I feel somewhat reluctant to address this topic because I wouldn’t want anything I say to be construed in such a way that someone would interpret from this article that one sex makes a better companion parrot. This is simply NOT the case. In addition, discussing sexual differences presents a challenge due to limitations of the English language. Certain words carry definite connotations, which to many, have unpleasant associations. For instance, if I were to state that male Greys are more "aggressive" than females, this may raise a question in some minds, since this word generally carries a negative connotation.
Lastly, it must be recognized that any information offered about differences between male and female Greys is purely anecdotal. There are no studies to which we can refer, which have resolved in any scientifically determined and documented manner these differences. Anecdotal information is valuable and often, all we have, but by its nature, must be viewed in suspended judgment.
That said, however, I think that such a discussion can be very valuable, because it will allow Grey owners to better understand their birds and their behaviors toward them and other people in general. For, there are certainly notable, though subtle, differences between male and female African Greys. Awareness as to what these subtle differences are will allow the astute Grey owner to better "steer" a young Grey’s behavior or more wisely modify the behavior of an older Grey. It also allows us to have more realistic expectations of how our parrots will behave.
THE NATURAL SETTING
I think that any discussion of differences must first acknowledge the fact that many of the behaviors we speak about are, in the natural setting, manifested within the context of relationship. Our African Grey parrots are genetically programmed to choose a mate in the wild. Grey pairs in the wild act in tandem with each other..they act as a couple, with each having a certain set of behaviors which serve and preserve the pair bond they share, as well as to protect their nest and young. Thus, many of the behaviors we can observe in our Greys are those which fall into this category, and yet have been modified by the Grey to fit into the context of life within our homes.
I have often spoken of my observations of wild-caught pairs breeding in the domestic setting outdoors, because their behavior clearly illustrates the nature of this bond. When an intruder enters such an area containing several flights of Grey pairs, it can be observed that both members of the pair will retreat to the back of the flight, to the area which provides the most darkness, the most shelter and safety. Once the intruder has been given the "once over," the male of the pair may decide to do one of two things....either whistle a contact call to elicit a response from the human, or come forward in a show of mock aggression, striking at the wire nearest the human as a warning of sorts. I say "mock aggression" because this action is more of an attempt to communicate than to actually harm the visitor. Generally speaking, mature Grey males, kept as companion birds, are not notably aggressive, as are many male Amazons during breeding season. Even in a breeding situation, the Grey knows there is little danger of such a stranger actually encroaching on his territory. He simply feels the need to put the message of his dominion "out there."
I also observe very definite differences in behavior patterns manifested by fledglings in my home. Baby Greys here are given a large area in which to play as they wean, with opportunities for climbing and perching at many different heights. Young females generally are content to perch and play alone or alongside other chicks. I don’t believe I have ever seen a female fledgling in any sort of confrontation with another chick or adult Grey.
However, young males quite often engage in a behavior I term "sparring." They compete with other male fledglings for the highest branches. It is clear that, on some level, they are trying out their "maleness," vying with each other to see who is the more daring and more assertive. They actively engage my own, older male with this type of jousting as well. Clearly, this is part of their development as young male Greys, and in the wild would result in a hierarchy that would include a flock leader.
Not only do they seek each other out for interactions, but readily seek out different people in the house as well. When flying during their developmental period of fledgling, males often will fly to different people. Females do this less often. The females are quite friendly, of course, when approached by us, but do not seem to be as assertive about investigating or initiating relationships with people.
In fact, I have three female Greys, two of whom I raised, who are quite disinclined to interact with people at all. Although socialized in identical manner to the males, these birds decided they had little interest in people. Two of them actively resist any handling, although they will comply if I insist. The third will allow me to handle her, but resists strongly if anyone else should try. Yet, I have never had a male Grey baby who did not like people and interact with them willingly.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
What conclusions can we draw from these observations? I have long pondered the meaning of this behavior in these females. I eventually concluded that there is a greater variation in personality types among females than among males. Amongst the population of females I have either raised or lived with, individuals range from being very shy, sweet and cuddly to adamantly resisting any interactions with humans on any but their terms.
