You've decided to share your life with an African Grey Parrot. You've found the perfect bird, or more likely he's found you. You are ready to bring him home, but you're unsure of cage size, what to put in it and generally what to do to make your companion as secure and happy as possible. Here are a few points that I emphasize when I do 'new bird in the home' consultations.
The old adage 'larger is better' does apply to cage size, assuming the cage fits the shape best utilized by African Greys. Greys do best in cages that are wide, rather than deep, as they like to traverse their cages from side to side, making full use of every available space. Two feet by two feet is a minimum size for a Timneh Grey, with the nominate species (Congos) requiring an even larger cage. Deep or tall cages are fine for large bodied birds, such as large Cockatoos or Macaws that need plenty of depth just to stand upright and enough space to hang macaw-sized toys. However, even the largest Grey seldom uses the extra space of a deep cage. Very young Greys with clipped wings fall easily, often making it necessary to lower the perches in a deep cage, something not as necessary when the cage is wide rather than tall.
I like to see Greys in cages that do not have a grate on the bottom. At some time most Greys like to go down on the bottom and 'dig,' as if there were gopher genes present in their parents' backgrounds. We don't know why they do it. Perhaps it's related to the grass digging and uprooting they do while ground feeding in their habitat. Whatever the reason, they do dig and a grate makes the natural behavior impossible.
An even better reason to have a cage without a grate is when you have a young Grey in the cage. With their wings clipped young Greys are clumsy. They also don't have the climbing strength in their legs that older juvenile and adult birds have, so they fall. Falling from a perch and catching a foot or leg in a grate is a possibility that you don't have to worry about when there is no grate to fall on.
The daytime cage should be placed in an area where the bird can see all of the action, but not feel like he's directly involved with it. In other words, you don't want to isolate your Grey, but you also do not want to put him in the line of action where people rush by the cage or come upon it without the bird first seeing them.
There should be at least three food bowls in your African Grey's cage: one for water; one for soft food or vegetables and one for dry food, such as pellets. Parrots forage at different feeding places in the wild, so I set up 'foraging stations.' I do not believe, as some do, that playtop cages lead to behavior problems, as long as you have easy access to the playtop and your bird cannot avoid you while he's on top of the cage. Since playtops have food bowls, use them as foraging stations when the bird is not locked in the cage. I put different foods on top of the cage than what is inside. Jing travels all over her cage, inside and out, to forage for her food much the same as she would in her natural habitat.
Perch size and type is very important, especially for young birds. Many of the larger cages come with cockatoo or macaw-sized perches which are much too large for an African Grey. Birds do best on perches that they can wrap their feet at least three quarters of the way around. Watch your bird on a climbing tree and you'll see him always go to the narrowest diameter branch. That's where they'd perch comfortably in their wild habitat, so why not provide the same in the cage. If you find a Grey sitting or sleeping on a food dish, instead of his perch, there's a good chance the primary perch is too large or slipper for him.
Perch consistency is another major consideration. Manzanita perches are slippery, especially when they are too large in diameter for the bird to wrap its feet around. Slippery perches, combined with toenails clipped too short, are major reasons that some Greys become fearful or phobic.
My Timneh Grey, Jing, likes rope perches made by Booda, as they give both security and a rough surface that helps to keep her circulation flowing smoothly and evenly throughout her feet. However, rope perches are good only if your Grey doesn't chew on them.
Since Greys like to roost (sleep) as high as possible, I recommend putting a shorter 'sleeping' perch across one corner of the cage, as high as possible without the bird waking up surprised and bumping his head. Make sure the sleeping perch is in a corner that backs up to a wall. This gives your bird a greater sense of security and safety.
As far as toys are concerned, again I like the bird to have as much available space as possible, while still having a plentiful selection of toys. For that reason, I place most of the toys next to the cage sides, rather than in the middle of the cage where they might restrict the bird's movement around the cage. The only toy I might hang away from a cage side is a 'cube mirror' from Bell Plastics. This is a toy that brings out the agility of most Greys. They like to hang upside down from the cage top and playfully attack the toy, with its large, noisy copper bell.
Greys like wooden hanging toys that they can attack and chew up from above, and hanging these toys next to cage bars gives the bird a perfect place from which to hang, while he reduces it to mere toothpick-sized pieces. Jing likes to wedge part of the toy between the cage bars, so it doesn't move while she stands on top of it and chews it to pieces. Our companion birds never get as much exercise as do their wild cousins, so climbing and hanging while playing with or chewing toys provides good, healthy exercise.
I also advocate a special 'toy bowl,' full of hand toys. You can attach it to cage bars as an extra bowl and fill it with chewable wooden or cardboard hand toys and plastic puzzle hand toys. Many birds spend hours going through and playing with assorted hand toys.....the greater the variety, the greater the bird enjoys them.
Parrots in their wild habitats go to 'roost' when it gets dark. They don't see well at night, making them vulnerable to predators after dark. Typically, parrot flocks find nighttime safety in trees with thick foliage, and when it becomes dark, they go to sleep. In the wild, parrots sleep from 10 to 12 hours every night. African Greys, living so close to the equator, sleep approximately 12 hours from dusk to dawn. While your Grey may not need 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep, an adult bird should have at least 10 hours every night. Very young birds need even more sleep and 12 hours is not an unreasonable amount. Greys that do not get enough sleep often develop behavior problems, such as biting, screaming or feather mutilation.
