Animal Spotlight: African Grey Parrots

Taxonomy:congo_african_grey_parrot_-head_detail

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Order: Aves
  • Class: Psittaciformes
  • Family: Psittacidae
  • Genus: Psittacus
  • Species: erithacus
  • Subspecies: Congo and Timneh African Grey

  • Congo African Grey’s Average Length: 12-14 inches (32-36 cm)
  • Timneh African Grey’s Average Length: 10 inches (26 cm)
  • Congo African Grey’s Average Weight: 16 ounces (450 g)
  • Timneh African Grey’s Average Weight: 10.5 ounces (300 g)
  • Average Lifespan in Captivity 45 years
  • Average Lifespan in the Wild: 22.7 years

Described as the perfect combination of brains and beauty, the African Grey parrot is one of the more popular parrot species kept by aviculturists and bird enthusiasts.

It generally inhabits savannas, coastal mangroves, woodland, and edges of forest clearings in their West and Central Africa range. Though the larger of the African grey subspecies is referred to as the Congo African grey, this bird actually has a much wider natural range in Africa, including the Southeastern Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Tanzania. The Timneh African grey is found in a smaller region along the western edge of the Ivory Coast and through southern Guinea. Overall, it finds home across 23 countries.

Physical Description:

As the name implies, this parrot is predominantly grey, with the area around the eyes white and featherless. These birds tend to come in a variety of sizes and shades of grey because their natural habitat is so large. They have four toes on each foot, two in the front and two in the black.

congo-and-timneh-parrots
Via FeatherMe

However, as subspecies, the Congo African grey and the Timneh African grey do have differences. In the Congo African grey, their tails are red. The Timneh African grey’s tail is darker, ranging from maroon to dark grey or black. Furthermore, the Congo African grey is always larger than the Timneh African grey.

Young greys will have jet black eyes that turn to a yellowish-cream color when 2 years of age.

Diet:

They are mostly frugivorous. In the wild, African Grey parrot’s diet consists mostly of nuts, seeds, and fruits. The species prefers oil palm fruit and will supplement its diet with leafy matter, like flowers and treebark. It has also been observed eating snails and insects.

Behavior:

Unlike captive African greys, their wild counterparts are very shy and rarely allow humans to approach them. However, they are still highly social and will nest in large groups, although each family group will occupy their own nesting tree. Their flocks are composed of only African grey parrots, unlike other parrot species that will often be found in mixed flocks. During the day, they break into smaller flocks and fly long distances to forage.

map-africangrey
Its range across Africa

In the wild, African grey parrots must learn a complex set of skills. They need to learn how to separate desirable food plants from toxic plants, how to defend territory, how to recognize and avoid predators, how to find safe water, and how to rejoin their families when separated. Also, they must learn how to develop role-appropriate behaviors such as competing and defending nest sites and raising offspring.

Because African grey parrots are partial ground feeders, there is a series of behavioral events that occur before landing and safe consumption takes place. Groups of parrots gather at a barren tree until it is completely filled with hundreds of birds that partake in preening, climbing, vocalizing, and socializing. Eventually the birds make their way down to the ground in waves with the entire group never being on the ground at the same time. Once on the ground, they are extremely vigilant, reacting to any movement and/or sound.

Wild African grey parrot flocks follow a daily pattern of vocalizations. Usually the flock is quiet from sunset until the next dawn. At daybreak, the flock begins to vocalize before setting out to forage at different locations throughout the day. At dusk, upon return to the roosting site, there is a period of vocalization. There are a variety of different types of calls and vocalizations, including alarm calls, contact calls, food begging calls, and agonistic calls. Contact calls are particularly important because they serve to identify where other members of the flock are and help promote flock cohesion. Alarm calls indicate varying levels of distress, these calls are particularly loud and of a frequency that carries well in order to warn fellow flock members. Young learn these vocalizations from parents and flock mates, so pet parrots do not learn appropriate vocalizations, but will show similar patterns and use of calls.

