Perturbed parrot pesters perceived patsy
January 9, 2011 7:35 PM   Subscribe

ParrotFilter: Help me win the affection of my new beau's sweet but territorial African Grey.

I've been seeing the guy in question regularly since Halloween. I define regularly as hanging out at his house 2-3 or sometimes more days per week, which often includes spending the night. Boy has a 2 year old male African Grey. Boy has not really dated, nor has had a serious girlfriend in the 1 1/2 years he's had Bird, and has thus developed a strong bond with Bird.

Boy has tried unsuccessfully to get me to pet/interact with Bird. We both feel we are approaching it properly - Boy will wait until he knows Bird is calm and happy, tells me exactly how to present my hand/make contact with Bird, reassures Bird the entire time, but I always end up getting bitten. Not just nipped or nibbled, but bitten: beak clamped down to the point where he will either draw blood or leave a nasty bruise. Luckily this has been relegated to fingers, except for very recently. Bird flew to my shoulder when Boy was not in the room, and proceeded to clamp down repeatedly on my ear, drawing blood and scaring the everloving shit out of me. I tried to stay as calm as possible, made very little noise, and got him off of me by shrugging my shoulder to get him to fly away.

I definitely understand where Bird is coming from. Before I came along, he had Boy's undivided attention. I'm guessing Bird is feeling confused by a break in his normal routine, and jealous that someone else has entered the fold. I really like the guy, and I really like the bird (really, I do! I don't hold grudges against the little bugger). The guy really likes me, and I want the bird to as well. My question is, what can I do for Bird to help ease the transition of me being in Boy's life? Should I keep trying to interact with Bird, or let him have his space until he gets more comfortable with me? Is there anything Boy could do to let bird know that everything will be ok in the end? How should I react when I get bitten in the future?

Possibly relevant background info:
Boy and I are both in our mid 20s. Boy is at work for up to 8 hours/day during the workweek during which time Bird is locked in his (large) cage. Bird's cage is in Boy's room, though Bird sleeps outside the cage, and spends most of his time outside the cage when Boy is home. Boy is admittedly bad about keeping a consistent routine with Bird. Bird's wings are not clipped, and Bird is able to navigate the house pretty quickly. Bird (quite predictably) likes to destroy expensive electronics. Bird gets along well with Boy's roommate and friends. Bird is extremely affectionate with Boy. Boy just read somewhere that it is unwise to pet Bird below his neckline, as doing otherwise can trigger territorial/possessive instincts within Bird and is trying to change his petting/holding habits.

TL/DR: My new boyfriend has a two year old african grey. I adore the bird, but he seems to hate my existence and likes to assert that at an ever increasing pace. Any tips for getting a notoriously standoffish parrot to like you?
posted by Gonestarfishing to Pets & Animals (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Put the bird in the cage when you're there. I don't understand why your boyfriend is letting his pet attack you.
posted by runningwithscissors at 7:51 PM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

This book is really good, and describes how to handle situations just like this. Lots of good ideas in it, though the author is pretty adamant about clipping, which I'm not sure I agree with. Though, I have read that sometimes a temporary wing clip can help when training a bird. If you dig Livejournal, the Parrot lovers community is an excellent resource, there's lots of really knowledgeable poeple there who are happy to answer questions.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:52 PM on January 9, 2011

Best answer: I would not force interactions with the bird, as birds will typically just do what they want to/can get away with. If the bird is routinely getting away with biting the hell out of you, that is something to take up with the boy. If there's no negative feedback on this behavior, like closet time or covered cage time, you may well expect it to persist.
If presented with the same scenario from the get go, I might just essentially ignore the bird to the extent that it must now ask for my attention and get the upper hand that way. The caveat here is that I'm also not familiar with many success stories on this line, and operate from the perspective that you cannot force birds to like anyone, they either choose to, or are forced to tolerate. So mileage will vary from bird to bird and person to person.

See also this comic, with the second part gender reversed.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:59 PM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @runningwithscissors: Boy does NOT let Bird attack me. Whenever I get bitten, Bird is apparently calm and happy, but either of us prompting interaction with me sets him off. This is also not indicative of every single interaction with Bird. I don't want the bird to get the idea that me being around=he has to automatically be put into time out. The bird is going to be around for the rest of this guy's life, if there's any type of future in this thing, we're going to have to figure out some sort of reasonable solution that doesn't involve perceived punishment when I'm around.

