Teaching Our Grey To Be A Bird

Waiting for a Cuddle

Hobbs is a ten-year-old African Grey parrot. Tonight she sits on her four-foot play gym, contentedly preening her beautiful grey and red plumage. Occasionally, she stops and looks in my direction, “clucking.” When I don’t answer her contact call, she emits a loud wolf whistle.

I know she is waiting for me to come over, ask her to “step up”, and then cradle her in my lap for cuddles and scratches. Impatient for my attention, she climbs down a few rungs, stretches, and flaps her wings. She hits her toy bell a few times, then climbs back to the top perch and begins grinding her beak.

Hobbs delights our family, charms our friends, and endures trips to the veterinarian with psittacine dignity. However, none of Hobbs’ trusting and normal companion parrot behavior is taken for granted. It is nurtured on a daily basis. .

A Fearful, Feather-mutilating Grey

Two years ago, Hobbs came to us fearful, non-vocal, and completely plucked from the neck down. Not a single wing or tail feather remained. Devoid of feathers, she appeared thin. Her muscle tone was poor. She showed little interest in toys and spent much of her time sitting on one perch. Later, we would learn that she had chronic respiratory problems as well.

Little is known about Hobbs’ early life. We do know she was a wild-caught African Grey that was imported shortly before the restrictions were instituted in 1992. Her first owners had considered euthanasia before a caring couple had adopted her. She came to her second home featherless and afraid. After three years of frustrating setbacks, her second owners made the painful decision to find her a new home.

Billy, my eldest son, learned about Hobbs at the pet shop where he worked. We have several rescued animals in our home, and we realized that adopting Hobbs into a third home would be challenging. Anything less than a total commitment would be unacceptable. If we took in this bird, with her beautiful wide eyes and her ridiculous nude body, we would be committing ourselves to improving her quality of life and loving her, regardless of her shortcomings.

Our experience with birds was limited. We had a female budgie named “Keetie” and an old dove, “Houdini.” They had hardly prepared us for what we were about to undertake. However, one month after we met Hobbs, we brought her home.

Homecoming…and a Plan of Action

The first few days were spent observing Hobbs and giving her time to adjust to her new home. We had a temporary cage in Billy’s room and another in our busy kitchen. We educated ourselves to the dangers of Teflon and harsh chemical cleaners. We visited the local library, bought books and magazines on bird care, and talked to everyone we could about parrots. As we read and sought advice from local pet shops and veterinarians, we encountered many different and sometimes conflicting views on avian care. Most of the advice we received pertained to birds that were bred in captivity and adopted into homes at a young age. Hobbs had been born in Africa and imported at an undetermined age. I felt it was possible that the trauma of being captured and transported had interrupted critical stages in her early development. Establishing trust was crucial.

For these reasons, we decided that the best way to foster trust and teach her acceptable companion parrot behavior was to treat this eight-year-old bird like a newly-weaned bappy. She needed to be exposed to behaviors she had either forgotten or never learned. She needed stimulation and she needed to learn not to be afraid of things that would not hurt her. Hobbs required instruction in fundamental parrot behavior. It was up to our family to teach this African Grey the basics of being a bird.

We made a list of long and short-term goals and objectives and began to incorporate them into her life. Our long-term goals were to:

bullet Reduce fear responses and build trust through socialization.
bullet Increase physical strength and agility through exercise.
bullet Increase chewing and play behavior.
bullet Promote vocalization.
bullet Eliminate or reduce feather-picking behaviors.

Many of these goals were interdependent upon each other, but they had one thing in common. Success would depend upon proceeding slowly and earning Hobbs’ trust.

The Beginnings of Trust

From the beginning, it was obvious Hobbs responded better to Billy than she did to the rest of us. Billy moved slowly, talked softly, and most importantly, was not afraid of being bitten. She would growl at my husband, William, and my other sons, Chris and Thomas, although they posed little threat initially, since they never tried to touch or hold her. However, I was viewed as the epitome of evil.

In view of the fact that Billy planned to leave for college in a few months, I had to become the primary caregiver. I was the person who invaded her space, spritzed her at bath time and encouraged early exercise sessions. Because she had poor muscle tone and balance, she fell often. The slightest wrong moves would alarm her and precipitate a fall. I was definitely not to be trusted.

Initially, Billy and I worked together. Hobbs knew the “step-up” command, but she was terrified of hands. The left hand had to be completely hidden from her view. The very sight of it would trigger a startle reflex and send her crashing to the ground. With no feathers, she fell like a stone.

