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Deciding whether a parrot needs a same-species companion

Expert Question

Hello. I live in Cyprus and I have 10 non handfed rescue parrots in an outside aviary right next to our terrace of different species each with a mate of its own variety. I also have a hand fed 1 year old male african grey who is one of our house pets. He has bonded with me but accepts treats from my son and husband without allowing them to touch him. He seems very happy, talks all day, is allowed out of his cage at his own will (spends most of his time on top of it doing acrobatics) comes on my shoulder for road trips or when I'm in the garden etc.

When I put him downstairs with the other parrots when we go out for the day or to clean his area he comes to the part of it which is closest to the house and makes noises until I get him out - he has not been threatened in there he just seems to prefer our company. I have not clicker trained him as he was given to me by someone and I had not done my research. However, he comes onto my hand when I tell him to step up, unless sometimes he is not interested and wants to stay where he is. He shows me affection but he nips quite hard sometimes, though I don't think its intentional.

My husband and I are organic farmers so we work from home and so Loulou the grey is not alone. When we leave for holidays for one month our housekeeper looks after him and he seems to do as she tells him when I am not around, although when I'm here its only me he wants. I will try to clicker train him because I am concerned that if I pass away (I'm still 33) in the future I don't want him to be unworkable. I have only one son 2 years old who is very good with animals and do not want more kids so I'm hoping I can instill in my son the love and care for Loulou for the future.

I am being overly pessimistic I know but I like to plan ahead- way ahead! My question is - should I get another african grey (same/opp sex)or another parrot species for Loulou as a bird mate? I have time for her and all that, Im just thinking ahead again and have read that it is easier for a parrot to accept another when at a young age than later on, although not sure if this is true. Our friends have a one year old rescue Umbrella Cockatoo and Loulou loves it when the former preens him, whenever I take him for a visit. And he always asks for preens from our dogs - puts his fluffed up head forward bent over in front of their nose, and then proceeds to gently nip them if they don't respond. Thanks for any suggestions.


Expert Answer

Thank you for writing the World Parrot Trust about your 1 year old African Grey, Loulou. You are doing so many things right with him and it's great to hear from someone who thinks into the future as you do. It's wonderful that you and your family have 10 rescued parrots, too, and that you provide an outdoor aviary for them with others of their kind. Thank you for your daily care of parrots in need. This is very meaningful.

You give a great description of Loulou and I can see him in my mind quite clearly. Even at only 1 year old, he shows some behaviors common in captive African Grey: one person favoritism the most predominant potential "problem" behavior. Now, while he's young, please begin to form your relationship with Loulou so that he considers you a Mom, flock member, friend, and buddy, but NOT his mate. This happens through diversity of engagements, and diversity is key for a high-caliber captive life. You can always be his main favorite, but he needs to receive reinforcement that's meaningful to him from other people, too.

This starts when you are in the same room so you can praise him, too, when he takes treats from and interacts with others, and then you'll step further away so the secondary people deliver more and more of the reinforcement and interaction. You increase your distance from Loulou as he increases his willingness to interact with (whistle with, bob/dance with and take treats from) others. All members of the household are flock members and it's important for Loulou to understand first through your actions that you are pleased when he takes treats from and makes flock noises with others, climbs into his cage when asked by others, and plays independently. Gradually, when you notice that he's getting the appropriate amounts of reinforcement from others and is interacting with them, you can leave the room and know that Loulou is having a good time. These skills will grow as everyone practices them.

You ask about getting another African Grey parrot as a potential friend for Loulou. I think, given your experience with rescue and Loulou's willingness to be preened by a cockatoo and your dogs, another African Grey will come in to your lives if and when that is what's supposed to happen. You probably won't need to look for one. One will find you and Loulou. If this happens (it may not), the two Greys – regardless of their sexes -- may develop a deeply meaningful relationship, a casual friendship, lasting animosity, or anything in between. Yes, it seems that older parrots who lose their mates choose younger replacements, but that could also be younger parrots choosing more experienced friends. In general, younger captive parrots are more accepting of change than many older captives, but in my experience, an easy-going personality trumps age every time. Parrots proficient with change are those who are physically adept – they stand on a variety of surfaces, flap their wings, climb, bounce, fly, land, and walk like athletes because they are athletic and live in spaces provisioned for athleticism.

You also mention clicker training. Yes, clicker training can yield effective training rewards mainly because 1) the person clicker training gives undivided attention to the parrot, therefore, 2) the rewards (treats and clicks) are delivered immediately (contiguously). In other words, clicker training works because people are attentive and the parrots get instantaneous rewards for appropriate behavior. Certainly clicker training can enhance interaction and is an effective learning tool: it helps build relationships that are based on undivided attention and positive reinforcement.

Whether you use a clicker or not, the key elements of successful training remain unchanged: undivided attention by a trainer who notices every nuance of body language and who consistently delivers continuous reinforcement and that only for desired behaviors. There are many ways to engage in positive reinforcement training; clicker training is one, but multitudes of meaningful and positive relationships develop without clicker training, too.

