By Sally Blanchard
1. Teaching Labels
While not all African greys are excellent talkers, I think the ones that are usually have caregivers who spend some time teaching them to talk. This does not mean repeating words or expressions over and over, which will eventually drive both you and the bird crazy.
Greys are social learners, and the best way to give your grey an advanced vocabulary is to label just about everything you do so that the bird can hear you clearly. When you leave, say something like “Good bye, see you later.” When you come home say, “Good to see you!”; Label foods, “Wanna bite, apple?” and food events, “It’s breakfast time.” Events can be labeled, “Do you want to shower?” or “Let’s sort the mail!?” or “How about a head skritch?” or the more common, “Want a kiss?” The play part of all this becomes evident when the African grey uses these words and expressions appropriately to tell you what it wants. Sometimes you can set up a game by teaching the words ahead of time.
For example, back in the days before so much communication took place through email, a friend of mine got a lot of mail every day. When she brought it into the house, she would say, “Let’s sort the mail” and her pet African grey would always help her sort it. Mostly she gave him the junk mail and envelopes for him to either rip up or throw across the room. Of course, he looked forward to the mail arriving, and it became an important game for him. He could usually tell when the mail came, and shortly after my friend started labeling the game her pet African grey would say, “Let’s sort the mail” when she got up to get it.
2. Teaching Responses
Another fun game that you can play with a talking African grey is to teach it to respond correctly to your questions. Over a period of time, I taught my grey about 15 or so animal sounds as a response to a question. There was a trick to teaching the response and not what I said first. For example, I would say, “Cat got your tongue?” in a very quiet voice with little or no enthusiasm, and then I would imitate a cat’s meow in a loud and enthusiastic manner. Parrots are more likely so say something they hear if it is said with enthusiasm. As she learned one response, I would teach her another. I’d quietly say, “Nice weather for ducks” and then do an enthusiastic “Quack, quack.” The fun part of it that we both enjoyed was when I was busy with something else, and she was on her cage, and I would look at her and say, “I live in a jungle” and she would do the Howler monkey call I taught her. It was a fun game when I would “test” her on her animal sounds.
3. Teaching Basic Tricks
I have written a lot about a basic trick that I think is really easy to teach most parrots, including African greys. The easiest one is “Gimme Four.” The way I teach this trick is through patterning and repetition.
First, I get the grey on my hand in such a way that he only has one foot on my hand. The other foot is just kind of hanging. I make sure that the bird is balanced as it sits on my hand so it is not uncomfortable. Then I take my open hand and gently push it against the hanging foot and say, “Gimme four.” I do this no more than 10 times in a row and then let the pet bird sit with both feet on my hand. Then I gently push into the foot again so the pet bird will raise it and say, “Gimme four” again.
If the bird shows any indication of lifting the foot for me, I praise it. I might repeat this process several times over a few hours or even a few days, but I find that most greys pick it up after only a few times. When his caregiver reaches over to pick him up, one grey I know says, “Gimme four” and lifts his food for her to gently push against. It has become a fun ritual for him.
Another fun trick to teach is “I’m Gonna Getchew.” When Bongo Marie, my African grey, first came to live with me, she was terrified of almost everything but particularly of being sprayed with water for a bath. I found that getting her used to being showered was a matter of spraying a gentle mist of water next to her instead of at her. It took a few months, but she finally began to look forward to her shower and actually asked for it. One of the reasons is that I would spray myself in the face with water first and then mist her. A few months after that, she was comfortable enough with being sprayed that we had developed a game. She would see me pick up the spray bottle and say, “I’m gonna getchew!” and I would squirt her and then she would say, “Oh oh, ya got me!”
4. Warm Potato
A lot of people think that African greys are one-person birds, but they actually are capable of forming bonds with several people. These bonds may be different. For example, there is often a most-favored person and a less-favored person. The best way of evening the score is for everyone in the African grey’s family to sit down in the living room and to slowly pass the pet bird from person to person. Each person does something special that the African grey really loves. It can be whistling a short tune, singing a song, teaching a new word or expression, playing “Gimme Four” laughing and making silly faces, giving a head skritch or even giving the pet bird a special treat. Each person only handles the pet bird for a few minutes before the next person reaches over and says “Up” to get the pet grey to step on his or her hand.