African Grey parrots are in high demand for those who are familiar with their care, their amazing ability to talk, and their incredible intelligence. However, these birds are often bought on impulse when a pet-lover sees one in a store and decides the parrot would be fun as a family pet. They buyer may be completely unaware of how to care for Greys, the expense involved in maintaining them, and how to provide a stimulating environment for them. As a result of these impulse-buys, Greys are either abandoned or neglected by people who didn’t do their homework before buying them. This article will help you decide if an African Grey is right for you and your family.
Congo African Grey parrots originated in the tropics of Africa. They are distinguished from Timneh African Greys by the shape and color of their face and beak. Congo Greys have lovely mottled-grey feathers, sharp yellow eyes, and bright scarlet tails. They are large hookbill parrots like Cockatoos and Macaws. Since they use their very powerful beaks to break open fruits and seeds, they have the ability to cause serious injury to unwary hands inside their cage. This is their only means of protecting themselves; they don’t bite out of meanness, but out of fear. You can train your Grey to step nicely onto your hand, but you should advise strangers and young children to keep their hands clear of the cage.
For example, my own African Grey, Paddywack, is bonded to me and loves me; I know this because he vomits on me. Yes, you read correctly! This is a Grey’s way of showing affection; Paddywack is trying to feed me. Two years ago I had Paddy sitting on my hand to scratch his head when he lost his balance and began to fall. Greys, for all their intelligence, are very clumsy birds. Paddywack grabbed the nearest thing he could see to steady himself; my lower lip. He bit right through my lip, and I had the nine stitches and the scar to prove that you should never hold a hookbill parrot close to your face! I was asked several times if I was going to “get rid of that bird.” Why would I? He didn’t bite me out of meanness; he was acting like a frightened bird who was about to fall. This was my fault, not his.
Along with taking into account the power of the Grey’s beak to protect himself, you should also be aware that these parrots have the intelligence of a three-year-old child. They’re not like canaries or finches that you just enjoy having; they need to become members of your family. Greys can tell colors, shapes, and numbers. Paddywack knows my credit card number and my social security number because he has heard me relate this information on the telephone. Greys need a stimulating environment; their cage needs to be in a common room where they can interact with the family and see what’s going on. They need toys in their cage that they can chew, play with, and simulate fights with. Paddy prefers bell toys; he knows very well that ringing his bell causes our miniature Dachshunds to go insane! He does it on purpose, then laughs because they can’t get to him! There are many toys available for large hookbills, but they tend to cost $20-$30 each because of the bells, ropes, nuts, etc. attached to them. I’ve bought Paddy some very intricate toys to amuse his intelligence, but his favorite toy is the roll of cardboard from paper towels. Go figure. Greys like what they like, and you won’t know this until you’ve already spent money on expensive bird toys.
Since Greys are such social birds, they do very poorly if their cage is in an area where there’s no family-bird-dog-cat- etc. interaction. It’s well-known that if Greys are shoved into a room alone day after day, they will literally go insane. They will start to scream constantly and pull out their feathers. Once this happens, this behavior cannot be rehabilitated and the kindest thing is to euthanize the bird. This can be avoided if you know, in advance, that you can provide your Grey with the social interest he must have.
Yes, African Greys are the genius talkers of the hookbills. Their ability to learn words and sounds is absolutely amazing. What’s more amazing is that they talk in context; Paddywack tells me and my husband good morning, greets us when we come home after work, asks for his food, and if he doesn’t like his food he tells me “Phooey!” and spits it out. He has one-sided telphone conversations with himself, usually ending with “Okay, love you, bye.” Greys are not simply mimics; they use the right words in the right situation. He knows all ten of our mini-Dachshunds by name, and recognizes their particular barks. “Max! Stop it! Quiet!” When Taz was a puppy, she was so tiny that my husband called her a “rat dog.” Paddy, of course, picked it up and every time he sees her he yells “Rat dog!” At age nine, Paddywack has about a 200 word-sound vocabulary. He beeps like the microwave, creaks like the door, sounds like the toilet flushing, and does a terrific belch that my husband taught him, but at least Paddy says “Scuse me.”
If you purchase an African Grey, you must be careful about your “colorful language” in his hearing. Once a Grey picks up a work, he will say it forever! You can teach a child not to swear, but not a Grey! Paddywack is not allowed to listen to “Deadwood” or “The Osbournes.” Our fear is that we would have company and Paddy will break out in a tirade of profanity that would make even Ozzy Osbourne blush! Belching is bad enough.
Keep in mind that African Greys don’t start to talk until they’re about two years old. When they’re young, their eyes are dark and their feathers a bit scraggly. As they mature, their eyes turn bright yellow and their feathers smooth out. Soon after, they will start to imitate sounds they like. You’ll hear your Grey practicing words or sounds and you’ll know what he’s trying to say. A Grey will practice until he gets it just right. Paddy’s first words were “Hi Wacky-bird!” Yes, Greys talk to themselves a lot just because they love talking! Sometimes he gets mixed up and calls himself a “Rat Bird.” Some Greys learn songs, but Paddy’s only song is the theme from “Cops.” He sings to himself “Whatcha gonna do, bad boys, bad boys.” So don’t expect your Grey to talk right away; watch for signs that he’s maturing, such as his yellow eyes. Then he’ll quickly pick up words and sounds that he likes. Remember: you can’t teach a Grey to talk. They say what they like, not what you want. They’re that intelligent and that independent.
