African Grey Parrots are exceptional talkers, and their intelligence can rival that of 5 -year-old children, but did you realize that they also operate out of their heads? They are always thinking. To paraphrase avian behavior consultant Chris Davis, an Amazon can fall off its cage and may not give it a second thought. By contrast, the thinking Grey reaction may be, "I could have been hurt! What if I hit my foot? What if I fall again?" As a result, Greys need reassurance that everything around them is okay. Many aviculturists have labeled Greys as being "high strung and neurotic" because of this high sensitivity; but a secure, well-behaved African Grey Parrot can be one of the most cherished companions.
The combination of high intelligence and sensitivity causes Greys to want to be in control. Looking at the world through a one-pound body –and a strange world at that– can be unnerving. Therefore, it is important for the Grey owner to establish himself as the flock leader, the "top bird," as soon as possible. This can be a constant challenge since these creatures are so smart and observant.
I purchased my first Grey, Merlin Tewillager, when she was just 3 months old. She was a cute little gray ball of fluff, so cuddly and loving. I was mesmerized, and my non-bird friends thought I had lost my mind. I loved to watch her waddle across the floor to fetch a ball, and her dependence fulfilled a nurturing need in me. At 9 months, however, her personality seemed to change, and she was more like a Pit Bull with claws than a sweet little bird. She knew she was the top bird and was going to prove it. She attacked anyone who came near her cage and growled and barked at people who expressed fear. It was obvious that the "terrible two" independent stage had entered my home with a vengeance. I called an avian behavior consultant and compared notes with friends who also had young Greys. After a lot of work and patience, Merle is now a well-behaved showoff and goes to most people without a problem. I started the Grey Play Round Table magazine to serve as a forum for African Grey pet owners and experts to share ideas, tips and stories to help each other.
Like most people, I was attracted to the African Grey Parrot because of its talking ability; but none of the material I had read could have completely prepared me for the experience of owning a Grey. Nurturing a Grey is more like dealing with a child than a pet. I found myself relying on some of the child psychology courses I had taken in college. But Greys are not children: they are intelligent, wild animals, once or twice removed from the wild at most that need to be taught how to be good companions.
Greys possess an enormous ability to pick up on our thoughts, feelings, moods and energy, and they force us to face ourselves because they reflect in their behavior what is going on in and around us. If you’re willing to make this type of commitment, an African Grey Parrot may be the bird for you.|
There are three general types of Greys sold in the United States. The Congo African Grey (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) is the largest, usually 450+ grams in weight. The males are darker gray, with flat square heads and larger beaks relative to head size; and the females tend to be lighter in color (silvery to whitish), with more rounded, dainty heads and smaller beaks. Their ancestors come from equatorial Africa. West Ghana Greys (Psittacus erithacus princeps) or West African Greys are very similar to Congos, except they are a little smaller. Breeder Fran Gonzalez says that many pet owners and breeders are not aware they have Ghanas until these birds are perched beside the larger Congos. Their ancestors deem from a few islands, Principe and Fernando Poa, in the Gulf of Guinea. (Some aviculturists argue that the Ghana is a regional type of Psittacus erithacus erithacus, instead of separate subspecies.) The third subspecies, the Timneh (Psittacus erithacus timneh) is the smaller in size, with a brownish-to-maroon-colored tail and a pinkish or reddish upper mandible (beak). In the wild, Timnehs are found in four West African countries: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and the west Ivory Coast.
They all make good companions. The Timneh, which has, in the past, been overshadowed by the larger Congos, is rising in popularity. Like their Congo cousins, Timnehs are very good talkers, and many breeders believe them to be less neurotic than some of the larger Greys.
Some people believe that female Greys bond better with men and that male Greys bond with women. I have two DNA-sexed females, both of whom are tightly bonded with me. Merlin Tewillager will regurgitate for any man (especially one with a beard), but Sweet Pea doesn’t really care. Several Grey Play Round Table subscribers have noted that their male Greys are also attracted to men; therefore, there are too many exceptions to the rule to believe that a female human should look for a male African Grey.
Many people have asked me which type of Grey they should purchase. The best advice I can offer is to go with your heart. Look at all the types and sexes, and choose the Grey that chooses you. If you don’t connect with one, keep looking until you do.
The more intelligent an animal is, the more likely it will have behavior problems, unless it is worked with. If a baby Grey is not properly socialized to humans at an early age, it may become confused and not know how to behave.
Avian behavior consultant Sally Blanchard believes that poor early socialization from some breeders, hand-feeders and pet shops creates neurotic Greys. Shop around for the breeder or pet store where the personnel handle the babies on an individual-attention basis. Interview them on their strategies for socializing the birds. Once you’ve chosen a Grey, make sure it is weaned before taking it home (approximately 12-16 weeks). Unless you know what you’re doing, it is very easy to harm, even kill, a baby Grey while syringe feeding.
