|How many times have you read about heartbroken "less significant others" who have complained that they’ve taken care of their Grey babies-----only to be swept aside for another person, usually the other spouse? Nothing can be more difficult and trying than to be in a love triangle. The same is true for our parrots. In reverse, in homes where one human is the object of intention between the parrots, there can be wars of jealousy, rage and dominance. But the silver lining to this is that peaceful accords can be worked out, IF the pet human is awake to the issues and methodically works with the birds.
THE BUILD UP
I can attest to that as I’ve been helping Merlin Tewillager and Sweet Pea learn to get along for the past few years. Like an only child, Merlin Tewillager had had my complete attention for the first three years of her life. Since I work out of my home, we were constant companions most of the time–more like soul mates. We worked together; we traveled together; and we had little dinner parties together, entertaining our human and Grey friends.
Then 10 month old Sweet Pea came along as a "rescue bird." A neighbor had to let her go because he was being sued by his next door neighbor, supposedly due to Pea’s noise. Sweet Pea was precious, shy, clumsy, underweight and I immediately fell in love with her. I had forgotten how mesmerizing those baby gurgles, clicks and clucks could be. She needed a lot of love and attention, which Merlin Tewillager was not prepared to handle.
Merlin was so jealous that she started picking her feathers. One day she plucked three tail feathers in a row, and as the days progressed, more feathers than normal were found at the bottom of her sleeping cage. The day it finally dawned on me that we were in trouble was when she screamed at Pea, "Yick!! You’re lucky!" Then I made the tough decision to let Pea move in with a friend who had a male Grey for whom she wanted a companion.
My friend lived in a building next door, so I was able to visit and work with Sweet Pea almost daily. My friend hired a behavior consultant to help her move Pea into the cage with Burrdo, the male Grey. This process was unsuccessful. The bottom line is that, like Merlin, Burrdo was SOOO bonded to his human that he didn’t want Pea or any other companion around, especially in the same cage; therefore, he would attack her.
About nine months later, Sweet Pea came back to live with us. The separation had given Merle time to become more secure about her position with me, so she was no longer extremely jealous. But Sweet Pea was a different case. She had been attacked and bullied by the other Grey that did NOT want a cage mate; therefore, she returned to us a "street smart bully" with dominant behavior. She was determined that SHE was going to be the top bird with me, and NO ONE was ever going to move her out again.
One evening, a few weeks after her return, I set the parrots on the same side of the sofa, by mistake. Well, Pea pounced on Merlin, and the birds fell on the floor biting, screaming and rolling around on top of each other. I was horrified but yet thankful that I had intervened in time and no one got hurt. But this did not dissuade Sweet Pea, as the moment my back was turned, she would go after Merle, again and again. She slid down her cage, spritzed across the floor, and zipped up Merle’s cage to attack, before I could take a breath. The situation got so bad that I had to let them out of their cages either at separate times or put them in separate rooms.
The natural human thing to do in a case like this was to get angry at Sweet Pea for her awful behavior. That’s what I did....but the only result was confusion. Merle, my first Grey, was finally secure enough that she didn’t pick out of jealousy; and now Pea, my second Grey, was the picker because of the same emotion—jealousy and confusion as to why I was mad.
Then Merlin’s behavior began to change drastically. She seemed even more nervous, fearful and fidgety. At times when I’d pick her up to play with her in the same room with Pea, it felt as if Merle didn’t want to have anything to do with me. What a mess it was!
That’s when I finally called in Jane Hallander to help me intervene and understand what was going on. It was obvious that Sweet Pea was emulating dominant behavior that had been cast on her when she was placed in the same cage with a jealous bird. I learned from Jane that to Sweet Pea, this dominant, bullying behavior was normal bird behavior. She felt that she was doing nothing wrong, and she did not understand why I was so upset; therefore, she started feather picking. She felt that she should be top bird over Merlin.
On the other hand, Jane told me that Merlin was feeling miserable. She was afraid that Sweet Pea was going to "get her." Merle’s nervousness and anxious behavior was due to the fact that Sweet Pea was threatening her telepathically, "I’m going to get you! Don’t get too close to Maggie. She’s mine!" As a result, Merle became especially fidgety when I placed special focus on her, as she knew that Sweet Pea was stronger and could hurt her.
AND I was adding to the confusion. Without realizing it, I had lowered Merlin’s "top bird status," which made Sweet Pea think that she could take over. I did this by giving them equal treatment. What I did for one, I felt I had to do for the other. Merlin had lost her special privileges, such as riding in the front seat of the car, going to bed last, being acknowledged first, and so on. What I thought I was doing to make peace in the home was REALLY making the situation worse.
