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Fearful African Grey

Expert Question

My Question: Regarding a rescued 7 yr old male African Grey. I obtained “Steve” from a friend who works at an avian rescue. She was fostering him, and I felt I could offer Steve a lot of patience. His first owner got him young, as a talking novelty but neglected him, never gave him destructible toys, and never noticed that he was mutilating under his wings after he had escaped outside for 5 days and been rescued. The mutilation was discovered when she surrendered him. He was in the rescue for 2 years and basically was extremely fearful and nearly motionless. He was to be euthanized because his mutilation wounds wouldn’t heal, but I’ve now had him for 9 months. He had already stopped mutilating when he was fostered, and except for picking at his neck feathers slightly, he’s looking very healthy and is starting to have a bit of spark in his eyes.

He has learned to target beads from my hand, which he drops into a cup, and then gets a small nut reward. He does move around his cage to forage for wrapped pellets, but basically sits all day and doesn’t want to come out.

I think he has bonded to me - he solicits head rubs nightly, and calls to me when I’ve left the room, but he won’t come out. I have to stick my hand in, and it’s as if we start all over: he’s nervous, then gradually relaxes. (Because of his mutilation wounds, the rescue workers would remove him from his cage by his neck for vet visits! No wonder he’s paranoid about hands.)

I provide tons of toys, leave his cage door open daily - sometimes he comes out on a perch on the door, but only if I’m sitting or lying down, and he returns immediately to his cage if I get up. He has the company of a mature Jardine’s parrot and 2 cockatiels (all in separate cages). All ignore him and he ignores them.

Steve is a very fearful guy. For practical reasons (like vet visits) and for his own growth and life enjoyment, I’d like to be able to eventually get him used to my hands outside of head scritching time, but that may take quite a while. He’s extremely sensitive to emotions and thoughts like a finely tuned radar!

Do you have any advice to help Steve rehabilitate and lessen his fear response - a fear basically about everything (even the placement of old and new toys). He does chew hanging toys, but mostly when he’s nervous, rather than for play or exploration. It’s as if he doesn’t have a clue how to play, which makes sense, given his history.

My other birds are quite normal and I’ve been hoping that Steve watching them be normal might help.

Thanks for your kind perusal of my case! I love the guy and want him to be as happy as he can be, under the circumstances.

Shannon Ryan

Expert Answer

Hello Shannon, My name is Chris Jenkins, and I am one of the Supervisors with Natural Encounters, Inc. Thank you for taking the time to seek out information that will help you to provide Steve with the best care and welfare possible. I have several thoughts that I’d like to share about your situation, as well as some ideas on where to go from here.

In the work that we do with our animals, we discipline ourselves to focus on the observable behaviors that an animal exhibits. Since we can’t know what’s going on in their heads, looking at changes in their body language and behaviors in response to stimuli in their environment and responding in kind is the best way that we can communicate with them. Good two-way communication is the goal in all our interactions: being able to interpret whether or not the stimuli in a given situation (toys, objects, environmental distractions, an animal's caretakers, etc) are something that the animal wants or something that the animal wants to get away from. You’ve provided some great examples of observable behaviors that occur in conjunction with discrete environmental events: putting down his head to solicit scratches from you when you are in proximity to his cage, and avoidance behaviors when a hand is presented inside his cage. Our goal is to try to find a way to take the behaviors that you want to see more of and make them things that Steve actively seeks to be a part of.

It is quite possible that in Steve’s past he was subjected to a fair amount of punishment and negative reinforcement. Forcing a bird to step up by pushing your hand up against their chest, grabbing them by the neck to get them out of a cage, or chasing them around a room to get them to go back home are all things that might be done to a bird with no intention of causing them harm or discomfort. In the animal’s mind, though, these are likely very negative experiences, and he will do everything he can to avoid or minimize his exposure to these events in the future. It is very likely that Steve has had a variety of negative experiences involving people’s hands, maybe even for the entirety of his life.  The amazing thing about behavior, though, is that it is ready-made to be flexible and respond to new information in the environment - every day is a chance for Steve to start building a brand new outlook on the humans that he spends his time with.

If the behavior that he are hoping to see is stepping willingly onto the hand, we first have to ask why the animal would want to perform the behavior. If we ask the question “What’s in it for me?” from the animal’s perspective when considering a behavior, we can begin to form a plan about how to take steps towards making this behavior something the animal will look forward to doing. This is in contrast to forcing an animal to be compliant. If you present your hand into the cage and Steve shows nervous body language (feathers slicked tight, moving to the other side of the cage, lunging/biting at the hand) but then calms down and submits, he may have learned in the past that this is something that he simply can’t get away from, and therefore has no choice but to submit to. Our goal, however, is to create a bird that is not only willing but eager to step up because of a long, strong history of positive experiences being associated with stepping up. If a step onto the hand is always paired with praise, a favorite toy, a scratch on the head, or preferred foods treat, it is highly likely that Steve will look forward to being able to step up again in the future.

