I reach into the cage of Freddie, a nine month old African Grey who is boarding with me. I say UP, but he doesn’t obediently climb onto my hand like he normally does. He puts his head down instead, offering the back of his neck to be petted. As he does, I note that he is looking up at me out of the corner of his eye.
To those inexperienced with Greys, this might appear to be a bird that is being docile, innocently soliciting a good scritch. But to those of us that know and love Greys, this is NOT a submissive bird. A truly submissive Grey will put its head down also, but it looks down or closes its eyes. In other words, it will not be looking up at you.
Indeed, Freddie will bite me if I fall for the head-down-for-a-scratch routine. In the world of boxing, I believe this is called the Sucker Punch. What is actually happening here is that I am stating my dominant position by giving the UP command. Freddie is resisting my dominance by refusing to step onto my hand, and putting his head down instead. If I am inexperienced enough to fall for this ruse and reach for the back of his neck, he will respond by biting.
What Freddie would have established in this little exchange was that he was dominant, not I, which is exactly what he was trying to do. Since inexperienced African Grey caretakers often don’t understand a Grey’s body language, they might conclude that the parrot is unpredictable----soliciting attention, then viciously lashing out without warning.
NORMAL, HEALTHY BEHAVIOR
There is nothing "evil" or "bad" about this behavior, and it is definitely NOT vicious----it is simply unacceptable. In actuality, it is perfectly normal and healthy for an adolescent parrot in the wild to start challenging other members of their flock to see who outranks whom. The challenges increase in intensity when aimed at another flock member who is at equal or lower rank. This is normal. This is nature’s way of teaching young psittacines to compete with each other, to make themselves stronger, to increase their potential for success. To strive to survive, as it were.
This is perfectly normal, healthy parrot behavior leads to problems only if that adolescent parrot is a member of a flock composed of humans who have never established their own dominance over the bird. When no humans have established themselves as flock leader, then the parrot is in control....and if the parrot is in control, then it rightfully concludes that IT is the flock leader.
Bonnie Doane used a wonderful line in her book, My Parrot, My Friend. She asks, "Whose problem is it, anyway?" In this situation, the parrot doesn’t have a problem. The human is the one with the problem, because the human doesn’t know how to deal with the situation.
BACK TO FREDDIE
As to Freddie the posturing Grey, I have learned how to deal with this not-so-subtle power play. "Up, Freddie," I say, pushing firmly at his lower abdomen with the side of my right hand and simultaneously using my left hand distraction technique. This is a highly technical maneuver which entails suddenly waving my left hand in the air at the same split second that I push with my right. The parrot is generally so distracted by the silliness with my left hand that it forgets what it is trying to accomplish and steps right onto my hand.
Then I, always the graceful winner, lavishly praise the bird for its good manners. In this way, I have circumvented the standoff without anything happening that would necessitate my reprimand. The confrontation has been resolved without violence, and I have won the round.
THE TEETHING STAGE
The motivations of an adolescent Grey who is biting are not at all the same as a baby Grey who is biting. From my experience, baby Greys (as with bappies [baby parrots] of other species) bite/nip more as an experiment. It is doubtful that they understand that their beaks can cause pain—they are more simply trying out various methods of interacting with the world and their human caretakers. This stage, often laughingly called the teething stage, could probably be likened to small children who pinch.
A tragic scenario is often acted out during this stage. The bappy is learning to explore with its beak and sooner or later, it encounters those wondrous things called human fingers. If humans make the mistake of using their fingers as toys in the bappy’s mouth, sooner or later the baby will bite down harder than the owner of the fingers might like. If the humans respond to this accidental nip by yelling (as in "OW, NO BITE!!!"), then they have inadvertently taken the first step towards actually teaching their bappy to bite.
Why, you say? Because parrots really seem to ENJOY it when humans yell at them. Since they often scream simply for the fun of it, it is fallacy to think they perceive yelling as a reprimand. On the contrary, they seem to interpret yelling as positive feedback. This is what Sally Blanchard calls the Drama Award. So the baby parrot will nip again, since the human inadvertently rewarded it for nipping. Sooner or later, the experimental nips will actually hurt the human (physically as well as emotionally), and the human’s response becomes something like "YOU BAD BABY, YOUR MOMMY (and daddy) LOVES YOU. HOW COULD YOU BITE YOUR MOMMY?" The baby hasn’t a clue as to what is going on, as it thinks this is a fabulous new game. You know, grab a finger and your pet person makes lots and lots of wonderful noise!