It is a good idea to take your baby Grey to the vet for a checkup immediately after you purchase it. Many pet shops and breeders will provide a two to four-day guarantee, giving you time to get a health exam for the bird. I suggest you choose a vet who specializes in birds and is registered with the Association of Avian Veterinarians.
You may consider requesting your new bird be given a culture and sensitivity test, as well as a blood profile, in addition to other tests your avian vet may recommend. It is instinctual for birds to mask any illnesses–in the wild, a sick bird gets eaten; therefore, an extensive analysis will help you gain a deep understanding of your Grey’s health. Further, a blood profile will help you determine nutrient deficiencies so that you and your vet may determine a solid nutrition plan. Finally, be sure to quarantine your new companion until test results are received, if you have other avian companions in your home.
You remember the saying, "You are what you eat." An African Grey that is forced to subsist on a seed-only diet may be lucky enough to live as long as 15 years; but one that is given a balanced diet has the potential to live 40 to 60 years, or longer. Improper nutrition can be the underlying cause of other problems, such as allergies and feather picking. I believe that a proper diet includes a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, pellets, and a small serving of seeds. When offering fruits and vegetables, give a higher proportion of vegetables. Many Greys are sensitive to inadequate levels of calcium and vitamin A (beta carotene); therefore, it is important to make sure they eat the appropriate foods that contain these nutrients and others associated with them. A qualified vet or avian nutritionist, in addition to results from a blood profile, can help you create the appropriate diet.
Breeder Alicia McWatters, who has her Ph.D. in nutrition, believes that fresh, organic vegetables served in the raw "live" state are best because they contain the needed enzymes that help maintain proper bodily functions. Many of the beta carotene vegetables (such as carrots) should be lightly steamed, however, so that they can be more easily digested. Foods that contain oxalic acid (such as spinach) should be given sparingly since they block the absorption of calcium.
The weaning process is gradual, and because a young Grey has learned to eat a few vegetables does not mean that it can completely feed itself. In the wild, a starving bird is a dead bird; therefore, a hungry young Grey can become insecure. For this reason, puree some foods, such as sweet potatoes or butternut squash, and finger-feed or spoon-feed them to your Grey at night. This nurturing treat can help reverse some of the insecurities your Grey may have acquired either through poor socialization or other experiences. I spoon-fed both Merlin Tewillager and Sweet Pea every night for the first three years of their lives, and I believe that this process helped me help Merlin become softer, more relaxed and secure. All Greys enjoy this bonding connection, no matter the age.
Avian behavior consultant Chris Davis describes African Greys as "footballs with wings," and without full wings, Greys, especially young Greys (generally until 2 years), can be very clumsy. Some are more clumsy than others, and this problem can lead to further insecurities and fears. It is believed that much of the clumsiness stems from wing clips that are too short, and/or the fact that many Grey chicks were not allowed to learn to fly in that important "fledgling period," which can retard physical development and undermine confidence and security.
Greys can suffer very serious injuries, such as broken bones and split keels, so it is important to take precautions to minimize falling accidents: Take out the cage grate, and cover the bottom of the cage with soft materials, such as towels and other nontoxic materials (if the cage grate does not come out, place the soft materials on the grate and cover with newspaper. You may also want to take off the cage apron because some particularly clumsy young Greys have been known to split their keel bones on them. If you’re concerned about a mess, place a plastic office mat under the cage); keep the perches low and place them so that your Grey will fall on soft areas; don’t clog the cage with lots of toys that may entangle your bird; request that your young bird’s wings be clipped a little longer so that it can flutter to the ground if it falls; give it a longer nail clip for clinging; and clear the area around its cage.
The rule of thumb is that a bird’s cage size should be at least one and one half the bird’s full wing span. Greys need to be in cages that are at least 24 by 24 inches in width and depth, unless they’re out most of the time. Even wider cages, 32 or 36 inches, would be ideal. Greys don’t particularly need tall cages. Bar spacing should be close enough so that your young Grey can’t stick its head through the bars (less than 1 ½ inch for larger Congos and 1 inch or smaller for smaller Congos and Timnehs). Layout is also important. Observe your Grey, and place perches in positions that allow them to move freely to different areas. The perches need to be different diameters suitable to their foot sizes.
