African Grey Parrot
Conservation status: Least concern
Congo African Grey Parrot
Psittacus erithacus erithacus
P. e. erithacus
P. e. timneh
The African Grey Parrot is a medium-sized parrot of the genus Psittacus, native to Africa. As the name implies, they are predominantly grey, with accents of white. Some of their feathers are very dark grey and others are a lighter grey colour. They have red or maroon tails depending on the subspecies. They feed primarily on nuts and fruits, supplemented by leafy matter.
There are two subspecies:
- Congo African Grey parrot, Psittacus erithacus erithacus - these are larger birds (about 12 inches/30cm long) with light grey feathers, deep red tails and black beaks.
- Timneh African Grey parrot, Psittacus erithacus timneh - these are smaller in size, have a darker charcoal gray coloring, a darker maroon tail, and a light, horn colored upper mandible.
Some avian enthusiasts (incorrectly) recognize a third subspecies, Ghana African Grey (Psittacus erithacus princeps). This bird is described to be similar to the Congo African greys, but darker and slightly smaller; however, scientifically this subspecies has not been found. Among breeders, there is said to be a fourth subspecies, the Cameroon African Grey, most often referred to as the big silvers.
Mimicry and intelligence
While comparative judgements of animal intelligence are always very difficult to make objectively, Psittaciformes are generally regarded as being the most intelligent of birds. African grey parrots are particularly noted for their cognitive abilities, which are believed to have evolved as a consequence of their history of cooperative feeding on the ground in central Africa.
Irene Pepperberg's extensively published research with captive African greys, including Alex, has shown that these parrots are capable of associating human words with their meanings, at least to some extent. Ambitious claims of language use have also been made for another African grey N'kisi, who has a vocabulary of over a thousand words and speaks in sentences. However, there is little doubt that Greys and other parrots (especially macaws and cockatoos), along with corvines (Crows, Ravens, and Jays), are highly intelligent in comparison with other birds.
African Grey Parrots as Pets
The history of African Grey parrots kept as pets dates back over 4,000 years. Some Egyptian hieroglyphics clearly depict pet parrots. The ancient Greeks also valued parrots as pets, and this custom was later adopted by the Wealthy Roman families often kept parrots in ornate cages, and parrots were prized for their ability to talk. King Henry VIII of England also had an African Grey parrot. The Portuguese sailors kept them as companions on their long sea voyages.
Today, many African Grey parrots are hand reared by breeders for the pet trade and they make wonderful and very affectionate companion parrots; however, because they can be unpredictable at times, they may not be compatible with small children. African Grey parrots are very strong and they can bite with their strong pointed beak and scratch with their claws. African Grey parrots have a high intelligence and they are generally thought to be the best mimics of all parrots. Pet owners often refer to their relationship with their hand reared pet African Greys as being "like having a five-year-old child". On the other hand, wild-caught African Grey parrots captured from the wild need time and effort to adapt to human presence, and have a tendency to growl and bite when they are approached. The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has made the sale of all wild caught parrot species illegal.
African Grey parrots, like any pet parrot, can require a large commitment as they require a lot of attention. While numbers vary with each source, most agree that three hours out of cage daily and 45 minutes of physical interaction is the minimum attention required for good mental health. African Greys – particularly Congo African Greys – are known to be shy amongst strangers. African Greys have the tendency to bond to only one person if they do not interact with different people regularly. While inter-species friendships with other parrots are uncommon with African Greys, they require socialization with other parrots of any species.
African Greys require a lot of stimulating toys due to their high intelligence and to avoid boredom. Three to five toys at a time are typically enough to satisfy African Greys, but too many toys can crowd the cage. Toys should be rotated and switched regularly to keep the stimulation constant and diverse. For an African Grey spending most of its day in the cage, 36"W x 24"D is a good cage size. The height of a cage is typically not important, except in the case of playtop cages that are taller than the owner, in which case the bird can become territorial. An African Grey who spends most of its time on a playstand and uses the cage solely for sleeping only needs a cage large enough so that the bird's wingspan doesn't touch the cage's sides and its head and tail do not touch the cage's top and bottom respectively. The bar-spacing should from be ¾ inch to 1 inch. A companion African Grey should be kept in a bird-safe environment and placed in a busy part of the home, such as the living room, where the bird can occupy himself (or herself) in watching the household activities.
African Greys have special dietary requirements and should be fed with calcium and Vitamin A rich foods such as leafy greens like mustard greens, broccoli etc., almonds or little amount of cheese. It is usual to give African grey parrots carefully calculated quantities of calcium and vitamin supplements. An excess of these added vitamins and minerals in an African Grey’s diet can lead to health problems. Only a few feathers should be clipped from the wings of an African Grey since they are heavy birds. Clipping too many feathers can severely impair flight and may lead to injuries as they may have a tendency to crash to the ground. If very young birds are wing clipped they may never gain full coordination and agility in flight. African Grey parrots' lifespans are upto about 50 years (or more) in captivity.
- BirdLife International (2006). Psittacus erithacus. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. Retrieved on 09 May 2006.
- Nikki Moustaki; (2004) A New Owner's Guide to African Grey Parrots TFH Publications. ISBN 0-7938-2855-4
- Maggie Wright; (2001) African Grey Parrots Barron's Pet Handbooks. ISBN 0-7641-1035-7
- Mattie Sue Athan and Dianalee Deter; (2000) The African Grey Parrot Handbook : Everything About History, Care, Nutrition, Handling, and Behavior Barron's Pet Handbooks. ISBN 0-7641-0993-6
- Tony Juniper and Mike Parr; (1998) Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-07453-0
- Julie Rach; (1998) The African Grey : An Owner's Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet Howell Book House. ISBN 0-87605-443-2
- E. J. Mulawka; (1984) African Grey Parrots TFH Publications. ISBN 0-86622-975-2
- W.T. Greene; African Grey Parrots Beech Publishing House. ISBN 1-85736-027-3
- Irene Pepperberg; "The Alex Studies" Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00806-5
- African Grey Parrot Forum
- African Grey Parrot Research and Conservation
- The Alex Foundation website
- African Grey Parrot
- PBS Video of Alex in Action'" (3rd video down)
- Parrot's Oratory Stuns Scientists - BBC article on N'kisi
- Hear N'kisi speak
- African Grey parrot as an endangered species on RSPB website
- Tinkerbell - a flighted CAG parrot in Taiwan and how to keep a flighted grey parrot at home