INDECISIVE HAND SIGNALS
This scenario generally happens when inexperienced owners are not clear in their signals to the parrot. For example, when offering a hand for the bird to step up, novice owners often aren’t quite sure of themselves....so their hand motions are uncertain. The bappy may wish very much to climb on, but like a workman unsure about the stability of the ladder, it reaches with its beak (which in this case is functioning like a hand) to steady the human perch. Humans who are afraid of that beak generally respond by pulling their hands away. Now, the bappy is REALLY confused. The next time the human’s hand is offered, odds are very good the bappy will grab fast with its beak----after all, it doesn’t want the hand to go away before it has the chance to climb on----and the human jerks away.
If this scene is repeated, and it generally is, the bappy will learn that its beak is a source of power—that it can make its human go away. The bappy doesn’t really want its person to go away, but it’s lots of fun to be in control, so the behavior will happen again and again. Once again, the baby has no idea that it has done anything wrong.
FEAR = LOST CONTROL
If humans are afraid of being bitten, they will often unconsciously pull away when a Grey (or any other species of parrot) reaches with its beak. In this manner, the bird learns to use lunging and biting as an effective technique with which to control humans, and that bird will remain in control for as long as the humans remain afraid. Parrots can sense when someone is frightened and will take advantage of it every time. If people cannot get over their fear responses, then they will probably never gain control over their birds.
This is generally what happens when normally well-behaved Greys nip a new person to whom they’ve just been introduced----your new boyfriend, for example. The bird senses the human’s fear and responds to it. When you think about it, it makes a great deal of sense. Here is an intelligent young parrot who weighs approximately one pound, who is being encouraged to step onto the hand of a 150 lb human who is, as far as the empathetic parrot is concerned, radiating waves of fear. In that situation, I would bite too.
OTHER MISTAKES TO MAKE
So what else DON’T you do? You don’t under ANY circumstances use violence against a bird. If you do, even if you don’t physically harm him, you risk doing permanent damage to your relationship with him. Generally speaking, parrots don’t apparently use violence against other flock members in the wild, so your Grey simply will not understand your use of violence against him. Odds are good he will never be able to trust you again.
There is much outdated and incorrect advice being given to people about biting parrots. People are often told to grab the bird’s beak, shake it and yell NO! This does not work because we have now realized that grabbing a parrot’s beak ("Beak Wrestling") is considered to be play behavior between parrots, plus the drama reward of our yelling. So once again, in our efforts to give negative feed-back to parrots, we have only succeeded in rewarding them.
It also doesn’t usually work to punish by putting the bird in its cage, because by the time you get him there he’s probably completely forgotten the connection between biting you and being locked up. Yes, African Greys are intelligent, but we’re talking about an intelligent human two year old, here—not an intelligent adult. Obviously, he can’t bite you again because you’ve removed him from the vicinity, but you haven’t taught him anything about NOT BITING.
SO WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
Enough of this stuff about all the things that don’t work—just what exactly does? Actually, it is quite simple. If you have already established a relationship of what Sally Blanchard calls Nurturing Dominance with your Grey, then he already perceives you as head of the flock, and he is already trained to step onto your hand when you say UP. To then thoroughly reprimand that bird, you need only do the following things IMMEDIATELY:
First, show him your displeasure by giving him a REALLY DIRTY LOOK— what Sally calls "The Evil Eye." I’m really serious about this---- you have to look at him as if he were the lowest of the low, or pond scum, or something you might find stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Parrots are extremely empathetic creatures who watch our facial expressions closely. He will understand your displeasure if you give a tremendously dirty look.
Then, make him step from one hand to the other over and over, while you keep saying UP in a very firm, but not loud, voice. Do this several times in a row and you will be amazed at the difference. This is a non-abusive, nurturing technique with which to give a parrot negative feed-back because psittacines really understand this as a reprimand. We call this technique "Laddering" and it is an exercise in control---- reminding your Grey that YOU are the alpha in the flock, NOT him. If you are firm and consistent, reminding him of this will put him back under control. And without the positive feed-back that he inadvertently received before, the biting should end.
When dealing with a bappy Grey in the Teething Stage, it is also quite simple. When the baby bites too hard, say NO in a firm voice and give the baby a DIRTY look. The bappy will understand that you are unhappy and will try very hard not to do it again. Under NO circumstances should you yell.
"GROWING OUT OF" UNWANTED BEHAVIORS
Biting behaviors are commonly seen at various stages of psittacine development, and African Greys are no exception. However, this stage can and will become permanent if it is not handled correctly. It is important for baby Grey owners to understand that. Waiting for a parrot to "grow out of" an unwanted behavior NEVER works. Also, the longer the behavior is allowed to continue, the longer it will take to eliminate it. The good news is that from my experience, the establishment of clear, consistent controls through the use of proper training works every time. And an African Grey that is well-behaved is truly an exquisite companion!
The above article was published in the Summer 98 issue of The Grey Play Round Table® Magazine.
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