The African Grey
By Tony Silva
On a worldwide basis, one parrot has a reputation for being an excellent mimic. No matter if one is in the Middle East or South America, Europe or the US, the first bird at the top on everyone´s list for the best “talker” is the African Grey. It is also the bird that is the subject of most questions that I receive via Facebook.
Grey parrots can be extolled speakers. They can reproduce speech so clearly that one is led to believe a person and not the bird is talking. I have one near the principal work area, where dishes are cleaned, food is prepared and nesting boxes are cleaned. She is a joy. She delights in calling the dogs by name, reprimanding them sometimes for no reason, and summoning them by whistling. She will call the workers or greet them. She knows precisely the language to use for each of them. She tells the other birds to be quiet. The dogs and workers are always confused. Not a week goes by that the workers ask me “what?”. I typically look puzzled. We quickly figure out that Coco is giving them orders in my voice. The dogs are told to sit, get down or come here and they respond, believing I am giving them instructions. Nelson (a Chow Chow x German Shepard stray I picked up off the streets) often stands in front of her cage and listens to the accolades of “You´re such a good dog” or “You´re so handsome” believing it is one of us giving him accolades. Coco is a friend, a companion and a character. Her vocabulary is vast.
Not all Greys can become excellent mimics. Some never learn more than a few words, but when they do learn, there seems to be no limit. They normally only stop expanding their vocabularies because their owners stop teaching them.
As pets, Greys are in my opinion excellent, being extremely intelligent. But they are not suited for every household. They like tranquility, dislike constant change and favor a balanced person. Mood swings, young children that pester them and very noisy households in my opinion make them nervous and unhappy. There are always exceptions, but in my opinion a quiet household is the best home for a Grey Parrot.
Three subspecies of Grey Parrots Psittacus erithacus have been named. Of these, the form princeps from the islands of Príncipe and Bioko in the Gulf of Guinea can be regarded as invalid; populations of Psittacus erithacus on mainland Africa show tremendous geographic variability in terms of size and color, making some look identical to birds from the islands. This fact makes princeps invalid. This leaves two recognizable races:
- Psittacus erithacus erithacus, the red-tailed form, has been traded over the years under various names, including Congo Grey, Ghana Grey, Cameroon Grey, Red-tailed African Grey and even Zaïre Silver Grey. The names tend reflect the size or color of some specific populations. For example, birds from some populations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre) are very silver, almost a whitish silver, while those from Ghana are a darker grey and smaller. Individuals from parts of Cameroon are larger than those from Ghana. The difference in weight in freshly trapped birds from these distinct populations can vary by as much as 100 grams (range 73-102 grams). Because of this great variability, aviculturists should try to pair birds of similar size, but shipments often consist of individuals from different populations and many intermediate sized populations now exist in captivity. Careful selection of like sized birds should be carried out when possible, though pairing birds from two populations is by no means hybridization—it involves the pairing of individuals of the same species from distinct populations. One advantage of pairing like birds is the ability to visually sex them to some degree: males will have a greater deposit of melanin, especially in the wings, making them darker when seen from a distance; another visual sexing guide is the presence of a grey or a whitish-grey border to the red feathers that cover the underside of the tail in the female. Exemptions do occur and thus surgical or genetic sexing should always be used to confirm gender.
- Psittacus erithacus timneh, the Timneh or Maroon-tailed African Grey, is a smaller, darker bird with a horn colored tinge to the upper mandible and a maroon colored tail. This form has always been under appreciated because of its size and color but in my opinion they make superior pets capable of talking very well and when hand-rearing being more tolerant of busy households or strangers than the Red-tailed African Grey
The two birds are here regarded as subspecies, though ornithologists have recently suggested they are distinct, basing this decision on morphological, vocal and genetic differences. They probably deserve to be separated, though taxonomy is beyond the scope of this article. For simplicity, when referring to them both simultaneously, I call them simply Grey Parrots.
