Most bird owners are familiar with Alex, the famous African grey parrot who works with Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Alex can perform many of the same cognitive tasks as chimpanzees, dolphins and four-year-old children. Dr. Pepperberg’s research with Alex has proven what every person lucky enough to be “owned” by a grey parrot already knows. African greys are uncannily intelligent.
Many owners have stories about how their greys have shocked them with appropriate understanding. I play a game with my two greys, Merlin Tewlliager and Sweet Pea, called “Look-at-that-Bird.” When they say “Look at that bird,” I run into the room to look at them. Then I extended the concept by saying “Look at that bowl”...“look at that door”..and so on. While I was preparing breakfast in the kitchen one morning, a crow flew by the window. Sweet Pea yelled, “Aw, aw. Look!” She was telling me to “look at that crow.” She had proven she understood the concept “look.”
Greys are so intelligent and observant that they notice everything that goes on in the home. They study every movement and reaction, and they learn how to get their human companions’ attention. They are even capable of cause-and-effect thinking. For example, many greys observe their owners “running” to the telephone every time it rings or to the microwave every time it beeps; therefore, they replicate these sounds to make their human companions “run” to them.
But what is even more incredible about them is how they bond with their humans. They interact so deeply and rationally that many people tend to relate to them as if they were little human children. But they are not human. They are incredibly intelligent, wild animals with different perspectives from humans.
LEARNING FROM THEIR WILD NATURE
Unlike the family dog, parrots are not domesticated creatures. It takes thousands of generations of breeding to domesticate an animal, and parrots are, at most, only two generations removed from their wild ancestors. This means that our domestically bred greys still have their wild instincts in-tact. Therefore, the more we understand about their wild nature, the better we can work with them in the home.
First, they live in huge flocks. They have been observed roosting (sleeping) in tall palms in groups ranging from several hundred to thousands of birds. On top of that, they are “single species” birds, which means they do not associate with other parrot species, as many South American parrots do. During the day, they break into smaller flock groups and fly long distances to forage for most of the day.
Secondly, in addition to eating leaves, berries and fruits in the trees, wild greys in Africa also feed on the ground. Diana May, a Ph.D. student advised by Dr. Pepperberg, and Carolyn Bentley (a graduate student accompanying Ms. May) observed flocks of Congo greys ground foraging at marsh clearings in the Central African Republic and Cameroon. The parrots arrive at the clearings in singles, pairs and small groups, eventually growing into large groups between 300 and 800 birds. After a period of socializing in the trees, they spend approximately forty minutes per day huddling on the ground while eating grasses and soil. They descend to the ground in waves while others await their turn in the trees and watch for predators.
Ground feeding is very dangerous because it is more difficult to escape from the ground than from a tree; and it is much easier to be spotted by a predator looking for prey. For this reason, ground feeders must be very observant with quick reflexes. If a twig moves or breaks, it could be the sign of a predator. Therefore, they must be aware of the placement of everything around them, even a twig, and they must be able to escape quickly.
In the home, many greys have the reputation for being cautious, fearful and nervous, particularly when they are near unfamiliar objects or exposed to quick movements. For example, a lamp that has been moved beside the bird cage could represent a predator sneaking up on its prey. The grey’s nervous response to the lamp is an instinctive reaction from millions of years of genetic programming.
Further, domestically bred greys are known to be highly sensitive and “tuned in” to the thoughts, feelings and emotional circumstances of their “human flock.” That is because, in the wild, they rely upon the “group” for emotional and physical protection. They are psychically attuned to one another at every moment. Accordingly, they don’t miss a trick in the home. For example, if an owner is angry or upset about something, such as a disagreement at work, the parrot picks up on its companion’s emotions. Although it may not understand what is going on, it does sense that something is wrong. The flock is “in danger.” As a result, it may react with a behavior problem, such as biting or screaming.
Helping your grey feel protected and secure is your most important challenge. But although it is important to give them structure and routine, this does not mean that you should constantly stick to the same routine. One of the most dangerous myths is that “greys can’t tolerate change.” If a grey is not introduced to change on a regular basis, it can become myopic and neurotic about simple disruptions. Going back to the lamp example, for instance, a grey will become nervous if the lamp is suddenly moved beside its cage; however, if it is moved frequently enough, the parrot will become relaxed about it. In other words, introduce new experiences and help your grey become flexible, but do it at the pace your grey can handle. Take your grey with you on errands. Travel with your bird. But make sure it is safe.
