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Bringing Back the Magic: A Transformational Memior
Reprinted from the Winter 2001 issue of The Grey play Round Table Magazine
Flock Behavior: How It Affects Our Companion Parrots
By Jane Hallander

An often-made mistake by behavior experts and other experienced bird-keepers is to consider all parrots’ behavior as the same, having the same roots and causes. By that thinking, all species react the same to any stimuli. However, we know this is not true. For instance, African Grey parrots have very different social patterns and behaviors than Amazons. Even among the same genus, different species can have very different social needs and behaviors.


Sometimes it’s all too easy to compare parrots as we do our dogs and cats. Domestic dogs are different breeds within the same canine species. Likewise, domestic cats are merely different breeds within the species feline. However, parrots comprise many different species within the hook bill or psitticine genus. Therefore, there’s a big difference between the behavior of individual parrot species and that of dog or cat breeds.  Even the behavior within a flock of wild parrots varies greatly between the species. According to ornithologists, there are two kinds of flocks in the psitticine world---- multi-species and single-species flocks.


A group of birds are described as a flock when they: 1) fly at the same speed and 2) forage together at the same feeding grounds. This includes flocks where there are more than one species......called multi-species flocks. Multi-species flocks are often found in South America, where a flock of parrots may include several Macaw species, Amazons, Conures and more. They also are seen in Australia, where Greater Sulfur-crested, Galahs (Rose-breasted) and Corellas are often seen flying and eating together.

SINGLE-SPECIES flocks are a group of the same species only, such as African Grey Parrots. They allow no other species to co-mingle with their flock.

 Why do we care about who and what makes up a flock of wild parrots? We care because the social structure and behavior of those wild parrots is very dependent upon the type of flock to which the parrots belong. For survival purposes that social structure is hard-wired (instinctive) behavior within parrot genes. That same instinctive behavior establishes the patterns we see with our hand-fed companion parrot behaviors.

For instance, many African Grey Parrots do not tolerate new additions to the parrot family, especially when they are the first bird. As first bird it appears that they instinctively establish themselves and their human flock as if it were a single-species African Grey flock, where a bird of another species would not be welcomed. Try bringing an Amazon home to a now territorial Grey Parrot. Even other African species, such as Poicephalus or Lovebirds, are enough to bring a dark cloud over the African Grey’s house. However, those of you with different Macaw and Amazon species in the same house often see a very different perspective----- a happy, chattering multi-species flock, just like in the wild. Multi-species flock birds are definitely more accepting of other species than are single-species flock birds. 

Why are there multi-species flocks? Why doesn’t every individual species have its own flock, as do the African parrots? 

In South America, there are many species confined to a relatively small area. Competition for nest holes and foraging grounds is great. Apparently, parrots have found the best way to locate a nest hole or feeding ground is by FOLLOWING THE CROWD. Therefore, we see a variety of species within a single flock of New World parrots.

Another consideration for South American parrots is that the scarcity of nest holes limits the numbers produced of any one species. This means there are no huge flocks of Amazons and Macaws that might band together for protection against predators. Instead, they must rely on the numbers brought about through mingling several different species together.

 We all know how noisy some South American parrots can be. I’ve always felt this was partly due to the different species inhabiting a flock. If you were a Conure living among Amazons and Macaws, you just might develop a loud voice to be heard by your mate above the dim of the other species’ calls. 

Parrots vocalize for a reason. They sound off to call a mate with a contact call. They send alarm calls of impending danger. They call their mates to food sources. Do they care about other species within a multi-species flock? Probably not, since their own species is what they are genetically programmed to preserve. Therefore, they must be loud to be heard. Plus, finding your mate in a large flock of several different and brightly colored species is no mean feat. We, as the human caregivers, should realize that vocalization is a critical factor with certain species and treat it with due respect. Is that Conure really screaming, or is he raising his voice in a natural manner to bring you over to him and away from the strange human with whom you were having a discussion?

African Greys, on the other hand, have no need to be heard above other species. They all speak the same flock dialect. For that reason, Greys often are considered quieter parrots than some of those species from multi-species flocks. Pionus are another example of single-species flock birds that are known as QUIET parrots. Unlike some of their other South American cousins, Pionus are single-species flock birds.


Individual species personalities within multi-species flocks tend to be more stable than many of the single-species flock parrots. For instance, how many people have heard of a phobic Amazon? Feather mutilation among Conures and Macaws for reasons other than physical causes is rare, while much more often seen as behavior-based with African Grey Parrots, several Poicephalus species and those Cockatoo species that flock by themselves. My own belief regarding the stability of many domesticated South American parrots is that they naturally raise their young in the wild to become individual flock members at a younger age than do many of the single-species flock birds. This may be a necessity due to the lack of large numbers of their own species within a flock, or that multi-species flock dynamics are not suitable for extended parent or family group instruction.

