Congo African greys (Psittacus erithacus) are small and comparatively drab, with their bright red tails being the only real color they have. (Their slightly smaller cousins, the timneh greys — Psittacus timneh — have a dark maroon tail). Congos have somewhat bare faces, and consequently look rather vultureish with their gray plumage. In contrast to some of the more colorful birds, like macaws, people generally do not buy African greys for their looks. What attracts people to greys is their intelligence and talking ability.
Greys are one of the best talkers in the parrot family, if not the best. This is never a guarantee you will get a grey that talks — some greys never say a word. You should never get a bird because you want her to talk; instead, get a bird you like, and if she talks, that’s a bonus. Greys are generally considered the smartest members of the family as well. I’ve met greys who could imitate the sound of dripping water, video game sounds and who would ask me if I wanted to take a shower in a perfect imitation of their owner’s voice.
The most famous African grey, Alex, the subject of Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s famous cognition and communication research in birds and animals, could identify things by shape and color, count and apply his own labels to new items. He broke many of the previously held assumptions of avian (and even animal) intelligence. Congo African greys like Alex have made them a top choice for prospective owners.
Unfortunately, too many people want to get a grey as a first bird because they’ve heard that they are "the best.” What many people don’t realize is that the birds will outsmart them. Many people simply don’t realize what they are getting into with a bird of this intelligence level and give them up. Many of these birds don’t even have behavioral problems; their owners simply weren’t ready for the responsibility required for any parrot.
Congo and timneh greys have different maturation rates. While timnehs mature quicker (at about 6 months) and head out into the world, Congos remain in a close family unit until they reach about a year and a half. Lisa Bono, an associate certified parrot behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and owner of the avian store Platinum Parrot in Barnegat, N. J., believes this is part of the reason so many people have behavioral problems with birds they purchased as babies. Consequently, when people buy a baby, it goes against their bird’s ingrained instincts to keep the same personality once they "come of age” and people might be surprised when their once sweet and cuddly baby will suddenly have a different personality.
This is not to say that it’s impossible to have a well-adjusted pet that you raise from weaning, but Congo African greys do frequently require more work to keep them well-behaved. Teaching them how to forage and play as they grow (and thus teaching them how to be independent and entertain themselves) can help a lot with this.
Because they are so intelligent, greys need near-constant stimulation. This doesn’t have to mean constant human contact (and there shouldn’t be that either), but Congos do need to be taught to amuse themselves, as previously mentioned. Boredom is frequently the root of behavioral problems. Congo greys also don’t do well in stressful environments — such as households with young, loud, hyper children or pets — and may pick their feathers or act out due to the stress. In contrast, timneh greys have a reputation as being slightly calmer birds and are generally less prone to feather-picking, possibly due to their quicker maturation rate. It is largely because of problems like these that greys have a reputation for being highly emotional and "difficult.”
While this can be true, Bono thinks that they can be good family birds in quieter households. Any pet that’s not high-energy is going to have a tough time in an active, loud household, but in a stable household with a routine and well-behaved children, she maintains that greys can do very well. "They’re very in-tune with their caregivers,” Bono said.
A bird may show a preference for one person, but as long as everyone in the household makes an effort to spend time with the bird, they can do very well with multiple family members. They can also adapt more easily than one might expect to new situations with the right support. "I went from being home all day to running my own business and working full-time,” Bono said. "My guys adjusted just fine.”
She suggests leaving a TV or radio on for stimulation, so they are not subject to too much silence and solitude — "as long as it’s not Animal Planet!” Bono said. Seeing other birds or predatory species on the TV can be stressful for the birds, especially when alone in the house.
Bono said people are always surprised by how "humanlike” greys are, even people who have owned parrots before. "Yes, you love your bird,” Bono said, "but you don’t know what it’s like to live with an African grey until you do [live with one]. Everyone [who has a grey] is going to have that ‘aha’ moment when they realize just how much they love their grey — usually it’s the moment when the bird calls for Mommy or Daddy.”
Greys seem to be partial to shredding things. Bono recommends parrot piñatas, which can be store-bought or homemade. Making toys can be a cheap and easy way to keep your bird entertained, especially if you have one that destroys toys very quickly. "Make a bunch of little bundles all at once — take a couple hours one afternoon to do it — and then give them out one a day,” Bono recommended.
African greys in general seem to like softer woods and toys appropriate for larger parrots, but are smaller in overall size. "Most of them do not like the bigger pieces of wood,” Bono explained. "They will generally lose interest if they can’t get their beaks around it, so pieces of wood bigger than an inch around tend to get ignored.”
There is definitely a reason that Congo greys are on the most popular birds list, but they are not for the inexperienced or active family. However, their intelligence and their personalities make them rewarding in a way that few other birds are.
Loved this article? Then check out these!
5 Things You Need To Know About African Grey Parrots
5 Ways To Play With Your African Grey