The nominate species, the Congo African grey (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) originates in equatorial Africa. The Timneh African grey (Psittacus erithacus timneh) comes from Western Africa: Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and western Ivory Coast. Both subspecies make wonderful companions. They are good talkers, and with the exception of size and appearance, there is little difference in their personalities. The only exception is that many aviculturists believe Timnehs tend to be “less nervous” than their Congo cousins. Although there has been little research done specifically on Timnehs, some aviculturists believe this may be because they are raised differently in the wild. However, Congos that are properly nurtured and socialized can be very calm, relaxed and endearing companions.
TEACHING YOUR GREY
Baby birds learn their living skills similarly to human children. Their parents teach by guidance and demonstration. Introduce your grey to a new toy by playing with it first. Fiddle with it, laugh at it and beak it with your nose. Once your grey becomes interested, let it beak the toy, but then grab it back. The more possessive you act about the toy, the more interested your grey will become. Continue this process until the parrot is playing with the toy. It may take days or weeks; but if you work at your bird’s pace, you will have a joyful, playful companion. Overall, greys prefer toys they can destroy, such as paper or cardboard; soft, chewable wood or rope; and plastic or acrylic toys. They love to chew, shred, untie knots and take things apart. Purchase appropriately sized toys and check them daily to make sure they’re safe. Rotate them frequently.
Greys are most known for their talking ability. The more they are exposed to and interact directly with their human flock, the more cognitively and appropriately they learn to speak. For this reason, it is recommended that they live in the family room, instead of a “bird room” where they are housed away from human interaction. Teach your grey by association. Use the same general phrases for the same task. For example, I teach my greys to say “Want apple,” “Want cheese,” “Want big perch,” when requesting objects. It is also important to teach a word within many different contexts, in different sentences. For instance, “You’re eating some red apple. Ummm good! Do you want another red apple? Want more red apple?”
African greys study their humans, right down to the minute detail. They learn what works and they will repeat a certain behavior, as long as it gets them attention. It doesn’t matter whether it is positive or negative attention; therefore, it is important to be clear about the kind of attention you are giving to your bird. Positive reinforcement works wonders with greys. Reward your bird for doing what you want it to do. A reward can be in the form of a special treat that it does not receive with its daily food, a head scritch or being taken out of the cage to go somewhere.
Greys do not respond well to punishment. All it takes is one fearful incident to trigger a grey into a phobic reaction. Do not force your bird to do something or chase it. One of the biggest causes of phobia in greys is when their humans chase them on the floor to cuddle them after a fall. The bird becomes terrified and associates its owner as a predator. Instead, wait until the bird turns toward you, asking to be picked up. If your grey becomes terrified of something you’re wearing, leave the room immediately and remove the piece of clothing before approaching the bird.
Feather picking is one of the most dreaded issues with greys. The majority of feather picking problems stem from physical causes. The first step is to get a thorough veterinarian exam. In addition to a blood profile, a wide array of testing should be done, particularly for giardia, aspergillosis and metal toxicity (especially zinc). Other possible causes of feather picking include: poor nutrition, lack of humidity, food allergies, falling accidents, reaction to a sudden change and so on. When the cause of feather picking is psychological, it is usually due to some kind of fear reaction to something, such as being either ignored or left behind by the human flock and not prepared for it.
HEALTH AND NUTRITION
Remember the saying, “You are what you eat.” Most illnesses stem from a deficiency in vitamins, minerals and other food substances which result in secondary infections and other diseases. A proper diet includes a wide variety of fresh, organic vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds and pellets. Many greys require higher amounts of calcium and vitamin A (beta carotene) nutrients. Beta carotene sources include: yellow/winter squashes, sweet potatoes, carrots, endive, kale and other green leafy vegetables, red peppers, broccoli and so on. Calcium foods do not work effectively without the proper ratio to phosphorus, magnesium and vitamin D3. A qualified veterinarian or avian nutritionist can help you create the appropriate diet.
In the wild, a starving bird is a dead bird; therefore, a hungry young grey can become fearful and insecure. If your young chick, even after being weaned, appears to be incessantly begging, it may be hungry. Puree some foods, such as sweet potatoes or butternut squash, and spoon feed your grey at night. I spoon-fed both Merlin Tewillager and Sweet Pea every night for the first three years of their lives, and I believe this process helped me help Merlin become softer, more relaxed and secure. All greys enjoy this nurturing treat and bonding connection, no matter the age.
