The African Grey Parrot is one of the most popular parrot species in the pet trade for good reason. They are incredibly intelligent birds with a subtle beauty - scalloped grey feathers and a bright red or maroon tail. Greys are famous for being able to mimic a variety of sounds, including human speech, to perfection. And the bond they form with the person they have chosen as their life-mate is one of complete devotion and trust. However, this is not a parrot that is appropriate for every household or living situation.
The question any prospective owner has to consider is - are YOU ready to be owned by an African Grey? Do you have the space, time and resources available to make this brilliant bird a member of your family? Scientific studies have shown that some of these animals, though they react emotionally like a two year old human, have the intellectual capacity of a seven year old. Many Greys will learn, after years of practice and interaction with their 'owners', what the words they are saying actually mean. For this reason, they require more attention and stimulation to stay happy and well-behaved than some other species of parrot.
Greys come in two subspecies - the Congo (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) and the Timneh (Psittacus erithacus timneh). Both birds require similar care and housing, though a Timneh might be able to live in a slightly smaller cage than a Congo. Congos are the larger of the two, typically between 12-14 inches in length and have a bright red tail. Timnehs are usually 10 inches long with a maroon tail. Congos and Timnehs can both talk well, though some owners believe that Congos are better at the mimicry of precise sounds. Timnehs can talk at a younger age and are usually more willing to talk in front of strangers. Congos also seem to be more nervous and more negatively affected by changes in their daily routine than Timnehs, but each bird has their own personality and will react differently to new situations.
African Greys are medium to large size parrots (depending on what you compare them with) and require a large cage. As youngsters, they are often clumsy, so a starter cage for a Grey can be 24”L by 24”W by 28”H. As the bird matures and becomes more acrobatic, a second cage may need to be purchased, depending on the size of the starter cage. African Greys need a great deal of stimulation, which means lots of room for toys and perches and space to flap their wings. The cage for a Grey older than one year of age should be AT LEAST 36”L by 24”W by 48”H (not counting the cage legs or stand). A good cage should have horizontal bars on at least two sides since parrots love to climb. Horizontal bars help to make climbing easier. Bar spacing should be no more than 1 inch apart to prevent injury.
African Greys can generally be kept at room temperature. Be sure to place your bird and its cage off of the floor and away from drafty areas or hot places like open windows, air vents, and doorways. Most tropical areas have a daytime temperature in the mid to high 70s and aren't colder than 65 degrees at night. Parrots should not be kept in areas that are constantly below 65 degrees, as this can wear down their immune system. An important thing to remember is that birds are most vulnerable to drafts when they are wet; therefore, if the room the bird lives in is 65 degrees, it should be moved to a warmer area to dry after a bath. Birds which habitually bathe in their water dish should be kept in a warmer area at all times.
Your parrot's cage should have at least three perches of various sizes, shapes, and textures so that its feet stay healthy and strong. Make sure the perches are thick enough for the bird to stand comfortably on them without losing its balance. For African Greys this is usually between 1 in and 2 in diameter. Some materials to consider are natural wood branches (like manzanita), concrete/bonded sand perches (for trimming nails), and rope perches.
Every bird, no matter the species, should have toys in their care to prevent boredom. Parrots especially need these distractions, as they are very intelligent and in the wild would be solving many problems each day just to find food, create nesting sites, and avoid predators. Provide at least three toys of different materials to begin with – wood (for chewing, an important part of beak health), plastic/acrylic (to make sure they have a toy just in case they destroy their other ones) and some other material or combination of materials such as vegetable-tanned leather, sisal rope, woven palm leaves, and/or corn cob.
For African Greys, toys are not a luxury, they are a necessity. As a baby, your bird may not play much at first, but as it matures it will need a great deal of mental and physical stimulation. These intelligent birds not only need toys to condition their beak, but also foraging toys to keep them occupied for the many hours that their 'owner' may be gone each day. Items of various shapes, sizes, and colors should be introduced early in life to prevent a Grey from being afraid of new toys. And for those new parrot 'owners' who aren't sure what to expect, toys are a significant expense which should not be overlooked in considering whether or not to bring one of these birds home. The beak of an African Grey can quickly destroy wood, bend small pieces of metal, and crack through acrylic. They need new toys quite often.
To help your new parrot sleep at night, you may want to purchase a cage cover to block out light from the room they are housed in. Parrots require 10-12 hours of sleep at night - in most tropical regions the amount of daylight hours is constant throughout the year, so keep your bird on a consistent schedule. If your Grey lives in a room where there is a lot of activity during its sleeping hours, it may be kept awake by low volume sounds and will not get the proper rest that it needs to stay healthy. In this case, you may want to get a smaller cage for your bird to sleep in and place it in a quieter room, such as a guest room or home office. Using a sleep cage will give your bird a safe, quiet place to get a good night's sleep. Tired birds are often cranky and difficult to train.
