Canadian Parrot Symposium

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Living With African Greys

Pamela Hutchinson



It's always a pleasure to be here. I'll be speaking to you about African greys as companion birds and I'll talk a little bit about breeding these wonderful birds.

Several years ago a friend of mine asked why I didn't raise the popular African grey along with the other species I was breeding. I remember my response very well. "They aren't very pretty. They're just grey." At that time I was crazy about large macaws and their colorful plumage. Shortly after that conversation I was offered two pair of proven greys on a contractual basis. I took the birds, cared for them and hand-fed the babies until they were four weeks old. It was a marvelous test-drive of a new species. Today I'm hooked on African greys. They are a unique parrot some destined to become the Einstein of vocabulary, others are happy just whistling and mimicking household sounds. Either way, once you've been bitten by the 'Grey' bug, you'll develop a respect for parrot intelligence once reserved for your dog. Let me give you an example. This is my eight year old female, Scooter, nick-name, Boo. I give one-on-one time to each of my pets every evening. At 7:00 I take Scooter into my bed where we play and work on her vocabulary until 7:30. Invariably at that time, she will climb up on my knee, look me straight in the eye and declare "Night-night, Boo-Boo." She is ready to go back to her cage. When I put her in, if I don't shut off the lights when she thinks I should, I hear, "Night-night Boo-Boo, Night-night Boo-Boo" until I do shut them off. This is appropriately putting a phrase with an action SHE wants to have happen. That is intelligence in my opinion.

The African grey is from, of course, Africa. There is one subspecies, the timneh. You can see the notable difference between the Congo and the timmeh is that the timneh has very dark plumage, deep burgundy tail feathers and the upper mandible is light pink with a black tip.

I am often asked which I prefer, the Congo or the timneh. That is one tough call. Each subspecies has its advocates. People with timneh pets swear that hand-fed domestically raised babies make just as fine companions as the Congos. In fact, many owners and breeders believe they are less moody, less inclined to feather-pick, are more easy going and even-tempered than the Congo.

Because they are slightly smaller in size, timmehs are less intimidating for some people to handle. I have also been told that they are less likely to bite when the birds become adults. Timnehs are also more inclined to talk in front of strangers, while I've found most Congos will look at you like you just got off another planet and they have never seen you before in their life! That can be frustrating. Since I have always had Congos, I have tried many times to impress our dinner guests with Scooter's extensive vocabulary. I have always failed. The most embarrassing thing I've had happen with this bird is the evening our guests were just finishing dessert. From the living room came the most horrendous coughing I've ever heard. I ignored it and so did everyone else I thought. Finally, my friend could stand it no longer. She laid down her fork, put her hand on my arm and said, "Pam, did you know your bird is sick? She has a terrible cough!" Try as I might to convince her that Scooter was mimicking my husband's cough, I don't think she believed me.

Once you have determined that the grey is the right bird for you... housing should be your next consideration. I really like the California cages and they come in decorator colors. The material from which the cage is made is extremely important. It MUST be non-toxic. Since all parrots use their beak to get around their cages it is possible for them to ingest sub-lethal amounts of a toxin like zinc or lead.

For cages with seed guards I have a little trick I use. The guard does work for directing dropped toys and food back in the tray instead of the floor, but it is littered with droppings by the end of the day. I found that putting Glad Cling Wrap where my birds tend to sit when out of their cage is a big help at cleaning time. If people call and say they are coming over, I run, not walk to the sunroom with Cling Wrap in hand. It's fast and easy to have a clean appearance instantly. I'm considering buying stock in the company...

The location of the cage is really important. I do a lot of consultations on African greys. One of the first questions I ask is "Where is the bird's cage?" A grey that is separated from its perceived flock, which is your family, will often resort to screaming and feather-picking to get your attention.

Putting your pet in a spare bedroom is not good either. It's liable to feel abandoned and demonstrate bad behavior. But you don't want your grey in the center of a hurricane zone either. Put the cage in a place where your grey can observe family activities but that is away from doors to the outside. You need to protect it from drafts and a possible escape route. Birds love to look out of a window but don't put the cage directly in front of one. Your pet needs to be able to get out of direct sunlight when it wants to—also, there are unscrupulous bird-snatchers lurking around the bushes. Be sure to keep the cage a foot away from the wall so it can't chew electrical cords, curtains, picture frames or fireplace mantelswhich I learned the hard way. My mantel has little beak marks all over one side.

Don't ever put your grey's cage in the kitchen. Aerosol products , non-stick cookware, oven cleaners, cooking sprays, even air fresheners should never be used around any bird.

