been set up where each grey had his/her own perches and toys. They were placed together in the new cage for a few hours per day, again under supervision. A few weeks later, they were moved into the new cage. They were also given daily time-outs where one grey was placed on the play-stand while the other enjoyed the freedom of roaming their shared-cage. The behavior consultant was on call and came by to work with the parrots twice per week.
But the process was not working. Like Merlin, Burrdo was so bonded to Dale that he did not want anything to do with another parrot, especially one in the same cage. They appeared to get along when the apartment was quiet, but the moment Dale or her husband came into the room, Burrdo acted out. He snuck up on Sweet Pea, who was quietly chewing a toy on her side of the cage, knocked her off the perch and then jumped down on top of her at the bottom of the cage, snapping and biting at her.
After nine months of attempting to make this work, it was agreed that I would bring Sweet Pea back to live with Merlin and me. I had been visiting and cuddling with her practically on a daily basis through the whole ordeal; therefore, the transition back into my home went smoothly.
However, Sweet Pea came back to me as a bully. By this time, she had been removed from three homes and was determined that she was not going to be separated again. Instead, she was going to remove the competition. She would slide down her cage, sprint across the floor and zip right up Merle’s cage to attack, the moment my back was turned. The situation was so bad that I had to either let them out of their cages at different times, or put them in different rooms. Also, I attached plastic “skirts” to their cage bottoms with velcro to prevent both parrots from being able to quickly climb down to the floor.
Unfortunately, Merle’s behavior also changed. She became more nervous, fidgety and fearful than usual. That’s when I called in avian behavior consultant Jane Hallander to help me sort out what was happening.
Surprise. It turns out that I was contributing to the mess. First, my overreactions, such as running over to the cage to grab Pea, were giving Sweet Pea lots of attention. Secondly, without realizing it, I had lowered Merlin’s alpha status, which made Pea think she could take over. I did this by giving both birds equal treatment. Merlin had lost many of her special privileges, such as being spoken to and served first. What I did for one, I always did for the other. What I thought I was doing to make peace in the home was actually making things worse.
Changing My Behavior
I stopped reacting to Sweet Pea when she attempted to attack Merle. I let Merlin know that she is safe and that Pea would not get her. Then I gave Merlin her privileges back. She always rides in the front seat of the car (no air bags) when we travel. She is always acknowledged first, served first and spoken to first. When I can only take one bird with me on a trip, she is the one to go. I let Sweet Pea know that Merlin is the alpha bird, but I also love her and will never let her go. She has her own special times with me, such as nightly cuddles and individual games. I also take her on a special “Sweet Pea weekend” once a year, where she gets 100% focused attention.
And guess what! Their behavior changed. Merle is no longer fidgety and nervous, and Sweet Pea is less aggressive. On top of that, Merle has her own way of getting back at Pea. She calls Pea “Sweet Pig.” She knows the “derogatory” meaning of pig because it is one of her animal sounds and she uses it when she wants to make people laugh.
My “girls” have been together for four years, and although they are not extremely close, they tolerate one another. They talk with each other across the room. Merlin says, “What does the rooster say?” and Sweet Pea responds, “Quack, quack.” It is much more fun to give the wrong answers! They can sit together on the same perch for a short period of time, and they have become good company for one another while I’m doing my errands.
Whether Or Not To Add Another Parrot
I have often been asked whether or not someone should purchase another parrot to be company for their grey. First, it is a lot of work, so the addition of another parrot should be because the owner truly wants an addition to the flock. Secondly, the answer depends on the circumstance and length of time that the grey has been alone. For example, bringing in two young greys, either at the same time or a few months apart, should be no problem. However, if your grey has been living alone in a single parrot household for two or three years, his flock is established; therefore, the addition of another parrot (whether it is another grey or different type of parrot) may bring up territorial and jealousy issues.
In the wild, African greys are single-species flock birds. This means they are genetically programmed to associate only with their own kind, an issue we will discuss in a future article. Therefore, in the home, some greys may have difficulty accepting and dealing with the idiosyncracies of other parrot species. This does not mean they can’t get along with other parrot species, only that the introduction should be closely supervised and that it may take many months.
An alternative to purchasing a new parrot may be to place a mirror in your grey’s cage and it will be happy with the “other bird.” As avian behavior consultant Jane Hallander calls it, it is another bird “without an attitude.” However, introduce the mirror in the same fashion as a toy. Make sure your parrot is comfortable with it before leaving it in the cage when you are away. The Bell Plastics cube mirrors can make very popular African grey cage-mates.
However, should you decide to bring in a new parrot, here are a few suggestions:
Keep them separated: There will always be some level of conflict when a new flock member is introduced. Therefore, it is wise to keep them physically separated in different cages and in different corners of the room so that their perceived territories are not being invaded. Do not ever put them in the same cage, unless it is their idea and after a long period of introduction.
Prepare your current flock: Prepare for the new arrival by setting up its cage beforehand and pretending that it is already there. If it is an overnight surprise, prepare your parrot while the new flock member is in quarantine.
Treat your first grey as the alpha bird: Maintain your first grey’s privileges by continuing to speak to him first, serve him first and always remove him from the cage first. Let him know he has not lost his position in the household. If there are specific rituals that he enjoys doing with you, continue them. If the new parrot is a young chick, always tend to your first grey before cuddling the young parrot.
African grey parrots are so reflective of our energies, attitudes and moods that a positive perspective can quickly improve flock relations. Give a clear message that you intend for everyone to get along... and they will.
Maggie Wright is the publisher of The Grey Play Round Table, a magazine solely dedicated to African grey care. For information, refer to: http://www.africangreys.com or write to: P.O. Box 190, Old Chatham, NY 12136.
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form or by any means, without permission of the author.