“Get up, Maggie. What does the rooster say? Er, er...er, er. The crow. Aw, aw, aw, aw.” It’s five o’clock in the morning. But anyone OWNED by an African grey parrot knows it’s time to get up. My early morning wake-up calls began about a decade ago when Merlin Tewillager, my first African grey, found me in a bird store.
Like most grey owners, I was attracted to the grey because of its intelligence and talking ability. However, none of the books and magazines I had read had prepared me for the experience of living with one. I remember the helpless feeling of being a first time parrot owner.... of having the responsibility for the life of a little gray ball of fluff, and not having the foggiest idea of what to do.
Merlin Tewillager was three months old when we met. I remember the first day I got her. I was led to a table in the back of the store that had approximately fifteen three month old chicks playing on it, waiting to be chosen. I picked up a few birds and put them down. Then a chick in the middle of the group started crying out to me. It had weaning formula gunk stuck on its back. I reached over and picked it up. The connection between us was so powerful that I began to cry. I had found my Merlin. No, she had found me.
That evening she fell asleep on my chest, exhausted from the day’s activities of being purchased and brought to her new home. During the first few days, I stayed around the apartment as much as possible. I conducted errands in short trips. For example, I would go to the grocery store and return. Then an hour or so later, I’d go to the bank and quickly return. Each time, I told Merlin that I’d be right back so that she would not feel abandoned.
THE FIRST SIX MONTHS
We were inseparable for the first six months. We played together.....I remember laughing at how she waddled across the floor to fetch a wiffle ball. We ate together. We even had dinner parties together. We served “bird and human friendly” foods and covered the table with newspapers. My non-bird friends thought I had lost my mind. And they were right. I was so taken with Merle that everything I did was centered around her. When I traveled, I made people who sat by me in airplanes look at pictures of her.
However, overtime, my little angel transformed into a “pitbull with wings.” Every time I tried to pick her up or put her down, she bit my fingers. After awhile, my hands were so red and bruised that the thought of picking her up made them ache. Not only had she become a biter, but she also attacked anyone who dared to get near her cage, including me. My non-bird friends were terrified of her. Another problem was that her favorite perch had become my shoulder. She loved to hang and swing from my sweaters. When I tried to take her off the shoulder, she got in the middle of my back and attacked my fingers. Some days the only way I could get her off of me was to lay gently on the floor and roll, forcing her to get off. Our situation was a mess.
Luckily, I found Gail Langsner, an avian behavior consultant in New York City, to help me. Although I had been using the UP/DOWN commands, Gail helped me work through my problems with Merlin more consistently. My shoulders became off limits and at night while watching television, Merle was placed on my knee. We also practiced having her sit on my hand for fifteen minutes at a time. Gail taught me a valuable tool which she calls “broadcasting.” This is a matter of telling Merlin what will happen, before it happens. For example, if I wanted to move her to the window perch, I’d say, “Merle, want window perch?....Let’s go to window perch (pointing to perch)....Up....Good bird! Down....Good Bird!” African greys like to know what will happen to them ahead of time. I have found that the broadcasting approach helps them to relax.
EVEN MORE CHANGES
The behavior techniques helped tremendously; however, Merlin Tewillager did not completely settle down until I made two more changes. As many behavior consultants have taught, birds tend to be more aggressive in their territories, such as their homes/nests, that they must protect from “intruders.” Instinctively, domesticated parrots can sometimes be more aggressive around their cages, which is the equivalent to wild birds’ nests and homes. Behavior consultants recommend that behavior problems be worked on in “neutral territories,” areas with which the parrots are less familiar. But unfortunately, our New York City home was rather small, and therefore, the entire one-bedroom apartment had become Merle’s territory. However, I found that she became calmer when we traveled because she was no longer in her territory.
I introduced her to travel, one step at a time. First, we hung out in our building lobby to help her adjust to greeting new people and being in strange places. The process then graduated to visits to friends’ apartments. Then I rented cars and took her on day trips to the Hamptons (New York beaches). I observed her reactions to every detail. For example, Merlin Tewillager was terrified of the windshield wipers and driving under tunnels and bridges. Therefore, I told her (broadcasted) that I was either going to turn on the wipers or drive under a bridge, prior to doing so. I reminded her repeatedly, “It’s okay..it’s okay.” After awhile, she became relaxed.
Travel situations forced Merlin to rely on me for security and protection. This helped me gain more confidence in handling her. She got onto my hand without biting. She stopped lunging at people who walked by her cages. She became comfortable climbing onto other people’s hands. She became a pleasure to travel with. In total, we have traveled to eleven states, plus Bermuda and Germany twice.
