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Gray Parrot Picture

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African Grey Parrot
Congo African Grey Parrot
Timneh African Grey Parrot Conservation status
Near Threatened (IUCN 3.1) Scientific classification Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Psittaciformes
Family: Psittacidae
Tribe: Psittacini
Genus: Psittacus
Linnaeus, 1758 Species: P. erithacus
Binomial name Psittacus erithacus
Linnaeus, 1758
Ranges shown by the red areas Subspecies
  • Psittacus erithacus erithacus
    Linnaeus, 1758
  • Psittacus erithacus timneh
    Fraser, 1844and see text

The African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) is a medium-sized parrot endemic to primary and secondary rainforest of West and Central Africa. Experts regard it as one of the most intelligent birds. They feed primarily on palm nuts, seeds, fruits, leafy matter, and have even been observed eating snails. Their overall gentle nature and their inclination and ability to mimic speech have made them popular pets. This has led many to be captured from the wild and sold into the pet trade. The African Grey Parrot is listed on CITES appendix II, which restricts trade of wild caught species, because wild populations can not sustain trapping for the pet trade.

Taxonomy and systematics

The African Grey Parrot was one of the many species originally described by Linnaeus in his 18th century work, Systema Naturae, and it still bears its original name of Psittacus erithacus. It is the only currently accepted species of the genus Psittacus. The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek psittakos (????????), "parrot."

There are two subspecies universally accepted:

  • Congo African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus erithacus):
    This is the dominant subspecies, larger than the Timneh at about 33 cm (13 in) long, with light grey feathers, cherry red tails, and an all black beak. Immature birds of this subspecies have tails with a darker, duller red towards the tip (Juniper and Parr 1999) until their first moult which occurs within 18 months of age. These birds also initially have grey irises which change to a pale yellow colour by the time the bird is a year old. The Congo grey parrot is found on the islands of Príncipe and Bioko and is distributed from south-eastern Ivory Coast to Western Kenya, Northwest Tanzania, Southern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Northern Angola. In aviculture, it is often called a "CAG".
  • Timneh African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus timneh):
    These are smaller in size, have a darker charcoal grey coloring, a darker maroon tail, and a light, horn-colored area to part of the upper mandible. The timneh grey parrot is endemic to the western parts of the moist Upper Guinea forests and bordering savannas of West Africa from Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Southern Mali east to at least 70 km (43 mi) east of the Bandama River in Ivory Coast. It is often called a "TAG". As pets Timnehs begin learning to speak earlier than Congos, and are often said to be less nervous around strangers and novel situations.

Some aviculturalists recognize a third and even a fourth subspecies, but these are not distinguishable in scientific studies.

The "Ghana African Grey," formerly recognized as subspecies Psittacus erithacus princeps, is described as similar to the Congo African Greys, but darker and slightly smaller, and originates from Fernando Po and Principé Islands.

The "Cameroon African Grey," most often referred to as "the big silvers," is supposedly a larger and lighter form which actually has its origin in birds not from Cameroon but from today's Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Juvenile Congo African Grey Parrot. Irises are dark grey.

Congo African Grey parrot

Timneh African Grey Parrot showing pale upper mandible

Status and conservation Timneh African Grey Parrot (wings clipped)

Rarer than previously believed, it is uplisted from a species of Least Concern to Near Threatened in the 2007 IUCN Red List. A recent analysis suggests that up to 21% of the global population may be taken from the wild annually, primarily for the pet trade.

The species is endemic to primary and secondary rainforest of West and Central Africa. Grey parrots depend on large old trees for the natural hollows they use for nesting. Studies in Guinea and Guinea-Bissau have found that the preferred species of nesting trees are also preferred timber species. There is a positive relationship between the status of the species and the status of primary forest: where the forests are declining, so too are populations of Grey parrots.

Congo African Grey Parrot in a bird park

The African Grey Parrot is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This requires both that exports be accompanied by a permit issued by a national authority and that a finding has been made that the export is non-detrimental to the species in the wild. With exports totaling more than 350,000 specimens from 1994-2003, the grey parrot is one of the most heavily-traded CITES-listed bird species. In response to continuing population declines, exceeded quotas and unsustainable and illegal trade, including among range states, CITES included the grey parrot in Phase VI of the CITES Review of Significant Trade in 2004. This review has resulted in recommended zero export quotas for several range states and a CITES Decision to develop regional management plans for the species.

In the United States, importation of wild-caught Grey parrots is prohibited under the U.S. Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992. In the European Union, an EU Directive of 2007 prevents importation of this and any other "wild-caught" bird for the pet trade.

