|Raising an African Grey baby to adulthood is a lot like creating an artfully designed and constructed quilt. Initially, buying quality materials will contribute to the eventual outcome and strength of the quilt. If you don’t have a pattern to follow and a good idea of what you want the quilt to look like in the end, you may wind up with something that lacks integrity and cohesiveness. If you don’t proceed with deliberation, adhering to the pattern to which you have committed, skipping steps or leaving some out, the quality will not be good. A beautifully made quilt becomes an heirloom, something of which we can be proud. A quilt made quickly by a too-busy person, on the other hand, may be one we throw into the Goodwill bag, promising to do better next time.
The manner in which the African Grey baby is weaned and socialized by the breeder makes a lot of difference. Greys are, overall, much less tolerant psychically of less than optimal rearing conditions. Purchasing a baby Grey that has been Abundance Weaned™, fledged and well-socialized to a variety of experiences will help guarantee a positive long-term outcome, as well as make the young parrot’s transition into its new home smoother. African Greys, like other large parrots, go through distinct developmental stages, during which they learn to play and explore. When a knowledgeable breeder or bird store has fostered that development, the baby becomes one that is bolder about going out to a new home.
PRELIMINARIES....THE FIRST THREE DAYS
When you finally bring baby home, the manner in which you follow and the care you provide over the first few days will depend a lot on your individual bird. Older publications will advise you to allow a new baby to remain in her cage for the first couple of days to allow her time to get used to her new surroundings. However, if your baby has been lovingly hand fed, this is not good advice to follow. In the majority of cases, your new baby will be reassured by handling and respectful interaction. Nothing can make a hand fed baby feel more forlorn than to go to a new home and to be left in a cage for the first two days without the physical reassurance and interaction it has come to count on . On the other hand, too much activity or too many demands for interaction can also be a problem for a young bird. The first few days are NOT the time to invite all of your friends over for an introduction.
It has also been standard advice to pad the bottom of the cage. I find this NOT to be necessary when a baby has had the experience of fledging....learning to fly and land. If a baby has not had the benefit of this experience, then this advice is still pertinent. Further, it is important to make sure the perches are the right diameter....the baby’s toes should extend 2/3 of the way around the perch. Your bird will also appreciate a rope perch or other sleeping perch placed at a level slightly higher than other perches. Finally, I do not recommend placing an African Grey’s cage right up against a window or near a door where people appear out of nowhere. In the wild these birds live a reclusive and secretive existence. This is their nature. Placement of the cage right next to the window allows for the possibility of wild birds crashing into the window, or activities outside the window may unduly frighten your bird.
It is important to realize that there are vast differences between personalities and sexes in the African Grey species. Each baby is a little different and when bringing a new bird into the house it is important to take our cues from her. Rather than going by generalized advice from a certain book, it will serve everyone in the household better if you play things by ear.
Generally speaking, Greys both old and young, should be introduced to new things in increments. When you bring a new baby home, don’t immediately show her the whole house and introduce her to every creature residing therein. Bring her in, remove her from the carrier, and with her on your hand, proceed to show her the room in which her cage stands. Just let her look around a little, talking to her all the while, explaining that she is home and that you are going to take good care of her. Once she has had a chance to view her immediate surroundings, place her on top of her cage (hopefully this has a playtop) and just let her walk around. Height will always make young parrots feel a little safer and this is a kindness. Bring her some food right away, and some fresh water, again telling her how happy you are to have her home.
When I send a new baby home, I also ask the new family to feed the baby some type of warm food, and provide a crock of warm water (110 degrees, but not hotter). Baby birds must be taught to drink water, and will vigorously gulp warm water if this is provided. The warmth of this first meal, and of the water, will encourage her to drink and eat, in spite of the fact that she might be slightly stressed from making the transition. It is also a good idea to feed the same adult foods that the baby has been used to eating before coming home. A hungry baby is a scared, anxious baby. Strive to make sure she is eating enough those
first few days.
What you do from that point on will depend upon her reaction to this introduction. Watch her body language. If she shakes a little and her feathers quiver on her tummy, or if she stands very tall with her feathers held tightly against her body, or growls or squawks at a person’s approach...then you know that she has had enough for one day. Just keep providing reassurance throughout the day, and don’t expect more from her just yet.