If you cannot provide 10-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep to your Grey in a regular cage, you should have a 'sleeping cage' set up in a quiet room. Sleeping cages are much smaller than your bird's every day cage. They can be just large enough for your Grey to sleep upright comfortably on a central perch and place this cage in an extra bedroom or some place that is quiet, and then at 8PM, when your bird starts getting tired, retire him to the sleeping cage.
WING CLIPS AND HANDLING
I like to see a 'long wing clip' on African Greys because they are heavy-bodied birds and need more feather length to carry them to a safe landing, should they jump or fall from a cage or perch. Clip the first five primaries (darker flight feathers) no further back than the length of the longest coverts (feathers immediately above the primaries). These five clipped primaries will appear to be about a half an inch longer than the layer of covert feathers above them. With the wings spread, the bird's wings look like the shape of a Stealth fighter plane.... a straight line, with no dips in the clipped feathers. This longer wing clip prevents the crash landings that often lead to phobic birds. Your Grey then has the confidence that he can glide and land safely on the floor.
Should a young Grey fall to the floor, do not run after him. 'Chasing,' even if you're very concerned about his being injured, often frightens a young Grey into thinking you're a 'predator.' Instead, when you see your bird flutter to the ground, freeze in place and wait for the parrot to turn to you. Facing you is African Grey body language for "come pick me up." The bird is not afraid of you as a predator and recognizes you as transportation back to the safety of the cage.
While there is some company to be had from more than one bird in a room, especially when the human isn't there, African Greys prefer their company to be of their own species. Unlike South American birds that flock in what are called 'multi-species' flocks, with several species of Macaws, Amazons and Conures flying at the same speed and eating at the same foraging grounds, African Greys flock and associate with no other parrot species. Therefore, they are less tolerant of other parrot species than are Macaws or Amazons, for instance. Keep your new Grey physically separated from other birds in the room, especially if the other bird is either much larger or smaller than the Grey.
SOCIALIZING AND BEHAVIOR
I have come to believe in 'positive reinforcement,' rather than either negative reinforcement or punishment. Positive reinforcement means the bird does something because he 'wants' to. Negative reinforcement ---- a commonly used technique with parrots- means the bird does something because the alternative is unpleasant. Punishment is exactly what it implies....harsh discipline.... and is usually not associated with the original behavior. Parrots should never be handled with punishment.
An example of the differences between positive and negative reinforcement is training the bird to STEP UP. A bird trained with positive reinforcement steps up onto your hand because he has been pleasantly rewarded for doing so. He literally looks forward to stepping onto your hand. Pleasurable rewards may be anything from a food treat to head scratches to verbal praise to going somewhere the bird wants to go.
Negative reinforcement to teach a bird to step up involves forcing it to do it at a verbal cue, such as the 'UP' command, then pushing against the bird until it almost falls off the perch. Here the 'reward' is missing. The bird steps up on cue because it has to, not because it wants to. While this is still a recognized training technique, a bird trained with negative reinforcement is never as willing and trusting as the bird that likes the positive result of stepping onto your hand.
This doesn't mean you can't use a verbal cue, such as 'UP,' with positive reinforcement. It does mean that the bird does what you want because he also wants to do it.
FOOD AND EATING
Often a recently weaned African Grey stops eating and loses weight when he comes into a new home. The new owner often spends sleepless nights worrying about the new Grey's welfare. Knowing a few things about wild parrot behavior can prevent this scenario.
Parrots are flock animals that forage and eat together. They also are prey animals and won't eat until they know it is safe. When the flock eats it is during a time when there are no predators nearby. Part of the flock eats, while others watch for danger. Then they switch places, with the watchers having an opportunity to feed. Instinctively, even our domestically raised parrots want to eat with their flock.....US.
How does this apply to baby Greys or even adult Greys that stop eating when they come into a new home? While most parrots don't eat for the first day in a new environment, we can stimulate them to eat after that first day by applying some basic flock behavior. First, sit down next to your parrot's cage and eat something with your parrot. Parrots prefer to eat when their human flock eats, so eating while sitting next to your new Grey is a natural way to stimulate a bird's appetite.
If your new bird is a recently weaned grey, you might do something similar to what wild parrots do. Feed pellets softened in fruit juice by hand. This resembles an African Grey parent regurgitating food to its offspring. It also stimulates the recent hand feeding your parrot experienced. Wild parrots don't decide to completely stop feeding their young at a given time. They gradually reduce regurgitation feeding as their offspring learn to forage on their own. However, only finger-feed once a day because if you do it more often, you may regress the bird.
Knowing just these few things can make the difference between a happy, well-adjusted African Grey Parrot and a phobic or feather plucking bird.
This article was published in the Summer 1999 issue of the Grey Play Round Table® Magazine: www.AfricanGreys.com ; www.AnimalLoversUnited.com ; www.NaturesCornerMagazine.com ; www.AfricaNature.com
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