African Greys are instinctively sociable creatures, and they seem to turn their toys into imaginary friends. They love to attack, chew, scream at and talk to their toys, and they use them for head rubs. Overall, they seem to prefer toys they can destroy, such as paper or cardboard; soft chewable wood or rope; and plastic or acrylic toys. Introduce new toys slowly, and teach them how to play with them. Purchase appropriately sized toys, and check them daily to make sure they’re safe. Rotate them frequently.
African Greys have had a reputation as great talkers/imitators for hundreds of years, and the recent work over the past twenty years by Dr. Irene Pepperberg and Alex has contributed to the wide interest in African Greys as companions. Although there are not a lot of Alex’s out there, many Greys have astounded their humans with their abilities to replicate sounds, such as telephones ringing and garbage trucks backing up, as well as their abilities to use words/phrases appropriately. African greys generally learn to talk later than other parrots, and the guideline is 12 to 18 months. Once they start, they can become motor mouths, particularly by the time they’re two years old. Not all Greys become prolific talkers, and late developers don’t necessarily talk less than early learners. Here are a few tips for teaching your Grey to talk: use the same phrase with the same task to teach by association; describe items important in your bird’s daily life and tell it what you’re going to do, such as "want perch" when placing it on its play perch; and play with sounds/emotion words and phrases. For example, Merlin Tewillager did not learn to say "I love you" until I added "so much" to the phrase, making it more fun. African Greys learn what THEY want to learn. As a species, they’re known to be quieter than many other parrots, with softer, pleasant whistles, jungle noises and gurgles. However, due to their great imitative abilities, they can quickly pick up "interesting" sounds from their Amazon and Cockatoo cousins. If they like these sounds, they may repeat them constantly for enjoyment, and once they discover that these sounds get reactions, they can make them to manipulate for attention. Therefore, African Greys are not always as quiet as their reputations assume.
DEALING WITH INSECURITIES
African Greys have a reputation for being creatures of habit, fearful of anything new brought into their environments. While this characterization may be true, it is possible to get them to accept change if introduced correctly. They must be reassured, helping them feel safe, secure and an integral part of the family. It is important to give them structure and routine, although as behavior consultant Sally Blanchard says, "don’t set a ritualized time routine," or you will be manipulated ad nauseum to stick to it. For example, if you come home every evening at 6PM, like clockwork, and always give your Grey a treat at 6:15PM, the bird will make you stick to it with every manipulation in the book; however, if you switch the schedule, such as giving the treat at 7PM every few days, your Grey may be more flexible. My Greys normally get 10 to 12 hours of sleep, going to bed at 9PM. But a few times a week, they may go either earlier or later. They travel with me, constantly facing new situations. As a result, Merlin loves to show off in front of groups of people. I’m not trying to say that Merle and Pea don’t have their "Grey fears," but, for the most part, they’re adjusted.
A friend, Ellen Zadalis, says that she helps her Grey, Jocko, overcome insecurities by turning them into fun experiences. For example, Jocko used to be afraid of riding over bumps in the road; but Ellen turned it into a fun adventure by saying "WHEEE!" Now, Jocko says "WHEEE" every time they ride over a bump.
The expression, "it’s okay," is one of the most important phrases for the African Grey vocabulary. Spend quality time with your Grey, encouraging it to be curious and independent. Give it praise and love, and introduce it to change slowly. Reassure, encourage and then reassure again.
There are 1,001 reasons for feather picking, almost as many as birds that pick: lack of humidity; poor nutrition; food allergies; falling accidents; severe stress; reaction to sudden change; reaction to vibration like earthquakes, loud television or boom boxes; emotional abuse; jealousy; or seasonal changes, to name a few. Many experts believe that the most common causes are poor nutrition and lack of humidity. Many Grey feather picking problems also stem from insecurity, again correlated to poor early socialization or other traumas, such as frequent falling due to clumsiness. There are usually two parts to feather picking: the immediate incident(s) and then either the continuation until the incident is rectified or manipulation of the Grey’s human by picking because it gets attention and reaction.
If your Grey picks, take the bird for a thorough veterinary exam. Once physical cause is ruled out, contact an avian behavior consultant and/or animal communicator to help you determine how to help your bird. To avoid possible nutrition and humidity causes before they start, concentrate on giving your Grey a well-balanced diet, ensure that your bird’s room has sufficient humidity levels, and mist your Grey often.
African Greys are incredibly endearing and complicated creatures. Their strength of high intelligence and sensitivity can also be a weakness, if they’re not properly nurtured. It takes a lot of effort and commitment to be a good "pet human" companion to an African Grey, but any human owned by a Grey will tell you it’s worth it.
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Margaret Wright is Editor for the Grey Play Round Table, a magazine for African Grey Parrot aficionados. This article was first published in the October 1996 issue of Bird Talk Magazine.