The African Grey Parrot: Data and Deliberations

It’s a daunting task to write an article about any companion parrot species without relying too heavily upon the anthropomorphic or the generalization. It’s worth the attempt, however, in the case of the African Grey. While one of the most popular pet parrots on the face of the earth since biblical times, I believe it remains one of the most misunderstood.

My Life with Greys

My life with greys extends back almost three decades.  I specialized in breeding them for several years. I successfully trained them for free flight. I’ve rehabilitated more than a few, solved the problems of many as a behavior consultant, and cared for more than I want to remember as a veterinary technician. 

I’ve been publishing information about them since 1998.

There is no parrot species I love more and these days I share my home with a gang of six – three females and three males.

Timnehs and Congos

What you will read below will apply most specifically to the grey parrot known as the Congo African Grey or the Red-tailed Grey. Until recently, it was believed that the Timneh and the Congo Greys belonged to the same species, and were categorized as the sub-species, Psittacus erithacus erithacus and Psittacus erithacus timneh. They were finally designated as two separate species in 2012, although many sources continue to reflect the older designation. (Seibold-Torres C, 2015)

I felt vindicated when the 2012 news was announced because my personal experience of both had convinced me that they are not much alike at all. Not only do they come from completely different areas of Africa, their coloring is different, as is their behavior. When it comes to behavior, Timneh greys are more similar to Poicephalus parrots than they are like the Congo Grey.

The Data

The African Grey is an Old World species that originates from the equatorial region of Africa. Although notoriously difficult to study for several reasons, they have been observed congregating in dense rainforest, forest edges and clearings, gallery forests and mangroves. They are also seen in cultivated areas and gardens. They most enjoy roosting in tall trees over water.

Their social lifestyle in the wild could not be more unlike that of our favorite New World parrots, such as Amazons, conures, and macaws. Greys live in large communal roosts of up to 10,000 individuals. Smaller groups will break off to go on foraging expeditions, traveling as far as 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) for the purpose. (Valla, D, 2019) Several hundred pairs may breed in one geographic location, although each monogamous pair takes possession of a single nest cavity.

From Back in My Breeding Days

It is reported that the young fledge at about the age of 12 weeks (a fact I can corroborate) and that their parents feed them for up to four to five weeks after that. Once eating independently, they remain with the flock and receive further care and education from the older members of the flock. The young birds stay with their family groups for up to several years. (Holman, R, 2008)

Greys are extremely vocal in the wild, generating a wide variety of sounds that include the mimicry of other birds, bats and mammals. They are nosiest in the early morning and again at dusk. Vocalizations occur both when perched and in flight. Typical sounds include whistles, shrieks, and screams, described as “high-pitched and penetrating” that often embody an eerie quality.

Wild greys forage both in the canopy and on the ground, feeding on oil palm fruit, flowers, seeds, berries, tree bark, snails, insects. While on the ground, they ingest mud, grasses and other low-growing plants. One visitor to Africa with whom I spoke many years ago confirmed that they have also been observed feeding upon carrion, although the literature does not corroborate this.

The Deliberations

Why are African Greys such popular pets? Talking ability is always the first reason cited. Their much documented level of intelligence comes in second. Research Associate Irene Pepperberg has not been the only one to document how scary smart these birds really are.

And, while words are rarely put to this aspect of living with a grey, their discerning personalities and ability to remain attune to their owners’ emotions and body language rank right up there with the other reasons why this species is one of the least likely to be relinquished to rescue and adoption organizations. The depth and quality of their interactions with their people make them such favorites.

Their Vocal Nature

Everyone loves a talking bird and greys seem to have special ability in this area. Many are the anecdotal accounts of those who use the English language in correct context, order from Amazon using Alexa, and seem to understand all that is said to them. You can’t visit YouTube or any other social media outlet without stumbling over an account of a talented grey.  

No doubt this is, in part, attributable to their wild tendency to vocalize often within their large flocks. It is in their DNA to express themselves vocally in order to solidify flock bonds. And it is true that their skill at mimicry is unparalleled. Often their repetition of sounds is so exact that it can be difficult to tell the difference for instance between the bird and the doorbell.

