African Grey Parrots, in their natural habitat, are extremely social birds who spend a great amount of their juvenile lives learning from their parents. These learned behavior patterns include flock politics, mate choosing, foraging, how to identify their predators, and even simple habits, such as how to preen correctly. Add this to the parrot's instinctive genetic patterning and you have wild animals with tremendous capacities for adapting to different environments, as evidenced by the many wonderful wild-caught companion Greys in captivity today.
Now, imagine what happens when the same species is taken from its parents at a very young, impressionable age and hand-fed by humans. Since Grey parrots are so intelligent, they quickly imprint on humans. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines imprint as an indelible distinguishing effect or influence . Instead of imprinting on their parents and learning the natural ways of wild parrots and their flocks, hand-fed Greys learn that food comes from a spoon and is often the same food their human handlers eat. They learn that mutual preening comes from a human's hand, rather than another parrot's beak. They learn that family pets, such as dogs and cats, are to be chased and tormented, rather than avoided as predators. They see their humans as their friends and fellow flock members, because after all, those are the ones who gave these baby birds their meals and warmth.
Unfortunately, this utopia of bird to human relationship has one flawed edge. Our African Greys are still very much wild animals. They are only one or two generations from the wild, and one or two generations is NOWHERE near enough time to erase centuries of genetic patterning, often called instinct . Instinct is the species' way to insure its future existence. For instance, parrots are prey animals. They are eaten by predators who are the parrots' natural enemies. Because they are prey animals, they have physical attributes that allow them to escape--such as wings and loud voices to warn flock members. They also have instinctive signals that alert them to possible dangers--for example, violent aggression toward parrots usually indicates a predator.
While we can change their learned behaviors through imprinting, we cannot do anything toward changing instinctive responses and behavior patterning in these parrots that are so many generations away from being domesticated. Domestic animals, such as dogs, have had many of their genetic behavior traits bred right out of them, leaving them all the more susceptible toward complete imprinting on their human caretakers.
When a parrot cannot cope with an event, it falls back on its instinctive responses. Had other Greys raised it, it would have learned all about predators, making it easy to know what to fear and what not to fear. If a human is physically abusive to a parrot, the parrot's instincts will immediately alert it that humans are now predators and it will react accordingly. If a parrot is removed from its human flock to another room, its instincts may tell it that it's been abandoned. In the wild, abandonment means becoming some predator's lunch. The hand-fed parrot doesn't know why, but it feels insecure when its cage is placed away from the flock, so it either screams or pulls its feathers.
Sometimes a Grey's owner may take a trip, leaving the juvenile parrot with another family member or a professional bird sitter. When the owner comes back, her once normally feathered bird has pulled out many feathers and, in its nervous insecurity, the parrot continues to pluck from that day on.
If the flock leaves a wild Grey when it's at an age where it hasn't learned enough to provide for itself, the wild Grey has just received a death sentence. Instinctively, a young (less than a year old) bird will do anything it can to stay with its flock. Accordingly, if we leave our carefully nurtured birds when they are that young without first acclimatizing them to the new surroundings, we take the risk of undermining their trust in us that we won't someday leave them again, helpless and unable to fend for themselves. For that reason, I always recommend that people take the time, before taking their long awaited vacations, to let their young Greys get used to the people and surroundings of their temporary homes. Take your Grey to the bird sitter's a few times before you leave on an extended trip. Let it spend time with the new people while you are also present. Then leave it overnight several times before the longer trip. It's an extra effort that may well keep you from coming back to a featherless parrot.
People are unlike an African Grey's natural predators. There are no rules written for us. Even wild birds have not been taught by their parents that humans eat them, although that does occasionally happen in Africa. Therefore, we can be either a friend or a dangerous predator. OUR JOB AS HUMAN COMPANIONS IS TO BE AWARE OF WHAT HAPPENINGS CAN TURN US INTO BEING PERCEIVED AS PREDATORS BY TRIGGERING INSTINCTIVE RESPONSES IN OUR PARROTS' MINDS.
Excellent examples are the many phobic birds that have experienced great pain at a human's hands, while their owners were watching. There are veterinarians who advocate pulling primary feathers to help damaged feather follicle growth. I don't agree with this practice due to the intense pain and discomfort caused to the parrot--so much pain that the bird often regards anyone associated with that pain to be a much feared predator, including the human owner watching nearby. I have done numerous consultations with people whose Greys are completely phobic around them, but they behave normally with other people. These birds don't know how their humans caused them so much pain; however, their genetic patterning as prey animals tells them that the humans who did it (plucked their feathers) are threats to their lives and must be feared. And through guilt by association, their human owners must also be feared.
Phobic parrots are the most heart rendering to deal with because their owners love them dearly, and much of the time, they have no idea why their parrots won't respond to their love. Believe me, it is much easier to prevent phobic behavior that to deal with it after it happens.
We can prevent many of the instinct-driven insecurities that plague our hand-fed parrots by simply being aware of the animals that they are. Parrots are prey animals by nature. That means they react to danger with a flight response . In other words, they won't stick around to confront their enemies. Try to anticipate what may frighten your Grey. Sometimes it's as simple as a new toy or piece of furniture. Let the bird become familiar with the object from a distance over a few days period before placing it in or near the cage. If you are doing home renovation work, such as installing overhead track lighting or anything with a lot of loud pounding, move the parrot to another location. In the wild, predators often come from above, so track lighting installation, with the parrot's cage under the overhead commotion, is a sure way to frighten a bird into thinking you and the overhead lights are dangerous predators.
BE IN YOUR PARROT'S SHOES
Put yourself in the parrot's position as a prey animal that still relies heavily on wild, instinctive responses. If something appears that it would frighten you in that situation, it will most likely frighten your parrot. Don't make sudden, quick had motions around your Grey, especially its head. Predators come from out of nowhere with lightening fast movements to kill the prey. Your bird is genetically programmed to fear sudden, fast movements.
We often pride ourselves on being able to raise our companion parrots to become, in our own minds, little humans . They love us, talk like us and eat our food; however, they are very different beings than we are. And since they are in our care, it is our responsibility to understand them, and not to try to force them to understand and become human-like.
The above article was published in the Summer 98 issue of The Grey Play Round Table® Magazine.
Jane Hallander is an avian behavior consultant and animal communicator.
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form or by any means, without permission of the author.