At night, Hobbs slept in a temporary cage in Billy’s room. Although her previous owners covered her nightly, we did not. We wanted Hobbs to watch Billy sleep. A sleeping person is not very threatening. Keeping the cage uncovered also made her less territorial. In the morning she was allowed a brief exercise before Billy left for school.

Later, I would enter the room amidst growls and protests and sit quietly by her cage with a book and my morning coffee. Only after this quiet time would I remove Hobbs from her cage and bring her downstairs for breakfast. This procedure was stressful for both Hobbs and me. Hobbs was afraid of me and she bit to let me know it. I learned to read her eyes and body language quickly in order to save my hand and my pride from her abuse.

In the evening, Billy and I would play “pass the birdie” to reinforce “step-up” behavior. Because she was prone to falling from her perches, we also initiated supervised floor and towel play. We took Hobbs on daily tours of the house to encourage “flocking” behavior. In spite of our best efforts and intentions, we frequently had traumatic moments in those early months.

The worst episode happened the first time that I brought her into our bathroom so I could blow-dry my hair. Being extremely careful, I lowered the toilet seat and placed Hobbs a safe distance from the hair dryer. I closed the door and flipped the switch. “Pop!” I had blown the circuit breaker for the first time in 15 years. I was home alone and I had little choice but to towel a hysterical bird in total darkness. It took her a long time to forgive me for that escapade!

By the time Billy began college, Hobbs had begun to accept me. However, without Billy to mediate, her behavior regressed. Her surly antics went on for weeks and although I maintained a consistent routine, she began biting again and plucking feathers with a vengeance. I was beginning to feel self-doubt when, without explanation, her aggressive behavior abruptly ceased. Perhaps she realized her blustering wouldn’t bring Billy back, or make me disappear. At any rate, I was no longer a monster. She wasn’t always happy with me, but I was tolerated, and slowly our relationship improved.

Soon thereafter, Christopher began handling Hobbs. We continued “step-up” practice daily and eventually, under close supervision, Thomas, my 13-year-old, was included in our group.

A Model and Rival

A year passed. Hobbs enjoyed our company. But she still feared the dreaded left hand and refused any attempts for us to scratch her. She was also beginning to show signs of curiosity, as well as hostility, towards our other pets when we showed them affection. We did not want this to escalate. Our pets have harmonious relationships, but if Hobbs bit the dog, cat or other birds, things could get messy fast. Still, we could not ignore the fact that Hobbs was showing signs of jealousy. It indicated she was beginning to actively seek our attention. Hobbs needed a rival and a model.

Eventually, we found the “purrfect” addition to our family. “Kolti” became our newest adoptee. Each night, Hobbs would watch with flashing eyes as I held and cuddled this sweet little ball of fluff. “Kolti” would respond by purring and gurgling contentedly. Puffing her feathers and snapping her beak in anger, Hobbs would strut back and forth and slowly come closer to our new pet. I have little doubt she would have ripped the stuffing out of that toy Furby if given half a chance. One evening before “Furby time”, Hobbs lowered her head and began slowly scratching the back of her neck with her foot. “Look at that crazy bird,” I said to my husband.

“Well,” he replied, “she just wants to be scratched.” Without missing a beat, he reached over and began stroking the top of her head. I was dumbfounded. William was the only member of our family who had never handled Hobbs. He had spent hours talking to her and whistling. He always had a treat ready. She wanted his attention and trusted him completely! Contact had been established and Kolti, the Furby, was no longer needed. William continued scratching her neck each night and in a matter of weeks, Hobbs was throwing her head down between her legs and begging for head scratches from the whole family. It was like she was making up for lost time.

Today, Hobbs enjoys full body rubs. She can be touched with both hands and will even wear a harness to go outside. She is also beginning to allow me to place her on her back and play with her feet. Hobbs has bonded with the entire family. Each one of us has assumed an important, albeit different, role in her life. With few exceptions, she gracefully accepts the attention of visiting friends as well.

The Physical Challenge

Since Hobbs had no feathers and poor muscle tone, she fell often, and was reluctant to leave her perch. Falls were not only physically dangerous, but emotionally damaging as well. When we carried her from room to room, we bent down so that when (not if) she fell, she would be close to the ground. We continued with her supervised floor time. She was encouraged to explore and play hide and seek. Towel play was begun. We also sat on the floor and did flapping and balance exercises. I played music and I danced while she clung to my hand.