I want to speak for a moment about lighting. Both the amount and quality of light your bird is receiving are important. Too little light results in inactivity, weight problems and poor feathering. Too much light and your grey may begin biting and displaying bad behavior. There is a close association between lighting and the breeding season. Vitamin D3 is necessary for proper calcium absorption and it's obained by either ultraviolet light or diet. Calcium is extremely important to greys because of their tendency to suffer from calcium deficiency. One way I personally ensure that my greys get their calcium is by dissolving Neo-Calglucon in their water twice a week. You can get it at any drug-store pharmacy or order it. It is calcium gluconate and is easily absorbed. For six parrots I mix one-quarter cup of 'Neo' to one gallon of water. For one grey, one teaspoon to sixteen ounces is about right.

I have always installed full-spectrum lights by Vitalight. Full-spectrum lights provide your grey the UV healthy radiation it needs.

Let's talk a moment about behavior in a companion grey. When you first brought your grey home it was the cutest, most endearing and cuddly animal you have ever seen. Then, a few months later that same cute animal has turned into a pitbull with talons. Why? Because you
didn't teach it to behave any differently. The mistake many new grey owners make is that the new baby receives so much attention from the whole family, the poor thing can't even take a nap! What you need to remember is when the novelty wears off and things return to a normal routine, the baby grey can't understand where all the fun went. Now it's bored and it might seem like a good idea—to the parrot—to start plucking out feathers.

You need to adhere to a pattern from the day the bird comes home. You are trying to raise a well-adjusted, happy hookbill by utilizing the recipe of attention, love and discipline. You don't want a spoiled brat that screams when you leave the room or gets off of the cage to follow you.

Take a realistic approach. Greys can become so conditioned to their routine that they will not tolerate any change. This is not a good thing. Don't establish an absolutely rigid routine. Make subtle changes in the bird's life. Rearrange its toys and add new ones, removing a couple of the old ones at the same time.

Take your grey into other rooms and let it see there is life outside the cage. If you normally feed the fresh fruits and veggies at 6:00 a.m., feed at 7:00 on the weekends. But don't change the time you put the bird to bed. Parrots require about 12 hours of a rest a day so try to keep bedtime as close to the same time as possible each day. A spoiled grey cannot amuse itself by itself. It depends on you for all of its entertainment. This is a bad thing. Right from the day you bring the bird home establish a routine you can both live with for the rest of your life. This means the bird plays happily in or on its cage secure in the knowledge that you will eventually pick it up to cuddle and love. It knows you won't run to its side every time it screams for attention. In other words, you have done your job well.

One other thing that is noteworthy is that parrots absolutely love drama. In our house, if my husband and I are in the kitchen and raise our voices while discussing a topic, my macaw and my severe macaw will try to out shout us. If the greys are carrying on I'd never know it due to the strong voice of the macaws. What you need to know is that greys just love it when they create a disturbance like screaming or banging their toys in a confrontational manner. The bird has to learn it will come out of its cage at your discretion, not when it's misbehaving. When the temper tantrum has passed, then cuddle your pet. If you yell and carry on and run to cover its cage, you are actually rewarding the bird. When your grey acts out try to remember what life is like in the wild. Parrots display, scream to stay in touch with other parrots and will do virtually anything to draw attention from another bird.

I am often called about a grey that is feather-picking so let's discuss that. There are few cures to this irritating habit but it will help to provide interesting food choices and toys and try to involve your pet in play activities. If you are at home and your grey is alone in its cage, whistle, talk or try singing to it so it feels that it is part of the family activity. It's your job in life to give the bird both physical and emotional security and yet to challenge this extremely intelligent creature.

There are only two known causes of feather pluckingmedical and non-medical. An avian vet should be consulted to check for a fungal, bacterial, viral or parasitic reason why your bird picks.

Plucking has also been traced to hormonal problems in mature birds. It just isn't feeling like itself. If you are trying to change the pattern of picking you can feed the bird things that are fun to shred like carrots, peas in the pod, green and yellow beans and corn on the cob cut into wheels.

Toys should be destructible. Don't fill the cage with mananzita and expect it to fulfill the natural desire to chew. The grey has to be able to chew the toy apart. I have taken a paper towel roll (complete with paper towels) and cut it in half. Then I drop a piece of leather strip through the top hole through to the bottom hole and tie it to the cage bars. It makes a wonderful shredding toy.