The natural diet of African Greys consists of nuts (especially oil palm), seeds, fruits, and berries. At home, these birds can best be cared for by providing a variety of foods. Pellets can be fed as a daily base diet, but it is better not to feed pellets exclusively. African parrots need a higher fat content than most pellets provide (about 8 percent), so small amounts of unsalted tree nuts (everything except peanuts) should be provided as well. Pellets should comprise 50-80 percent of the diet, with the rest being made up of cook and serve mixes, fresh fruits and vegetables, and the occasional treat.
It is also important to include a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in your bird's diet. Vegetables are more nutritious than fruit and should be given in greater quantities. Healthy vegetables to offer are dark leafy greens (romaine, kale, chicory, collard, and turnip greens), carrots, broccoli, and cooked sweet potatoes and squash. Just make sure whatever you offer cooked is not salted or spiced in any way.
Choices of healthy fruits include papaya, mango, small amounts of apple, pear, plum or grape, and berries when in season. Be careful not to feed fruit pits or seeds (with the exception of berries) because many of these can be poisonous. When feeding fresh foods, it is important to remove anything uneaten after a few hours so that the food does not spoil, and to wash the dishes thoroughly before using them again. Other healthy treat foods include cooked whole grains, pasta, multigrain breads and cereals, and occasionally, cooked eggs and unspiced lean meats.
Never allow your bird to consume any of the following: avocado, onions, rhubarb, asparagus, chocolate, alcohol, anything caffeinated, any dairy product, uncooked beans and any food which is heavily salted or very greasy.
Grooming & Hygiene
Birds like to bathe, but different birds prefer to bathe in different ways. Some like to bathe in a shallow dish, some like to be sprayed with a fine mist and still others like to get in the shower with their owner. Since many parrots come from regions of the world that get a great deal of rainfall, it's important to give birds a chance to get wet every day as long as they are in good health.
Clipping your bird's flight feathers is not necessary but usually helps in taming your bird. It also helps to prevent escape and injury. Birds like parrots cannot survive in the climate of most of the US and would not survive without a flock (a flock protects them from predators as there is safety in numbers). For this reason, please consider carefully before allowing a parrot to remain flighted. Consult your avian vet to have the wings clipped by a qualified professional. Nails should also be trimmed by a qualified person if they get too long, unhealthy, or hinder the bird's movements.
Behavior & Interaction
African Greys are highly social birds that form large flocks in the wild. They are highly observant of their surroundings, which is why they can sometimes be nervous around new people and situations. After all, a wild African Grey would not only have to be conscious of other flock members, but all the other animals around it so that it would not end up being eaten by a predator. Therefore, it is important for Greys to be exposed to as many people and situations as possible when it is young. That way, your bird is less likely to be afraid of new things and may instead enjoy new learning experiences.
It is necessary for African Grey parrots to have multiple hours of time outside the cage socializing each day to keep them friendly and well-adjusted. For many working people, this will mean that the bird comes out of its cage when you get home and doesn't go back in until bedtime. Parrots can do a variety of things with their 'owners' – go in the shower, share some dinner, watch TV, play on the computer, or wash dishes (as long as the bird is on your shoulder and not in the soapy water!). Any tasks that require your full attention or that incorporate any substances which may be toxic to your bird should be performed without the bird on your shoulder or arm. A playstand where the parrot can play with a different set of toys than it has in its cage is ideal for this - the bird can remain occupied and out of the cage and its 'owner' can complete other household tasks that might be dangerous to the bird.
Social interaction is very important for an African Grey because these parrots tend to be one-person birds. This species is monogamous in the wild, so when they become sexually mature (3-8 years of age), they will select someone (a human or another bird) to be their lifelong mate. If the bird has not been allowed to interact with people other than its 'owner' before this happens, it may become highly aggressive and bite everyone else it comes into contact with.
An African Grey that is bonded to a human will most likely kill any other bird placed in its cage - the new bird is competition for its favorite person. In general, it is best that handfed parrots are housed alone. If two birds are kept together as a breeding pair, it is difficult to handle them, even if they were previously handfed. Two parrots kept together will often bond with each other, not a human. And during the breeding season, they will viciously defend their eggs and chicks, inflicting serious damage on anyone who tries to interfere with their nest. Only one African Grey should be kept if you want to train it to interact with you.
One important point that needs to be stressed is that while this species often talks very well, not all African Greys will talk. Most of them will not even begin talking until they are close to a year of age, and since Greys are usually sold younger than this, there is no guarantee that any particular bird will talk. It is completely up to the bird whether or not they decide to learn human speech – some birds are content to communicate using their own vocal and body language, and others choose to imitate environmental noises only (such as the beep of home appliances, the sound of dripping water or the noise of a lawnmower). No matter what kind of parrot you choose, or which subspecies of African Grey appeals most to you, remember to select a parrot by the way it interacts with you and how it fits into your lifestyle. Talking should only be a bonus to bird ownership, never a primary reason.