Although she had a t-stand, it offered no opportunities for exercise. Regular play gyms were too high and tabletop models were either too challenging or not challenging enough. Hobbs’ first play gym was homemade. It was only four inches high but it had several rungs. Treat stations were placed in different locations to encourage her to climb and explore.

Upon the advice of a local bird shop, we replaced the hard manzanita perches in her cage with ones made of cotton rope. These soft perches encouraged her to grip firmly and made her feel more secure. A portable, coiled rope perch also helped with coordination.

As her strength increased, so did her confidence. Our workouts slowly became more vigorous. She became more adept at climbing. I could feel her feet grasping my fingers tightly. The first time I caught her hanging upside-down in her cage, I found myself bragging to friends like a mother whose toddler had just taken her first steps. I even had the wallet photos to prove it!

Slowly we increased the height of her play gym. We provided more challenging climbing surfaces. Dance-time took on a new dimension. We were no longer slowly waltzing with the classics. We were swingin’ to the “Cherry Poppin’ Daddies!”

Encouraging Play

The fact that Hobbs did not play was disturbing. Her idea of a good time was searching for new feather growth. I wanted to teach her that there were more interesting things in life than self-mutilation. Play is an integral part of the learning process. Since she showed no interest in the toys she had, I began to look for ways to motivate her. I noticed that the pupils of her eyes were dilated most of the time. They did not pin and flash often. In order to find ways to stimulate her, I began watching what made her eyes change. Keetie and Houdini were definitely interesting; so were peanuts and mirrors. The colors yellow and red triggered a response as well. Hobbs seemed to enjoy her music box, but could not activate it.

As a result of these observations, Keetie and Houdini’s cages were moved closer so Hobbs could watch (but not touch) the other birds. Peanuts were offered as treats, and a small mirror adorned with strips of leather was placed in her cage. A motion-activated music box that played at the slightest touch replaced her old one. We offered paper and cardboard along with leather but, initially, they were of little interest. We started hiding her coveted peanuts in her cage and play gym. We also bought several labor-intensive food toys. Leather bags with holes punched in the sides were filled with treats, pellets and Lafeber’s Nutri-berries. A bird Kong toy, strung on a strip of leather, held a few sunflower seeds. A skewer suspended from the top of her cage held fresh fruits and veggies. The only foods served in a dish were her daily mash and supper. She had to work for all the good stuff. She was forced to climb and forage for a meal.

Eventually, I noticed her “beaking” the leather that surrounded her mirror and that held her treats. As her chewing became more aggressive, we began to tie soft wooden pieces and beads to the leather strips. Bells were added to make noise. She showed more interest in shredding toys. We began to keep several on hand for stressful times, like a trip to the vet or a feather-plucking spree. Phone books proved to provide hours of entertainment. Teaching her to use foot toys was more difficult. They were eventually placed in a bowl of treats so she would have to move them in order to get to the food. Hobbs can no longer be trusted to stay out of trouble. She knows exactly where her territories lie, but if my back is turned she will sneak a visit to Houdini or Keetie (both of whom object with vigor). She ventures toward my prized spider plant or pothos vine in an attempt to grab a mouthful before being discovered. A simple clearing of my throat alerts her to the fact that her escapades have been discovered and she scampers back to her perch, grabs a toy and watches closely for the next opportune moment. Her curiosity can easily put her in jeopardy, but it is also a welcome indication of healthy, normal behavior. Rather than scold her for such activities, I simply do a little “bird proofing” and remove temptations when they become overwhelming.

Music to Our Ears

At the time we had brought Hobbs home, she made very few sounds. She chirped, did the first half of a wolf whistle, growled, and made an annoying sound that resembled a smoke detector with low batteries. This last sound meant “cover my cage and go away.” Much to her chagrin, her cage cover was put into temporary storage.

Although charmed by the many stories we heard of talking African Greys, our immediate goal was not to have a “talking” bird, but rather, a noisy one. She had no interest in imitating us, so the obvious solution was for us to copy her. We actually started out with a recording of our smoke detector! I visited pet stores, and with permission, recorded bird rooms so Hobbs could hear other parrot calls. We dubbed her own voice onto these tapes and she began to recognize these sounds and copy them. In addition, we played nature tapes, speech training tapes, opera, rock and roll and children’s songs. Chris included her in clarinet practice. Tom entertained her with the piano. During the day, our home sounded more like a jungle than the Congo she came from.

