Stress in African Greys and Other Birds

Stress can cause major behavioral problems with any bird, but it is of even more concern with African Greys. Greys are sensitive to the moods of humans and the ambiance of the human environment because they are genetically vulnerable. The habitat where they evolved is, for the most part, on the margins of forested areas. We often see Greys foraging on the ground in nature films. Surely birds that are ground foragers must be more alert to danger and more aware of what is behind and around them. It pays in terms of staying alive to be aware of their surroundings and to be sensitive to the watching eyes of a predator.

Jean Pattison, the African Queen, made a quite original observation that supports this. African Greys produce larger clutches (three, four or five eggs) than many other species of large parrots. If all these eggs hatched and the babies lived to adulthood, Africa would soon be covered in African Greys. In nature, species with a high death rate produce many more young than those which have fewer predators and a lower death rate. Might it mean that predation and a high death rate in Greys require larger clutches to ensure the survival of the next generation?

Parrots are prey animals. The unique responses by prey animals to outside stimuli are very different than the responses of predators such as humans, dogs or cats. Being part time ground feeders, Greys are even more at risk than many other species of birds. It is almost impossible for humans, as predators, to understand the stresses which prey animals experience. Actions by a pet owner, which are similar to those of a predator in the wild, can unintentionally trigger high levels of stress in a bird.

The characteristics that make Greys such superb companion animals also make them vulnerable to self-destructive behavior in the face of high stress – from fear, threat, illness, uncertainty, abandonment, or anxiety.

Greys are not like dogs or horses or other domestic animals that accept the dominance of humans. Human attempts to dominate them only lead to stress in Greys. Punishing a Grey is not only useless, but can cause psychic trauma of immense proportions. A Grey does not have the cognitive ability to relate punishment to its behavior. Instead it regards punishment as abuse, the punisher as the abuser and its environment as a horror-filled world.

A loved one’s illness or death, an unhappy or disintegrating marriage, physical violence, drugs or alcohol abuse, environmental insecurity, fear associated with other companion animals, a disliked human, unkind handling by a vet or groomer or other stressful events, may trigger plucking, phobia or aberrant behavior in our sensitive and empathetic Greys.

Layne Dicker uses a great visual aid in his lectures relating to stress. He draws an imaginary line below which an individual bird is able to deal with the inevitable stress associated with captivity and living with humans. If a bird’s current stress level is near this boundary, the addition of just one more stressful event or act puts the bird above that line and triggers unnatural behavior.

If a bird is suddenly exhibiting stressful behavior, it is natural for an owner to think that the most recent event or act is the cause and to attempt to deal with that one event. However, fear, phobia, biting or other aberrant behavior in Greys is most likely the result of a stressful environment which has finally crossed over the line described by Layne. It is important to examine a bird’s entire environment, looking for multiple sources of stress, and eliminate as many as possible.

The intelligent and sensitive Grey reacts more positively and more appropriately to the human as teacher, guide, parental figure, mentor and caregiver.

If there is any human science/art application to the management of birds, it lies in child psychology. The similarities are striking. We see, in modern society, what the results of inadequate and uninformed child rearing accomplishes. We can see in our birds what inappropriate, heavy handed and misapplied management techniques do to our birds.

Greys are not aggressive birds – they are taught to be aggressive by humans. They bite because they remember mistreatment. Those memories may include:

  • Lack of respect.
  • Lack of consideration of their desires.
  • Aggressive human actions or physical pain.
  • Intimidation.
  • Domineering humans.
  • Sensory deprivation as punishment.

A Grey needs to have his person and his space respected. We are all familiar with humans who “invade” our personal space, who touch us without our consent. A Grey may be eating or playing or taking a nap when his human wants to interact. His desires should be considered. An early understanding of “Do you want to come to me?” or a similar phrase, gives him an option and serves to assure one that interaction or touching is welcome.

What needs to change is the way we think and feel about the things our birds do. We are the ones who need to adjust to living with birds. We need to accept that they are from another world – a world we have a great deal of difficulty understanding.

If a bird steps up and down; if a bird doesn’t bite us without a reason; if a bird doesn’t roam – these are the behaviors we need to enforce for their own safety. If they love and trust us; permit us to interact, pet and kiss them – that is a product of the way we feel and behave towards them. We have to be the unselfish giving partner in the relationship. If we are, they will love and trust us. That is the highest degree of intimacy. We have animals in our homes that, for the most part, are first generation from the jungles of Africa. That they love and trust us is a testimony to our adjustment to them – not theirs to us.

Do all you can to keep the level of stress as low as possible. Be kind, gentle and patient with your Grey. Do not contribute to his stress load by attempts to dominate or punish or change his parrotness. Accept that he is a bird – not one of the more familiar domestic animals we have dealt with and trained and punished into good or acceptable behavior for so long.

There are many things a pet owner can do to minimize stress in the environment. My article next month on Managing Stress with African Greys contains a number of suggestions.