My name is Filippo, I own a congo grey since 1998. When I bought him I was
9 YO, and I have always been the only one in the family to take care of
him. The parrot was bought from a good breeder in my area, and he has been
handfed. In the past I have ignored him a little, but since a couple of
year I have tried to interact more with him. He spends the winter in a
100x50x140h cm cage in our kitchen, while in summer I move him in a
200x400x200h aviary in my garden, but very close to the house. I want now
to solve some of his behavioral problems:
1- BITE: yes, like many ignored parrots, he bites quite hard, and often
makes me bleed. Even if this is probably the greatest problem, I am
managing to solve it on my own, little by little, not trying to reinforce
the behaviour, and I immediately stop to interact with him and put him back
in his cage as soon as he tries to bite. Things are really going better,
even if sometimes he still bites, the frequency is much much lower than it
used to be. I have to say that he has always been a little pinchy, even when
he was a baby.
2- MATING: When I pet him and I play with him, he soon develops a
mating-like behaviour, moving up and down his head rhythmically, opening a
little his wings and regurgitating a little bit of food sometimes. I think
that these are mating behaviours, don't you think so? I don't know if I
have to reinforce, ignore or avoid them, but I tend to watch at them
positively. What do you think?
3- POO: It seems quite silly, but one of the greatest problems that I find
when I leave him free in the house is that he poos absolutely everywhere:
on my books, on the couch, on the bed, even on my own clothes. As you can
imagine, this could be very annoying and prevent me from letting him out a
lot. Is there a way to teach him to poo just in his cage or on his tower?
4- FRIEND: How do you see the introduction of another parrot in the family?
Could be a positive model or I will spoil the relationship I have with my
grey? And in case, it's better to get another grey or another species will
be ok? my dream is to get a macaw.
Thank you for your answer
Behaviour and Training
Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:
Hello Filippo! My name is Chris Jenkins, and I am one of the Supervisors at Natural Encounters, Inc. I’ve recently received the questions you submitted about your African grey, and I’d be happy to offer some input and advice. I’ll go ahead and tackle your four topics one by one below.
This is a very common thing that many parrot owners are faced with, and it sounds like it’s an issue that you are having some success dealing with. If you look at any behavior that an animal performs, it serves some function for them – it either gets them something that they want, or it gets them away from something that they want to avoid. Are you able to pinpoint certain places or situations in which your grey seems more likely to bite than others? All behavior is influenced by the environment at the time. Does he bite more around certain places, people, or objects? Looking for things in the environment that coincide with when biting happens can help you to start thinking about ways to set up the environment differently so that it is less likely that biting will occur.
Another important thing to be aware of are the variety of subtle body language cues that occur before your bird bites. There are a variety of small behaviors that your bird may display before biting – feather slicking down, movements becoming quicker, eyes pinning, etc – that are the bird’s way of saying that it doesn’t like something that’s happening at that moment, and your best bet is to respect those cues and take a step back. Learning to be sensitive to these cues will save you a lot of headache, and will help to make the bird feel more comfortable overall when it learns that it doesn’t need to bite in order to communicate to you what he does (or doesn’t) want.
Finally, if you can learn to read these body cues and begin to pinpoint the situations when biting might occur, you can ask yourself what you would rather have your bird do instead of biting at that moment. Any time we see a behavior that we don’t want to see repeated, we ask ourselves this question: instead of trying to stop this behavior, is there another behavior I can train the bird to do instead? For example, if a bird is biting when I bring my hand into his cage to step him up, I might decide to train the bird to step onto a perch near the door when I open it, and then to lift up his foot in order to tell me that he wants to step up in order to earn a treat. Most problems behavior, biting included, can be dealt with very successfully in this manner.
