African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) - used to be prevalent in the primary and secondary rainforests of West and Central Africa. These red tailed parrots are also found on some islands located in the Gulf of New Guinea.
Unfortunately, they are such a coveted pet that they're commonly kidnapped from the wild to be sold in the illegal wildlife pet trade business. Wild African grey parrots are at a very real risk for becoming extinct due to the illegal pet trade.
Due to habitat destruction and pet trade smuggling wild African Grey parrots populations are on the decline resulting in CITIES appendix II status, which restricts trade of wild caught parrots.
You'll find two common subspecies available in the pet trade. Congo African Grey Parrots, shown above, sport light gray feathering, a black beak, and a bright red tail. Congo African Greys are larger than the Timneh, averaging a weight between 380 to 554 grams.
Timneh African Grey Parrots, as shown below, are a darker, charcoal color with a maroon tail and horn colored beak. They only weigh 300 to 360 grams. Both subspecies have white accents on the gray feathers and white skin around their eyes.
African grey parrots are thought to be among the most intelligent of all parrots. They are so smart that they can learn how to count, identify colors, and even problem-solve. Scientist's such as Harvard's Irene Pepperberg, Phd, have demonstrated intellectual capacities on par with a four to five year old child.
African grey parrots are also some of the best talkers amongst all parrot species and they tend to have a relatively calm disposition, When properly cared for. These are the reasons that they're so enamored as a pet.
But, that intelligence means that as a pet, an African grey parrot needs a lot of enrichment and socialization. They also need an excellent diet, plenty of sleep, and someone who's willing to work with them to properly train them.
African grey parrots need:
While any parrot will have its own individual personality traits, as a rule, most properly trained and cared for African Grey parrots make excellent pets.
African grey parrots are probably not the most appropriate bird for beginners. That's not to say that it can't be done. However, before you bring an African grey parrot home, you need to know that they are demanding birds that live approximately 50 years and who require a real commitment for daily care for years to come.
African grey parrots are considered exotic pets. They need specific care to thrive. You should educate yourself on the specific care needs that an exotic bird needs and make a plan on how to meet its needs accordingly before adopting one of these beautiful birds.
I'd also encourage you to learn how to train a parrot. It's not as hard as it sounds. In fact, one of the best resources that you can ever get, as a bird owner, is Clicker Training For Birds. You'll learn how to train for manners and how to avoid common pet bird problems like developing a screaming habit, safe handling, and more.
Training an African Grey is not any more difficult than training a dog. In fact, I think it's a lot easier. When you use positive reinforcement, not only does your bird enjoy the training and the socialization, it learns super fast! I've taught my Grey's, Timmy and Smokey tricks within just a few 15 minute training sessions.
When you master positive reinforcement your bird bonds with you better and, as an owner, you quickly learn how to reinforce the behaviors you want to see more of and ignore the behaviors that are bothersome. Think of positive reinforcement as insurance against unwanted or aggressive behaviors.
To get started, you’ll need about 15 minutes a day for training and just a few accessories:
Some people wonder if it's cruel to keep an African Grey Parrot as a pet. It can be cruel to keep an African Grey as a pet if you decide not to educate yourself on the proper care that this animal needs. Or, if you're not committed to the long-term care that this animal needs in order to thrive.
But, if you've done your homework and educated yourself, plus, set your household up to accommodate this exotic pet, you may have just found your best friend. A well cared for, well trained African Grey Parrot is a joy to be around.
African grey parrots bond very deeply with their owners, especially when their owners spend lots of positive time with them. Again, using positive reinforcement establishes trust and a deeper bond. Also, interacting with your bird to provide enriching opportunities, like you saw in the Rokko.Baby video above goes a long way toward establishing a trusting, loving bond.
African grey parrots live in large flocks in the wild. Wild Grey's are never alone and always have a fellow flock mate to interact with. Pet African grey parrots have been known to bond extremely deeply with their “ substitute flock.” More so, if you establish your own style of communication.
I have a unique calling ritual with each of my grey's. When I got my grey’s in 1999, I'd done a lot of homework to discover how to avoid common bird behavior problems. One routine that I established right off the bat was to develop a special "calling" whistle with each of them. This special whistle allows my bird's to know where I am at and to know that I'm thinking about them.
Smokey, my Congo Grey, doesn't tolerate any form of petting. But, he wants me to kiss him on his beak about a dozen times every morning. That's another ritual that we've established to make him feel like he's part of the flock. If he doesn't get his morning kisses he's not a happy bird - and truthfully, neither am I.