Individuals select mates carefully and have lifelong monogamous bond. Few details are known about courtship in the wild, but display flights around nest holes have been observed and recorded. Males will feed their mates and both genders will sing soft monotonous notes. At this time, the female will sleep in the nest cavity while the male guards it. Competition for nest holes during mating season makes the species extremely aggressive.

signso3
Via African Queen Aviaries

The breeding season varies by locality, but appears to coincide with the dry season. They breed once to twice a year. Females will lay two to four eggs, one each every two to five days. Females will stay in the nest, incubating the nest for approximately 28 days while being fed entirely by the male. After hatching, the young will remain at the nest until 12 weeks of age when they begin fledging. Both parents will continue to feed, raise, and protect their young. Young birds will stay with their family groups for a long period of time, up to several years. Young African grey parrots are cared for by the older birds until they are educated enough and old enough to become independent flock members. When they reach sexual maturity at the age four to seven years, they leave for their own mate.

Conservation and Threats:

Though the birds impacted by habitat destruction, indiscriminate use of pesticides, and hunting by local inhabitants. However, their popularity as pets has led to many to be captured for the pet trade. The African grey parrot is considered to be a near threatened species, listed as ‘vulnerable’ by IUCN, after a recent analysis suggesting that up to 21% of the global population may be harvested annually. It is one of the most popular avian pets in Europe, United States, and Middle East due to its longevity and unparalleled ability to mimic human speech and other sounds. Demand for wild birds is also increasing in China, and increased presence of Chinese businesses in central Africa, particularly for mining, oil, and logging, may increase illegal exports of this species.

In 1981, concern about the potential impact of overexploitation on these parrots’ populations led to the species being listed on CITES Appendix II, which restricts global trade of wild caught species. The Congo African grey parrot, which is the dominant subspecies in the pet trade, is listed under Appendix I due to the pet trade’s greater threat to the subspecies’ survival.

grey-parrots-captured-shades-of-grey
Photo By: Lukuru Foundation/TL2 Project

During the past 25 years, more than 1.5 million wild African greys have been taken from their native habitats. But, the International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates that many more, between 2.1 and 3.2 million, were captured than officially reported. This is because 40-60% of birds captured die quickly due to poor capture and transport practices.

The parrots suffer from a poor quota system, poor management and regulation of trade, and fraudulent permitting. Combined, these factors precipitated severe population declines in wild populations. The quota for African grey parrots in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is 5,000 but up to 10,000 wild-caught birds are imported into South Africa each year. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cameroon exported an annual quota of 10,000 birds. It is estimated that 90% of trapped birds died before reaching Douala airport, suggesting that approximately 100,000 birds are captured per year during that period. And according to a 2016 study, Ghana’s population declined by 90-99% and are considered “virtually eliminated” due to poaching for the pet trade and to habitat loss.

This species is also hunted in parts of its range as bushmeat and its heads, legs, and tail feathers are used as medicine or in black magic.

Recently in the CITES meeting last month, international commercial trade of wild African grey parrots was banned.

grey-parrots-shadws-of-grey-2-1280x850
Grey parrots in their natural habitat in Ituri Forest, DRC. ©Reto Kuster

Interesting Facts

  • The African grey parrot is one of the most intelligent species of bird that can mimic and copy human sounds. It is famous for its intelligence and ability to mimic human speech.
  • This species is one of the largest parrots in Africa
  • They fly in large, noisy flocks, travelling considerable distances in search of fruiting trees.
  • A captive African grey parrot named Alex was able to use English words to identify colors, shapes, and quantities. In 2977, Dr. Irene Pepperberg purchased him from a petstore hoping to disprove that the parrots were just mimics. In the more than 30 years that she worked with him, Alex has shown amazing cognitive abilities, being able to name more than 100 objects, actions, and colors. He died in 2007.

References + For More Reading

African Grey Parrot

African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus)

IUCN: Psittacus erithacus (Grey Parrot)

African Grey Parrots: The Smartest Parrots of all?

ADW: Psittacus erithacus

The Journey From a Bustling Forest Community to Solitary Life in Your Living Room

UN Wildlife Conference Bans Global Trade Of Africa’s Grey Parrots

Thousands of African Grey Parrots Stolen from the Wild Every Month

Featured Image By: Warren Photographic

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