Throughout my association with African Greys, I’ve heard over and over about the differences between the nominate of the species psittacus erithacus erithacus (Congo) and the smaller, darker subspecies psittacus erithacus timneh (Timneh). Behavior consultants, breeders and those who own one of each have always talked about the more laid-back Timneh, a bird that was much less prone to pluck or become phobic that its larger, brighter cousin.
Until recently I had believed the claims were erroneous, even though I live with an imported Timneh hen who thinks there is nowhere she shouldn’t go with me and fears very little in life. I had thought little of the Timneh-being-calmer theory because there had been so little available data on domestically bred Timnehs for so long. The pet bird market focused on the larger, bright red tailed Congo Grey. Further, due to being in greater numbers in the wild, Congos were originally imported and turned into breeding stock. Given the difference in numbers, I felt that statistically, there would naturally be more behavior problems recorded for Congos.
However, my thinking has changed in the past few years. Nowadays, there is ample Timneh breeding stock and a large public interest in Timnehs as companions. For instance, at a recent Pet Bird Report Convention panel discussion, I noticed there were as many Timneh as Congo owners who asked questions. Yet, breeders and behavior consultants still see far less plucking and phobia problems with Timneh Greys. However, not willing to believe one subspecies may be better than the other, I decided to look closely at what may be different in both species’ natural environments and what we humans should be doing to bring out the full potential of our African Greys.
There is not a genetic difference in personality, and the first clue to support this is the fact that phobias and plucking behavior are rare in wild-caught Greys of both subspecies. I have worked with numerous wild-caughts of both subspecies and found them to be extremely stable companion birds. Historically, when you read about wild-caught Greys who were kept all of their lives in tiny cages, living on seed only diets, you don’t read that they were plucked birds. They may not have been HAPPY birds, but they didn’t show signs of insecurity through plucking behaviors.
Certainly, if African Greys were shy parrots, prone to insecure, nervous habits, we would see it immediately in wild-caught birds who have suffered great trauma during the capturing process. But that isn’t the case. We behavior consultants see these problems mainly with domestically raised Congo Greys, indicating that something must be missing in our hand feeding, weaning and/or socializing process. However, why Congos and not Timnehs?
The first thing I looked at was what age Congos and Timnehs might become INDEPENDENT members of their flocks in the wild. Since not much had been done regarding observing both subspecies in the wild, I chose VOCALIZATION as a possible determining clue. Parrots, like African Greys and some Amazon species, are able to imitate our own language, making vocalization something we might reliably measure as a factor in the species’ socialization into the flock. My thoughts are that as a young bird in the wild becomes more independent it becomes an individual within the everyday concerns of its flock, no longer relying on its parents to take care of it. At that time, it will have started more extensive vocalizations, necessary to maintain its presence and communication within the flock.
We know that parrots, such as Yellow Nape and Blue Front Amazons, are socially quick maturing, independent species, with relatively few phobia and plucking problems. We also know that these Amazon species start speaking and stringing words together into phrases, as would independent adult parrots within a wild flock, at a young age, often at the weaning age. However, Congo African Greys are not the same as Amazons. While Congo Greys may be speaking one or two words at age six months, they don’t usually start their lifetime of extensive chatter and stringing words together until after their first birthday. Since Congos are close to the same size as the best talking Amazons, I attributed this to the Congos perhaps not entering an active flock participation as individuals as soon as Amazons do. Perhaps Congo Greys don’t become fully functioning flock members until after age 12 months.
I researched this conclusion with an Internet survey that compared word stringing and speaking abilities of Congo and Timneh Greys. Of course, this was only one study involving less than 100 birds, therefore it represents a trend, rather than a statement of fact. For that matter, this entire article represents only my own and others’ theory, rather than any broad statement or generalization about the differences between the two African Grey subspecies.
The Timneh side of my "age speaking survey" turned up very different results. Although I already knew what the results would be, based on personal experiences, I needed to prove it to myself with data from others. Timneh Greys, on the average, start adding new words easily and stringing them together to form simple sentences at approximately age six months....a full six months sooner than the Congo Greys.
If we correlate this with what we know about the more studied Amazon species, who also start their serious vocalizing (speaking our words) at six months or less, it indicates that perhaps the Congo Grey in the wild is not ready to leave its family unit until around a year old, while the Timneh is joining the flock six months sooner.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO DOMESTICALLY BRED GREYS?
Since we wean both subspecies at approximately the same age and send them off to their new homes (flocks), maybe Congos are being forced to become independent flock members long before they would in the wild habitat. Our Greys are still basically wild animals, without the centuries of domestic breeding that characterizes a domestic animal and removes much of their wild instinctive gene patterning. Therefore, Congo Greys may be genetically patterned to need more parent or nursery-bird instruction before they are ready and secure enough to function as individuals in our human flocks. Whereas, Timnehs may have a different juvenile environment. Perhaps, like the Amazons, they are taught everything they need to know to function in the flock by the time they wean.