Since Roman times, the African Grey has been the subject of interest as a pet, but it was the Portuguese sailors starting in 1419 that introduced these birds to Europe. By the 1800s and much of the 1900s the birds traded were mainly grey-eyed youngsters, which could be tamed easily; adults were viewed as being especially nervous and were to be eschewed. This concept is expounded in a booklet published in the late 1800s by W.T. Greene that discusses only Grey Parrots. (Greene wrote the early monograph on parrots, a three volume series entitled Parrots in Captivity.) By the 1970s interest in captivity breeding resulted in adults being the primary subject of trade. This trade has continued to date, though imports of wild birds into the US were banned in 1992 and in 2007 by the European Union.
Wild Grey Parrots invariably demonstrate a high level of fear; they congregate in the farthest corner of the holding cage and growl. They are frightened and stressed. One growling bird merely sets off a domino effect whereby they all growl. These birds remain shy for quite some time, hiding in their nest when approached. The majority will begin breeding long before they are comfortable enough to remain on the perch while their caretaker feeds them.
The wild Grey Parrots typically have an internal parasite load, particularly roundworms and tapeworms. They forage on the ground in wet areas, eating algae and also snails. The snails are the intermediate hosts for tapeworms. These snails and also lizards form a small part of the diet. Their primary intake is the fibrous pericarp of the fruit of the African Oil Palm Elaeeis guinensis. The fruit ranges in color from dark green to orangish-red and grow in bunches that have a resemblance to a giant bunch of grapes. Ripeness is indicated by the appearance of red. A large bunch can weigh as much as 50 kg (110 lbs). Each fruit contains a hard, oily kernel, but I have never seen Grey Parrots eat the kernel. The fruit is rich in monosaturated and saturated fatty acids, is rich in carotenes (precursors to vitamin A) and the antioxidant tocotrienols (vitamin E). Other seeds, fruits and pods complement the diet.
When first trapped, Grey Parrots are fed African Oil Palm seeds, which are readily available and can be collected easily. They are soon converted to eating peanuts (called groundnuts in Africa) or corn and later sunflower seed. Once exported, they should be introduced to the best diet possible from the beginning. They will reject all new food initially, but persistence is important. When wild Grey Parrots were available in the US, I would place two birds per cage regardless of their gender. Providing them with a nest allowed them the opportunity to hide when their cage was being cleaned or serviced. They were given a medical exam and typically treated for internal parasites and at times bacteria; roundworms and tapeworms are not always visible in routine testing and thus they were prophylactically treated for these. After a month, their food was removed at night. In the morning they received a bowl of fruits and vegetables. After two hours, this food was removed and a parrot seed mix was offered. Often they did not touch the fruits or vegetables for months. I always persisted and results invariably paid dividend. At the time palm oil was not widely available, or it could have been drizzled over the fruits and vegetables to make them more appealing; today it is available in the US and Europe from specialty Brazilian and African food stores. Palm oil is used for cooking in many countries. In Brazilian stores it is commonly sold as dendê oil. African stores normally sell it as red palm oil. It is reddish orange in color, has a high gel point (meaning that the sterin in it causes it to become like lard except under very warm temperatures) and oxidizes quickly. I recommend storing the oil in the refrigerator and warming the amount desired for feeding. The seeds are also available in many countries. They can become moldy quickly if fresh. I recommend washing them in a vinegar water solution, allowing them to dry and then freezing them. When fresh, they should never be kept in plastic bags on in containers, as condensation will encourage the growth of mold. If they are fresh, they should be kept in the sun and on a mesh rack to insure air circulation. An alternate to feeding Oil Palm seeds is providing the seeds of ornamental palms. I can obtain both in Florida, but mine prefer the seeds of the Foxtail Palm Woodyetia bifurcata, an ornamental species. They also get whole green coconuts, which they soon open to reach the meat.