Since speech wasn’t our main goal, we began to whistle. My husband and my sons Christopher and Thomas, are accomplished whistlers. Billy and I are not. William, Chris and Thomas set out to teach Hobbs the second half of a wolf whistle. They also copied any other new sounds she emitted. Six months later, their efforts were rewarded. During this period, another wonderful thing happened also. The smoke detector peep took on a new meaning. Instead of “go away” it became “come here, NOW.” It was her first contact call! In the months that followed, she learned to bark like our dog, meow like our cat, chirp like Keetie bird and cluck like an old hen.

Today she has quite a repertoire of chirps, squeaks, and squawks that she practices daily. More exciting is the guttural quality many of her sounds are beginning to assume. I have had several people tell me they heard her say “hello.” Regardless of her ability or inability to talk, every peep and squawk she utters is music.

A Recovering Plucker

Friends joked that sweet Hobbs was “oven-ready”. Her previous owner had tried ignoring her disturbing behavior and for awhile, I did the same. Hobbs had been aggressively abusing her feathers for years. Reinforcing non-plucking activities was difficult. I did not want plucking to become an attention-getting ploy. However, Hobbs wasn’t plucking to gain attention. On the contrary, attention was the last thing she wanted. Perhaps illness or poor socialization initially triggered this behavior, but now she plucked because it was soothing and she had nothing better to do. I decided behavior modification based on redirection might be more successful.

Hobbs was watched closely. We noticed her plucking sessions intensified mid-morning and early evening. When her grooming became aggressive and feathers began to fall, whomever was watching her would clear their throat, drop a small household item, nonchalantly rattle a piece of paper, turn on the radio, or simply walk past her perch. Since she was so distrustful, almost any noise or action would distract her. Picking was no longer a peaceful pastime.

After preening was interrupted, she was ignored for a minimum of thirty seconds. Then, wordlessly she would be approached and offered a treat, a piece of paper, leather, or small toy. If she accepted the item, we would walk away, then turn and verbally praise her for engaging in a productive activity. If she refused the offered item, she was moved to a new location. This system of distraction and redirection benefited Hobbs because it taught her alternatives to her destructive behavior and reinforced play. For this to be effective, great care was taken in assuring she did not associate our interference with her plucking. In order to accomplish this, it was extremely important to vary distractions and alternate activities. It was also important to distinguish between abhorrent and normal preening behavior.

During this time, there were setbacks. Chronic respiratory problems surfaced, and visits to the veterinarian were frequent. Hobbs required daily medication and nebulization. Plucking behavior would gradually disappear only to return with a fury. We added full spectrum lighting to her cage and this seemed to alleviate some of her distress.

Finally, a spring molt yielded a full set of bright new feathers. It has been 11 months since I found a clipped feather in Hobbs cage. Hobbs is not cured. She is a recovering plucker. Hopefully, by teaching her alternative behaviors through play, encouraging frequent baths and providing a healthful diet and environment, we will be able to minimize any relapses.

Unconventional Methods

The methods we used to socialize our sweet bird were not always what the books recommended. Hobbs had a specific set of problems, and it was difficult to find information pertaining to the socialization of a wild-caught, sensory-deprived bird with multiple owners. We tried to temper our program with common sense.

Not everyone would agree with our techniques. Without a doubt, using peanuts and treats for motivation temporarily compromised her diet. Initially, keeping her cage uncovered extended her bedtime and probably increased stress. When we disrupted plucking, we risked reinforcing the very behavior we were trying to eliminate. By giving her a mirror and creating a rival situation with a Furby, we could have dramatically increased aggression. We did what we felt was necessary to build a trusting relationship with Hobbs. We made mistakes and sometimes success was due to nothing more then dumb luck. But I know for certain there was one thing we did right. We refused to give up!

A Home of Her Own

A few weeks ago, our beloved cat of 18 years was dying. Old age had taken its toll. It was Sunday, and we had trouble contacting our vet. Billy was at college and I called him with the sad news. Then, I sat and held our cat and offered him what comfort I could. Within an hour, he was gone. I made arrangements for him and tearfully stood in front of Hobbs’ cage and explained that “Skunky” was gone and that we had loved him very much.

Shortly thereafter, Billy came rushing through the door. A friend had driven him home so he could say goodbye to the cat he had grown up with. Amazingly, as soon as Hobbs heard Billy’s voice, she began to “meow” repeatedly. On some level, she understood what had happened, and I truly believe she was grieving with us.

From the first day Hobbs entered our home, she had been a valued part of our family. But, it was at that precise moment that I realized something important had transpired over the past two years. Hobbs now considered us to be her family too. After ten years, Hobbs had found a home.


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