My experiences with raising young Greys and rehabilitating older ones have led me to determine that the very personality differences we observe relate directly back to the nature of the pair bond. And yet, these personality "tendencies" are, in fact, not "set in stone" because of the very fact that these birds live in the domestic environment. As such, their instinctive behaviors are shaped by life with us. I believe also, from observations I have made that a Grey’s personality is not fully formed until the companion parrot is approximately three years old. This is a relatively long period of time, during which interactions with humans have a tremendous impact on the personality development of the young bird.
For instance, if a Grey owner has a hen, the bird will likely behave in a manner consistent with the type of "social agreement" which serves the pair so well in the wild. In other words, the hen will expect that her human will act as "the pair’s" representative when it comes to dealing with strangers who enter the house. This may be puzzling to the human who, in an attempt to socialize her companion parrot, asks the bird to step up on the hand of a stranger, and is met with active resistance. Often consternation on the part of the owner is the result. Is my bird fearful? Is my bird going to be a one-person bird? Am I not doing a good job?
The truth is that, depending upon their natures, a different manner of introducing young hens to strangers may need to be adopted in order to achieve the most optimal result. I believe it appropriate to exercise consistent patience with such a bird, reassuring her verbally that she is safe, yet encouraging her gently to become more ‘social.’ I would never allow a visitor to approach such a young female and demand that she "Step Up!" I think it especially critical with young female Greys that we, as their humans, adopt the sort of role a mate would...in that we interact with any visitors first and then carefully introduce bird to guest, after first allowing the parrot to observe our interactions with the visitor.
As we might guess, casual observations of male companion Grey behavior is also consistent with what we have observed of male Greys in breeding situations, as well as the "sparring" behavior of fledgling males. Males, by nature, are more "dominant." This is a trait which, under certain circumstances, may evolve into aggressiveness, if not understood and modified. Males also tend to communicate by biting, much as the male in the breeding flight will. I believe that, in fact, they turn their instincts to "spar" with other birds onto the humans in the home. Again, this need not ever become a behavior issue or problem, if the wise owner reacts appropriately on those occasions when it does occur. It is always a mistake to react to an aggressive action on part of the bird with aggression of your own. However, it can be very effective to just ignore aggression on the part of a male Grey, conveying with humor that you don’t find this impressive.
My male Grey, Rollo, is an extremely dominant, aggressive bird. In fact, he is the only one of my 14 birds (ranging from Macaw to Meyer’s parrot) that my other family members are afraid of and won’t handle. However, that is because they allow his demeanor to intimidate them. At times in the past, I have jokingly referred to him as a "recreational biter." I have found that the most effective means for dealing with this personality characteristic is to ignore it. I simply refuse to acknowledge that his attempts to dominate me are important. And, gradually, his biting has decreased in frequency and we have developed an amazing and valuable relationship in which we do a lot of physical playing together. He loves to be swung down and back up by my side, to be turned on his back and given raspberries on his tummy.
I also have two rescued male Greys, one Congo and one Timneh, who obviously lost their homes repeatedly because of their biting behavior. However, I have little trouble with either bird. Again, I refuse to acknowledge the challenges they make. Like the male in the breeding flight, they will, using surprise as a weapon, turn to "nail me" with a bite when I least expect it. However, as they have learned that they get no reaction from me, they have dropped this behavior and are both incredibly loving with me now. I believe that the aggression sometimes shown by male Greys falls more under the heading of "bluffing" than, for instance, the aggression shown by male Amazons that are sexually mature.
As a breeder of African Greys, I am often asked which sex makes the best pet. This isn’t an unusual inquiry, since in certain psittacine species one sex is usually preferred over the other. I steadfastly reply that neither sex is preferable over the other. That is the greatest truth I can offer. There are too many variables among individual birds, and the relationships they form with their humans also take on a shape that is unpredictable.
In choosing a bird, there are far more important factors to be considered. When I place babies, I most often observe that a particular baby will be drawn to the person visiting, and this usually "seals the deal." For this reason, I always encourage people to choose their babies in person whenever possible. This type of initial attraction is far more reliable to the person seeking a bird than any generalizations about the differences between the sexes could ever be.
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