I have seen first-hand the pleasure they take in vocalizing back and forth to each other. When I was breeding greys, I had five pairs who were all wild-caught. These parrots knew their native language and they taught it to their babies and my adult companions. Every evening, I relished in the eerie, yet exquisitely beautiful, symphony that filled the air as the pairs outdoors communicated to those indoors and those indoors responded.

I believe that an individual grey’s extreme talent with human language can also be, however, a reflection of isolation as they live out their lives as captives in single-grey homes. Greys are often kept as single parrots and most live with clipped wings, which creates an additional level of isolation.

Given their innate need to communicate with their flock and documented talent at mimicry, coupled with their imposed physical isolation, is it any wonder that so many become such good talkers?

I have often said that “Greys who can’t talk, greys who can fly.” None of my greys who have grown up with other greys and who live a flighted life choose to speak English very often, although they have the ability, which they display at times. They are too busy moving about from place to place and rely instead upon communicating in the more natural grey language of shrill beeps and whistles. 

People often assume that a grey who chooses to talk a lot does so because she is happy. Don’t be too sure about that.

Their Social Nature

Greys and Us

I would describe Congo greys as discerning, well-attuned to the emotions and body language of other creatures, and having a keen sense of humor. I also think of them as the chess players of the parrot world, quite capable of manipulation. Granted, this is anthropomorphism at this best, but this is my experience of them.

A Sweet Little Meyer’s Parrot with No Feet

During the same time period that I was raising baby greys, I was also intentionally engaging in the rehabilitation of surrendered parrots. I had approximately 30 at a time, so had my own “behavior lab” of sorts.

I would frequently look up while I went about my daily work and observed a difference in the way that the various species related to me. Most of the parrots would be engaged in their own business of foraging, bathing, sunning, playing. The greys, however, would most often have their attention on me and my activities. This bordered on spooky. Greys watch us intently and get to know us in an intimate way.

Gretel Ehrlich once wrote the following: “What is obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes but what’s bedrock and current in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness, or equanimity. Because they have the ability to read our involuntary tics and scents, we’re transparent to them and thus exposed – we’re finally ourselves.” That describes perfectly the Red-tailed Grey.

My Marko

Greys are described as monogamous and as often forming a pair bond with a single human in the home. While the latter is often certainly true, my experience of them is that they form relatively loose pair bonds. While I have frequently helped clients whose Amazons or cockatoos were displaying fierce aggression toward other family members, I have never dealt with such a problem with a grey.

Greys and Other Species

Grey seem to get along best with other Old World parrots.

This doesn’t mean that such mixing of these species will always be successful, but I have seen routinely that my greys get along much better with my cockatoos and the occasional visiting Eclectus than with my New World parrots.

My grey Marko is absolutely intolerant of my two Amazons and once attacked my Blue and Gold macaw. I have had to segregate Old World and New World parrots physically in my home as the individuals have gotten older.

This doesn’t mean of course that you can’t have both greys and New World parrots who cohabit peacefully in a home, but don’t expect them to be friends and be careful with introductions. Avoiding conflict may need to be the primary goal.

Greys and Other Greys

I have always lived with multiple greys with little trouble among them. This would not be true if I were speaking about cockatoo or Amazon species which, in my experience, form much stronger pair bonds that often lead to aggression toward others.

Congo Greys in captivity seem to have an affinity for other Congo greys. This news should not come as any surprise, given how they live in the wild.

When I was breeding greys, I removed the babies from their parents after two to three weeks and brought them into the house. They lived in the great room in the middle of family activity.

Six-month-old Grey with a Younger Baby

I was astonished to find that the older greys eagerly chose to climb into the box of babies to spend time with them. This reflects the wild observations about how older grey flock members also care for young parrots. Two of my adult grey companions took responsibility for schooling, and even feeding, the babies.

I have over the years introduced many adult greys to the others already living in my home and, with few exceptions, they always get along well. The “social hierarchy” may take a bit of re-ordering, which is usually accomplished through a bit of snarking at each other, but things always calm down with everyone getting along. I have also assisted numerous clients in introducing a new grey to an existing one, with similar positive results.