Of course, the execution of this plan requires discipline and patience, both qualities that it seems that you’ve already demonstrated with your bird. If I was in your shoes, my first step would probably be to take my hand out of the picture completely for the time being. With a bird that’s nervous stepping up or being on the hand, I first try to build a solid relationship of trust through repetitions of simple behaviors that the bird can perform inside the cage. Target training -- teaching an animal to touch a particular object to earn a reward -- is an excellent place to start because it keeps the animal actively scanning the environment to figure out where it needs to go or what it needs to do to in order to earn reinforcement. Using good positive reinforcement techniques -- keeping approximations small at first and moving ahead at the bird's pace, offering a treat every time the bird performs the right behavior, taking a step back when the animal seems confused or frustrated, ending sessions when the animal demonstrates that it no longer wants to participate -- will help not only by teaching Steve a variety of new behaviors, but each and every positive experience you are a part of helps to strengthen your relationship with him, a crucial component of all human-animal interactions.

Since playing with new toys is also one of your goals, you can train him to interact with new objects in the same way that you trained him to target to the beads in your hand: reward him for looking at the object, then for making a small move towards it, then for touching it for a moment, then for interacting with it for extended periods of time. If each step is paired with something Steve likes, the act of interacting with the object will likely become reinforcing in and of itself just because of the long history he has built up of good things happening in conjunction with doing this behavior. Not only will interacting with new objects help to get Steve to be more active, but it is very likely that it will have a beneficial effect on his feather plucking behavior as well.

As to the specific behavior of Steve stepping onto the hand, I would start with a behavior that he is already doing, walking out onto a perch on the open door of the cage. This starts by offering reinforcement for maintaining calm, comfortable body posture first for allowing the door to be opened a bit, then a bit more, and eventually for coming to the perch on the door. Each time he gets a little closer to this, I would praise him verbally and drop a small treat in one of his bowls. Even if he will take a treat from your hand through the walls of his cage, I think it would do more harm than good at this point to try to offer him a treat right through the open door. He may be fine with this, though -- paying close attention to his body language throughout this process will be the key to making progress. Any time he leans or walks away or demonstrates what you would interpret as "nervous" behaviors, that is your cue to move back (both physically and to an earlier step where Steve was having progress). Through time and repetition, Steve will stay comfortable while a hand is presented at a distance, then slightly closer, then closer still, until it is near the perch on the door. When you get to a point when he is approaching the hand, you can try to present the treat in such a way that he was to lean across your hand to get it. If he does that, then you can see if he'll put one foot on it, then eventually two feet, and finally stepping up and being moved slowly and steadily away from the perch. If done correctly, Steve will always have the power to say "no thank you" simply by choosing to walk away from the training session, and if he seems nervous while on the hand he should be set back down on his perch straightaway. Respecting his comfort level and trying again later is another critical component to good communication, and will only make him that much more likely to want to participate the next time a training session comes along.

Having respect for the bird by honoring their right to say no, keeping a close eye on his body language at all times, consistently striving to present positive consequences for desired behaviors, and seeking to avoid the use of aversive stimuli whenever possible will open your relationship with Steve to a world of nearly limitless behavioral possibilities. Always make sure to work at the bird's pace, though, and be mindful that setbacks will occur. Instead of getting frustrated, just know that every mistake or setback is just an opportunity to start again with new information. Indeed, quite often our mistakes teach us more than our successes, and if we learn from them they most definitely will become less frequent as time passes and we gain increased experience, insight, and sensitivity.

I hope that you've found this information to be useful, as these tools have proven to be invaluable to the work that we do with our animals each and every day. If you haven't done so already, I would also encourage you to check out the articles that we have posted on our website,, as they contain great information about bird behavior, training, and enrichment.

We wish you the best of luck, and we hope that you and Steve have many years of great interactions ahead of you!


Chris Jenkins
Natural Encounters, Inc.

Steve Martin & Staff
About Steve Martin & Staff

Steve Martin has lived with parrots from the time he was five years old. By the time he was 16 his bird interest expanded to falconry and he has been a Master Falconer ever since.

He began his professional animal training career when he set up the first of its kind, free-flight bird show at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 1976. Since then he has produced educational animal programs, or consulted at, over 50 zoological facilities around the world.

Steve has produced three videos on parrot behaviour and training and lectures frequently about parrot behaviour. He has also written several articles on animal behaviour and conducts training workshops each year at his facility in Winter Haven, Florida. Over two-thirds of his year is spent on the road consulting with zoos and aquariums on animal behaviour issues or teaching staff the art and science of animal behaviour.

Steve is President of both Natural Encounters, Inc., ( a company of over 20 professional animal trainers, and Natural Encounters Conservation Fund, Inc., a company dedicated to raising funds for conservation projects.
Steve has been a long time fan, supporter, and a Trustee of the World Parrot Trust. He is also a core team member of the California Condor Recovery Team, and Past-President and founding member of IAATE, an international bird trainers’ organization.