flying above the drama

T’Challa’s Real Housewife Behavior, Explained by a Parrot Expert

T’Challa, in a rare moment of camera-shyness. Photo: Bravo

There’s one Real Housewives of Potomac newcomer this season who’s flying high: Monique Samuels’s pet bird, T’Challa. The African-gray parrot is a recent addition to the cast but has wasted no time stirring the pot in Potomac. So far, the bird has had a rocky relationship with Grand Dame Karen Huger, but it appears that the two are working out their issues. Earlier this August, T’Challa went missing, leading Samuels to post a teary-eyed plea for any information about his whereabouts, only for him to eventually return home. And when the ladies had a weekend away at the Samuels lake house, the best and most meme’d moment of the episode was when T’Challa nearly attacked fellow newcomer Wendy Osefo. Even during a season of torn bootyholes and baby daddies at the strip club, T’Challa has made his (claw) mark.

Typically living between 40 and 50 years, gray parrots are one of the most intelligent animals. And while a lot of parrots can mimic other species, this specific type can uniquely imitate sounds that aren’t made by animals, like a creaking door or beeping truck. Considering T’Challa’s rising star as a reality-television personality, we talked to World Parrot Trust executive director Jamie Gilardi to break down his housewife behavior.

If Monique is upset with another housewife, would the bird be able to pick up on that?
It might pick up on those things and might be less likely to be friendly with those individuals if Monique is upset with them or showing some kind of strong emotion. But it also might be that the parrot just sits there and doesn’t get involved. So even if it is picking up on that, it might not have a way of showing that. It’s not likely that the bird’s going to attack somebody because Monique’s upset with them or something like that.

But there’s a scene from a few weeks ago when T’Challa flies up into the face of Wendy. 
Yeah, I think the bird was just trying to perch on her shoulder, and she freaked out, right? That’s very common. Birds will, if they startle, they’ll often just try and find a shoulder or a head to land on, because that’s a pretty good spot to land. That’s not them attacking the person or anything — that’s just them seeking a place to land.

Was this perhaps affectionate behavior, because it was willing to trust this particular housewife’s shoulder to perch on?
It doesn’t mean that it was singling her out as being especially trustworthy so much as just a comfortable place to land.

T’Challa was seen holding some of Monique’s NARS makeup products, and she asks if he’s trying to put some highlighter on. Are these birds known for wanting to change their appearance?
They spend a lot of time preening their feathers, so they do take care of themselves, and that’s quite a time-intensive process. There are some birds that bathe in certain kinds of dust that has color in it, and so the birds themselves pick up the color in their feathers. But I don’t know of any parrots that do that. It would possibly be interested in messing with [Monique’s] eyelashes or preening her hair, because they do preen each other. So it would potentially see her as its mate or start showing behaviors like that.

At one point, Karen jokes that the housewives are “starving and talking about eating your bird.” How would that have turned out?
Generally, parrots are not thought to be especially tasty. I don’t think the bird would perceive it as attempting to be eaten, but if anyone tries to capture a parrot and doesn’t know how to handle parrots, the person’s going to end up injured. When they bite you, they bite hard and they draw blood and they can do some serious damage.

In the most recent episode, Monique said she’s starting to understand T’Challa’s language. Like three chirps that are “bap-bap-bap” mean “pet my neck.” Could that be true?
That’s pretty unlikely. They would do that with behavior, by assuming a certain posture, much more likely than they would by vocalizing. They’ll vocalize if they want attention, but they would generally just sort of crank up the volume on whatever sounds they wanted to make rather than be making a specific vocalization to solicit a specific behavior.

T’Challa recently went missing. How often does this happen?
It’s pretty common for birds to get out. It’s not like they’re running away because they hate their home. It’s more that either their wings haven’t been clipped, or something freaked them out, and they didn’t know how to just turn around and fly back. It sounds like she had a friend telling her what to do and she did what she could, but even if you do all the right things, it can be really hard to get the bird to come back.

What’s your reaction to hearing he was recovered within a few days?
Mostly relief for the bird’s sake and [Monique’s] sake, because it seems like she has a pretty good relationship with the bird. It often doesn’t end well just because the birds get sort of further and further away, and they get more and more desperate, and then they get in trouble with a predator or whatever. There’s lots of things out there that are quite happy to eat a bird if they can get their hands on it.

Do you have any guidance for those that might be inspired to get their own parrot after seeing T’Challa on RHOP?
One of our big educational messages is that taking on a parrot in the home is a huge responsibility and can last for decades. So we strongly encourage people to think twice before they even get serious about contemplating taking one in. Within 100 miles of Washington, D.C., there are four or five parrot rescues with birds that are available for adoption because they’ve been produced but nobody wants them.

T’Challa actually has his own Instagram account run by Monique. Considering this parrot is so intelligent, is there ever a scenario where he’d be able to run it himself?
I guess it depends on what you mean by running it. If you design the software such that it was a matter of pushing buttons and making choices about sharing this and sharing that and taking a selfie, with the right interface you could probably make it work. We long wanted to come up with an app for parrots to be able to not only watch content from, say, YouTube, or something like that, but also to share content and communicate with other parrots via Zoom or Skype, because they definitely would respond to that sort of thing quite well.

One of T’Challa’s potential housewife taglines is apparently “I fly above the drama and shit on my haters.” Do birds actually shit on their haters?
That’s pretty funny. But no, they’re pretty indiscriminate about where they shit. There are some animals, especially primates, that definitely use their feces in an aggressive way; they will literally throw it at you. Parrots don’t seem to do that. In some cases, it almost seems like they’re really unaware of where their poop is going. Our parrots poop in their water dish all the time, and it’s like, You’re supposed to be so incredibly intelligent. You can’t figure out that pooping in your own water dish is not ideal?

Monique also has a huge fish tank in her home. Is there potential for interspecies friendship? 
Probably not the sharks, because they’re not really bright. Some of those fish might respond to the colors and behavior of the parrot. If the parrot’s bobbing its head up and down or something, it’s possible a fish would find that interesting. I really don’t know. I’ve never seen parrots and fish interacting. Cats are less interested in being playful than being predators, but dogs definitely seem to enjoy parrots. And there’s some videos and things of dogs and parrots playing around with each other. If you go to YouTube, there’s a lot of that stuff out there.

If other parrots are at home watching RHOP, would they be entertained seeing T’Challa on TV?
If there were either a bunch of parrots or a close-up of the parrot doing something interesting, that might catch their attention. Especially if it vocalized a lot, because they really are switched on to vocalizations. Parrots definitely are quite happy to watch television if there’s something on there that’s interesting to them. We actually produce something called Polly Vision, which is two hours of wild parrots just being parrots. The idea was to show it to your parrot, because a lot of parrots are kept by themselves in captivity and they never get to actually see other parrots.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

T’Challa’s RHOP Behavior, Explained by a Parrot Expert