African Grey Parrot Intelligence

Insight into African Grey Parrot Intelligence

Have you ever wondered about African Grey Intelligence?  Check out this blog post from noted Bird Talk author, Phil Samuelson to learn about these smart, beautiful companion parrots and what they need to shine.

By Phil Samuelson, Guest Blogger and Diane Burroughs, LCSW

Is an African grey parrot intelligent?

Back in the early 1990s when I was an editor on a popular national bird magazine, I attended the  American Federation of Aviculture annual convention in San Diego.

One of the lectures I was looking forward to was about breeding and enriching African grey intellect. Grey's, a species I had kept as a breeding aviary bird, are one of the most popular pet birds around. 

A pair of Congo grey's (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) that a friend and I owned seemed to settle into their captive environment quickly and soon were on eggs. A typical elevated flight cage and nest box were used, and the diet was a standard seed mix supplemented with fruits and vegetables. 

Years later, when I acquired and paired up a male and female of the smaller African grey subspecies, the Timneh grey (Psittacus erithacus timneh), I came to realize all African grey's were not created equal. 

The Timneh's would sleep in their nest box but never perched together, preened each other or seemed in sync as a breeding pair. Eggs never resulted. I was looking forward to the AFA lecture to learn more about this interesting, intelligent species.

African Grey Parrot intelligenceabout 

The speaker was a man named Dave Blynn, from Georgia. Dave had bred numerous African grey parrots, and I found his level of success impressive. He was quick to recognize the keen intelligence of the species. 

Dave admitted that when he first started breeding grey's he had little luck. This was back when parrot importation was wide open, and Dave's breeding stock consisted entirely of nervous imports. 

Once acclimated to captivity, the birds were sexed and broken up into pairs. They were fed a proper diet and given appropriate cages and nest boxes. Very little breeding occurred the first year, and most of the eggs were infertile.

Faced with disappointing production, Dave had an idea. He gathered all of the pairs and gave them identifying marks with a nontoxic marker before placing them all together in a huge cage. Then, with a closed-circuit television, he observed the birds. 

He was amazed that many pairs separated quickly and paired with other birds. It seems that African grey's --like people--appreciate a choice when selecting mates! Dave then broke the birds up again, this time with their chosen mates. A high percentage of the birds were on fertile eggs within months.

I found the lecture and slide show fascinating, and I introduced myself to Dave after the lecture. We became good phone friends and often had long conversations about birds. 

When Dave later tried his hand at breeding Vasa parrots, I had him write an article, and we published one of the first accounts of breeding this bizarre species.

African Grey Parrot intelligence

But do all African grey's possess a remarkable intellect? The answer is probably yes. Many bird fanciers know of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her work with Alex the African grey parrot. When I had lunch with Dr. Pepperberg in the mid '90s, I asked her if she thought Alex was exceptionally gifted or just an ordinary grey. 

She considered the question and responded that she thought he was probably typical. She had started working with some younger grey's and had found them similar. Both African Grey Parrots were about equally intelligent.

Despite his African Grey Intelligence, many of Alex's fans probably never realized was that he was a feather chewer with a bare chest.

African Grey's are infamous for this self-destructive behavior, so Alex was certainly typical in that regard. He was an excellent talker, but still a bit nervous and maladjusted, as many hand-reared flock species are.   


What we're learning these days, after years of study, is that all exotic animals, regardless of species, are much smarter than we ever imagined.  But, when torn apart from their habitat and confined to a boring, small cage with minimal enrichment, lacking socialization, a strange diet and no ability to use their brain it may appear that a grey is as nervous as a rabbit.  

When properly enriched, with plenty of foraging opportunities to problem solve and other environmental and social enrichments, African grey parrots blossom and are a wonderful pet.

Don't sell the African grey parrot short in the smarts department. I suspect their mental abilities are greater than most bird owners think!

How intelligent is a parrot?