Mimicry and intelligence

African Grey parrots are considered to be the most talented talking parrots, a reputation rivaled only by the Hill Mynah (Gracula religiosa). Unlike other parrots, wild African Greys have been documented imitating the calls of several other species. African Grey parrots have been tested using rigorous scientific standards, and are classed along side the most intelligent animal species. Dr. Irene Pepperberg's extensive research with captive African greys, famously with a bird named Alex, has documented the ability to associate human words with meanings, and to intelligently apply the abstract concepts of shape, color, number, zero-sense, etc. In many cognitive tasks they perform at the level of dolphins, chimpanzees, and even a human toddler Many pet Congo African Greys learn to speak quite slowly until their second or third year. Timneh's are generally observed to start speaking eariler. Both (all) subspecies seem to have the same ability and tendency to produce human speech (a question often posed by pet parrot enthusiasts). But vocal ability and proclivity may ranges widely among individual birds, often owing to its early socialization. Certain Amazon Parrots of the Yellow-headed variety are usually regarded as the next-best talkers among pet parrots


Wild African Grey Parrots frequently whistle, shriek, squeak, click, etc. In captivity these sounds can be rather sharp and annoying. But it is part of their nature. The African Grey owner should expect to hear regular renditions of the microwave, telephone, alarm clocks, dripping water, wild birds, video games, and any other electronic sound that is often heard by the parrot. Learning to tolerate and even respect this natural quality of your Grey is important if a peaceful, pleasant companion pet relationship is to be maintained.

Aviculture A pet Congo African Grey Parrot

Their sociability and intelligence can make African Grey Parrots outstanding pets with a strongly devoted following among parrot owners. These same qualities mean that African Greys require special committment by their owners to provide frequent one-on-one interaction, and supervised time out of their cage. They also require large cages, a varied diet that includes fresh foods, and plenty of safe and destrucable toys. When not provided with these things African Greys quickly develop unpleasant behaviors and can eventually develop health problems that are difficult to remedy (such as feather-plucking). There is now a large volume of recent literature on the proper care of African Grey Parrots, and the owner (or prospective owner) of a Grey is well advised to seek this out, and learn all that is possible. Even the healthiest, happiest pet African Grey will generate a fair amount of mess and noise. Like most parrots, they are genetically wild, and even a well-socialized, hand-raised and aviary bred bird is only one or two generations from a wild predecessor. Despite this, there is a long recorded history of African Greys kept by the ancient Greeks, wealthy Roman families, King Henry VIII, and Portuguese sailors, and others.

Acquiring an African Grey (or any parrot) is likely a lifelong commitment, and should not be done on a whim.

Captive breeding A one day old Congo African Grey Parrot chick that was hatched in an incubator

African Greys are not shy, their courtship ritual is not intricate, and their babies are not especially delicate, so they are relatively easy to breed in captivity. In the U.S., there are enough domestically raised birds to easily satisfy the demand for pets, so support for a black market in illegally imported African Greys is not strong.

Mutations African Grey Parrot red-factor mutations, including the all-red individual discussed in this section.

Several mutations occur naturally in the wild, like the F2 Pied Mutation, which results in a broad red band across the abdomen. 1998 saw the first created Grey mutation when South African bird breeder Von van Antwerpen and New Zealand partner Jaco Bosman selected F2 Pieds and created the first red African Grey.

Other mutations include:

  • Albino (no pigment)
  • Lutino (yellow pigment)
  • Incomplete Ino (mostly white, but with small percentage of melanin)
  • Grizzles (soft pinkish scalloped found in its feathers)
  • Blues (white pigment in the tail)
  • Parino (very light scalloping found in its feathers)

Foods Toxic to Parrots
  • Chocolate
  • Avocado
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Apple seeds (as they contain cyanide)
  • Peach pit (contains cyanide)
  • Cherry Pits
  • Dairy products containing lactose. Items containing lactose are not 'dangerous' for a parrot. However, since birds cannot digest lactose, dairy products containing lactose are of reduced nutritional value to birds.
  • Garlic and onions, cooked or raw, contain a chemical which kills red blood cells
  • Salt (increases thirst, water consumption and urination)

In literature
  • The character 'Gerard' in Michael Crichton's novel, Next, is a transgenic African Grey
  • The character 'Madison' in Dick King Smith's novel Harry's Mad is an African Grey Parrot
  • The character 'Methuselah' in Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible is an African Grey Parrot.
  • "Friendly Feathers: Life with Pierre, an African Grey Parrot" by Dr. Fran Smith, illustrated by Deon Matzen, ISBN 978-0-615-22232-5
  • The bird owned by the character 'Linus Steinman' in The Final Solution (novel) by Michael Chabon is an African Grey.
  • In the book, "We'll Always Have Parrots" by Donna Andrews, an African grey parrot helps protagonist Meg Lanslow nab the bad guy.
  • In the book, "Sick as a Parrot" by Liz Evans, the parrot in the title is an African grey parrot.
  • Cat Marsala, the main protagonist in "Hard Christmas" by Barbara D'Amato, has a pet African grey parrot named Long John Silver.

See also
  • Alex (parrot)
  • N'kisi
  • Bird-safe

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