It's important to try and find out why the grey has turned to self-mutilation. Review the situation and see if you can pinpoint when it started. For instance, have you re-arranged the living quarters that the grey considered its landmarks? Have you brought in another bird, perhaps one that is larger and might seem intimidating to the grey? Did you move the bird's cage, perhaps into a higher traffic area? Is your grey getting enough sleep? People tend to forget that birds can become stressed if they are tired. Did you put a new toy in the cage without properly introducing it? By that I mean you should get the bird used to it in stages by putting it on a table near the cage, then on the floor of the cage and finally, hanging it in the cage. Have you put a mirror where the grey can see its reflection? It might think that another grey has moved in. Are you and a family member having problems to the point where your bird can feel the tension in the household? Greys are highly emphatic creatures and you may be inducing stress into its life without realizing it. There are many questions you can ask yourself when you live with a feather-picking grey. Just be sure and rule out any underlying medical problems first.

I heard of a new approach to feather plucking greys through holistic medicine. Dr. Regina Downey has a grey that is a chronic picker. She began supplementing daily with African Red Palm Oil ordered from Virginia. Regina told me she has had very successful results using this oil. Another question I am frequently asked is why a grey bites. In my opinion, we often teach our youngsters to bite. Listen to the following scenario and see what you think. The newness between you and baby grey is beginning to wear off. But, you love your bird and you want it to be with you so you plunk it down on your shoulder because it's convenient. You expect the bird to sit there and enjoy the view. That is not going to happen. What IS going to happen is that the bird will pull at your ears—tweak your glasses—make holes in your shirt and in general aggravate you. You've placed the bird in an impossible situation. Young parrots are by nature inquisitive and playful. They have great difficulty staying in one place. Because you are tired of the beaking activity, you reach up with your hand and push the bird away, possibly yelling "Bad bird! Stop it!" Ahhhh, there it is—just what the bird wanted—drama! Now the bird attacks your ear with zeal and before it knows it, you've put it back in the cage and are muttering to yourself about how much the baby has changed.

Whoa... back up! It isn't the bird's fault at all—it's yours. You're the one that provided the grey with all that entertainment. What you need to do now is give your bird another activity area, like a playstand that is near you but where you can encourage the youngster to play independently. Always use the Up and Down commands when moving the bird because there will come a time—and I guarantee this—when your grey says to itself, "I'm independent now. I don't have to obey my parents." Sounds like a teen-ager doesn't it? If the bird has been trained to Up and Down, it will do the command automatically.

Another reason for nippiness can be jealousy. The grey may display displeasure at a new animal you have brought into the home, or a new baby that is receiving lots of attention. Attention being the key word here. For instance, I can't hold Scooter and talk on the phone at the same time. She is jealous of losing my attention and I would be disconnected permanetly. Not only does my sweet, gentle grey attack the telephone, she also attacks the hand holding it as I try to pry her loose from the cord. This is NOT the time I work with her on behavior. I pick my fights.

To sum up biting behavior in greys here are some tips. Don't scare your grey by suddenly appearing wearing different clothing than previously seen. You will be bitten as you try to calm its fears. Don't play with your pet in a rough manner. If your grey is displaying a sexual attitude, leave it alone for awhile. If you are holding your grey and your spouse approaches you, don't be surprised if you get bitten. Your grey will claim you as its mate and bite in a misplaced effort to get rid of the intruder. Keep your bird off of your shoulder. That's where it views the world from an area of total dominance. Don't reach into the cage at bedtime to give your beloved pet one more pat. Your grey will nail you thinking you are a predator. My female, Scooter, bites me twice a year whether I deserve it or not. And... it's always around her perceived breeding season. The bite comes when I'm trying to return her to her cage after playtime. She sees no reason why I don't join her in her nest because I am viewed as her mate. And that, my friends, is a perfect segue into the breeding portion of my talk.

If you are interested in breeding these marvelous birds talk to other breeders and ask for advice. Join specialty clubs that put out newsletters like the African Ark, which is the publication of the African Parrot Society. Don't be afraid to ask questions. What works for one breeder may not work for you—keep asking questions.

When I set up a grey breeding room I use four to five foot long galvanized wire cages that are on heavy-duty legs and castors—so much easier to clean up if you can easily roll a cage around. The perches are two by fours hanging from wall stud hangers that hook in to the sides of the cage. It doesn't look very pretty but serves a dual purpose. The strong, sturdy perch will never fall and the two by four provides hours of chewing enjoyment. When the breeders have made toothpicks out them, I simply lift out the old one and drop in the new one. The other perch is a natural tree branch and is installed horizontally. It has varying diameters and also provides chewing enjoyment. I use three bolt-on style coop cups in the 30 ounce size. They slip easily in and out of the holders. I only disturb my breeders twice a day, always knocking before I go in their room. I feed in the morning and again in the evening because the greys will use their water dish as a bathtub and it needs to be changed.

