Managing Stress in African Grey Parrots

rasbrryMany of the behavior problems seen in Greys result from not permitting the bird to be a bird – or from a failure to understand and accept that Greys are prey animals from a wild world beyond our knowing and have little in common with familiar domesticated animals.

Greys are exotic beings from a strange land. They don’t understand our customs or our language. It is up to us, as guardians of a treasure, to treat them with the same care and courtesy one would offer a well-loved and welcome human visitor in our homes. We should be grateful they love and trust us; that they care enough about us to want to communicate with us in our own language; that they permit us to love them. We should rejoice when their wild instincts are overcome by the love they feel for us.

I have observed wild caught Greys in a pair or breeding situation and find that they are not aggressive. They do feel fear (justified) when the presence of humans intrudes. However, when closed circuit cameras are used to observe them, the birds fail to show aggression. They play, give and take food from one another, and groom and interact with each other in a non-aggressive manner. Aggressive behavior is, however, seen in breeding Greys who have been companion birds. Companion Greys, domestic and imported, are taught to be aggressive by humans.

Some reasons for aggression in companion Greys may be:

  • Lack of respect for their desires in non-safety related behavior or respect for their persons.
  • Lack of consideration or compassion for their captive and utterly dependent status.
  • Aggressive human actions or physical pain. Pushing, shoving, chasing or shaking a clipped bird is frightening and dangerous to that bird. Flicking the beak, dropping the bird to the floor or striking the bird anywhere on his body are completely foreign acts to an avian species to whom pain and aggression mean death is close.
  • Intimidation. Standing over a Grey, glaring, or staring to intimidate him impacts the sense of confidence and comfort which he needs in order to love and trust his human caregiver.
  • Domineering humans. A Grey, like other helpless and dependent beings, will be unable to trust humans who are critical and punishing and who wish to micro-manage natural actions.
  • Sensory deprivation as punishment. Would we place a child who misbehaves in a punishment situation involving sensory deprivation in an attempt to change behavior? Would that child love and trust us? Or would that child come to view us as a controlling and implacable being?

Birds are wild animals and comparing them to domesticated animals fails – in behavior, in intelligence and in most other ways. Trying to compare birds (prey animals) to predators – such as cats and dogs – is also invalid. Eradication of a bird’s genetic inheritance of prey behaviors will require thousands of generations of selective breeding, if such an eradication is possible.

There are many things that can cause stress in birds. If the stress level becomes too high, a bird can begin biting, self mutilate, pluck, or become phobic. Never try to dominate or punish a Grey. As one learns about birds and their natural activities, it becomes clear why these actions are stressful and should be avoided. You will only succeed in creating stress in the bird and losing your pet’s trust.

Intelligent and sensitive Greys suffer most when these punishing and control oriented approaches are used by human caregivers. They respond more positively and more appropriately to a human as teacher, guide, parental figure, mentor and caregiver. Positive reinforcement, encouragement, respect and a compassionate view of dependence works to shape behavior – in human children, in dogs, in horses……and in birds.


Some domesticated animals naturally strive for dominance. However, Greys are dramatically different. This fact must be taken into account when attempting to apply management techniques used on dogs and horses to the world of birds. Domesticated animals, for the most part, wish to please humans. A bird wishes to please himself.

A Grey does not strive for dominance – why should he? He sees himself, for the most part, as an equal who should be treated with courtesy, respect and allowed to live his life within a narrow range of acceptable behavior. The behaviors, I believe, that need be enforced in a Grey are “up” and “down”, no roaming and no biting. Beyond these, a bird should be allowed to be a bird – so long as his safety and health are not compromised. These guidelines are similar to things a child must learn if he is to grow to an adult – such as “Don’t play in the streets.”, “Don’t go off with strangers.”, “Look both ways before you cross the street.”, etc.

Micro-managing a bird’s life, as with a human child, creates resentment and smothers independence, self-confidence and self-reliance. Human attempts to dominate them lead to stress in Greys. Unlike dogs or horses, Greys will not accept the dominance of humans. I find the application of “pack” words to the description of the management of Greys distressing. Words like alpha, leader of the flock and dominance really have no place in the techniques used to manage a flock animal like a Grey. The attempt to establish ourselves as “leader”, “alpha” or “dominant” in a nonexistence flock hierarchy is counter to the instincts which drive our non-domesticated wild Greys. These attempts, I believe, create stress and are the root of many of the behavior and health problems that we see in so many Greys.


Punishment is very stress producing. Punished Greys learn – through fear, intimidation, isolation, physical and psychological pain – what can happen to them. The lack of comprehensive understanding by a wild animal, whose reality does not include the concept of punishment, is the real horror. The apparent randomness of the punishment – given the lack of cognitive understanding and reasoning and the instinctive rejection of punishment as a disciplinary tool – can cause psychic trauma of immense proportions. Aggression and physical pain mean death to the fragile body of a bird. That a bird does know. Fear biting can become habitual biting – a way for the bird to avoid the aggressive human acts which appear to be random and inappropriate in response to some instinctual behavior. The rebellion associated with coming of age triggers inappropriate responses in humans who fail to understand and appreciate that birds change as they mature. Roaming and exploration are important to young birds and are not done to trigger annoyance in humans. Vocalizing is the instinctive way to keep in contact with the flock. Vocalizing and calling is a way for a bird to reassure himself he is not alone and vulnerable.

