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Sleeping Habits of African Grey

Expert Question

Hi there - I have a question relating to the sleeping habits of my one year-old parent-reared African Grey, called Clayton. He’s been with me for a couple of months now, having been bought partly as a companion for my rescued Timneh hen, Dusty (I work full time). Clayton was not remotely tame when purchased. However, almost overnight he has become as tame and attention-hungry as any hand-reared bird. He has a very outgoing personality, wants to investigate everything and never exhibits a fearful reaction. Dusty on the other hand is much less demanding, although she loves attention. I am hoping the two parrots will become friends, in time, but realise I cannot force the issue. Currently I devote all my free time to the parrots, as they have not yet established a rapport with each other.

I also pay a pet sitter to pop in every day when I am at work, to give them some extra company and some treats.

To complicate matters, Dusty has laid three eggs in her wooden play box, and as I am letting her incubate them she is pretty much out of the equation as far as Clayton is concerned.

Anyway, to get to the point, Clayton hates being put back into his (huge) cage at night, making a loud contact call and banging on the bars when I place him inside at 10pm. He spends a lot of time out and about (one hour in the morning and at least four hours in the evening). He has a varied organic diet, loads of branches and toys and has learned to fly well, etc,
but even after many hours of direct attention, with head scratches etc, every day ends with a noisy tantrum. In contrast, Dusty has always quietly retired to her sleeping perch every evening, of her own accord and without fuss.

My question is this: should I ignore his behavior in the hope that he will accept the routine, or is this a sign that he is fundamenally unhappy? Once inside his cage, Clayton has a variety of perches from which to choose. I also make sure he gets some of his favourite food (harrison’s pellets mashed up with banana) from a spoon when he goes in for the night. I should
point out that during the day, he climbs in and out of his cage quite happily.

Thanks in advance for any advice you can offer.

Expert Answer

Hello Oliver!  My name is Chris Jenkins, and I am one of the Senior Trainers at Natural Encounters, Inc.  I would be happy to offer some advice on some strategies that may help you with the challenges that you are having with your new African Grey.

First off, I would like to commend you for the care that you are giving the companion parrots with which you share your home.  It sounds like they are getting an excellent diet, an enriching environment, and lots of attention.  It's always heartening for us to hear about people who are as devoted to their companion parrots as you are, and the fact that you are seeking out advice from others is another example of that.

As far as the question about the behavior that you are seeing from Clayton at "bedtime" is concerned, my guess would be that it may actually be stemming from the care and attention that you have provided him.  From what you've detailed above, it sounds like Clayton has become very fond of both you and the attention that he gets when he is outside of his cage.  My guess is the loud calling and cage banging that you are seeing at night is an attempt to solicit more attention at a time when he knows it is going to be taken away for the night.

As to your specific question, I wouldn't at all say that the behavior you are seeing is an example of Clayton being, as you put it, "fundamentally unhappy".  You are providing him with a very enriching environment, and it seems that he has really taken to his new environment during the time that you've had him.  Instead, I would say that you are facing a situation in which the use of a few training strategies can help to make bedtime more enjoyable for Clayton, and far less of a headache for you.

When looking at a behavior like unwanted vocalizations, ignoring it is a good bit of advice that we offer people.  One thing to keep in mind, though, is that screaming and contact calling are natural, hard-wired behaviors that may never disappear completely.  Parrots in the wild tend to scream first thing in the morning and in the evening, so dealing with loud vocalizations at these times of the day is a fairly typical thing many companion parrot owners deal with.  I would definitely make sure that you are not reinforcing this behavior by giving the bird attention or treats when it is screaming -- even going as far as making sure to not walk into the room or to let him hear you approaching - otherwise you may end up actually making the situation worse.  If Clayton learns that he can get a desired response by calling loudly, he will definitely continue to do so.  We've heard of one companion parrot owner who, when they hear their bird screaming, actually freezes in place wherever they are, therefore making sure that they're not in some way reinforcing their bird's screaming behavior.

In addition to ignoring behaviors that you don't want to see from Clayton, a great strategy is to train him to do things that you want him to do.  A great way to get an animal to stop doing an unwanted behavior is to train it to do something that is incompatible with it.  In your specific example, some incompatible behaviors might include sitting quietly on a perch, interacting with a specific toy in his cage, or offering non-screaming vocalizations.  It sounds like you are already offering Clayton some of his favorite treat in his cage at night.  I would suggest using this treat not only for being in his cage, but specifically for doing something that you want him to while he is in there.  One of our general rules of training is "You get what you reinforce", so you want to make sure that when you are offering him the treats he is doing something at that moment that you want to see more of.  If he gets something he likes while he is calling loudly or banging on the bars, you may end up actually training Clayton to do the things that you want to see less of!

One of the other things I noticed in your question was that you said that, while you are experiencing Clayton's "tantrums" at night, he readily goes in and out of his cage during the day with no issue.  I think that it's important to note how different these two things are, and to look at how we might take advantage of this in order to help troubleshoot the issues that you are having with Clayton at "bedtime".  I would guess that one of the reasons that Clayton goes into his cage so easily during the daytime is that he always has the ability to come back out again if he wants to.  At night when he goes in, that's where he stays until morning, a very different situation.  Everything you've detailed above makes me think that it's not that he has any issue with being inside his cage, just that he would rather be outside of it, as he has a history of so many positive interactions happening there.  I would suggest maybe changing up Clayton's routine a little bit in order to make being inside the cage just as much fun as being outside of it.  Instead of having the cage be a place that he only gets shut inside of at night, I would work towards being able to have him in the cage at other times as well, and making sure he gets just as much attention and head scratches there as he has been in other places in the home.  In working to make being in the cage more fun, I'd also suggest that you start with him only being closed inside the cage for short periods of time, and always letting him come back out again if he wants while he is continuing to offer acceptable behaviors (sitting quietly, soft vocalizations, playing with toys, etc).  For example, you might try shutting him in his cage for a short time in the early evening, giving him some of his treats, talking to him and scratching his head, and then opening the cage back up again.  By opening the cage back up again, you are empowering Clayton to be able to leave the cage by choice, which will ultimately increase his level of comfort with being closed into the cage.  The goal is to be able to do this for progressively longer periods of time at various times in the day, and to give him the option of coming back out during these sessions before he displays behaviors such as loud calling or banging at the bars.  Just as if you were to give him treats while he is displaying undesirable behaviors, letting him out while his is screaming or banging at the bars will teach him to do those things more often.

Another fun option might be to train Clayton to go into his cage by himself in order to be shut in for the night.  You might start with him on top of his cage, and then first begin baiting him inside with one of his favorite treats.  While you are baiting him in, you can also introduce a cue that will ultimately replace the bait itself -- I'd suggest some sort of a hand cue, such as a twirl of your index finger, as birds are very visually oriented.  By repeatedly pairing this cue with the bait, Clayton will learn the connection between the two, and the bait can eventually be faded out so that he performs this behavior when the cue is performed all on its own, and then he can get a nice big treat once he's inside the cage.  It's a fun learning experience for the both of you, and once Clayton understands the basics of this "training game", you are only limited in your imagination in the things that you can try to train him to do in the future!

The key to success in all of the above is to be clear in your communication to your bird, to be consistent in what you are reinforcing and what you are ignoring, and to be patient and remember that while this process can take some time, the rewards that you will reap will be well worth it.  I hope you'll find that the suggestions I've made not only help you with the bedtime issues that you are having with your new companion parrot, but also helps you to build a better relationship overall that will keep your bird enriched and stimulated for many years to come.

Chris Jenkins
Senior Trainer
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.