One major concern of African Grey owners is the possibility that their birds will develop an irrational fear of them, a condition we commonly call phobia. Phobic birds are heart-rending because you know that the bird fears for its life, often without a reason we humans can define.
WHAT DEFINES PHOBIA?
Dictionaries define PHOBIA as an irrational fear: a fear that has no logical basis. In the case of African Greys, phobic birds behave as if human hands, and often the human himself, are the predators who intend to kill them.
It is important that we realize the difference between rational fears and phobia . Rational fears include a wariness of new toys or locations, a common trait of African Greys. Sometimes even a new food is treated by the Grey as if it were potentially dangerous to the bird's well being. This is not a phobia. A bird that bites from fear is not necessarily phobic. True phobia in African Grey parrots is the result of a mistake in the bird's upbringing that allows instinct to overcome rational or associative thinking processes.
There are many factors about Grey parrots that when put together result in overly sensitive, phobia-prone birds. First, we do not see phobia in wild-caught Greys. Even those birds that, in past decades, were kept in tiny cages with no toys or human interaction. They did not become phobic or pull out their feathers for neurotic reasons. Phobic reactions appear primarily in hand-fed domestically raised birds.
Biologists describe two types of intelligence common to mammals and birds.... instinctive and associative . Instinct is intelligence that animals are born with. For instance, all animals are thought to instinctively know WHERE their primary predators come from. Greys may not know instinctively what the predator looks like, but they do know that danger comes from above.
Associative learning is intelligence that develops when other animals, usually the animal's parents, contribute to the young animal's survival and social education. Birds learn a great deal from their parents and other flock members, such as how to preen; what to eat and where to find it and who their natural predators are. Wild Grey parrots soon learn that those overhead predators are hawks and they know exactly what the hawk looks like. My Timneh companion Jing knows the difference between a hawk and a turkey vulture. She can spot a hawk when it's only a spot in the sky to my less perceptive vision and reacts with fear toward it. Turkey vultures, which are not predators, are not given a second thought. Jing is a wild-caught bird, raised by other Timnehs. A hand-fed domestically bred Grey usually exhibits fear when he sees anything large flying overhead- even an airplane- because it has the instinct that tells it where danger comes from, but it lacks the associative learning that tells it what the predator looks like.
Without knowledge of what a predator looks like a hand-fed African Grey may fall back on its instincts and easily determine that any overhead threat is a predator. This pattern is often seen when a Grey cannot fly and falls to the floor. The caring human rushes over to make sure the Grey is okay. The Grey looks up and sees the person coming after him, he tries to fly and instantly associates the person with a predator.
WHY DOES THIS PATTERN HAPPEN WITH GREYS, BUT NOT OTHER SPECIES?
This pattern does happen with several other species, including the Rose-breasted cockatoo or Galah. It appears from studies in the wild of both Greys and Galahs that they need a longer maturation period time with their family groups than do many other parrot species.
Also, true phobia is seen almost exclusively with male Greys and Galahs. This was the subject of a previous article of mine about phobia in African Grey parrots that stated that males appear to develop confidence in the form of natural game playing seen in wild flocks. The young juvenile males wrestle and taunt one another, flying off at the first sign of danger. And there lies the key..... the ability to fly.
Both African Greys and Rose-breasted cockatoos are occasional ground feeders. Diana May, a graduate student working with Dr. Pepperberg, noticed in her trips to Africa to study Grey parrots that they spend an average of forty minutes a day on the ground, feeding on grass, roots and possibly mud to gain extra minerals.
While I see many phobic Grey parrots, I also see many hand-fed male Greys who are incredibly bold and outgoing. With wild-caught Greys who have learned to trust their human companions, I also see outgoing, friendly parrots. I think the difference comes back to the ability to fly at a young age.
Knowledgeable, understanding breeders like Phoebe Linden of Santa Barbara Bird Farm and Jean Pattison, Florida's African Queen, emphasize the importance of letting parrots fledge normally. Technically when a bird fledges it learns to fly. From that moment on the bird is in a different social structure than when it was in a nest being fed by its parents. As an animal that can fly the young parrot leans where and what to eat, how to respond socially to others of its own species.
In the wild, fledging is more than just learning to fly. It is where a young parrot's social personality starts to develop. Young Grey parrots interact with one another playing games that teach them future skills. They follow their parents to foraging areas, where they learn to eat. They learn who their natural predators are by following and watching older Greys.
One problem encountered with domestically bred Greys that are allowed to fledge is that they may not be left flighted long enough to develop self-confidence. Anyone who has observed songbirds fledging knows that the process may take several weeks before the young bird is ready to leave the nest permanently. Barm swallows are a good example of this. They start flying with plenty of encouragement from their parents. At first flight is for only a few minutes. Over a period of days the youngsters stay out of the nest longer and longer, while still returning to the nest at night. The parents continue feeding swallow chicks until they are accomplished hunters. Barn swallows eat insects on the fly. Finally, several weeks after fledging, the young swallows no longer need the safety of their nest.
Why should our parrots be any different? Studies of species in Australia and South America show that they are no different. Fledging is a lengthy period.
While we cannot influence all breeders to let their young parrots fledge longer, we can make sure the youngster is not clipped too short or too soon when we bring him home. Leaving a flighted bird for a month in a home where the right precautions are taken can make the difference between a confident, outgoing bird and one that can become phobic for a seemingly mild incident. Notice that I said "RIGHT PRECAUTIONS." This means the bird is not taken outdoors unless in a carrier . It means there are no dangerous areas in the house for the flighted bird. The parrot should be outside the cage in the house only when supervised.
I am not advocating leaving a grey flighted for longer than a couple of months. At less than a year of age, it's not likely that a young grey will develop aggression problems linked to the ability to fly. When the wings are clipped they should not be clipped too short. Instead, leave them about a half-inch longer than the coverts immediately covering the flight feathers. Clipping them too short can cause the bird to crash land, rather than glide as he would with a longer clip. A too short clip at a young age can take away much of the confidence developed by being flighted.
Handling our African Greys as close to their natural learning habits is the key to living with emotionally healthy Grey parrots. Fledging is an important mainstay of wild African Grey parrots and it should be the same with our hand-fed Greys.
Jane Hallander is an avian behavior consultant and animal communicator.
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