Even if a young Grey is weaned, she is still a baby and will find certain things reassuring. I am a zealous advocate of continuing to hand feed young Greys past the “weaning” stage. As a breeder, I do not send home babies until they are about 16 to 24 weeks of age....well able to be “food independent.” However, I still ask the owners to continue spoon feeding and offering warm, soft foods from the fingers at least once a day. Good choices include Scenic Diet Hand Feeding pellets soaked in warm juice or water, pureed or chopped sweet potatoes (squash and carrots too), or cooked cereals. I recommend warm oatmeal sweetened with a little fruit juice at night before bedtime. This ensures that your baby goes to sleep with a crop full of warm nutritious food. This latter practice also carries with it several other benefits.
Oats produce wonderful, glossy feathering: farmers who keep geese have known this for years. In addition, the warm oatmeal fed consistently at night gives you a tool, as many things can be ‘hidden’ in oatmeal. It provides the type of reassurance that appeals to the parrot’s instinctive nature, making her feel safe and loved. Every night in my home are four adult Greys, three adult cockatoos, and any older Grey babies that I’m raising...all lined up anxiously awaiting their warm oatmeal or ‘Wheetena’ cereal. The myth that you shouldn’t continue to feed a weaned baby (or adult bird) by hand or a spoon is a very unfortunate one.
As the baby becomes more comfortable with her new cage and surroundings, it will be time to increase her exposure to her new surroundings. We will know when she is comfortable and relaxed because she will begin to vocalize, making chirps and perhaps whistles, will preen in front of us, explore her cage readily, and eat enthusiastically. Certain behaviors are also indicative of happiness and satisfaction with us. When happy, a little Grey will wag its tail from side to side, lift his wings in greeting when we approach and stretch one wing and one leg together out from the side of the body. All of these movements are known as “happiness” behaviors. When we begin to see such actions, it is time to take her on her short tour of the house, explaining things as we go. Reassurance can be provided if she shows concern over anything that she sees. Again, pay attention to her body language to help you determine when she has had enough. If she has not had exposure to dogs and cats, and you happen to have one, make sure that she receives an introduction that takes into account her sensitivity. Do not allow an enthusiastic dog to go bounding up to a newly acquired baby Grey, unless she has been socialized to dogs previously.
In my behavior consulting practice, I deal with a great many Greys who have entered what breeder Phoebe Linden termed a “behavioral tunnel.” This is usually the result of a collaborative relationship between bird and human. Such a bird may have been deprivation weaned and/or improperly socialized, or may simply be a more conservative, anxious Grey than most. The human, on the other hand, usually starts out the relationship with a profound measure of concern about the future possibilities of feather picking and/or phobic behavior and a desire to prevent these at all costs. Accordingly, if the Grey objects by squawking when new experiences or activities are introduced, the human quickly “backs off” and proceeds no further with such attempts at socialization. I recognize often this choice-making pattern in Grey owners, a pattern based largely on the fear of future problems. Ironically, it is this disinclination on the part of the human to encourage a Grey to engage in a new behavior, when he meets with the baby’s protests, that facilitates the bird’s entrance into the “behavioral tunnel” and brings about the very situations the owner had so hoped to avoid.
It is critically important that we always keep our eyes focused on the skills we want the Grey to have as an adult. These should include accepting and playing enthusiastically with new toys after a reasonable introduction period, traveling to all rooms of the house and onto different perches, interacting with all members of the family even if one is a favored human, and bathing in the shower until getting drenched. They must also include eating a diverse diet, which includes some pellets, fresh vegetables, small amount of fruits, nuts, small amount of seed and grains. A Grey should be able to go outside the house and take short trips without undue stress. Descriptions have been written about the possibility that a Grey can become phobic during a veterinarian appointment, if toweled from above in a quick manner. I suspect that the stress such a bird experiences on the way to the vet’s office, due to the fact that he rarely goes out of the house, contributes to this action in large part.
These skills, or goals, should remain in our unconscious at all times as we continue the process of socializing our new bird. As with all long lived creatures, African Greys have an extended period of youth. This is one reason I don’t like to use the word ‘weaned’ in referring to a baby Grey who is food independent. The ‘finality’ of the word leads us away from the recognition and mindful awareness that the baby still needs a great deal from us in terms of instructions and leadership.