I have observed in repeated situations an odd social phenomenon. While female greys tolerate and perhaps enjoy each other, two males will often form a close bond with each other.

Phoenix and Boston (both males)

This can take the form of a pair bond, complete with the display of mating rituals. Over the years of living with greys, I have regularly seen two males pair up, preferring to hang out with each other rather than with any of the females.

I sometimes board for periods of time a male grey named Chuckie. He settles right in as soon as he gets here and renews his acquaintances with my guys, often flying over to perch with them.

The last time he was here, his behavior was different. He seemed happy enough, but was a bit less vocal and exuberant than during previous visits. He obviously wasn’t ill, but seemed a tiny bit “off.”

He’s back now for another visit and this time is his typical funny, relaxed, social self. What’s different? Last visit, my male greys were living outdoors in the aviary. This time, they are back inside and I have finally realized that Chuckie very obviously prefers their company to that of the three females that I have.

Granted, these are all anecdotal observations. However, my experience is deep enough in this area that I would suggest that if you are seeking to adopt an African Grey, consider bringing home two of them so that they have each other as well as you.

And, in a last word on this subject, there is a tiny bit of scientific evidence to support this advice. Telomeres are the caps on certain chromosomes that control chromosome stability. Telomere length tends to decrease in length with the age of the African Grey. However, one study found that greys who lived singly had significantly shorter telomeres than those that were housed in pairs. ( Aydinonat, D. et al, 2014)

Their Physical Nature

Greys suffer from some pretty serious physical and medical problems in captivity, some well-known and some not.

Atherosclerosis is the most recently recognized threat to the health of greys, who seem to be especially disposed to develop this disease process. This is clearly a lifestyle disease, the development of which is related to diet and lack of exercise.

Greys are prone to developing both vitamin A and vitamin D deficiencies and display a widely-recognized tendency toward hypocalcemia (low calcium levels). The latter results in neurological symptoms, such as seizures, in adult birds. In the young, this manifests as osteodystrophy (defective bone development).

Seed diets have been implicated in the development of atherosclerosis, as well as the vitamin and mineral deficiencies. However, there is more to the story.

One study demonstrated that the provision of UV-B light increased serum ionized calcium, independent of the levels of calcium and vitamin D in the diet. The hypothesis is that, since greys in the wild live in low shade areas and are exposed to high levels of sunlight in the wild, they may need UV-B light in order to have adequate vitamin D levels in the body. Since vitamin D regulates calcium absorption, this may be one reason, in addition to diet, that greys so often suffer from calcium deficiencies.

I found this especially interesting because of an observation that I made back during my rehab period. I had at that time four outdoor aviaries and regularly made observations regarding the behavior of the different species when in them.

Generally, the New World parrots spent very little time in the direct sunlight, while the greys remained there for much longer periods. In fact, one day I found one female on the bottom of the aviary with her wings spread. After I recovered from my shock, I realized that she had only been sun bathing. To this day, my greys will choose to sit in the sun more often than in the shade.

While the above medical issues deserve serious consideration, we seem to be most often more distressed by the feather damaging behavior in which so many greys engage. This is a very complex problem, typically due to the presence of several risk factors.

The reasons may include, but are not limited to poor early beginnings, lack of foraging or bathing opportunities, insufficient exercise, no exposure to natural sunlight, limited time out of the cage, no learning opportunities, over-dependence upon the owner, and malnutrition, in addition to medical causes.

Chronic stress is also a probable component and is often incorrectly blamed as the sole cause of a given problem. In fact, one study revealed that there is an association between feather damaging behavior and corticosterone metabolite secretion in captive grey parrots. (Costa, P. et al, 2016) This makes perfect sense, since the risk factors identified above can all contribute to increased stress.

I have specialized in resolving this problem for clients and have good success. However, the longer I do this work, the more I come to believe that liberty, time spend outdoors, and balanced social opportunity are primary factors that contribute significantly to a grey’s mental health.

More than one grey has been returned to a fully feathered state by being placed in new conditions that allowed for frequent flight and interaction by choice with both conspecifics and people who use positive reinforcement to provide learning opportunities.

