By Sandee L. Molenda
There are two subspecies of African grey parrots. Psittacus erithacus erithacus, also known as the Congo African grey, is the nominate species, and Psittacus erithacus timneh, or timneh African grey, is the other subspecies. The Congo African grey is larger than the timneh African grey and lighter in body color with bright red tail feathers and a black beak. The timneh African grey is smaller, has maroon tail feathers, is darker gray, and the upper mandible of the beak is reddish colored with a dark edge, while the lower mandible is black.
Psittacosis was once known as parrot fever.
While many people often refer to the nominate subspecies as “Congo,” some consider this an erroneous and archaic term. According to Dr. Al Decoteau of the Society of Parrot Breeders and Exhibitors, “Their scientific names are Psittacus erithacus erithacus, and the timneh African grey is Psittacus erithacus timneh. Since the African grey name is not Psittacus erithacus congo — like the timneh’s Psittacus erithacus timneh — it should not be called a Congo, just the African grey or grey parrot.”
African greys have the potential to be long-lived, but of course, so much depends on their care, especially in regard to food and stress factors. The average range reported is 25 to 50 years, but they may live even longer.
African grey parrots are renowned for their intelligence. Many owners report that their African greys are highly intuitive and anticipate their owners’ schedules and activities. They even respond correctly to their owners’ emotions.
Ruth Patterson’s African grey parrot, Smokey, can always determine her moods no matter how hard she tries to hide them. Patterson reports, “One morning, I was a little down but I came out with a cheery good morning song and dance like I do every morning. But Smokey saw right through the smoke screen. He tilted his head and, in the most compassionate voice, asked me, ‘What’s the matter?’”
Many African grey owners report that their parrots are like “Houdini” and often escape their bird cages and easily dismantle bird toys.
Dr. Irene Pepperberg is a world-renowned scientist who has worked with African grey parrots in her groundbreaking research on parrot intelligence since the late 1970s. Her most famous pupil, Alex, could recognize and label colors. He was learning the alphabet and can count up to six objects. Pepperberg was also working with Alex on identifying objects from photographs.
Alex showed the ability to process information and make appropriate choices with the correct choice of words and understand concepts such as shape as well as color. Working with Alex and other African greys has helped change peoples’ perceptions of parrot intelligence. Much of the research Pepperberg has developed may be applied to humans as well.
The African Grey Mimicry Might Fool You
African greys are known as excellent mimics, perhaps even more so than for their intelligence. Many, though not all, are gifted talkers. Greys have been reported as having the capacity to learn more than 2,000 words!
According to Gail Worth of Aves International, “Greys are the best of all parrot species at mimicry in terms of vocabulary, human-like tone of voice and appropriate use of words and phrases.”
Even African greys that do not speak are very adept at repeating household noises such as the telephone, doorbell, smoke detector – even mimicking the dog’s bark and the cat’s meow. They have a penchant for mechanical sounds, but sounds that attract their owner’s attention are particular favorites.
African greys also have a mischievous streak, which, combined with their incredible intelligence and excellent mimicry, can often lead to unusual situations. Many African grey owners believe their parrots have a unique, if not dry, sense of humor that often borders on playing pranks on their owners.
“I took my parrots for a car ride, and I heard a police siren,” related Patterson. “I looked in mirrors and didn’t see anything, yet the siren sounded closer. I did a head check, and I saw Smokey leaning from side to side on his perch, doing the loud police siren. I said to him, ‘Smokey, that was you. I thought I was in trouble!’ He responded with a very evil laugh. I couldn’t help but laugh as well. Sometimes he just cracks me up.”
African Grey Care
African greys can be housed in cages 34-inches wide by 34-inches deep. However, bigger is always better. Playpen-style cages are recommended to encourage exercise and play. Bar spacing should be 3/4 to 1 inch. Perches of various sizes and materials should be used to exercise the feet and legs. African greys also appreciate wood and green branches with leaves to chew. Make sure the wood is safe, nontoxic and not treated with chemicals, fertilizers or pesticides. A large variety of toys should be regularly provided. Toys that require the parrot to “think,” such as extracting treats from containers and other foraging toys, are excellent choices for African greys. Most greys also appreciate a swing in their cage.
In the wild, African grey parrots eat a variety of seeds, nuts, fruits, berries and vegetation. They especially relish palm fruit oil. African greys are reported to be vulnerable to calcium and vitamin-A deficiencies. A well-balanced diet consisting of grains, seeds, sprouted seed, pellets, greens, fruits and vegetables must be maintained at all times.
Worth recommends adding fat to the diet in the form of dry sunflower and/or safflower seeds in small amounts, “Greys eat oil palm seeds in the wild, and we think that the oil seeds will help prevent greys from plucking in captivity.” To ensure that there is adequate calcium in the diet, greys should also be supplemented with a vitamin-mineral powder that contains calcium, phosphorous and vitamin D3 unless they are on a primarily pelleted diet. Full-spectrum lighting that provides vitamin D3 may also be beneficial for greys that are not exposed to natural unfiltered sunlight, which helps absorb calcium.