A lot of people like to cuddle up with their pet bird. But, as a rule, African grey parrots aren't really keen about that. That's a good thing because excessive handling, like petting your bird’s vent or under its wings can be misinterpreted as a sexual advancement by the bird.
Basically, petting a bird almost anywhere on its body will make the bird extremely hormonal. But, it's okay to pet your grey on the head or the feet if it asks for it. Those areas are not erogenous zones.
An African Grey Parrot enjoys social activities, special whistles or “calls” between you two, and sensory enrichment, like watching Bird TV for Parrots on YouTube much more than it enjoys being petted.
One of the biggest mistakes that new African grey owners make is to inappropriately pet their bird in a way that causes the bird to become hormonal and aggressive.
A well cared for, well-socialized African Grey is usually a pretty happy bird. But, just like you and I, if they get overly tired from not getting enough sleep each night, they can be grumpy. And, of course, if their nutritional needs are not met causing them to suffer the effects of malnutrition, they’ll, of course, be grumpy.
A happy African grey parrot is curious and busy yet has a calm demeanor. It's observant about what is going on around it and it tries to interact as much as possible.
For instance, check out this rescue parrot video by @Rokko.Baby on Instagram. (By the way, Maya was adopted with a feather plucking problem which the owners have substantially resolved with great enrichment and excellent care.)
One of the most frequent and perplexing problems African grey owners consult me about is feather plucking. There are a handful of species that seem to be prone to feather plucking habits, and African greys are one of those species.
A lot of African grey parrots start out plucking under their wings making it very hard to spot. This area doesn’t get much air circulation and it is prone to infections. Another common African grey plucking pattern is the chest area. When the problem gets real severe an African grey feathers may be reduced to just the down feathers.
It's important to catch feather plucking early before your gray has a chance to damage the feather follicles that actually grow the feathers. When the feather follicles have too much scar tissue they can't grow new feathers.
Also, if the problem goes on too long, the plucking habit becomes somewhat compulsive in nature. That makes it harder to stop. In my experience, bird collars interrupt a plucking cycle, but for long-term results you'll want to do two important things.
Firstly, it's going to be critical that you start paying close attention to parrot wellness. I'd mentioned earlier how, if a bird doesn't feel good and it's not properly nourished, upsetting problems like feather plucking tend to develop. Parrot wellness is the easiest and most effective way to turn around a feather plucking problem.
In my experience, once a feather plucking habit has progressed to what I described as a “moderate level of plucking” you'll want to consider learning and using positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement is when you strategically choose which behaviors to reinforce and which behaviors you want to eliminate. Then, you reinforce or reward the behaviors that you want to see more of. I’ve already mentioned how positive reinforcement can prevent common bird behavior problems from developing in the first place.
It goes a little deeper than that when you're trying to turn around a compulsive, nasty habit, like bird feather plucking. It’s not uncommon to need a few bird behavior consultations from a bird behaviorist to get a handle on the problem.
Try to address a feather plucking problem as fast as you can. We know that time is of the essence when dealing with this rather addictive behavior problem. The longer the plucking and the more severe the problem has become, the harder it is to turn around.
Most people start off by joining forums and Facebook groups for feather plucking support. These groups are great for support but you have to keep in mind that most members are not licensed or certified in Applied Behavior Analysis, so the support that you get in these groups is very basic at its best. And, misinformed at its worst.
That’s where a bird behaviorist comes in. A certified or licensed behaviorist uses an intake questionnaire to get to the root of the problem as quickly as possible. That way, they can get a jump-start into how you can get the issue corrected faster.
In conclusion, I talked about how to ensure that your bird is happy and well behaved. Also discussed how to socialize your parrot, train it, and turn around unwanted or challenging behaviors, including feather plucking. If you want to learn more about how to care for your African grey parrot check out these blog posts:
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's products have been featured in the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery and at Exoticscon, a conference for exotic pet veterinarians.
With over 30 years experience, in a range of settings, she’s created thousands of successful behavior plans to help turn around challenging behavior.
Diane got parrot fever in the ‘90’s and founded BirdSupplies.com in 1998. Nowadays, BirdSupplies.com focuses solely on Science-backed Parrot Wellness with bird collars for feather plucking birds, nutritional supplements to support avian wellness, and a range of educational materials to support challenging bird behavior. Diane’s authored a number of books on supporting challenging behavior in birds.
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