My Grey Conclusions

I offer you the following thoughts aimed at helping you to have the most successful grey experience:

  • Consider keeping more than one grey companion in your home.
  • Feed the best diet possible, incorporating a high quality pellet supplemented with plenty of vegetables high in betacarotene (yellow, red, orange or dark green).
  • Provide plenty of foraging and learning opportunities.
  • Encourage independence.
  • Set up an outdoor aviary that allows for sunbathing whenever the weather permits.
  • If you get a baby, adopt one that has been parent-reared or that has had exposure to several adult greys. If you can’t find one who fits this description, walk away and adopt an older bird.
  • Do not clip wings if your grey parrot has flight capability.
  • Use care in arranging for your absences. Never leave a grey at home alone with a caregiver who comes in just once or twice a day.
  • Allow as much time out of the cage as possible and encourage liberty and choice-making.
  • Never get into a battle of wills with a grey bird.

Final Words

I am reluctant to end this piece, but understand that it is overly long as it is. There is just so much more I would like to tell you about them.

African Greys are complex birds. Many of us who have had the privilege of sharing our homes with them feel that, should we be able to keep only one parrot as a friend, it would be a grey.

The gifts they have to share are exceptional but will be received in full measure only when we are exceptional in our relationships with them. We must honor their innate timetables for early development, allow them to develop physically, mentally and socially into the incredible creatures they have evolved to be and honor their sensitivities in our care practices.

Wait! Don’t Leave Yet…

I’m excited to announce that I will be giving a one-of-a-kind live webinar on screaming (and any other problem noise) on Thursday, October 10 at 11:00 am PDT (2:00 pm EDT). Unlike other webinars, this experience will provide you with a complete plan for solving any screaming problem. Attendees will receive a workbook, supporting materials, and a special offer for on-going support. Please don’t miss it!

References:

Aydinonat D, Penn DJ, Smith S, Moodley Y, Hoelzl F, Knauer F, et al. (2014) Social Isolation Shortens Telomeres in African Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus). PLoS ONE 9(4): e93839. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0093839aa

Costa P, Macchi E, Valle E, De Marco M, Nucera DM, Gasco L, Schiavone A. 2016. An association between feather damaging behavior and corticosterone metabolite excretion in captive African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) PeerJ 4:e2462 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.2462

Griffin, Jenny (13 February 2012). “Species Spotlight on the African Grey Parrot”. Brighthub. Retrieved 1 March 2016. https://www.brighthub.com/environment/science-environmental/articles/20670.aspx

Holman, R. 2008. “Psittacus erithacus” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed September 24, 2019 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Psittacus_erithacus

Juniper, Tony and Parr, Mike. Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1998

Lafeber Company. 2019. African Grey Parrot. https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/species/african-grey-parrot

Stromberg, Joseph. 2012. African Grey Parrots Have the Reasoning Skills of 3-year-olds. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/african-grey-parrots-have-the-reasoning-skills-of-3-year-olds-15955221

Sanford, Michael, BVSc, MRCVS. 2004. The Effects of UV-B Lighting Supplementation in African Grey Parrots. Selected Papers from the International Conference on Exotics 2004. ICE Proceedings. Exotic DVM, Vol. 6.3. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9fe6/40ea0111eb22183a877a25d16bbbf0d809a5.pdf

Mikolasch, Sadra, Kotrschal, Kurt and Schloegl, Christian. African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) use inference by exclusion to find hidden food7Biol. Lett.http://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2011.0500

Reuell, Peter. 2017. Discerning Bird. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/12/harvard-researchers-test-intelligence-of-african-grey-parrot

Seibold-Torres C, Owens E, Chowdhary R, Ferguson-Smith M, A, Tizard I, Raudsepp T. 2015. Comparative Cytogenetics of the Congo African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) Karger Cytogenetic and Genome Research. 2015;147:144-153. doi: 10.1159/000444136. https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/444136. Accessed 9/23/19.

Valla, Daniela. 2019. 5 Surpising Facts About African Grey Parrots. https://www.worldanimalprotection.org.uk/blogs/5-surprising-facts-about-african-grey-parrots