If I have chicks in the nest I am in the room twice more—once in the middle of the afternoon to bring in fresh foods and once just before lights out to bring in the birds' early morning feeding of wheels of corn on the cob and cornbread. It doesn't spoil overnight and the birds get up a lot earlier than I do. This way there is food to feed the chicks.

There is a certain school of thought among breeders that if the birds don't have any toys, they'll breed for lack of anything better to do. I do not adhere to that theory. I always put toys in with breeders and have had many, many clutches. But because I am not present to monitor the toys, I pick really safe ones like jumbo Goofy-Links, huge chains, toys with leather and rawhide bones and large chunks of colorful wood. I'm afraid to use rope of any kind in case they get their nails caught.

My nest boxes are three-quarter inch plywood in the standard grandfather clock style, which is basically a rectangle. Some breeders like the boot, or L-shaped box and I've used these as well with very good luck. Whatever you install, be sure the perch for entry is extremely secure. I bought some very large and heavy grapevines and put them in place with screws and washers. I was amazed to find one pair of greys actually picked that as their breeding perch. In the nest box I use four inches of Aspen shavings on the bottom. The birds will kick out what they don't want. A ladder is installed so the greys can climb down to the eggs rather than drop down and break them or maim a chick. I also keep a spare box available. Greys are formidable chewers and can go through the toughest box if they work long enough.

I think it is vitally important to feed for success. If you provide your breeding pairs with ample food they will be mentally geared to the fact that there is a good food supply available and breed. What I feed doesn't change. They have an abundance of corn-on-the-cob, a bean and rice mixture, fresh fruits and vegetables, a seed mix and a separate bowl of Hagen pellets. I do believe in a large variety of foods and try not to feed the same thing every day. I think that greys are kept in peak breeding condition by the cleanliness of their surroundings, toys for mental stimulation and a well-rounded, nutritious diet. A few other things I have found to be essential to breeding success is a good air filtration system. I was surprised by the amount of feather dust generated by African greys.

Provide at least 14 hours of light during breeding season which for greys is pretty well all year long. I put the overhead lights on one timer, one wall light on another timer and the last set of shop lights also has a timer. The three sets go off at 15 minute increments which is more like in the wild with the sun going down. It warns the birds that soon there they will have only their two seven watt night lights on.

I invested in a monitor and camera security system so I could watch my greys and mini-macaws. I was able to calculate when to expect eggs when my pairs began breeding several times a day. It's also very useful in case you hear a loud noise from the breeding room—which I did. I didn't want to scare the birds by rushing into their room so I ran to my monitor. There I discovered a male grey that was having a ball lifting a very heavy dog crock on the bottom of the cage and dropping it. He did this several times in a row. Very playful birds!

My book covers the way other breeders do things and one section will be of interest to timneh breeders. It's written by our very own Jacquie Blackburn who co-ordinated this wonderful symposium. Jacquie is a very successful grey breeder.

In conclusion I would like to leave you on a humorous note and to tell you that you are not alone when you feel you are running a 24 hour a day care center with African greys that are the toddlers—forevermore.

The following is by Maxilla Evans.

Isabel Never Told Me When Isabel Sold Me that: A grey will eat most of a half of a nectarine and glue the rest to every wire of its cage. When a grey eats his favorite
vegetable, an ear of fresh corn, he flips the outside of most corn kernels out on the rug and pastes the remainder on the window with Elmer's glue that the grey himself apparently manufactures from corn juice. The cob is then chopped up and flung to the far corners of the room. Isabel did tell me that you can't know the sex of a grey until one way or another ... it lays an egg. She is wrong. At eight months it's obvious this bird is a male because it makes that kind of mess. Greys believe erasers on pencils should be removed. Grey is convinced the best way to get owner's attention is to fly to owner's shoulder and gently nip the owner's ear—convinced because it works every time, but it also caused ears to swell in protest. Clipped wings can't stop a grey from flying from owner's shoulder over a balcony rail, out over the topped trees below, down the mountain and out of sight to a distance of about a city block and land in thick woods of tall trees. Greys like to hold dialogue with owners and whistle while remaining in tops of tall trees a long time. Soon, but (and this is important) not immediately after the grey awakens in the morning, he emphatically ejects the volume equivalent to a cow patty. Frequently after said ejection, grey backs up and appears to try to clean up the bird cow patty by taking most of it on its feet, and then waddles away, satisfied that greys make nice house companions if they leave behind as little debris as possible. Making tracks has taken on an whole new meaning ...

That, my friends, is what living with an African grey is all about. Thank you.

 


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