In my collection at the time that wild birds were available, they were first acclimated and adapted to eating a balanced diet. Afterwards they were placed in a group for natural pairing. I found that natural produced earlier breeding results than force pairing. These pairs were then placed in a breeding cage. The nests were invariably filled with rotted wood, this to emulate the chewing that they did in the wild to enlarge the cavity for nesting. The birds then had their morning feed of fruits and vegetables replaced thrice weekly by a mix containing brown rice or whole grain pasta, finely chopped steamed or partly cooked carrot and sweet potato, steamed broccoli, raw peas, fresh or frozen corn and canned tuna. This mix was—and continues to be– fed hot and often incited—and continues to incite– the birds to rush down to their feeding bowls to eat. The tuna replaces the protein that they consume in the wild in the form of snails. Because of the risk of spoilage, any uneaten food should be removed after two hours.
Because Grey Parrots have a higher calcium requirement than most parrots, the soft food was and continues to be sprinkled with calcium and if the birds eat seeds also a vitamin complex; when pellets form the basis of the dry diet, additional vitamin supplementation is not used. The concept of adding vitamins or calcium to the water was discarded early in my avicultural career. The birds never imbibed enough water. Also, the vitamins acted as an enrichment medium for bacteria. Besides, light, chlorine in the water and the reaction with the stainless steel bowl quickly destroyed the value of the vitamins.
The birds that receive pellets have them drizzled with a 50:50 blend of extra virgin cold pressed olive oil and coconut oil. When these two oils are combined, they provide a fairly balanced ratio of saturated and monosaturated oils like those found in the palm fruit; using only olive or coconut oil will not provide a ratio similar to palm oil. I try to shy away from palm oil because of concerns that they will become rancid. We add only a small amount of the two oils daily to the pellets and mix them thoroughly. The pellets retain their integrity and are avidly consumed. The rest of the diet remains unchanged after 30 years, except that today my birds also receive large amounts of palm seeds as enrichment, as well as green coconuts, pods, fresh branches and more. I also throw chunks of rotted wood inside the cage for them to chew. I have never found a correlation with a lot of enrichment and a cessation in breeding. On the contrary, birds that are mentally challenged and stimulated breed much better than those kept in sterile cages or offered toys.
Grey Parrots are not difficult to breed provided 3 conditions are met: they feel secure and can enjoy privacy, they receive a good diet and they are offered the proper nesting box. Meeting one and not the other conditions can thwart breeding. I visited a breeder about a year ago who was terribly frustrated. The birds were in spacious, private aviaries, were very steady on the perch and received a good diet. On walking around it was very clear what was the inhibiting factor: their nests were 3 ft (90 cm) cubes with a very large entrance. My recommendation was to offer them nesting boxes that were 30 cm (12 in) square and 60 cm (24 in) deep, or if he preferred horizontal nests 60 cm long and 30 cm square. Within a month, three pairs had laid. The nesting boxes were deemed insecure and were thus ignored.
With captive bred birds, a vertical nest can be used, but with wild, fractious birds a horizontal nest is preferred to deter them diving inside and breaking the eggs.
Greys, as I have stated, are shy birds. Early in my avicultural career, I kept them with other birds in a series of indoor bird rooms. They bred well but I found when they were kept alone and in the least bright part of the bird room they bred even better. Today descendants of those original birds are kept outdoors in a building that only houses Grey Parrots and which is surrounded by plants, which reduce some of the brightness and gives them a high sense of security.
The ideal Grey Parrot enclosure should be private and quiet. They should be kept away from noisy conures, cockatoos, Amazons and macaws. They dislike very bright sunlight when nesting; in the wild they nest in forest but when not breeding enjoy perching exposed to the environment or fly over forest.
Thirty years ago I bred Grey Parrots in cages as small as 90 cm (3 ft) square, feeling that the small enclosure met the requirements for security that these parrots needed; the cages had a solid separation and a single perch. Today my current recommendation is to house pairs of Grey Parrots in cages 3.6 m (12 ft) long x 1.2 m (4 ft) square. Suspended aviaries are preferred over walk in aviaries for two reasons: breaching the security of their enclosure, a necessity for cleaning in standard walk in aviaries, will augment the insecurity in these birds (especially when involving wild caught individuals) and access to the ground will heighten the parasite risk.