I recommend that you and Loulou get him comfortable stepping up on a few different surfaces. Sure, he might always step up on your hand for his whole life, but many Greys I've known are more willing to step onto the rim of their food bowl, for instance, or on to a basket or stick, for less-favored persons. Stepping onto inanimate objects is less stressful for parrots than stepping onto a non-favored hand, plus it offers a great degree of success for people, so it's doubly rewarding. It will be quite easy for you to train Loulou to step onto any or all of these types of objects, starting with his food bowl.

For this lesson, I recommend that you ask him to step onto his food bowl and he probably will as soon as you ask. Once he's situated, carry him while he's perched on his bowl to his play gym, aviary, play baskets or other places where he's allowed to go (not your shoulder). Ask him to step off, then practice a little if that feels right to both of you. I'm sure you already know not to rush Loulou or any parrots during this learning process – they learn behaviors that benefit captive lives at their own individual paces. Behaviors that increase their chances of survival in the wild are probably learned more quickly, but behaviors that their wild parents, grandparents and wild cousins never need to learn require very clear instructions from us as we carefully observe their novel understanding and appreciate their industry.

Because you and your husband are organic farmers, you probably have some good, well-enriched surfaces available where Loulou can hang out. So next, I recommend that you add a nice basket or two (or three) to places where Loulou goes; baskets that function like mini-playgyms. Find some with nice flat bottoms and a good sturdy handle, then put a flat rock in the bottom to weight the basket which is then covered with papers for easy clean-up. My parrots perch on these baskets, play on them, dig in them, and the shy non-hand-tame ones get carried here and there while perched on them, or fly to them when they choose to do so. When my husband and I travel, our caregivers use baskets and food bowls for conveyances for many parrots.

Put these baskets in various places where Loulou will see them and draw his attention to them. Chances are, he'll be really interested in them and want to explore them which you should facilitate. Once he knows they are his, you can offer these basket handles to Loulou when it's time for him to come out of his cage. When he's fluent with this skill, others can and should do the same.

These baskets that function as conveyances and mini-gyms are also useful tools that provide variety to parrots who like to sit on their favored person's shoulder, an activity that needs to be monitored. So the third thing I'm going to recommend is for you to prioritize getting Loulou comfortable in a variety of settings, baskets included, that are not your shoulder. Limit should time. Many parrots who spend the majority of their free time on their favored-person's shoulder tend to get entrenched in that position, and so excessive shoulder time works against variety. You may want to think of the amount of time that Loulou is interacting with people and be sure that only about 30 – 40% or even less of that time is on your shoulder.

Just as he eventually allows interaction with your caregiver during your annual holiday, he can and will learn to consent to interaction from others while you are in the same room or in adjacent rooms, but that takes work and dedication on the parts of others, not you. It's so rewarding, though, that your family and friends will have no trouble learning how to interact like friendly flock members with Loulou. You will set up the programs for your husband and friends and eventually for your son when he's older, but the caliber of relationship they have with Loulou will depend on their consistent efforts and how rewarding the experiences are for them, as well as for Loulou.

Captive parrots who have a positive response to lots of variety and who are physically adept fliers/athletes are most proficient at navigating whatever life brings, and super-engaging companions, so set Loulou up for his life-long success and the entire family/flock is sure to enjoy the experience.

Regarding the interaction between Loulou and your dogs. This may be difficult to understand, but it’s not a good idea to have your parrot and dogs interacting. There are too many horrible true stories about dogs who suddenly lunge at parrots. We cannot ignore these sad cases, many of which happen in surprise, even with dogs and parrots who are “friends.”

In any physical conflict between parrots and dogs, the odds can never be even. The odds are always that parrots run the risk of injury or death.

Loulou has the most to lose. Even the best people cannot control all possible scenarios between dogs and parrots. In cases of dog-to-parrot aggression, the odds are stacked against parrots and for this reason I recommend that dogs and parrots do not interact. 

Maria, thank you again for the opportunity to participate in the wonderful relationship you already have with Loulou. I hope you find these suggestions helpful and I wish you and your family and flock all the best.

All best,
Phoebe Linden
Santa Barbara Bird Farm
Santa Barbara CA

Phoebe Green Linden
About Phoebe Green Linden

In 1986, Phoebe married the love of her life, Harry Linden, at the place of her avicultural beginning, the Santa Barbara Bird Farm. 20 years of dedicated observations and avid learning have formed her opinions surrounding psittacine neonates, neophytes, fledglings and adults who benefit markedly from thoughtfully arranged environments. She and Harry include boxes, playgyms, cages, aviaries and agreed-upon furniture and counter surfaces for parrot activities. There are no spaces in their home or on their property untouched by parrot dander.

During the years they raised parrots for the pet trade (they no longer do, since 2001) and continuing through today, they have dedicated themselves to developing environments that increase observable natural behaviours such as exercising, interacting, foraging for foods, touching, preening, flapping, flying, showering, mulch-making, wild bird watching, helping with chores, and goofing off—not always seen in captive birds. Their experiences are happily shared with World Parrot Trust members with the objective to foster enrichment for captive psittacines and their caregivers.