Stress In African Greys And Other Birds
Stress can cause major behavioural problems with any bird, but it is of even more concern with African Greys. Greys are sensitive to the moods of humans and the ambiance of the human environment because they are genetically vulnerable. The habitat where they evolved is, for the most part on the margins of forested areas. We often see Greys foraging on the ground in nature films. Surely birds that are ground foragers must be more alert to danger and more aware of what is behind and around them. It pays in terms of staying alive to be aware of their surroundings and to be sensitive to the watching eyes of a predator.
Jean Pattison, the African Queen, made a quite original observation that supports this. African Greys produce larger clutches (three, four or five eggs) than many other species of large parrots. If all these eggs hatched and the babies lived to adulthood, Africa would soon be covered in African Greys. In nature, species with a high death rate produce many more young than those which have fewer predators and a lower death rate. Might it mean that predation and a high death rate in Greys require larger clutches to ensure the survival of the next generation?
Parrots are prey animals. The unique responses by prey animals to outside stimuli are very different than the responses of predators such as humans, dogs or cats. Being part time ground feeders, Greys are even more at risk than many other species of birds. It is almost impossible for humans, as predators, to understand the stresses that prey animals experience. Actions by a pet owner, which are similar to those of a predator in the wild, can unintentionally trigger high levels of stress in a bird.
The characteristics that make Greys such superb companion animals also make them vulnerable to self-destructive behaviour in the face of high stress--from fear, threat, illness, uncertainty, abandonment, or anxiety.
Greys are not like dogs, horses or other domestic animals that accept the dominance of humans. Human attempts to dominate them only lead to stress in Greys. Punishing a Grey is not only useless, but can cause psychic trauma of immense proportions. A grey does not have the cognitive ability to relate punishment to its behaviour. Instead it regards punishment as abuse, the punisher as the abuser and its environment as a horror-filled world.
A loved one's illness or death, an unhappy or disintegrating marriage, physical violence, drugs or alcohol abuse, environmental insecurity, fear associated with other companion animals, a disliked human, unkind handling by a vet or groomer or other stressful events, may trigger plucking, phobia, or aberrant behaviour in our sensitive and empathetic Greys.
Layne Dicker uses a great visual aid in his lectures relating to stress. He draws an imaginary line below which an individual bird is able to deal with the inevitable stress associated with captivity and living with humans. If a bird's current stress level is near this boundary, the addition of just one more stressful eventor act puts the bird above that line and triggers unnatural behaviour.
If a bird is suddenly exhibiting stressful behaviour, it is natural for an owner to think that the most recent event or act is the cause and to attempt to deal with that one event. However, fear, phobia, biting, or other aberrant behaviour in Greys is most likely the result of a stressful environment that has finally crossed over the line described by Layne. It is important to examine a bird's entire environment, looking for multiple sources of stress, and eliminate as many as possible.
The intelligent and sensitive Grey reacts more positively and more appropriately to the human as teacher, guide, parental figure, mentor, and caregiver.
If there is any human science/art application to the management of birds, it lies in child psychology. The similarities are striking, we see, in modern society, what the results of inadequate and uninformed child rearing accomplishes. We can see in our birds what inappropriate, heavy handed, and misapplied management techniques do to our birds.
Greys are not agressive birds. They are taught to be aggressive by humans. They bite because they remember mistreatment.
Those memories may include:
- Lack of respect.
- Lack of consideration of their desires.
- Aggressive human actions or physical pain.
- Domineering humans.
- Sensory deprivation as punishment.
A Grey needs to have his person and his space respected. We are all familiar with humans who "invade" our personal space, who touch us without consent. A Grey may be eating or playing or taking a nap when his human wants to interact. His desires should be considered. An early understanding of "Do you want to come to me?" or a similar phrase, gives him an option and serves to assure one that interaction or touching is welcome.
What needs to change is the way we think and feel about the things our birds do. We are the ones who need to adjust to living with birds. We need to accept that they are from another world--a world we have a great deal of difficulty understanding.
If a bird steps up and down; if a bird doesn't roam--these are the behaviours we need to enforce for their own safety. If they love and trust us; permit us to interact, pet and kiss them, that is a product of the way we feel and behave towards them. We have to be the unselfish giving partner in the relationship. If we are, they will love and trust us. That is the highest degree of intimacy. We have animals in our homes that, for the most part, are first generation from the jungles of Africa. That they love and trust us is testimony to our adjustment to them--not theirs to us.
Do all you can to keep the level of stress as low as possible. Be kind, gentle and patient with your Grey. Do not contribute to his stress load by attempts to dominate or punish or change his parrotness. Accept that he is a bird--not one of the more familiar domestic animals we have dealt with and trained and punished into good behaviour for so long.