Each time we returned home, she was better behaved than when we left. But she was still biting. That’s when I learned one more simple technique: visualization. In the wild, prey birds must be keenly observant of every detail in their environments, to avoid being attacked by predators. They communicate to each other in many ways, including through body language. For example, if one bird spots a predator in the area, its reaction may be freeze in place. Other observant birds in the flock will then respond by freezing. For their own survival, prey birds must be astutely aware of every nuance of body language and every activity of the flock, as well as the placement of every tree limb and twig. As a result, domesticated parrots, particularly greys, instinctively observe every detail of their humans’ body language.
But unfortunately, most of us humans are not very observant. We don’t realize that many of our feelings are communicated through body language to aware observers. For example, when we are either afraid or worried about something, our bodies may stiffen. Our fearful thoughts trigger these changes. Therefore, someone who is afraid he or she may be bitten by a parrot, usually gets bitten. That’s what I was doing. Even though I used the appropriate behavior techniques, I was still being bitten because I had an image in my head of Merlin biting me when she got onto my hand.
However, once I began consciously visualizing her stepping up onto my hand without biting, she behaved. I put the back of my hand at her breast...made a mental picture in my head of her stepping up onto my hand without biting....then I said, “Up.” It amazed me how well a simple technique like this worked. To this day, Merlin Tewillager seldom bites.
ROOT OF MERLIN’S BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS
I believe Merlin Tewillager became a behavior problem because I was insecure about what I was doing. I had read most of the behavior information that was out at the time and I was practicing many of the techniques, but I was still nervous about what I was doing. Merle picked up on my feelings and body language. In the wild, a grey chick could become someone else’s LUNCH if it had insecure parents that were nervous about what they were doing. Accordingly, Merle was fearful that there was danger....that something was wrong with the flock.
On top of that, I did not know how to correctly read HER body language. For example, in the beginning, she was a little nervous about getting onto my hand, so she grabbed onto my thumb to steady herself. She was attempting to communicate to me through her body language. She was telling me that she was nervous about getting onto my hand because it was a little wobbly. But I did not understand. All I was thinking about was that the biting hurt. Therefore, my instinctive reaction was to pull away, which resulted in her either lunging at or biting my hand harder the second time.
This simple misreading then spiraled into a major behavior problem. Merlin learned the “power of a bite.” Then she began biting and lunging to protect herself and her territory. After all, if something was wrong with the flock (as she thought), she had to fend for herself.
Some people may say that Merlin and I experienced the “terrible two’s” stage. However, I disagree. “Terrible two” two-year-old human children experience a “defiant NO” period where they are constantly testing their parents’ authority. Although Merlin’s behavior was confrontational, it was “fear based,” rather than defiant.
It is too easy to categorize any parrot behavior problems, between the ages of nine months and two years, as being “terrible two’s.” And unfortunately, this can be harmful because it can misguide grey owners from understanding the root of their parrots’ behavior problems. After the age of approximately one year, wild greys are juveniles learning to get along with other juveniles, and by three years old, they become young adult birds. Domestically bred greys experience the same stages as their wild cousins because they are still wild birds. They are not babies like two-year-old human children, and they do not go through the same stages as human children. Therefore, I prefer not to call behavior problems the “terrible two’s.”
Further, I do not believe that every parrot must go through a “behavior problem stage.” That is, if the human understands simple behavior techniques and confidently reads his or her parrot’s body language. Sometimes we bring on experiences because we expect them to happen. Accordingly, if one expects his or her parrot to go through a behavior problem, it may happen.
We do not have decades of information on how to work with our parrots, as domesticated dog and cat owners do. Parrot behavior is a new field that is constantly changing. We are just beginning to understand that the species are different. Their nutrient needs are not the same. The same behavior techniques do not work with every species. We are also beginning to look at and understand their wild behaviors and differences in their instincts. An African grey parrot is not like a macaw or an amazon. For this reason, I started a magazine called The Grey Play Round Table that specifically focuses on the African grey parrot to help grey “pet humans,” as we call ourselves, to better understand how to work with these creatures.
I’ve also agreed to start a column on greys for this wonderful new magazine, The Original Flying Machine. You’ve met Merlin Tewillager, and the next issue will introduce Sweet Pea, my other Congo African grey. Future articles will explore the latest information and theory about grey behavior and give you tips for working with your greys.
Maggie Wright is the publisher for 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, New York 12136.
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