Merlin Tewillager and Sweet Pea have completely changed my life and I can’t imagine one day without them. They bring back the magic of my childhood when I hung out in my grandmother’s garden and believed I could commune and talk with nature. I call African greys “Nature’s Ambassadors,” because they talk to us and can teach us about nature. Aren’t we African grey “pet humans” lucky?
Maggie Wright is the creator and Editor for the quarterly African grey magazine, “The Grey Play Round Table,” as well as author of the recent Barron’s pet manual, African Grey Parrots: A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual. For information on the magazine and an autographed copy of her book, contact: http://www.africangreys.com , write to GPR, FDR Station, P.O. Box 1744, New York, New York 10150-1744 or call (212) 888-1784.
SIDE BAR I: GREYS IN BRIEF
The Congo African grey (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) is gray with a black beak and bright red tail. The Timneh African grey (Psittacus erithacus timneh) is a darker gray, with a brownish-to-maroon colored tail and horn-colored upper mandible (beak).
- ORIGIN: Equatorial and West Africa, from west coast east to western Kenya and northwestern Tanzania
- Congo Grey
Body Length: 12 to 14 inches
Body weight: 375-600+ grams
- Timneh Grey
Body Length 10 inches
Body weight 300-375 grams
- Maximum Life Span: 40-60 years
- Cage Size: 24 inches by 24 inches, minimum.
Recommended 32 to 36 inches width
- Recommended Perch Size: one inch or less for smaller greys
- Exceptional talkers
- Observant flock animals
- Shy around strangers and in public
- Psychically attuned to human companions
- Dietary Concerns:
- Require adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin A (beta carotene) nutrients
- Eye Color:
- Chicks’ eyes are entirely black. As they age, their irises become more yellow in color.
- Ideal Owner:
- Calm, relaxed, centered person
- No health/asthmatic problems
- Biggest Challenge
- Keeping them flexible, secure and intellectually challenged
- When to Buy:
- 3-5 months or older. Do NOT purchase an unweaned chick.
- Club Contact Information:
- Grey Play Round Table (www.africangreys.com)
- How pet owners can help this species in the wild: Support World Parrot Trust’s effort to outlaw purchase of wild-caught greys in Europe (www.worldparrottrust.org )
- Good with Other Birds? Some greys have difficulty getting along with other birds, especially if they are the first birds of the flock. Closely supervise all introductions and interactions.
- Preen Glands: Greys have large preen glands (uropygial glands) at the base of the tail. Often veterinarians unfamiliar with greys think they are infected and abnormal because of the size, and they want to do surgery on them. Grey owners should be aware of this.
- Recommended Equipment:
- Full Spectrum Lighting: Birds have tetra chromatic vision, which means they see with four color channels, including ultraviolet light. Full spectrum lighting provides this light (regular home bulbs are not adequate), as well help to activate the conversion of vitamin D3 for calcium absorption. They are highly recommended in the home.
- Air Purifiers: Greys are very dusty. Air purifiers help improve breathing for the birds and their owners.
SIDE BAR II: BREEDING STATISTICS
- Breeding Season: Indoor birds will breed year round, but outside parrots breed usually twice a year and shut down for the summer (October -May)
- Clutch Size: Usually 3-4, sometimes 5.
- Egg Size/Shape/Color: All grey eggs are white and about half the size of a chicken egg.
- Incubation period: Approximately one month
- Nest Box Size: 24 inches deep and 12 inches from back to front. Width can be 12-24 inches, depending on the style. Boot and “L” shaped boxes are stacked to look like an “L.”
- Aviary Size Recommended 3 feet by 3 feet by 5 feet or larger. If they are wild caught greys, carefully ensure that they don’t thrash about and injure themselves in a larger flight.
- Health Concerns: Viruses, bacteria, chlamydia, crop feeding problems, such as sour crop. African birds from the wild come with worm problems, so it is a good idea to ensure they are de-wormed. It is not uncommon to find chicks with fractured legs and they go completely unnoticed, heal and usually do fine. If a breeder notices a chick either using a wing for balance or flailing a wing, they should check carefully for fractures.
- Breeding Diet: In addition to the normal diet, a good bean/rice/corn mash works well. Also include high calcium and beta carotene foods.
- Age of Sexual Maturity: 6-7 years old, although some have produced at younger ages.
The above information is based on conversations with grey breeder, Jean Pattison.
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Margaret Wright is Editor for the Grey Play Round Table, a magazine for African Grey Parrot aficionados. This article was first published in the October 1996 issue of Bird Talk Magazine.