There are many things a pet owner can do to minimise stress in the environment.
There are two basic methods when feeding most parrots, either sed diets or small pelleted diets. You should choose the one that best suits your birds.
The first method usually means feeding a proprietary "Parrot Mixture" purchased from a pet centre. This unfortunately means old fashioned seed mixtures, usually made up from lots of sunflower seed and a few peanuts and a very little nutirional value. If a seed diet is chosen then it should be one¬† of the more modern mixtures that includes seeds such as Striped Sunflower, White Sunflower, (both in limited quantities), Peanuts, Hemp, (feed sparingly), Pumpkin Seed, Millet, Oats, Wheat, Corn, Maize, Buckwheat, Walnuts, Hazelnuts, dried fruits and much more.
Some manufacturers even provide the above mixtures with all the seeds "de-hulled". These can prove more economical to use, as the birds do not have to rummage around in the seed bowl to find their favourite seeds, spilling everything else out onto the floor. When using these mixtures, less seed is needed to be placed in the bowls.
The other type of diet that is becoming increasingly popular is the pelleted foods. These are being developed mainly by bird nutritionists, and are being developed as complete foods. They are often brightly coloured and smell quite sweetly. Fed as a dry diet, plenty of fresh water must always be available.
No African Greys in the wild, eat sunflower seed exclusively. In Central Africa they can be found in very dry countryside, feeding on anything edible, even raiding the farmers' fields and decimating grain crops. They will even fly into orchards and raid the fruit buds and later the actual crop.
African Greys appreciate soaked milled sprays, soaked sprouted seeds and soaked pulses. All soaked products should be thoroughly cleaned before being fed. Care should be taken to ensure that no dust, fungus or bacteria is on the soaked seed, and that it does not smell sour. Fruit, vegetables and other greenfoods play a major part in the health of all birds. Some form of fruit and vegetable should be available everyday. These should include apple, pear, oranges, grapes, kiwi, sweetcorn, carrot, peas (in the shell) and other seasonal berries. Seeding grasses can also be hung in the flight and will provide hours of valuable entertainment for the birds
Other foods such as egg-food, rowan berries, dried fruits, rosehips and even budding weeping-willow branches can be given on a regular basis, perhaps once a week. Mineral blocks and cuttlefish can also provide valuable vitamins and minerals.
Greys as Pets
African Greys are probably the most popular pet Parrot in this country. This is mainly due to their ability to mimic the human voice and also mechanical noises such as telephones and door bells. If one learns to imitate your telephone quickly, he/she will have you rushing to the receiver at regular intervals.
African Greys are very long lived, 60 years or more is not unusual. They often attach themselves to one member of the family, becoming very devoted pets. Young hand-reared birds are offered regularly on the bird market and if you want the bird to talk excessively they are the best purchase. Unfortunately the trade in wild caught birds is still substantial. The pet owner should never purchase a "Growler" as this is probably a wild caught adult bird and will never tame down as much as a hand-reared youngster.
Due to their intelligence, African Greys are a very demanding pet. You must be prepared to provide a lot of social as well as mental stimulation. It's said that a Grey has the intelligence of a 5 year old and the emotional needs of a 2 year old, therefore a Grey needs a great deal of time and patience which at times can be quite a challenge.
Some say that the Timneh is less nervous than the Congo, but generally both have similar same characteristics.
Many books on keeping and teaching African Greys are available from bookshops and libraries. They can be prone to feather-plucking, which can result from boredom, poor diet, lack of a partner or simply lack of bathing facilities. Specialist advice should be sought immediately your bird shows any signs of plucking themselves.
It is obviously cruel to keep African Greys in small cages. Unfortunately many birds that are rescued have never had enough room in the cage to stretch. The cage should be large enough to allow the birds enough room to open their wings and exercise fully. Perches should vary in size ensuring that the feet are exercised as well. Never place a bird cage in direct sunlight and ensure that the cage is not in a draught during the night. Most pet owners allow the birds out of their cages during the daytime and they will play quite happily with most toys. Remember that they have a curious nature and will start to gnaw at many objects including books, charis etc.
A varied selection of toys is now available for all Parrot owners. It seems that every day a new design of toy is clained to be "the best toy ever!!" and their claims often include a therapeutic nature for the birds. Allowing the birds to gnaw at apple or pear branches can sometimes offer as much therapy as toys, these should be cleaned and changed regularly.
Generally they do not take happily to strangers, some even turn their heads in order to be scratched behind the head and then turn on the unsuspecting visitor for a quick bite!! Even with such habits they are very endearing pets.