Dot Schwarz tells us why African Greys are fun.
I take Artha and Casper for an outing wearing their harnesses shopping or to the park. I’m often asked, ‘How do they get to be so well behaved?’ Here are some answers.
First piece of luck was that having decided that African Greys were the best choice for elderly first time owners, I already knew a caring and conscientious breeder. Barrett Watson and his partner Tim Davies had hand reared Artha from the age of 2 weeks.
When she came home fully weaned at 12 weeks she already knew how to step up and was used to household noises like hoovers. Barrett had put a harness on her at feeding times, the easiest way to harness train a Parrot. As the best breeders allow, and indeed encourage, I’d visited Artha in her nursery a couple of times before I took her home.
Her first eighteen months were an unmitigated delight of fun and learning for both of us. If anyone tells you baby birds are in danger of windows, it is not true. You have to smear glass with window cleaner or stick tape for a few weeks until the bird learns what windows are. (If you use window cleaner you end up with extra clean windows!)
She began to speak English at 6 months and rapidly developed a vocabulary of 150 words and 30 sounds. I guess maybe 30% were used in the correct context – like ‘Goodbye
‘‘Good morning,’ or ‘Want a grape.’ She transposed words as well For Gorgio Porgies, pudding and pie kissed the girls … , She said, ‘Artha Paratha pudden’n’pie kissed the girls …’
Did she know the meaning when she asked ‘I am a Parrot. What are you?’ Or I can fly. Can you?’ I don’t think she did but it was cute to hear her.
When Artha was 18 months old, my husband and I decided to get a second Parrot for Artha’s sake and mine. Artha dominated my life too much and I didn’t like leaving her alone. She would probably outlive me and any new carer would be unlikely to give her as much time as I did. I looked forward to watching two Parrots interact.
I asked experienced owners and breeders for advice on same or different species. The general opinion was that the same species were easier to acclimatise together but Artha could become less bonded to me. She might also resent a newcomer of any species. I was prepared for these risks.
Barrett Watson had an African Grey born from different parents. I took Artha to visit the 4-week old chick, who was being hand reared with a Moluccan. While I admired him, I completely forgot that I had a weaned baby Amazon on my shoulder. All Barrett’s babies were so friendly!
From my notes:
August 15th. Second visit.
Barrett has brought the baby to the stable yard. The baby is in a crate in the tack room. Artha, who knows the tack room, flies on top of her mother’s cage. (Her mother lives and breeds in the tack room.) Her mother comes out of the nest box and tries to bite her toes.
Artha flies to the top shelf and perches on a pile of horse blankets. Barrett brings the baby out of the crate and puts him on my hand. He hasn’t learnt ‘step up’ yet. The baby’s red tail feathers are so new that they curl up at the ends like a drake’s.
I fall in love immediately. Artha flies down to my other hand. This is the moment. How will she react? What she does is amazing! She tries to feed the baby; they rub beaks. She grooms its eyelashes then loses interest and flies back to her vantage point.
‘That went off all right,’ says Barrett, who never flaps. Artha and I were both captivated at second sight. ‘She might not be so friendly in her home territory,’ Barrett warns. We shall see.
On the drive home Artha refused to talk or sing as she usually does in the car, even with the encouragement of Radio 2.
The integration of Casper some weeks later into the household went smoothly. I let them squabble when they chose. They also preferred to share the large King’s Cage. .
I fulfilled one of my lifetime ambitions and installed a conservatory (4 x 5 metre) only now it was meant for birds not only plants.
Monday, September 27th:
A quiet day at home with both parrots. Artha is talking less since Casper came. He can fly easily to me now. But he squeaks for 3 spoon-feeds a day. Whether this is going backward because of the move to the conservatory I don’t know? But I have been giving him half cups full of baby food.
Wednesday: First vet visit and Casper behaved beautifully while he was micro chipped. Artha has lost weight; she is 420 grams, Casper is 460 grams. Ben, the vet, was amazed at his calm temperament. He let me listen on the stethoscope to both birds’ heartbeats, Casper’s considerably slower than Artha’s.