@5_13_23...: Thanks for the book rec, will definitely look it up. Forgot to add that Boy is seriously considering a temporary wing clip on bird, though he and I both have our reservations about it. Will def check out the LiveJournal community.

@Cold Lurkey: Whenever Bird shows stress/aggression/territoriality towards me or others, he gets locked in the cage. There is definitely negative feedback in that sense. Bird does not get away with attacking me. There are repercussions, however as previously mentioned I don't want Bird to get the sense that whenever I'm around, it's cage time...somehow I feel like it would just create a negative feedback loop. I get your idea of basically ignoring the bird though...I've always been good with animals/have easily been able to assert my dominance, but have had no idea how to approach this strange and fascinating creature. In retrospect it makes sense to pay it little attention unless it wants to interact with me, given the fact that it pretty much doesn't want me around. Also, the comic made me lol, as previously I've wondered to myself if the parrot in question is a dealbreaker...heh.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 8:42 PM on January 9, 2011

I had birds for a while, I use to breed birds and sell them for a money. I hate birds.

So locking it up is a bad idea. All the bird will remember is that you come over and it gets locked up.

I have always clipped the wings of my birds, it takes all of 2 min and they grow back fast. Yes they look dumb for the first two weeks.

Ignore the bird. If it calms down, open the door to the cage. STILL IGNORE THE BIRD. If the bird starts to attack you (with clipped wings) brush the bird off and STILL IGNORE THE BIRD. After a while the bird will stop. It might not like you, but it will not attack you.

Grays are smart, they will learn and adapt. They will also feel your hatred for the dumb bird. You have to not look at, not interact with, not think about the bird. After it learns that you are not a threat you can build a bond with it. Just keep treats with you in his place and make sure that positive behavior gets rewarded. Punishing almost any animal is a mistake. It just makes them hate you. They are too dumb most of the time to understand why they are being punished. So they just associate you with punishment.

Good luck, I fucking hate birds.
posted by Felex at 9:05 PM on January 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

My roommate had an African Gray in college and he was about as smart as an 8 year old kid only more evil. He adored me and would walk around after me cooing and chortling and yes, tried to attack anyone who got too close, including my dog. We used a spray bottle and "No!" to teach him that attacking was not OK (the poor saintly dog would just stand there with a parrot furiously pulling on her tail and sigh*). It worked, kind of. He would briefly attack someone then shriek "no! no! bad bird! In your cage" and put himself in his cage, then he'd hop around a bit and say "I'm sorry!" and let himself back out. At that point I started to think he was just fucking with us all along.

Parrots are emotional little egomaniacs, I think the best way to make friends with them is treats and over-the-top praise for any good actions. They like treats and also feeling special. Just don't teach him to whistle "Bridge over the river Kwai", you'll regret that.
posted by fshgrl at 9:56 PM on January 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

My family has a grey who loves my dad, tolerates me, and hates everyone else in the family.

Instead of coming straight at the bird with a bare hand, try picking it up with a thin towel/blanket on your hand and encourage the bird to step onto your hand (this will be much easier if the bird has been taught a command like "Step up"). Get the bird used to being around you in a situation where even if it bites you, it does absolutely nothing to you.

If that doesn't work, ignore it until it's used to you. Also, your boyfriend needs to be in high alert and if you are in the same room with the bird, he needs to be there too. There is absolutely no reason that the bird should be able to fly across the bird, land on your shoulder, and bite your ear/draw blood without your boyfriend stopping it.
posted by kro at 9:59 PM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

One day, after working at it really really hard for about 6 months, I achieved something I like to call "Avian Consciousness" and I finally made real friends with my first bird pal. Ever since, I get along with any new bird I meet, just like you might "make friends" with a dog or cat.

I think everyone here possessing lots of direct experience with Greys can give you good practical advice, but I believe you also will need to develop a little Avian Consciousness to help facilitate the relationship between you and this bird.

Go to bird stores. Watch. Be quiet and try to figure the birds out. Watch them interact with each other, with the folks in the store. It's hard to learn their language. Birds are weird, they're different. Eventually you'll start to see patterns. Watch your boyfriend with his bird. Try to intuit the language they use with each other.

