MATTIE SUE ATHAN
Biting African grey might want to nest
I've had my African grey since '78. She's always been a trusting parrot that only occasionally bit, but for the past month she has bitten me every time I go to reach for her. I have to trick her in order to pick her up, then we play and cuddle like we've always done. Would wing clipping tame her more? When I first got her, she plucked all her feathers but it never happened again. In the 80's she bit her feet. The vet made a hood for her and she stopped that, too. What can I do to reverse this latest behavior?
-- Richard Milton, Pacific Palisades, Calif.
YOUR BIRD could be cranky because of some sort of health problem. If she's molting, it could be a vitamin A deficiency, or even feather cysts. Is her appetite normal? If you've already verified her health with a trip to the veterinarian, I think you've run up against a genuine biological clock issue. This bird is probably saying, "Look here, I'm twentysomething and still not married! Where are the chicks!?"
In the wild, a cavity-breeding parrot like an African grey is at nest only a few months out of the year. Nest sites are precious; families can be made or lost depending upon the suitability of a nest site. Major battles are fought over nest sites. If your bird has somehow become "stuck" in a seasonal reproductive mode, you may be running into some prolonged nest-site territorialism.
A careful, sensitive professional wing trim by someone other than you might calm her a tad. If she's repeatedly flying toward and attacking people she might have to stay in the cage for a few weeks to break the pattern. But I think I'd just up her baths and give her a "nest site" to chew up. Try nesting a few new, clean cardboard boxes taped shut inside each other. Punch a few holes completely through one side. If she's very focused and knows what to do, she should destroy them within a day or two. If she needs help getting started, you can put some shredded paper inside and pull strands of it through the holes or try offering the nest in different locations.
If she doesn't get the hang of the boxes, she might prefer a clean brown paper bag laid on its side to chew up every day for a few weeks. As soon as the boxes or bags can no longer support their weight, remove them.
During this time, offer more "rainfall." Create a mini-monsoon season for her by spraying her at least once or twice daily. After she's done with the boxes or bags, back off on the baths and replace all temporary perches in the cage with nice fresh branches including bark (not manzanita, it's too hard and slick) and offer lots of new toys, especially new bells, and watch the magic. A mature female African grey might adopt a group of sweet-sounding bells as though they were chicks and make some beautiful music tending them.
Mattie Sue Athan is a companion parrot behavior consultant and best-selling author of numerous bird-care books, including Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot. Her latest book is Parrots in the City, an in-depth look at wild Quaker parakeets. She lives with six parrots, three wiener dogs, Larry the cat and, at any one time, two or three birds in rehabilitation and on their way to a new home.
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