Any apparent docility by a Grey in the aftermath of punishment is more likely a numb acceptance of apparently random and seemingly unavoidable punishment – acceptance without real understanding, coupled with fear, avoidance and resentment directed at the punishing human.

Striking a bird, dropping a bird to the floor, isolation in a small cage or carrier in a remote location, placing the bird in a bath tub or other inappropriate place as punishment, covering the cage as punishment, laddering, intimidation through staring or glaring are some worthless and counterproductive acts of punishment.

There are few ways to punish a Grey. Their physical fragility and emotional sensitivity preclude almost all types of punishment. Their psyches reject it. In any case, it doesn’t work – not in the long run. The bird knows who is punishing him – he just doesn’t understand why. But he will remember and not forgive the punisher.

Overhead Movement

The unique responses to outside stimuli by prey animals are very different than the responses of a predator. Staring, glaring, physical aggression and overhead movement are perceived as dangerous and life threatening. Even captive raised Greys will duck when a dark shape passes over. Don’t leave a bird outdoors on a porch or near a window where large birds can fly by and frighten him. Avoid standing over or hovering over a Grey in a threatening manner in an effort to intimidate him.

Flight Mechanism

The flight mechanism of a prey animal like a Grey is well developed – and must be for survival. The knowledge of the fragility of their bodies is in the genes. A clipped bird cannot fly away from a perceived danger or threat……. and our Greys must be clipped for their own safety in a human environment with its accompanying dangers and perils. This increases the stress level when a bird thinks he is being threatened.

Striking or Hitting

Striking a bird anywhere on his body, snatching a bird up roughly or bodily, shouting, an aggressive stance or movement, are frightening to birds. Their bones are much more fragile than the bones of mammals and they can easily be injured. They are built for flight, not fight with their hollow bones and other physical evolved adaptations for weight reduction.

Staring and Glaring

Glaring at a Grey in an attempt to intimidate him calls up the ancient self. It is no coincidence that frightened, abused or phobic birds should not be looked at straight on or stared at. Sideways looks are much less threatening. The full-on stare or glare is the predator’s intense look at his dinner. A Grey finds staring or glaring indicative of the close attention paid by the predator to his chosen target. Staring and glaring are threatening and intimidating.


Laddering a Grey, as punishment or behavior modification, in an unfamiliar area by a domineering human is an anxiety producing event. This kind of attempt to reinforce the mistaken notion that a Grey is a subservient being is long remembered and much resented. Permanent cessation of this futile exercise can, over time, diminish the anxiety and the resentment generated by this attempt at domination.


Any bird will be quiet when isolated or when faced with sensory deprivation from being placed alone in a dark room or having the cage covered as punishment or to correct unwanted behavior. For a prey animal that is dependent on his senses for life itself, this can be a devastating punishment. Putting a Grey in an empty bath tub or shower stall alone is an abhorrent act that will not be forgotten soon.

Punishing a bird with isolation doesn’t work. The bird may be quiet after he is isolated due to sensory deprivation. However, this doesn’t curb or stop the screaming/noise/biting or whatever behavior caused the isolation. He doesn’t make the connection between isolation and/or sensory deprivation and the behavior that causes it. A bird is not able to reason out cause and effect. If he knew what acts, instincts or behavior would cause isolation, he wouldn’t do them.

A Grey is thought to be comparable to a two-five year old human emotionally and mentally. Would you isolate a child this age to punish him or to modify his behavior?

Wing Clipping

The repeated removal of deeply seated flight feathers in the aftermath of broken blood feathers can lead to a fearful or phobic Grey. A proper wing clipping is paramount to ensure that Greys can control their bodies when they flutter to the floor. A controlled landing by a Grey who has fledged fully prior to clipping will prevent injury. Please read the article “Wingclipping and The African Grey” for my recommendation for clipping.

If a blood flight feather is injured, do all you can to avoid pulling it. Consult with your avian vet for recommended techniques to deal with an injured blood feather before the bird breaks one. Some of the recommendations may be: stopping the bleeding and gluing the break closed; packing the break with a paste of cornstarch and Aloe Vera Gel; pressure to stop the bleeding. Clipping the feather off where the shaft is mature and hard will help avoid further injury to the flight. Do not use a Quik Stop type product on a bleeding or broken blood feather. There is the danger of systemic toxicity. A paste of cornstarch and Aloe Vera Gel is much safer. Aloe is a soothing substance for wounds. It should be a part of an emergency first aid kit and should be refrigerated after opening.

If the feather must be removed, have it done at your avian vet’s office. Greys can and may become fearful of the owner for the great pain inflicted when a flight is pulled. The pain, the necessary restraint and the fear or panic of the owner at the bleeding can cause stress for the bird.

