The African Grey Parrot
Most people are aware there are two types of African grey parrots commonly seen in our homes. This includes the Congo African grey and the smaller Timneh.
One of them main reasons people seek African grey parrots as pets is because they are one of the species more likely to learn to mimic sounds or talk. What is particularly interesting about their mimicking ability is that is often so exact it is difficult to tell the bird from the real thing. This is a bit different from other parrot species. Many times other species of parrots tend to maintain an element of their own voice in when they mimic, for example when a Hahn’s macaw says “hello” it often has a very tinny mechanical sound to it that is unmistakably “Hahn’s”. But when an African grey parrot learns to say hello it can sound exactly like the person he is mimicking.
This carries over to other sounds as well. Some of these sounds are ones that humans are not capable of copying. A favorite sound to copy for many African grey parrots is the sound of water pouring. The number of African grey parrots who pick up this sound is astounding. African grey parrots also are notorious for learning to copy most beeping sounds they typically hear such as microwave beeps, answering machine tones, and smoke alarm beeps.
Of course not all African grey parrots do learn to copy sounds, but if they do, you can put those sounds on cue. You can learn more about training parrots to talk on cue in the DVD Train Your Parrot To Talk.
Interesting Facts and Quirks:
African grey parrots have a reputation for being “intelligent.” Of course intelligence is a tough thing to measure and people like Dr Irene Pepperberg and the infamous Alex the African grey have spent a lifetime trying to provide data to support our casual observations. But one thing is for sure, we do see many African grey parrots learn to associate sounds with certain circumstances. For example “Einstein” a Congo African grey parrot in Texas will make the sound of the door alarm beeping when she observes her owner walking towards the door. She then learned to generalize this sound to any door opening, including ones that don’t cause the alarm to beep, like the cupboard door.
Another famous African grey parrot named Einstein resides at the Knoxville zoo where she helps get children excited about animals and conservation. She is famous for her spectacular performance on the TV show Pet Star. This Einstein is intriguing because she has learned that some training sessions are specifically to learn new vocal behaviors. She will listen and concentrate on her trainer during these sessions. She can often get a new sound on cue in just a matter of a few weeks. In preparation for her second appearance on Pet Star, she learned to say “superstar.”
Potential Behavior Problems:
As endearing as African grey parrots can be, there do seem to be some behavior problem trends. It is often stated that African grey parrots tend to be more flighty or nervous. However this is one tendency that can be easily avoided. Ways to help increase the likelihood an African grey will be confident is to avoid force, give the parrot the choice to go away if he wants to, pair positive reinforcers with new circumstances and situations, and start these practices as early as possible in the parrots life.
One other factor that can help is to allow your African grey parrot to be flighted. This is especially helpful for a young bird. They can learn they have the power to leave if something makes them uncomfortable. This empowerment is a huge confidence builder for many parrot species. It also helps parrot owners learn to avoid force and give the bird the opportunity to choose to participate.
What about phobic behavior? This is a term that is often applied to African grey parrots. Phobic behavior is a “persistent, abnormal and irrational” fear of something. In reality for most parrots their fear responses are probably quite a normal reaction to something they find unpleasant. Caregivers should be on the lookout for body language that indicates the parrot is uncomfortable and change what they are doing to increase their parrot’s comfort. You can learn more about understanding parrot body language with our parrot training dvds.
Unfortunately another problem sometimes exhibited by African grey parrots is feather damaging behavior. This can include feather picking, chewing on the tips of feathers, pulling feathers out as they grow in and many other manifestations. Feather damaging behavior has a host of organic causes. Meaning there are many medical causes. A first step in treating feather problems is to visit your veterinarian. You can find a veterinarian that treats birds at www.aav.org.
If a medical condition is ruled out consider upping your parrot’s enrichment schedule and include some training to help redirect your parrot to other acceptable activities. It is recommended you keep your parrot highly enriched even if your bird does not have a feather picking problem. Try using foraging toys, toys that stimulate different senses and rotate other toys frequently to help prevent problems.
African Grey Parrot Training Examples:
Prior to training with positive reinforcement, this African grey parrot did not like to step up, did not talk on cue and was very uncomfortable with nail trimming. Now she steps up consistently and will step up for several different people. She will present her left foot and right foot on cue, and has learned several fun behaviors including talking on cue as you can see in this video clip.