Monday October 8th: Both Parrots now enjoy the conservatory. I’ve added tree branches with dried rocket plants and twigs attached that they nibble.
Casper after a trip to the pet shop to buy birdseed and various errands was so tired that he went to bed at 7.45 p.m. Without a squeak. While he was demanding a spoon feed tonight the two German Shepherds came and asked for some too.
Casper reared up but let them share spoonfuls. Telling this story on the Internet, a correspondent told me Casper would be prey to all sorts of mammalian germs.
Friday October 19th: Casper has been here one month. Tonight I checked on the two birds in the conservatory. For the first time they are sleeping side by side. This is what I wanted to happen but I can’t help feeling a tad jealous that Artha will no longer be my loving companion.
Both birds come with us when we walk the dogs. If I take both, one on either shoulder, they squabble. Wal has to take one. Artha has recommenced talking and says ‘You’re a good boy,’ all day long.
One interesting development that no one expert or hobbyist, book or article has ever been able to explain satisfactorily is why Artha stopped speaking English some months after Casper’s arrival.
He learned to whistle and sing and speak a few words but her extensive vocabulary dried up. She nowadays still sings and whistles but no longer communicates in English (or French of which she knew a few phrases.).
Casper has become larger than Artha weighs about 50 grams more. His claws are longer and beak and head are bigger than hers.
The 2 birds became an increasing delight. People told me that an over bonded Parrot like Artha would act jealous but so far the ‘experts’ were wrong. Artha did not change at all. I was, and fourteen years later, am still her favourite flock member but she could do so many things with Casper that she could never do with me.
I have never been able to swing by one leg from an elastic rope and whistle at the same time. Nor could I really cope with having my eyelashes tweaked but Casper adored it. Another strange situation is that although friends, they can share a cage or a crate, they have never bonded or mated.
Casper bonded with a 17 year old wild caught hen that I took in and they laid eggs which were not fertile. When the hen died of furred arteries from too much sunflower, Casper ripped out his chest feathers. They had bonded for eight months. I think Casper remembers her. He often perches next to the nest box they shared.
Luck does play a part in bird husbandry. I have written a lot about retrieving escaped birds and too much of it was personal experience. But I have learned from my mistakes.
From my notes:
Bringing them indoors after an afternoon in the outdoor cage I neglected to put my thumb on Artha’s claw. Away she went high and straight towards the village. Casper back in the cage whistled and called. We spent an hour searching every nearby field. No Artha.
We were giving up for the night when I took a last look into our field. Artha was perched on a tree. When my friend attempted to bend down the branch it cracked and she flew off into a higher nearby tree. It was almost dark.
As I turned to go into the house and fetch Wal, a ladder, some advice, she flew DOWN to me. I grabbed her and took her in. She seemed delighted to me home and spent the evening on my shoulder head bobbing and preening me.
Young Casper became an escape artist. He has not found an open window or a latched stone door for several years. However, on occasions when he has flown outside and I have located him, he has flown down to me or stepped up onto a stick.
Recall training a mixed success
Hoping one day to let the Greys fly outside made me concentrate on recall training. I have never achieved 100% success. When I opened the fridge door both Greys materialised from wherever they were and were on my arm straightaway.
But calling them from a perch or from another room elicits a contact whistle most times, no response quite often and occasionally a bird arriving on my arm. What has been successful – training both birds to step- jump onto a long pole? This technique I use to bring them inside from the aviary when they perch under the roof and won’t fly down.
One time I took Artha to free fly in a church. She flew to a ledge in the nave way out of reach. For forty minutes, she’d not budge. However, a ladder, a broom and an almond made her change her mind. After that behaviour, I kept Casper on his harness.
Once I had built the aviary for the two Greys to enjoy sunshine and fresh air, I began to accept rescues and rehomes. And being semi-retired from teaching, I went on as many bird training courses and read as many books as I could. Nowadays, there is much better information on Internet than when I sought training how to be a trainer.
In our enlarging flock situation, as he matured, Casper took the role of senior bird. Sadly for him Benni Macaw is now over one year old and has usurped his position.
Find everything you need for the fun African Grey Parrot here.