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Grey Parrot Species Description

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National Audubon Society

Cornell Lab of Orinthology

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Other Names
African Grey Parrot

Order Psittaciformes
Family Psittacidae

Scientific Name
Psittacus Erithacus

Species Description

This is the dominant subspecies, larger than the Timneh at about 33 cm (13 in) long, with light grey feathers, cherry red tails, and an all black beak. Immature birds of this subspecies have tails with a darker, duller red towards the tip (Juniper and Parr 1999) until their first moult which occurs within 18 months of age. These birds also initially have grey irises which change to a pale yellow colour by the time the bird is a year old. The Congo grey parrot is found on the islands of Principe and Bioko and is distributed from south-eastern Ivory Coast to Western Kenya, Northwest Tanzania, Southern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Northern Angola. In aviculture, it is often called a "CAG".

Timneh African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus timneh):
These are smaller in size, have a darker charcoal grey coloring, a darker maroon tail, and a light, horn-colored area to part of the upper mandible. The timneh grey parrot is endemic to the western parts of the moist Upper Guinea forests and bordering savannas of West Africa from Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Southern Mali east to at least 70 km (43 mi) east of the Bandama River in Ivory Coast. In aviculture, it is often called a "TAG".

While comparative judgments 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 as largely tree-dwelling birds in central Africa.

Irene Pepperberg's extensive research with captive African greys, especially the one known as Alex, have provided evidence that these parrots are capable of associating human words with their meanings, at least to some extent, though these conclusions are disputed. Ambitious claims of language use have been made for another African grey, N'kisi, who has a vocabulary of around a thousand words and speaks in sentences. Although there exists a great deal of debate as to just how well these birds actually understand the meaning of the words they speak, 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.

It is widely believed in the parrot-keeping community that Greys understand their human companions at various human intelligence levels. For example, some believe that a young Grey (under a year) has the equivalent understanding of a toddler and the cognitive ability of a six-year-old child.


Found in the primary and secondary rainforest.


West and Central Africa.


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. This custom was later adopted by wealthy Roman families who often kept parrots in ornate cages. King Henry VIII of England also had an African Grey parrot. 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 can make wonderful and very affectionate companion parrots; however, the methods used to produce the birds for the pet trade greatly affects their behavior and "pet quality" once the birds are mature at 2 to 4 years old. The hand-rearing process deprives the birds of parental interactions, which results in the birds becoming imprinted on humans at maturity. This is done primarily to produce tamer birds, as they learn how to interact with other animals from their parents' behavior, and the often untamed breeder birds may imprint a fear of humans. The degree to which a bird was hand reared may vary depending on the breeder's method - some are hand-reared from the point of (artificial) incubation, while others may be left with their parents for a few weeks. The degree to which a bird has been deprived of its natural parents can adversely affect its behavior once it is an adult; birds which have been raised at least partially by natural parents tend to show fewer behavioral problems (such as plucking or fearfulness) upon maturity, though birds raised entirely by their parents may be less tame. Some breeders may hand rear babies in the presence of tame adult pet Greys that may serve as role models for the babies. Also to be considered is how a baby grey is weaned and fledged. A baby Grey should be abundance-weaned (allowed to wean at its own pace) and be allowed to learn to fly. Force-weaning and clipping a baby before it learns to fly are believed to occasionally cause development of fearful behaviors and lowered dexterity when the grey reaches several years of age. Some grey parrots may not be compatible with small children. African Grey parrots are very strong and can inflict serious wounds on human flesh with their powerful beaks. Their nails are naturally sharp and can scratch, though the birds do not use them aggressively. Pet owners often liken the experience of keeping an African Grey to that of raising a young child - not only because of the birds' intelligence, but also from the substantial time commitment required. While captive-bred birds usually assimilate into their new households with relative ease, wild-caught African Grey parrots (which are no longer legally available in the US or EU) can find it difficult or impossible to adapt to life in a cage as a pet. They may show great fear of humans, emit a growling sound as a fear response, and may panic when approached. Unlike more common pets, African Grey parrots have not been greatly "modified" by selective breeding; they are only available as wild-type birds. As opposed to the many color varieties available in budgies and Rose-ringed Parakeets, the closest African Grey Parrots get to a color variant are the "Cameroon African Greys" which are a natural variation of the normal wild bird's color.

African Grey parrots, like most pet parrots, are considered by many bird owners to be very high-maintenance pets, as they require a good deal of personal attention and many hours each day out of their cages. While numbers vary with each source, most African Grey owners 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 wary of strangers, and tend to bond solely with their main carer if they do not interact with different people regularly. While interspecies friendships with other parrots are uncommon, as African Greys are essentially social animals, they will benefit from being kept in the company of other birds.

Grey parrots are prone to behavioral problems if they are not provided with a stimulating environment and allowed plenty of time out of their cage each day. They should be given a range of regularly changed toys to keep them occupied, including destructible ones made from natural materials such as cardboard, wood, or natural fibers.