For instance, a Yellow-headed Amazon might be hard-wired (instinctive behavior) to leave its parents and join the flock sooner than would an African Grey juvenile. In our domestic situations, where parrot species are often handled as if they were all the same, breeders often wean Amazons and African Greys on the same schedule.....a big mistake.

Researchers have recorded that Greys appear to stay with their FAMILY GROUP within the flock much longer than do some multi-species flock birds, such as Amazon parrots. This later independence factor may account for the extreme sensitivity and lack of confidence we often see in domestically bred African Grey Parrots. Phobic behavior, while seldom a problem with Amazons, is all too prevalent in African Greys.

African Greys are a good example of single-species flock birds. There are only Greys within their flock. Observations made in the mid-1990's in Africa by Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s student, Diana May, showed Grey Parrots in many separate groups of five or six birds within flocks consisting of hundreds of Greys. This observation presents a possibility that African Greys may have a longer maturation period, where juveniles stay in FAMILY GROUPS for as long as several years, before going into the flock to find a mate.  

Should that be the case, it would explain why Grey Parrots often change their bond from the human who took care of them as juveniles to someone else in the family when the bird is between two and three years old. In order to keep the species gene pool strong and prevent inbreeding, a wild parrot would have to reject its family group and find a mate elsewhere within the flock; therefore, they reject the initial primary caregiver (who represents a ‘parent’) and pair-bond with someone else in the family (flock). 

Like the single-species African Grey Parrot with its family group structure, the Rose-breasted Cockatoo has a crèche system of raising and socializing its young. As the chicks fledge, they go to what some refer to as a ‘nursery tree.’ There they receive associated learning (socialization) from older Galahs, until they are educated enough and old enough to become independent flock members. 

According to Sam Foster, Galahs are now found nearly throughout Australia, and they are one of the few species that have adapted successfully to changes in their natural habitats due to man’s intervention. Therefore, they may or may not have always been multi-flock birds. If this is not the case, they have joined and have been accepted by, other species, such as the Great Sulphur and Corella, in order to survive in certain areas. 

The above are two examples of ‘continuing education’ that we do not see and isn’t practical within a multi-species flock, such as the South American parrots. These same two examples are also two of our more troubled species, as far as insecurity behavior problems, such as phobias and feather mutilation. From a behavior viewpoint, we may not be providing the necessary associative learning with our hand-raised Greys and Galahs that wild birds receive in their specialized environments. 

Both African Greys and Galahs are part-time ground feeders, something that, due to dangers from ground predators, requires a strong flock bond. It also requires that all of the birds look alike, so that an overhead predator (hawk) doesn’t see individual birds— just a continuous gray mass. Flying predators don’t like to take a victim from a flock where the predator cannot distinguish individual birds. If it did it would ruin the risk of breaking its own wing should it hit an object other than its individual prey. Single-species flocks can afford to feed on the ground because they all are the same color and blend together easily. 

I believe that company is a great preventative factor for behavior problems. In the case of multi-species flock birds, adding another bird or two to the room seems to keep everyone happy when the human flock is not present. However, this is not the case with a single African Grey parrot in a household. Bring another bird into that house and it’s as if the cloud of doom descended over the house. Other species are usually not allowed within this single-species flock animal’s domain. It may take weeks or months before the Grey is reasonably comfortable with the new bird and that bird’s cage had better be well out of the Grey’s perceived territory. However, put a mirror in a Grey’s cage and it will be happy for hours, while the human flock-member is at work. A mirror is, to the Grey, like having another of their own species with without an attitude. 

You might ask, why then do single-species flock birds accept we humans as ‘flock members?’ When we hand-raise them and they associate food from our hands to their beaks, we become part of the flock. Wild Grey Parrots have, in the past when they were imported, the ability to become our close friends simply because their parents taught them who are birds and who are not. I have also seen African Greys that were hand-reared with Cockatoos and did accept the white birds as flock members, even to the point where the Greys over-preened their own feathers, attempting to imitate the vigorous grooming techniques of the Cockatoos. 

I believe you see far more territorial aggression from single-species flock birds than from multi-species flock birds, with the exception of mating season when competition for nest holes makes some species extremely aggressive. Again, this may be because other species are instinctively not allowed within a flock of African Greys, for instance. Within our homes, where you might have an Amazon climbing over Macaw’s cage with no hostility from either side, many Greys will not allow another species to set foot on their cages. Often just separating the cages by placing them at opposite corners of a room gives the Grey enough breathing room that he accepts the presence of the other parrot in the room. 

If we are to learn to live compatibly with our feathered friends, we are going to have to learn more about them. They are not going to adjust their behavior to what they perceive in us. It doesn’t work that way. We are the ones who have raised them in an unnatural manner and keep them in an unnatural them in an unnatural environment. Our responsibility is to make their social lives as close to natural for each species as possible. When we do not do that the result is a confused, unhappy bird with what we call behavior problems.  

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