CHANGES IN THE AIR
Therefore, the first order of business was to change MY behavior. I stopped reacting to Sweet Pea when she attempted to attack Merlin Tewillager. I let Merlin know that I was there to protect her, Pea would not get her, and I gave back her privileges. She now rides in the front seat of the car; she always travels with me when I can only take one Grey; she is always acknowledged first; she’s the first to eat off my plate at night; and so on. I let Sweet Pea know that, no matter what, Merlin is the top bird in the home; but I also love her and will never let her go, unless she wants to. She also gets privileges, such as being able to snuggle with me for hours at night, while Merle preens on my knee.
Like clockwork, their behavior changed. Although I keep them physically separated most of the time, they can now tolerate sharing the same perch for a few minutes, if I’m right there keeping an eye out. From time to time, they will beak with each other in a friendly manner. They sing and talk with each other, although Merlin does purposely refuse to learn phrases that relate to Sweet Pea only. One will ask, "What does the rooster say?" The other will respond, "Meow!!!"
Neither Grey is feather picking; and Sweet Pea’s fits of jealousy are becoming less frequent. I believe this is because I remind her daily how much she is loved, making her feel more secure. But just to be safe, I no longer allow them on top of their cages at the same time, unless I’m there to supervise.
A NEW UNDERSTANDING
I found that the process of helping my two Greys learn to get along is similar to helping first and second-born human children learn to relate. It is only natural that the first child becomes enraged and jealous at the beginning, after all the one-on-one single attention previously received. As both kids grow, it is also important that the first child feel that it has some privileges of being older, such as staying up later at night or being the first to be able to wear stockings at a certain age. In a situation where there is more than one parrot competing for the human’s attention, the first parrot needs to be treated as the "top bird/first child," no matter its size or stature. As I learned with Merlin, it is important to help that first "child" parrot feel very secure, and to help it understand that it has not lost its position in the "family" flock.
But the situation can become even more complicated, because parrots are not children, but they are wild animals that come with their own wild instincts (which we do not always understand). For example, in the wild, the more aggressive, dominant bird usually becomes higher over the other, getting the mate, and the loser usually flies away. But in captivity, this logic doesn’t always work, as the losing parrot can’t just fly away and find a new mate. If the first parrot turns out to be the largest and strongest, the second parrot may more easily fall in line. But if the case is the opposite, and the first parrot is not the strongest as in Merlin’s situation, the first parrot may begin inappropriate behavior, such as feather picking and/or nervous/fearful behaviors, if it is not properly acknowledged.
To make matters worse, if the human doesn’t pick up that these interactions are going on, the problems could become compounded. For example, if the human doesn’t figure out that his/her parrot’s behavior problems are correlated to the introduction of a new flock member, the unacceptable behaviors, such as feather picking, biting, etc.., could become habit forming-----and the original cause may never be uncovered. On the other hand, if the first bird is dominant and its relationship is already established between it and the second parrot; BUT the human gravitates to the second parrot without acknowledging the first parrot’s status, the larger, more dominant one could resort to inappropriate behaviors, such as feather picking.
Upon analysis, I made both mistakes. When Sweet Pea first came to live with us, Merlin was the stronger, more dominant bird; but because I paid so much attention to "the baby" without acknowledging Merlin’s status, she began to feather pick. Then when Sweet Pea came back as the "dominant bird," and I bent over backwards to give them equal treatment, leaving the job of "Top Bird" open, Merlin resorted to fearful behavior of Sweet Pea and Sweet Pea began feather picking because of her jealousy and confusion. None of this had to happen—had I just given them more clear "flock leader direction." In my defense, however, I hope I made all these mistakes so I could write about them! No human could really be this dumb, right????
There have been recent "theories" that one major cause of feather picking is when an additional parrot "from another continent" is introduced to the flock. In most households where there is more than one parrot, they are usually from different continents. Hence, according to this theory, feather picking should be even more wide spread than it is. There are many households where Greys and Amazons or Cockatoos or whatever get along. Further, in this case, both of my Greys are Congos from the same continent (Africa).
Therefore, I feel that, although a valiant effort, this "theory" doesn’t dig deep enough. Rather than being an issue of origin (from different continents), I believe that whether or not the parrots get along relates to: 1) personality of the individual birds; 2) their relationships to the human flock leader; and 3) the cognizance and how the human deals with helping the parrots work through the issues. Further, I believe that the smaller the flock and the more predominant the human is as the center of attention (intention), the more severe the posturing may be. Then depending upon the personalities of the parrots, the human’s flock rules and the human’s ability to communicate the rules, either there will be "order" or "chaotic displacement behaviors, such as picking"----no matter what continents they are from.
