WINNING THE TRUST OF BONGO MARIE - A VERY SICK AND TERRIFIED AFRICAN GREY
by Sally Blanchard
Sometimes we are lucky when we adopt a problematic parrot and we may never know it unless we take the time and have the patience to change the bird’s life. Changing their lives can actually change our lives. Although I had been fascinated with birds for years, I was just getting involved with parrots. It was 1976 and friends of mine had purchased a little runt of an African grey at a bird club auction. She was auctioned as a baby but that certainly wasn't true with her yellow eyes and rough feet. It was a rescue because she was very sick. My friends named her Bongo but decided that they were not going to be able to give the bird what she needed to restore her health so she came to live with me. I had a wonderful dog vet we managed to get her past most of her chronic health problems including a massive sinus infection that had caused a deformed nare. We determined that she was most likely a wild-caught Ghana grey because she was very small and very dark.
When Bongo first came into my home, she was terrified — as terrified as any creature I have ever seen in my life. I let her out of the carrier into her cage and left her there to relax but at that time, she did not know the concept of relaxing. I also did not have the experience of years of working with parrots and I certainly wasn’t confident that I would be able to change her extremely fearful behaviors. There was no doubt that her overwhelming fear made me very tentative about working with her. Every time I even looked at her, she threw herself on the floor of the cage, landing on her back somehow being supported by her wings with her feet defensively flailing about. She growled with that bloodcurdling guttural growl that wild-caught greys make when they are severely threatened. If you heard this, you will not understand how disturbing it can be.
She wanted nothing to do with me. I knew one thing for sure — it would take a very long time to convince this bird that she could trust me. I really had no expectations because I had no idea what Greys were supposed to be like. All I knew was that I better not be in a hurry.
For some time after she had finished her medication, she still threw herself on the bottom of the cage screaming and growling as if I was going to swoop her up and devour her. Her cage was in the kitchen right between the living room and dining room door in a high traffic area. It didn’t take me long to realize that if I was in a hurry and just walked through without stopping to talk to her, she didn’t throw herself down or scream. It was only when I stopped and focused on her that she reacted with such fear. Was ignoring her the key to winning her over? That seemed to be the exact opposite of what seemed logical to me but essentially that was what I did. I didn’t exactly ignore her but I did stop making direct eye contact with her. I started stopping at her cage and talking to her calmly without ever looking at her. Even though this did stress her some, she stayed on her perch. I got into the habit of stopping every time I walked by her but I always stood with my head lowered and turned away. Sometimes I talked to her; sometimes I sang, hummed, or made kissy sounds in the air but I rarely made direct eye contact with her.
Gradually she became more and more comfortable with me being there and I interacted with her more frequently. Sometimes I would sit at the kitchen table and read the newspaper to her in the morning. After she became comfortable with my presence, I started making some soft eye contact with her but I would slowly lower my head and look away so she wasn’t threatened by my gaze. Later I called this technique of working with phobic birds, “Nurturing Submission.” There is no doubt in my mind that this is the best way to win the trust of any extremely fearful or phobic parrot. It was almost six weeks before she was comfortable enough to stay on her perch and stop throwing herself on the cage floor when I looked at her — even if for only a brief moment. I paid close attention to her to judge when I should take the next step rather than trying to force her on to my schedule. Since I had no specific expectations and had no idea about her potential, it was easy to work at her pace. I set no timetable for progress nor did I have any deadline in mind as to when she should be “tame.” My agenda, although I didn’t actually know it at the time, was to get her to trust me. That would mean she would be tame to me.
Gradually she became more comfortable with my brief and non-threatening gaze and a few weeks after that something occurred that made me decide that she was definitely a keeper. The only previous sounds I had heard out of Bongo was that terrified growl and some squawking. I had been gone for most of the day and when I walked in the front door, my dogs always greeted me enthusiastically and my young Double-yellow Headed Amazon, Paco, always said: “Hello — Hiya Sally" (actually pronounced Sawwi). After I greeted everyone else, I walked into the kitchen to greet Bongo. I looked at her briefly with my head lowered and then as I began to look away, she looked up at me with her head hunched down and uttered the most plaintive "hewwo" that I had ever heard. This one word was all the reward I needed for my weeks of patience. I sat down in the kitchen and cried. Eventually, she developed an extensive and even cognitive vocabulary. Over time, she also had a wonderful sense of both humor and mischief.
Gradually and patiently, I got her used to my hands and then got her to step on my hand. The key was to keep my head lowered so I didn't seem like a predator to her. Everything I did was based on her comfort level. I tried not to rush her and if I did, I had to go back a few steps and start again. In time, she was getting comfortable with my hands and after spending weeks showing her that she could trust me, she started stepping on my hand. Eventually, she learned to say "skritch, skritch" to ask me to give her a head rub. A few weeks later she started complementing herself by saying "that's a good girl."
Bongo Marie began to be very happy hanging out on the top of her cage but she didn’t like it when I tried to take her more than a few steps from the security it provided. She could see me in the living room and we often talked back and forth about all sorts of things. A few weeks after she started hanging out on the top of her cage, Bongo decided to go exploring. She stretched herself out farther than anyone could ever imagine and climbed onto the swinging cafe door to my kitchen. She hung upside down and chewed on the wood, which didn’t make me too happy. This was before I realized that drama was a big reward for parrots and would actually encourage behaviors. My reaction was quite dramatic — I admonished her for chewing on the door as I got up and took her off of the door to place her back on her cage. Five minutes later she was out on the door again. I hate to admit how long it took me to figure out that this was her way of getting my attention but wasn’t it wonderful that she actually wanted my attention? From a terrified sick parrot who threw herself on her cage floor in fear when I even looked at her, she had started to explore and even to manipulate me into giving her attention!
I finally figured it all out when I was in the bedroom and heard her chewing on the door. I ran into the living room to stop her from chewing and (surprise) she was calmly sitting on her cage. It only took me a few times to realize that she had me fooled. We had reached the point in our friendship where she actually wanted to be with me. I had moved her cage so that she couldn’t stretch far enough to get on the door but she had already learned that I would come over and pick her up when she chewed on the door. She was smart enough to imitate the sounds that she made when she chewed on the door to get me to come in and pick her up.
It was then that I began to realize how incredibly fortunate I was to have this strange little creature in my life. I also knew that my patience had a greater reward than anything I could have ever expected. She became the love of my life and lived in my life for close to twenty-five years. This was amazing because she was so sick when I got her that she was not expected to live. There is no doubt in my mind that Bongo Marie with her intelligence and curiosity changed my life. I doubt if I ever would have dedicated my life to educating people about parrots if she and I hadn't developed such a wonderful friendship.
I will be putting more stores about this amazing little parrot on the website mostly under Fun Parrot Stories because I have many of those!