The African Grey Parrot: Bringing Home an African Grey
Whether you choose to go with a mature parrot, or to go with a young, newly weaned baby, preparation is going to be your key to success. Read on to learn more!
If you've decided to bring home an African Grey Parrot, it might be tempting to pick the first one you see. Carefully examining your options, and choosing a parrot that shows confidence and curiosity will be worthwhile in the long run. With a parrot, as with life, it's a marathon, not a sprint.
African Grey Parrots are not "pets". They are companion animals. They are not domesticated in the way that dogs have been domesticated. They will exhibit instinctive wild behavior that is predominantly involved with reproduction and that is not necessarily seen in pets, particularly those that have been spayed or neutered. Much of their behavior, even toward their human companions, will have to do with what role they see the human filling, be that flock member, mate, or rival. For this reason, they may choose to speak in the voice of their favorite person's perceived mate in an effort to "steal" their attention.
Much like human babies, newborn African Greys are helpless. Also like humans, they are long-lived, and they aren't born with survival skills. They spend time with their parents, and their flock in order to learn the skills they need to survive, just as human babies do. Although they mature quickly when compared to humans, in the wild they require a relatively long time to become self-sufficient when compared to other animals, and even to some other parrot species.
Consider the difference between a baby sea turtle, and black bear cub. Once a mother sea turtle lays her clutch of eggs, she departs. The eggs incubate for about 60 days, then all hatch at once. By instinct, the baby sea turtles know that they must immediately head for the water if they are to survive. They find the water by means of the slope of the beach they hatch on, and because they hatch at night the reflection of the moon and stars on the water. Those that make it to the water swim out and find large rafts of Sargassum (a type of algae) where they hide out to give themselves an opportunity to grow larger and thrive.
By contrast, black bear cubs are born helpless in a den. They know nothing about what it takes to survive. They will stay with their mother for about a year and a half. In that time, they will grow quickly and will learn everything they need to know about how to forage for food, how to avoid predators, how to find water, and so on. Once they have learned how to survive, they will go their own way. If a mother black bear is killed while her cubs are young, the likelihood that the cubs will survive is very small.
Whereas some parrot species, such as Amazon parrots, may be born with a certain amount of self-confidence and swagger, African Greys have to learn these things. They learn by observing others around them, and by being put into circumstances that allow them to feel safe, and in control of themselves and their surroundings. To own an African Grey, you must be part psychologist, part parent, and part parrot! With these medium-sized birds, it's all about reinforcing the good and not reinforcing the bad. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, as the song goes.
You can choose to bring home a young, newly weaned African Grey, or you can decide to bring an older, more mature bird into your home. Both options have distinct advantages and disadvantages. A younger bird will need much more attention, and will be something of a blank slate that their interactions with you and with the rest of your "flock" (avian or human) will fill in. This is a big responsibility and will take a lot of patience on your part. Young parrots need lots of stimulation, lots of attention, with lots of reinforcement of the notions that they are safe, they are secure, and they have some control over their lives and what happens to them. This can be difficult to pull off. It really is almost exactly like raising a well-adjusted, confident young human! The mechanisms by which they become well-adjusted and confident will differ, but the amount of effort, love, and time involved will be very similar.
By contrast, choosing to bring home an older African Grey means that you will be inheriting the product of another person's attempts to raise a well-adjusted and confident bird. There may be negative habits that have been formed due to an absence of the proper reinforcement, being housed in a cage that doesn't allow them to feel safe and secure, poor diet, lack of socialization, and more. Of course, you could also find a perfectly happy well-adjusted adult bird that is a perfect companion. However, because of all the work, and love that is involved in raising a happy and healthy African Grey, it's unlikely that someone would want to let such a bird go. It is possible, but if you choose to bring a mature parrot into your home, be sure you get the full story as to why the parrot is available, so that you will know what you're in for. If you're the right person for the job, I can't imagine a more rewarding experience than taking a bird as intelligent and sensitive as an African Grey Parrot, and giving it the life that it deserves.
When choosing a baby grey from a breeder, be sure to examine the prospective birds in their existing habitat. Avoid a bird that appears to be too shy, that seems to want to stay in the bottom of the cage and who appear frightened or aggressive when approached. It is best if a person known to the bird picks it up, and then hands it to the newcomer. It should appear relaxed while being held by the newcomer, but it may be ill-advised to try and pet the bird at this time. You may need to make multiple trips to the breeder's home to visit with the bird before you will be ready to bring it home. Many breeders are very selective about whom they will sell their birds to. Expect questions from the breeder. They may even ask you to take a class on parrot ownership if you are a first-time parrot owner.
When you physically examine your potential new family member, look for the following:
- Unweaned baby greys may appear thin, but should not be "skinny". They may appear fluffy and a bit plump. You should be able to feel the breastbone, but you should not be able to see it. The areas on either side of the breastbone should feel firm.
- Eyes should be clear and black for unweaned chicks. The eyes will begin to change color at around four (4) months of age. They will turn silver and then eventually the customary yellow with a black center. Males often change eye color before females. Some African Greys can take up to a year and a half before their eyes settle into their adult coloring.
- Nostrils should be clear, with no discharge. Breathing should be easy with no rattling or clicking sounds.
- The beak should be straight with no noticeable ridges on the exterior. Both Timnehs and Congos will have black beaks prior to weaning. The Timneh's upper beak will take on a rose colored hue as they mature.
- Congos may have black tips on their tail feathers when they are young. Timnehs may have tail feathers that are almost completely black.
- Check the feet for proper movement. There should be two (2) toes pointing forward and two (2) toes pointing back as they grip a perch. Toes should be straight with no swollen joints, or visible sores on the bottoms. Nails should be sharp.
- The vent should be clean. Their droppings may be quite runny, as much of the food available for hand-feeding has a high moisture content, but there should be feces (the solid part), urates (the white part), and urine (the liquid part) present in their droppings.
- Check for proper and uniform feather shape, and that developing feathers are pointed at the end and not rounded. Potential new feathers should not easily fall out when bumped or stroked.
- Check for any veterinary record the bird may have. A trip to the vet is not so unusual as both younger and older birds are more susceptible to potential illness. There should be a health guarantee of at least a week when you take your new bird home, so that you can get it checked by your own avian veterinarian to verify that it is healthy.
- Be respectful, particularly if you will be visiting multiple breeders. Do not risk bringing disease from one aviary to another. Schedule your visits on different days, or shower and change clothes between visits from one breeder to another.
A big thank you to Jen at www.birdhism.com for her knowledge and advice regarding these articles. Jen has rescued many birds, and works to bring awareness to bird issues, promoting kindness toward all birds, particularly those who are "other-abled". She is the President of No Feather Left Behind a bird rescue working in South Florida. She also founded the Chubby Bird Collection, selling merchandise in order to help fund further rescue efforts. Thank you for helping to teach me how to be a bird nerd!