One of the things birds in the wild must know is who are the predators. Assuming they learn this from daily flock interaction, a juvenile still being cared for by its parents probably doesn’t have to worry about identifying hawks and other predators. His parents will take care of that for him and protect him. Like human children who have learning curves based on physical age, parrot species may also have the same types of learning curves. In other words, a six-month old Timneh may be independent enough to have reached a learning level where it can decide for itself what is and what isn’t a threat to its life. However, for those birds who are not socially ready to distinguish between friend and foe until they reach a year of age, anyone or anything can easily be mistaken for a predator...if the wrong chain of events occur. Here’s an example:
If a young Grey has its wings and/or toe nails clipped too short, it often falls to the floor or bottom of its cage because it cannot grip perches..which may not be the right size for it... or if its short wings can’t support the weight of its body. Often young Greys become phobic because added to the trauma of their falls, their humans chase them, innocently wanting to comfort them or prevent them from getting stuck under the furniture. Then in the Grey’s mind the once friendly human flock member changes to a fearsome predator that is threatening the bird’s life. It is even worse to the frightened Grey because it cannot escape by flying. The result is a phobic African Grey. This isn’t the only cause of phobias in African Greys, but it is one of the more common reasons.
If the bird has not reached a social level where it can naturally distinguish between friends and predators it will fall back on its genetically patterned wild animal instincts, which say that something that chases from above is a predator. We can make this assumption because we know that Congo Greys are in part ground feeders in their natural environment and that their most feared predators are hawks which attack from above. Greys feeding on the ground can only escape a hawk by flying. Imagine the instinctive terror of not being able to fly to escape a predator coming after you from above, as we humans must appear when chasing a Grey who is on the floor.
My good friend and Cockatoo expert who studied Cockatoos in Australia, Sam Foster, tells me that the Cockatoo that closely resembles African Greys with its multitude of phobias and feather plucking problems is the Galah (Rose Breasted Cockatoo). An interesting fact about Rosies is that they are the only Cockatoo species that is raised after weaning in nursery trees, supervised by adult nanny birds. Wild Rosies don’t have the behavior problems that we see in domestically bred Galahs. Sam’s theory is that our domestically bred Galahs need and are not getting those extra months of nursery care before they are ready to be individuals in the flock.
Perhaps, and this is still in the theory stage, Congo African Greys also live as young juveniles in a nursery situation, being cared for and nurtured by an older Grey until they are around one year old, and then go with the flock as individuals. Another valued friend and authority on breeding African Greys, Pamela Clark of Clark’s Exotics, has a natural nanny bird in her own companion Congo Grey, Rollo. When Pam’s babies start to fledge and explore, Rollo takes over, teaching them about perching, eating and other necessary segments of survival within the flock. Pam’s birds do not have those behavioral problems that so many people say characterize Greys. Could it be because Rollo guides and teaches them that extra information that we humans are incapable of communicating to them?
SWITCHING HUMAN BONDS
There is another difference between Congo and Timneh Greys: switching bonds from one human to another. Congo Greys have a reputation for deciding to change their bonded humans, usually from the primary caregiver to a spouse or older child. This can be heartbreaking for the persons who have grown to love the young Greys they care for. Therefore, I decided to run another survey, since I had not heard of as many instances where Timnehs switch allegiance from one person to another.
Again, these surveys rely on personal experiences of African Grey owners, which may not always be as objective as a controlled laboratory experiment. Therefore, they should be considered possible trends, rather than outright facts. In my survey, which included equal numbers of Congo and Timneh Greys, 63 percent of the male Congo Greys changed their preference from the primary caregiver to another family member. They did this between the ages of two and three years. Sixteen percent of the female Congo Greys in the survey changed their human bonds.
The trend indicates to me that if Congo Greys live in a family group or nursery situation, they may leave that family group to choose their mates as they become sexually mature, in order to keep the gene pool pure for the survival of the species. If male Congo Greys are the ones who select mates, that would account for the high percentage of males that change pair-bonds as they mature. In our human world, the primary caregiver may represent the family or nursery group to the young Grey, while the other human family member is the rest of the flock.
But, what about the Timnehs in my survey? A big surprise to me was that no Timnehs of either sex changed their pair bonds. Some even added the other human into a multiple bond at various times in the Grey’s development. There were no rejections of primary caregivers, as with the Congo Greys. The natural assumption here is that perhaps Timnehs don’t live for extended periods in family or nursery groups, so they do not have to reject that group (or human) in order to find suitable mates.
One conclusion drawn from both surveys is that we need to know much more about the lives African Greys lead in their natural environment. It is unfortunate that African Greys have not been studied as thoroughly in the wild as have other parrot species. Hopefully, Dr. Pepperberg and her students will someday be able to answer my questions.
All of my research and speculation does not lead me to believe that either Congo or Timneh Greys are better companions than the other. This is impossible because wild-caught Timnehs and Congos both have the same stable personalities. If you could not see their physical differences, you would think them to be the same bird. What this does indicate, however, is that there is possibly a very different natural upbringing between the two subspecies. Our lack of knowledge of this difference may be preventing us from giving Congo Greys the kind of upbringing and education they would havve from their natural parents and thus preventing many of them from reaching their natural potential to be superior companion parrots. My own hope is that more breeders explore the possibility of using a NANNY BIRD, probably a wild-caught Grey, to act as link between weaning and being placed as an individual in a human flock.
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This article was first published in the Spring 1999 issue of the Grey Play Round Table Magazine.