Parrots may have a smaller brain than an elephant or a dolphin oh, but you can't underestimate their intelligence. Their brains are highly efficient allowing them to navigate flight and migration, develop their own language, engage in complex social relationships, and even problem-solve.

A lot of people describe that their pet African grey talks in a manner that actually fits the context of the conversation and makes sense. They even describe that their bird will put together 2 words and essentially make up a new word.

My Timneh African grey learned to imitate the sound of a smoke detector going off to warn the family of potential danger. His only exposure to  The sound of a smoke detector  was when alarms went off while we were on vacation one year. I have no idea how he made the association that the smoke detector was actually an alarm for danger. But now, anytime a stranger enters my house, Timmy sounds the alarm.

What is smarter a dog or a parrot?

Were you aware that there are lots of studies on pet intelligence?  Apparently, there is a standard test on pet intelligence. When parrot intelligence has been studied side by side with dog intelligence, guess who wins?

Parrots usually win hands down. Parrots have a keen ability to learn and then generalize that information later. One of the Hallmark  tests of animal intelligence is whether an individual can recognize its reflection in a mirror. Many species of parrot pass this test with flying colors.

I personally have found that my parrots are much easier to train than my dogs. They pick up the task at hand quickly  and are more amenable to  combining a variety of behaviors to perform an entire trick. 

Parrots  have even been observed twirling and changing their stance in front of the mirror for entertainment, much like a young child enjoys making funny faces in the mirror. 

Parrots are also excellent problem solvers. They can figure things out. Whether it's puzzle toys or how to make a tool to get a morsel fast food, our birds are a quick study.



Do parrots have high IQ?

Studies from Charles University and the University of Alberta, Canada reveal that parrots are highly intelligent.  They have similar brain structures as humans, although the parts are different and have different names. In parrots, it is called the SpM. These brain structures contain neurons that communicate with each other, allowing for planning and execution of sophisticated behaviors. 

Cristian Gutierrez-Ibanez, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology reports that, "Independently, parrots have evolved an enlarged area that connects the cortex and the cerebellum, similar to primates. This is another fascinating example of convergence between parrots and primates. It starts with sophisticated behaviors, like tool use and self-awareness, and can also be seen in the brain. The more we look at the brains, the more similarities we see."

So, the question is, how do you keep such an intelligent pet entertained and enriched so that it doesn't go absolutely crazy?  

You provide plenty of enrichment opportunities like those found in the foraging toys above.  But, secondly, you can spend quality time stimulating your bird's intellect. Here's a Facebook group on a parrot using an iPad.  

That might be a little out of your price range, but your smart bird will get plenty of enrichment from learning colors, counting, sorting, and tricks.  Here are some bird toys to consider.  They pull double duty because not only are you're bonding and socializing your pet, but you're also teaching it and exercising its brain.

Which is the most intelligent parrot?

These same Canadian researchers did studies of 98 bird brains from a variety of species that included songbirds, owls, chickens, waterfowl, and, of course parrots.

The scientists were able to map out how the brain structures communicate with each other. They compared it to how primate brain structures communicate. The complexity was impressive.  You can see for yourself in this diagram from GrrlScientist, an Evolutionary & behavioral ecologist, ornithologist & science writer and her 2018 post for Forbes.

Parrots SpM was found to be 5 times larger than many other avian species.


Diane Burroughs, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist trained in ABA therapy techniques. She specializes in avian anxiety disorders and is certified in Nutrition For Mental Health. Diane has written a number of bird behavior books and she offers behavior consultations. She's developed a range of UnRuffledRx Science-backed Parrot Wellness Supplies.

Diane's products have been featured in the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery and at Exoticscon, a conference for exotic pet veterinarians. Her bird collars & supplements are stocked in avian vet clinics and bird stores throughout the US. With over 30 years in the field of behavior, Diane has created thousands of successful individualized behavior plans that help pets thrive.

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