The suspended cages have doors at the front and back to allow the easy replacement of perches. I employ perch holders to facilitate perch replacement. These are U-shaped sections of wire that are attached to the sides of the cage. Each side of the perch sits within the U. Food is offered at the front. The birds have an automatic watering system and quickly learned to drink from the watering nipples. This insures that the water is always fresh and prevents the birds from creating a bacterial soup by soaking their food.
Over the years I have tried all types of nests for Grey Parrots. I have never noticed a difference, though other breeders may disagree. We are currently using L-shaped nests that measure approximately 45 cm (18 in) high along the tall end and 20 cm (8 in) along the short end, 45 cm (18 in) long and 35 cm (14 in) deep. The nests have rotted wood added to allow chewing. I find that this activity and the need to spend time inside a dark nest stimulates gonadal development.
In captivity, Grey Parrots tend to produce multiple clutches. Some appear to nest year around, but they do rest. In my collection, for example, they stop nesting when the weather becomes hottest. Once they stop, access to the nest is blocked. This blocking of the nest emulates nature, where they leave nesting grounds after the young fledge.
Grey Parrots have a breeding display that starts with the male lowering the wings and bringing them forward so that the butts almost touch, this to expose the paler grey rump. Wing pumping also takes place. This action gives the impression of slow motion flight. Body feathers will also be flared. Courtship feeding usually occurs prior to mating. To mate, the hen crouches on the perch. Treading takes place from the top, the male stepping on the hen´s back, or from the side, the male retaining one foot on the perch. Switching sides is not uncommon when mating, the male stepping over the female to continue on the opposite side. During copulation the female will produce a series of grunts not normally heard at other times.
When I first published something on Grey Parrots in Facebook, breeders who had never seen the birds mating from the side approached me. I went back and reviewed my notes and examined old photographs. I also focused the security cameras on the pairs. The offspring of birds imported from the Ivory Coast many decades ago mated from the side, the males clearly grasping the perch. In birds whose origin was less certain but strongly suspected to be Cameroon they mated from the top.
Grey Parrots lay 3-4 eggs in the clutch. Incubation ranges from 26-30 days, with the average being 28 days. On hatching chicks are covered in white down. The bill and nails are black in the Red-tailed Grey and brownish-black in the Timneh Grey. The secondary down is grey. Chicks fledge around 10 weeks, but normally they quickly return to the nest and hide on hearing someone approach. Because of this, it may not be apparent for some days that they have fledged. Weaning takes another 3-4 weeks.
Young Grey Parrots are easily hand-reared. As they age, they spend a lot of time scratching with one foot, then the other. In the wild this behavior is intended to keep the nest hygienic; I have watched more than once as nesting material flew out the nesting cavity entrance while the parents were nearby preening. Chicks grunt and squeal like puppies and are comical to watch. Grey Parrots should never be rushed into weaning. The hand-rearer should show patience and allow a normally lengthy process to evolve. In my experience young that are forced to wean too early tend to develop behavior issues, may pluck or become neurotic.
Young intended to become future breeders should not be imprinted, but should be reared in groups and provided with enrichment. The intention is to develop birds that are independent, socialized and confident. As the birds mature, they will begin to pair off and they can then be given their own nest. We have four generations and have never had issues with hand-reared birds breeding. Problems can be experienced with former pets, which may see themselves as humans and not birds. These birds are often very picky about their mates and may never breed, or they may only produce clear eggs.
Grey Parrots reach sexual maturity by four years of age. We have had third generation Timnehs produce fertile eggs at three years.
Commercial breeding operations primarily occur in South Africa, where more Greys are reared than in the whole US combined. South African breeders have found that a diet containing 18% protein is optimum for breeding, that privacy is important, resting the birds (often in groups in long flight cages) will insure they quickly return to nest when returned to breeding cages, and re-uniting breeding pairs that are successful but offering new mates to pairs that do not lay or which produce clear eggs.
Grey Parrots have much to offer as aviary and pet birds. Dealing with them on a daily basis, will allow one to understand why they have been so popular for centuries. If properly cared for, they will have a long productive life and will give their owner tremendous pleasure.