TO BUILD OR NOT TO BUILD THE FLOCK
I’ve been asked by many whether or not they should add another parrot to their flocks—would it upset a Grey to be with another Grey? Could you put together two females, two males or one of each? African Greys ARE flock animals, and it seems that they do enjoy being around other parrots of their type, as evidenced by some of the Round Table group events. But because Greys are so sensitive and bond so deeply with their humans, the bigger question may be if it makes sense to add another flock member. First, if you’re so inclined, you may consider getting an animal communicator, such as Jane Hallander or Betty Lewis, to help you talk with your Grey about it. The other consideration is your own time and energy—do you have enough of both? I don’t believe that it makes any difference as to whether the mix is two females, two males or one of each, as long as one is not breeding, of course. No matter the sexual mix, I believe the relationships can be worked out, as long as the human has an understanding of the personality dynamics and a clear set of family flock guidelines.
Further, there are many examples of households where Greys get along well with other parrot types too. You may want to get other parrots that are less demanding of your attention; or you may decide to be a one-parrot family; or you may decide to add a new flock member from a different species. It all depends on your personal situation.
A FEW SUGGESTIONS
Bringing in a new flock member takes a lot of time and effort, no matter the species type and track record of the parrot (ie.,..second home, etc). Here are a few suggestions to consider, should you choose this path:
Keep them separated!!! There will always be some levels of conflict when a new flock member is introduced, and therefore, it is wise to keep them physically separated in different cages and if possible, in different corners of the room, so that they feel they have their own territories. Do NOT put them in the same cage unless it is their idea----and after a long period of introduction (sometimes many, many months ----or never). Parrots can be pals and keep each other company, even living in separate cages.
Prepare your current flock. As stated by Sally Blanchard many times, prepare for the new arrival by setting up its cage beforehand, fiddling with the cage, and talking to an imaginary parrot or stuffed parrot for a time, before introducing "the real thing" to the flock. Or if the arrival is an overnight surprise, prepare your flock while the new one is in quarantine, by preparing its "empty" cage in the bird room, playing with an imaginary bird and introducing the birds from a distance, as they whistle to each other from room to room.
Observe, observe, observe! Observe the behavior of your flock and the new arrival. What kind of posturing is going on? Who acts dominant? Who does not? What are the personality similarities and differences? Observe your own behavior. How are you interacting with the flock? Are you the center of intention, or is there more of a flock dynamic going on? How are you handling the relationships in your flock, and how are they reacting?
Set up flock guidelines. You ARE the flock leader, and therefore, it is your job to set the tempo for the flock. Similar to the first child/second child dynamic, acknowledge your first parrot as the "top bird/first child" (this doesn’t necessarily include the smaller birds, such as budgies, canaries–but depends on your relationships), whether or not it is the strongest or more dominant. Give it certain privileges that make it feel secure in its position in the family flock. Examples include: going to it first or letting it out of the cage first; letting it stay up a little later; keeping certain "special games" between the two of you, such as playing on a certain towel or bed, without other flock members present; letting it ride in the front seat (if you don’t have air bags on the rider’s side); or letting it eat dinner with you first, to name a few. If the first child Grey happens to be smaller or weaker, make it aware that it is safe and you are its protector.
On the other hand, the second-child parrot also needs a lot of love, attention and reassurance. Although it’s established that it is second–but yet loved just as dearly, create special rituals with this parrot that also make it feel special. Examples may include: specific games that only the two of you share; certain times a day for its cuddles; specific outings that just the two of you share, and so on.
Change your behavior. Re-look at your behavior, even if you’re not introducing a new arrival. Observe the interactions of your current flock–your reactions—and their reactions to your reactions. If there appears to be disharmony in your flock, re-look at the flock relationships. If you have a Grey that demonstrates feather picking or other destructive displacement behaviors and you have more than one parrot in your flock, think back to when the behaviors began. Could this possibly relate to the relationships between your birds and how you’ve handled them–----- especially if you have a small flock and you’re the center of "intention." Would it make a difference to re-establish or change your guidelines and behavior?
Keep a positive attitude. Since Greys are so reflective of our energies, moods and attitudes, a positive attitude can improve flock relations, very quickly. Establish a positive order in your mind, and give a clear message that you intend for everyone to get along.
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This article was published in the Summer 1997 issue of The Grey Play Round Table Magazine.