No matter where our baby came from, or how well socialized she may be, we must start from where we are and work consistently toward each goal. Further, each goal should be broken down into small steps that take into account our parrot’s nature. If resistance is met as each small step is approached, we need to manage this with humor, reassurance and encouragement, cajoling the Grey to the next step. Here’s an example:
Usually Grey babies’ acceptance of “bathing’ depends on whether they were introduced to it while still hand feeding. Bathing in a dish provides lots of fun for Greys and they should be allowed this experience, as well as being bathed in a shower, which I consider non-negotiable. Bathing by a spray bottle is also a valuable skill; however, neither the spray bottle nor the dish gets a Grey wet enough. They need be get drenched at least twice a week, although
First, we must learn to discriminate between OBJECTION and TRUE FEAR. We never want to proceed to the next step if a Grey is truly afraid. Again, fear will be demonstrated through dramatic body language....wide, staring eyes, trembling, holding the feathers tight against the body and heavy breathing. When these signs persist, it is time to stop in place and provide vast amounts of reassurance. And to perhaps “back up” a little, retreating in terms of progress toward meeting our goal.
If my goal is to have a Grey that enjoys taking showers, I would break up the process into two steps: First, I would take the baby into the bathroom to show him the room, opening cupboards and showing him contents, describing the contents and allowing him to see himself in the mirror. Once comfortable, I’d put a ‘suction-cup’ type perch on the bathroom mirror and have him perch there during ‘bathroom sightseeing’ trips. Next, I would place the baby on the mirror perch to enjoy looking into the mirror while I take showers. Once comfortable, I would then allow him to perch on top of the shower curtain rod or shower door while I showered. Next, I would put another perch on the shower wall and place my Grey there while I shower, without intentionally getting spray on him. Once comfortable with this, I would then begin to wet him with small amounts of spray, encouraging him with my own happy, silly demeanor.
Proceeding in the manner described above creates TRUST in the parrot. The thinking bird owner will break down each of his goals into ‘manageable’ steps for the parrot and will not proceed to the next step until comfort has been achieved with the last.
Another benefit to this approach is that the baby looks to the human for direction and instruction. This is how the human becomes the “FLOCK LEADER” in the Grey’s eyes. Further, this also puts the human in a position to “empower’ such a bird at times when he is afraid. For instance, a friend lived with a young Grey in an old apartment where the water heater firing up caused a horrible pipe banging sound that scared the bird. Joanne would go to the wall, bang on it saying “be quiet!!!” Then she said, “It’s okay! It’s just the pipes.” To this day, the bird will reassure himself by saying the exact words when he hears a loud noise. It helps a Grey dramatically when, having established ourselves as ‘benevolent flock leader,’ we can label stress and provide reassurance. Conversely, this does not work in situations where the Grey does not completely trust the owner.
PROCEEDING WITH DELIBERATION
As we strive to make incremental progress toward our goals of ‘living skills,’ we can best do so by teaching baby “your turn.” This will reinforce the relationship in which the Grey begins to look to his human for instruction, reassurance and direction. The concept is very simple and serves to set-the-stage for the development of language.
To begin this with a baby, I first make a wolf whistle, as it is not true that teaching a baby to whistle retards development of speech. Once she has learned to repeat the whistle after me, I will then do only half of the whistle, and pause for a few seconds, waiting for her to complete the last half. If she does not, then I will complete the whistle for her. Gradually, she will learn to whistle the second half, in response to my whistling the first half. At that point, I add something else. When I whistle the first part, I will then say “your turn....” and wait for her to finish the second part.
This concept of taking turns can be taught in many ways. For instance, When I eat an apple, I take a bite, then turn to the parrot and say, “Your turn...” and offer a bite to her from another side of the apple. A small dog’s squeaky toy is another tool. It is not long before the young parrot will pick up the toy, give it a squeak and toss it off.
This manner of communicating and playing provides a very concrete method for interacting in an instructional manner with a young bird. It provides a format for the later more sophisticated development of speech in which questions can be asked, and then answered. Greys also LOVE this type of interaction because it gives them a way to turn the tables on us and get us to respond to them. A most delightful relationship will result.