Toys should also include "puzzle toys" or "foraging toys," which hold food treats that the bird must learn how to extract from the toy. Boredom and overuse of the cage can typically lead to problems such as self-plucking, where the bird damages or removes its own feathers. Many Greys are traditionally kept in cages too small to allow the bird to fly, and occasionally for young, clumsy or very nervous Greys (often Greys that have been clipped at a young age), a smaller cage may indeed be necessary for a time to avoid the bird from falling and injuring itself or becoming frightened. However, most Greys will benefit greatly from a large cage which allows more space for different perches, toys, and exercise. Provided the bird spends several hours each day out of the cage, interacting with its caretaker and/or other birds and people, a cage which is 4 feet long by 3 feet deep and 3 feet high is adequate. The bar-spacing should up to an inch. 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 may show some aggressive behaviors. Grey parrots kept as companion animals should have access to a range of other places within the room in which they are kept, including a playstand holding a range of perches and further toys. A companion African Grey should be kept in a bird-safe environment and placed in a fairly 'busy' part of the home, such as the living room, to allow the bird to be occupied with observing the household activities. However, the cage should always have a solid back or be placed against a solid wall, as this helps to give the bird a feeling of security not otherwise available due to the "goldfish bowl effect" of being in a cage.

Grey parrots should be trained to accept some requests or "commands" from their carers, including flight requests; this ensures most birds can fly safely and removes the 'need' for wing-clipping. Wing clipping is very controversial. Some owners prefer to clip to prevent potentially dangerous indoors flying. However, wing clipped birds are no safer than full-winged birds, but merely subject to different risks as pet birds. African Greys are heavy-bodied birds and more prone to clipping-related problems than some other parrots. Incorrectly clipped birds may crash and injure themselves, often on the sternum. Incorrectly clipping birds may also damage new "blood" feathers, as these grow down in the moulting process, which can result in painful persistent bleeding. Severely clipped birds may have balance problems and fall often. Preferably, Greys should not be clipped at all. If a Grey is clipped, it must be done by someone who understands the moulting sequence of the bird so as to avoid damage to blood feathers when these grow down on a clipped wing during the bird's moulting period. A clipped Grey should still be able to fly or glide short distances to avoid injury. Birds with clipped or damaged flight feathers can have flight restored immediately by a specialist avian vet imping (splinting) donor feathers back onto the bird's clipped feathers.

One reason that many owners choose to clip their birds' wings is the reflex center located at their shoulders. If a bird is startled, the wings may start flapping autonomously in an evolutionary response for escaping from danger. Before the bird regains conscious control over his movements, he may find himself in a treetop two blocks from home with no idea how he got there. If a parrot is not given regular outdoor flight exercise so he knows his way around his neighborhood, and his wings are not clipped, great care should be taken to ensure that he can never fly involuntarily out of an open door or window in a panic. This is particularly important for African Greys, who are wary of strangers and may exhibit a fatal reluctance to beg for food and shelter.

One problem that often confronts people who acquire a baby parrot of a larger species is that they have a very long maturation cycle that makes them seem like eternal babies. African Greys, Cockatoos, Macaws, Amazons and all large psittacines go through approximately five years of "childhood" and then five years of "adolescence," during which they are relatively docile, tractable and affectionate. As they reach adulthood their personalities change, and the cute, cuddly baby may become a demanding, willful, destructive creature with an awkward mix of wild instincts and learned domestic behaviors, and his klutzy infantile behavior turns into powerful agility. A parrot without adequate companionship and an extremely stimulating environment can disassemble his own cage from the inside, chew through walls and doors, destroy art, furniture, appliances and musical instruments, and electrocute himself. Parrots can become confrontational and attack the family dog, who does not understand how delicate their hollow bones are when he fights back. Many parrot breeders attest that more of their birds have been killed by dogs than by cats, who shy away from confrontations. However, cat attacks can result in fatality due to infection from the bacteria on the claws.

Acquiring an African Grey or any large parrot species is a lifelong commitment and should not be done on a whim.


Parrots, also known as psittacines, are birds of the roughly 372 species in 86 genera that make up the order Psittaciformes, found in most warm and tropical regions. The order is subdivded in three families: the Psittacidae (true parrots), the Cacatuidae (cockatoos) and the Nestoridae. Parrots have a pan-tropical distribution with several species inhabiting the temperate Southern Hemisphere as well. The greatest diversity of parrots is found in South America and Australia.

Characteristic features of parrots include a strong curved bill, an upright stance, strong legs, and clawed zygodactyl feet. Most parrots are predominantly green, with other bright colors, and some species are multi-colored. Cockatoo species range from mostly white to mostly black, and have a mobile crest of feathers on the top of their heads. Most parrots are monomorphic or minimally sexually dimorphic. Extant species range in size from the Buff-faced Pygmy-parrot, at under 10 g (0.35 oz.) in weight and 8 cm (3.2 inches) in length, to the Hyacinth Macaw, at 1.0 meter (3.3 feet) in length, and the Kakapo, at 4.0 kg (8.8 lbs) in weight. They are the most variably sized bird order in terms of length.

The most important components of most parrots' diets are seeds, nuts, fruit, buds and other plant material, and a few species also eat insects and small animals, and the lories and lorikeets are specialised to feed on nectar from flowers, and soft fruits. Almost all parrots nest in tree holes (or nestboxes in captivity), and lay white eggs from which emerge altricial (helpless) young.

Parrots, along with crows, jays and magpies, are some of the most intelligent birds, and the ability of some parrot species to imitate human voices enhances their popularity as pets. Trapping of wild parrots for the pet trade, as well as other hunting, habitat loss and competition from invasive species, have diminished wild populations, and parrots have been subjected to more exploitation than any other group of birds. Recent conservation measures to conserve the habitats of some of the high-profile charismatic parrot species has also protected many of the less charismatic species living in the ecosystem.

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