A large cage must be provided for your Grey. Five feet tall and at least four feet wide. This is expensive! Hookbill cages can cost up to $500. However, Greys need their perches to be high-up in the cage for them to feel safe. They will rarely venture into the lower half of their cage, although they need this much room to feel unconfined. In their natural environment, Greys are prey birds; at night, they are absolutely silent and rest at the very top of the trees so predators cannot get to them or hear them. Your mature Grey will start chatting at dawn, and be silent as the sun sets. There are exceptions: one late night I had an irresistible urge for a piece of chocolate. As I opened the refrigerator door and the light came on, Paddy yelled “WELL?” at the top of his lungs and scared me to death! His cage is in the “sunroom” where he can see and be part of what the family’s doing, what’s going on outside, and torment the dogs with his bell. An important thing to remember is that when arranging your Grey’s perches, make sure he’s at eye-level with you, not above you. If he’s placed higher than you, he will try to become dominant in your relationship.
Twice a year, your Grey will go through molting. You will see a lot of feathers on the bottom of his cage; this is a tip-off that he’s molting. This process allows the growth of new, healthy feathers, but it’s hard on the bird. Imagine if you shed all your skin and grew new skin all over your body! That’s gotta hurt. And it does; molting is painful. Your Grey will be covered in “pin feathers;” these are baby feathers that are surrounded by a sheath that the bird will pick off to allow the new feathers to grow. Pin feathers hurt! They’re sharp when sheathed, so you will see your Grey constantly picking at the feathers to free them from the sheath. During molting, your Grey will be very cranky, no matter how much you adore each other. He’s in pain and even running a slight temperature. When Paddywack is molting and I let him step up on my hand, I can feel how hot his feet are. I’de be cranky too! During a molt, it’s best to leave your Grey to himself; the molt will only last about a week and you will see his cheerful temperament return, along with a beautiful coat of new feathers.
Feeding your African Grey is also a challenge. They should never be fed a seed-only diet, or they will die of malnutrition. They like fresh fruits and vegetables, pasta, peanuts, seed balls, and they love chewing on a chicken bone. My sister’s Grey loves Beefaronni. Paddywack likes a mixture of beans, rice, peas, lentils etc. that I mix up for him and cook in the microwave. Pet food companies provide great cookable food, but you can do it yourself for a lot less money. Greys also need something hard to crack and eat; Paddy likes Harrison’s and LaFaber’s pellets and Dr. Beek’s Birdcakes. They need fresh water not only to drink, but also to bathe in. Sometimes I put Paddywack in the sink and spray him; he loves this and flaps his wings in excitement! You must be prepared to feed your Grey a well-balanced diet and keep him clean. Paddywack has never been ill; this is a good thing since there are no avian vets in Anaconda, Montana!
You will need to decide if you’re going to want your Grey’s wings clipped. This is accomplished by clipping down his longest “flight feathers.” If you don’t have an avian vet, you’ll have to clip your Grey’s wings yourself, which is like trying to nail Jello to the wall! He’ll fight you every step of the way; the best method is to enfold him in a towel and then gently clip the flight feathers. But if you miss your mark and accidentally clip a “blood feather,” your bird may bleed to death before your eyes. Have a styptic pencil waiting to stop the bleeding. Many books on African Greys show you how to clip their wings without hitting a blood feather. Paddywack is not clipped. Since we have dogs, if Paddy is out of his cage and gets into an altercation with one of the dogs, I want him to be able to fly to safety. A “Grey vs Dachshund” fight would be a bad one, between Paddy’s powerful beak and the Doxies’ renowned hunting hound instincts.
Are you ready for the expense of buying an African Grey? It is illegal to import them into the United States. Greys that are “home bred” by legitimate breeders will have a silver foot band that has their sex and birthday on it. If you are tempted by an un-banded Grey, pass it by! With the band, you are assured of the bird’s quality. We paid $1,200 for Paddywack when he was a baby. That’s an average price; they can range up to $2,000 for a mature talker. Greys are best bought when they’re babies, while their eyes are still dark, rather than as adults. Babies quickly get used to your environment , while an adult bird may be confused about this new location.
Finally, you must be aware that, when kept in good health, African Greys (like all large hookbills) can live a human lifespan. It is not uncommon to find a sixty-year-old Grey. Paddywack will probably outlive me and my husband. Thus, you must take the bird’s welfare into account when you’ve passed on. For example, I will take my sister’s Grey, Gus, if she and her husband predecease him. We have made arrangements for Paddywack to live his days in a wonderful aviary in Montana.
An African Grey is a lifetime committment; if you can’t provide this, please don’t buy one. These intelligent, affectionate, social birds are more than pets; they’re family members. Your Grey will have an opinionated comment about whatever you’re doing, ask you for food when it’s dinnertime, and tell you “Bye! See you tonight!” when you leave for work.
See if you can get your tropical fish to do this!