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5 Lessons My African Grey Taught Me


Sometimes the biggest lessons in life come from the most surprising of places … especially when it’s in the form of a small African grey parrot with a big load of "baggage.”

Petrie, Timneh African grey
Petrie, a Timneh African grey, had a lot to teach his caregiver Cathy Coleman.

It’s not easy being a parrot … especially a rehomed one.

Confusion and fear often cause a lot of problems for a parrot that finds itself in yet another new household. Sadly, some parrots turn to self-mutilation to try to cope with their anxiety. [Ed note: If your bird is self-mutilating or feather picking, confirm with your avian veterinarian to determine if there is a medical cause.] And then there are those parrots who decide to take matters underneath their own "wings,” adopting the motto of "Bite first, ask questions later.”

"Wanna be my boyfriend?” Petrie, my tiny Timneh African grey inquired. He was cheeky and adorable… and looked completely innocent. In retrospect, it was a well-orchestrated scheme to get out of his too-small cage. His plan worked. Once free of its confines, Petrie wasted no time chomping onto my finger with the sole intention of severing it from my hand. Before I could wrestle him back into his cage, the pint-sized piranha scurried up my arm, and with lightning speed, latched the vice grip attached to his face tightly onto my earlobe. I don’t even remember how I got him off of my ear, but I do recall that he promptly regurgitated a wad of "Wanna be my boyfriend” on my shirt in celebration of his new-found "friendship.”

From Petrie, I learned five very important lessons about living with a small parrot that came with big baggage:

1) Don’t Be Fooled By A Pretty Face 
A lot of emotional turmoil can hide beneath the most beautiful, well-feathered parrot. I could tell that Petrie really wanted to connect with someone, but he was going about it all wrong. He would never find another loving home that way…and who in the world is going to adopt a bird who’s first … and second … reaction is to bite?

Well, hello there, that would be me.

Petrie had been abandoned, abused and "returned” numerous times in his young life. All that uncertainty only helped establish a pattern of fear-biting. I was bitten when asking him to "step up.” I was bitten when offering to scratch his head. How was I going to help this little bird understand that I truly meant no harm?

2) Turn A Negative Into A Positive 
Hawks are predators. Humans are predators. Parrots are prey animals. Most parrots instinctively know that other creatures on the planet would like to eat them. This instinct allows them to fight or take flight if they suspect their life is in danger … real or imagined. Petrie did not know what to expect from me, so biting was his first response to everything. It was time to turn that around.

Instead of bringing my hand into Petrie’s personal space, I decided to try something different and ask Petrie to come into mine. I placed my hand palm down on the counter near where Petrie was perched, and asked, "Wanna go watch TV?” I was surprised when he quietly walked over, stepped onto my hand, and sat there looking up at me. Everything started to change from there.

3) Take Off The Pressure
Prey animals do not respond to continuous pressure: to them it is like being stalked by a lion. They never know when the lion is going to pounce, but they have a pretty good idea it’s gonna happen. For a prey animal, allowing them to take two steps back often makes it easier for them to take two steps forward.

Petrie, Timneh African grey
If you want your bird to understand that you mean no harm, one ways is to respect his boundaries and let him approach you on his own terms.

Touching Petrie? Hello gunfire and Band-Aids. Petrie’s gunfire imitation was clearly a "warning shot.” Proceeding past that signal put him on the defense. Someone was going to get hurt … and it wasn’t going to be him. I wanted to try a similar approach/retreat method that I use when working with unconfident horses. Horses are also prey animals. They build confidence when they can approach something fearful on their own terms, retreat when necessary… then repeat the process over and over until they are no longer afraid.

One night, while Petrie was sitting on the back of the couch, I looked over at him and said, "Petrie, you wanna a little scratch?” I wiggled my fingers above the couch a few feet away from him. Petrie walked over to where my fingers were, bowed his head, fluffed up his feathers and closed his eyes. He quietly allowed me to scratch his head. After a few minutes, he moved away. A few minutes later, he approached my hand again and was rewarded with another scratch.

Petrie, Timneh African grey
Petrie went from "bite first, ask questions later" to a bird who has acclimated to his home. 

It can take years for a parrot to acclimate to a new home and the people in it. The parrots that we bring home are usually not the same parrots down the road. It takes a while for them to feel safe, to let their guard down, and allow us to love them.

4) Answer All Questions Honestly
Many adopted parrots come into our lives "As Is” and we are left to try and put the pieces of their lives together on our own.

"Where’s Robert?”

I turned around to look at Petrie. He sat there, expectantly waiting for an answer. It had been almost a year, and that was the first time Petrie had spoken. I felt a sense of sadness for my cavalier little gunslinger. When someone… even a parrot… asks a question, they deserve an answer.

"I don’t know where Robert is, Petrie. But you are here now and I love you very much.”

Petrie studied me intently for a moment, digesting the words. He bobbed his head up and down, and puffed out his feathers. I took that as an acceptance. I smiled and turned back to my work. I heard Petrie say in a quiet voice, "Oh…OK. Good bird.” I knew then that Petrie understood. He never asked about Robert again.

I’m a big believer in Karma. Karma puts us where we need to be. Karma brings others in to change our lives …but sometimes Karma puts us in place to change the lives of others … even parrots. We need to continue to remind ourselves that we are not the only intelligent creatures on this planet … not the only ones that "feel.” To assign such a belief only to ourselves further dulls our senses and consciousness to an already hardened world.

5) Love Them For Who They Are ... Not Who We Want Them To Be
The parrots living in our homes did not ask to be brought into the world this way. They did not ask for a caged life. They did not ask to be separated from their loved ones as tiny babies. And yet we expect so much from them, when they ask so little from us.

My relationship with Petrie has been one that requires constant patience and understanding … but that dedication has been continually rewarded with seeing a once fearful parrot blossom into a talkative, mostly-adjusted, happy bird. I know that a bite from time to time is probably still in my future. I accept that. I don’t expect Petrie to be perfect. I accept him for who he is. I love him for who he tries to be.


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