Do follow the practical advice everyone gives you, but also try to get in tune with your boyfriend's African Grey. Maybe you'll never be friends with this particular bird, but it might help make your time in his prescence more comfortable for both of you if he discovers you've begun to understand him even a little.

sorry if my advice sounds silly or ethereal. my advice is kinda silly and ethereal! it's hard learning birds if you don't have a natural affinity for them. just wanted to tell you it is possible to develop that affinity... for me it took a lot of listening and patience. if you apply the listening and patience to your process, I doubt it will hurt and it may be the "trick" you've been missing. my entire answer depends on your belief that this bird is capable and worthy of respectful communication. Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 11:02 PM on January 9, 2011

African Grey's are fairly monogamous, but probably not as fiercely as some other birds. You likely won't win its affection in the same way as your boyfriend has, and it's definitely noticing the deviation from its normal amounts of attention, and is finding that threatening. Easing your way in with treats is a good way to start until it feels more comfortable with your presence. Just be prepared to be attacked more in the future...just try not to react too drastically or escalate that reinforcement that you = punishment.

There are plenty of good books out there on grey's too you might want to look into.
posted by samsara at 5:46 AM on January 10, 2011

fshgrl, that is the best bird story I've heard since the Moth's podcast on Alex.

And I don't know birds, I can't say I particularly like birds, their tiny brains scare me, they don't have ears like dogs and cats and horses so I can't read their mood, B U T I've never known a pet (or child, honestly) that can't be somewhat won over treats. I assume you're on that already and/or it doesn't work with birds, but it didn't seem to have been mentioned so I thought I'd say it.
posted by maryr at 10:30 AM on January 10, 2011

won over *with* treats, that is.
posted by maryr at 10:31 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Alright, wading in here again, but this time with personal anecdata, I am the focus of a dedicated monk parakeet, living with a loving spouse who does not share the bird's affection.
1. Treats. My bird likes food, but he's not really food motivated. This makes affection a hard barter. Winning of affection is not gained through treats when for many birds the weird pairbonded behavior is the ultimate reward. Like allopreening, my bird would walk over glass for some allopreening. Foods, eh, they come and go. He does not reciprocate my spouse's feeding of him with affection, just bullyish expectations of more. I'm still the focus of his attention and affection.
2. Punishment. I'll go out on a limb here, but with my bird, you do have to take the angry toddler approach to discipline. Yes, they are smart enough to anticipate when punishment can occur, i.e. when you're around. But they are smarter still to know when specific actions precipitate it. With an African Grey, you ought to give them the credit for nuances. My bird had a predilection for swooping at the spouse. This made spouse upset. After I caught the bird and closeted him (we have a cage in the hall closet, specifically for birdy time-out time) a few times when he had been swooping, that stopped. He also gets closeted for biting... anyone. My thoughts are that if he's allowed to bite me, his forever fixation, then he'll have no restraint with anyone else. So anything other than a cuticle trimming nibble on me (see allopreening) and he gets closeted.
Such that, if the bird is exquisitely well behaved, except when you're around, and never punished otherwise, then yeah, the connection between you and punishment is hard to break. However, if there's more borderline behavior that goes on when you're not around perhaps it's time for boyo to start upping the standards on birdo. My suggestion is that if there's any biting, whatsoever, then punishment commences immediately. Thus it is a generalized negative for the bird, and one not directly associated with you.
3. Generalizations. I think your approach is good, birds are strange and fascinating creatures, one which you recognize the intelligence of and want appreciation from for yourself. They are not, however, domesticated animals or easily generalizable individuals. This one may be a deal breaker, if it simply won't accept change in its human environment. Birds are amenable to behavior correction and discipline just like other animal so don't let them fool you with the talky talky bits. And difficult birds, like any difficult human, require both empathy and emotional distance.
Finally, (ugh I know) if the boy balks at any correction to his bird husbandry, just tell him that some stranger from the internet really wishes that their own, personal, internet stranger bird was better socialized so that his sparkling personality could come out regardless of who was in the room. If I had the ability to start over with my bird, I would not let him get so myopic in his affections and make him be a more social animal. Allopreening for everyone!
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:51 PM on January 10, 2011

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