From the behaviors that you describe, I would guess that these are indeed behaviors that are associated with a bird that is closely bonded to you. Whether or not these are a good thing or a bad thing is up to the bird’s owner. Like you, I tend to think that it’s perfectly fine for a bird to display these behaviors for its human “mate.” Where you might run into trouble is if you want your bird to be able to spend time or otherwise interact with other people. Birds that are closely bonded to one person, much like a bonded bird in the wild, may take to threatening or even attacking others that encroach on their space or territory. Also, encouraging these breeding behaviors by pairing them with other things your bird might like (treats, attention, praise, toys, head scratches, etc) will likely increase the frequency of these behaviors in the future, so it’s just something to be mindful of.
This can be huge challenge for companion parrot owners to deal with, but it is something that you can work on through training. Just like when we talked about biting, paying attention to body language is going to be very important. Before your bird poops, you may notice that there are a number of different signals that he displays beforehand – crouching down, loosening of the body feathers, a lifting of the tail, and leaning back on the perch are common things many birds do before relieving themselves. Learning these cues with be vital to successfully training your bird to poop on command. The other important thing for you to look at is to try to get a general idea for how often your bird poops. A smaller bird such as a grey will go to the bathroom more frequently than a larger bird like a macaw, so it may be as frequently as a few times per hour.
Here’s where the training comes in. First, identify where it is that you want the bird to go to the bathroom (in the cage, over some newspaper, on a particular towel, etc). Second, decide what you want your cue to be for the bird to poop. For example, you might say the phrase “go poop” or “go potty,” though it can be anything you decide. Next, when your bird is out and you see a sign that it looks like your bird is about to poop, ask him to step onto the hand, take him over to the place where you want him to go to the bathroom, say the cue that you want him to learn, let him poop, then follow that up with reinforcement that your bird really likes (praise, a treat, etc). Learning how often your bird tends to go to the bathroom will let you know roughly how often you need to be ready to follow the steps above, and following it up with a treat each time he poops after your cue – and never when you haven’t given the cue – will teach him what your cue means and why it is important.
The key to success here is going to be patience, consistency, commitment, and more patience. The more often you can follow this plan, the faster the bird will learn. Keep in mind that your bird will likely continue to go to the bathroom at times and in places that you don’t like, but by following the above plan these incidents will become far less frequent, and the interaction that your bird will get during this training will only help to strengthen your already strong relationship.
A FRIEND FOR THE BIRD?
The choice to add another bird to a one-bird family can be a difficult one, so it is great to hear that you are seeking advice before going ahead with it. It is possible that adding another parrot to the house could be a very positive addition to your grey’s life. At the same time, another bird may very likely be perceived as a threat to your bird, and something that he might try to harm. In either case, it is something that will very likely affect your relationship with your grey. Have you had the opportunity to see how your bird reacts around other companion parrots before? If so, this might give you an idea of how things might go with another bird around.
As for the question of what birds make good mates, many people decide to get birds of the same species as mates for their birds, though others may have birds of different breeds that become very closely bonded to each other. I would be cautious of trying to pair your bird up with something like a large macaw. In addition to the many challenges associated with having one of these large birds on their own, it may be very hazardous to have your much smaller grey interacting with a macaw, as their difference in size could make it very easy for the macaw to harm or even kill your grey if they got into a fight.
If you do decide to get another bird, the most important thing is to be very cautious and responsible in the way in which they are introduced. The two birds should have separate enclosures, and you can see how their behavior changes when these cages are kept closer or farther apart. If both birds are out of their cages, it should only be at a time when you are able to monitor them both closely, and be able to intervene immediately if a problem arises. Down the road it may be possible that the birds might be able to spend more time together, even time alone, but this should only be after you’ve seen that there is an extensive history of positive interactions between the two, and even then you need to recognize that there will always be the potential for negative interactions to occur. Just asking us these questions tells us that you are a caring and responsible bird owner, so taking it slow and always being aware and attentive are things that I’m sure will come very easily to you.
Thank you again for sharing your questions and challenges with us. I hope that the information that I have included here has been helpful, and please feel free to follow up with us again as more questions come up. Best of luck to both you and your bird!
Natural Encounters, Inc.