Clipping Nails

The use of one of the cement perches may lessen the stress associated with clipping the toenails. These perches reduce but do not eliminate the need for grooming the nails. The early introduction of a ceramic nail file or one of the nail files designed for use with artificial nails may further reduce the need for toenail clipping. If a bird or baby can be brought – patiently and gently – to accept the owner filing his nails, this may further reduce the need for grooming and the stress associated with restraint. If the sharp ends of the nails are clipped regularly, without pain or discomfort, the bird will be accepting of grooming without restraint – thus lessening stress from toweling.

Layne Dicker uses a great visual aid relating to stress in his lectures. 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.

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 which Layne describes. It is important to examine a bird’s entire environment, looking for multiple sources of stress, and eliminate as many as possible.

One of the more unfortunate signs of stress is feather destruction or self-mutilation. When a Grey discovers that plucking or mutilation relieve his inner anxieties, it can become habit forming unless immediate measures are taken to interrupt the bond that begins to form between temporary relief and habituation. A complete and thorough examination to rule out a physical or medical cause is a necessary first step.

The use of drugs and collars for plucking is always distressing – for the bird and for the owner. Birds who mutilate their bodies, however, may require one or both to save their lives. The precipitating events are sometimes obscure – the resolution, if possible, is time consuming and painful for all involved. Some drugs work with some humans, some don’t. Sometimes humans are prescribed one drug after another until the one that is best for them is discovered. This type of investigation may be necessary for a bird, too, if it has been determined that a drug is necessary to save his life.

Since mutilation may have the same mental root in birds as in people, drugs may work. It is clear that some mental distress affects self-mutilators who have no medical or physical cause for this behavior. Mutilating is a life-destroying act.

Any drug or calming herb or other preparation should only be administered at the direction of, and under the supervision of an avian vet. Careful and constant observation is necessary by the owner to avoid the sometimes serious adverse reactions. Do not medicate a bird for feather destruction or mutilation without consulting with an avian vet.

One of the coming of age behaviors that many pet owners find difficult to deal with is when the bird refuses to come from the cage on the “up” command. Offering the bird a choice of coming from the cage on the “up” command or coming from the cage in a towel has been a successful way to deal with this temporary situation. It is similar to offering a child the choice of taking his bath at 6pm or 8pm. He still has to take his bath but has control of when. Empowerment and choices make birds – and children – strong emotionally and self-confident.

Taking the bird from the cage in a towel must be done gently, unemotionally, with regret, without anxiety, without haste. The bird will choose to step up after a time or two of coming from the cage in a towel. Using a bath towel folded in half, place each hand on the underside of the towel for protection and gently envelop the bird in the towel. Do not compress the breast when removing him from the cage. Grasp him gently – around the body from the sides. Keep the towel near the cage. Don’t use a towel that is customarily used for grooming – have a special towel. Scolding the towel after removing it from the bird’s body can be effective. Gently place the bird on the cage top or play gym. Do not let him fall – make sure he is securely perching. Remove the towel gently from around his body and then scold the towel.

The next time the bird refuses to step up to come from the cage, show him the towel and ask, “Do you want the towel?” Give him the choice of the towel or coming out on the “up” command.

Birds who roam may need to be returned to the cage thousands of times until they learn they are not to roam. The only exception that I recommend is when the bird is coming directly to you. If there are any side trips, he should be returned immediately to the cage or play area. This needs to be done consistently – every single time the bird leaves the cage. If caught in the act of leaving the cage, he can be told, “Hey, get back on the cage.” It may take a number of times until he understands this phrase, but eventually he will understand. He may not comply but he will understand. Roaming and exploration are important to young birds. These are natural and normal acts. A bird who is not familiar with his environment is lunch in the wild.

Birds sometimes are noisy when their humans are trying to watch TV. They are often competing with the TV for attention. A bird will be less noisy when quiet is desired if he is provided with a time-consuming treat or given a new toy or favorite toy that is reserved for this type of occasion. Being placed on the cage top or a play area instead of being locked in the cage will also lessen the noise. Soft contact calls and frequent eye contact will reassure him he isn’t ignored or alone. A flock animal feels vulnerable when he is alone. Companionship and flock interaction is vital for survival in the wild setting and these traits do not change in our companion birds.

My experience is with my own pets and my own baby Greys. I don’t have these kinds of behavior problems reported in my own babies. I think this is because I have convinced and educated buyers of my birds that the methods so often used by others aren’t required. In fact, they are counter-productive if they want to keep the same sweet, tame bird I sold to them.

We need to understand our Greys. Ignore or divert their attention when they are exhibiting what we may perceive as annoying behaviors – as long as these natural or normal behaviors are unrelated to safety issues such as the “up ” and “down” commands, no roaming and no biting.

Biting is a result of not paying attention to the bird’s body language or a reaction to a dominating or threatening stance or act. Biting can become habitual from use of aggressive techniques which threaten or frighten the bird. Tame birds who are laddered as punishment bite more, not less. The owners who have stopped using aggressive and counter-productive techniques report a change for the better in their Greys. I hope through these articles to change the mindset of the controlling humans who want to micro-manage the lives of these wonderful creatures and transform their Greys into nice little robots who don’t bite or scream or annoy or pluck or roam.

In summary – do all you can to keep the load 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.

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