African Grey Parrot


African Grey Parrot

The African grey parrot ( Psittacus erithacus ) is a species of bird in the parrot family (Psittacidae). It is the only species in the genus Psittacus. With a body length of approx. 33 cm and body weight of up to 450 g, it is one of the largest parrots in Africa.

Gray parrots are also often kept and bred in zoos and private homes in Europe and in the USA. Due to their high level of intelligence and their ability to speak, they are among the most important animal species in cognition research.

Reports and research on free-living gray parrots, on the other hand, are rarer. They appear in paintings by European artists after European seafarers had reached the African distribution area for the first time.


Today two forms of gray parrots are distinguished. Firstly, the Congo gray parrot, which was described by Linnaeus in 1758 as Psittacus erithacus and occurring in Gabon.

Second, the Timneh gray parrot was described by Fraser in 1844 after its location in Timneh County, Sierra Leone, as Psittacus timneh . There are differing views as to whether both forms should be treated as species or subspecies.

The distinction of a third subspecies ( P. e. princeps ) from the Príncipe Islands and Bioko, whose representatives are said to be larger and darker than the mainland Congo gray parrot, is now considered questionable. 

african grey parrot

Congo gray parrot


Psittacus erithacus timneh

Description of species and subspecies 

Gray parrots have an eponymous predominantly gray plumage, the face is white and featherless around the eyes, the plumage on the head is lighter.

The cere is white, the beak is black, the iris is yellow or white-yellow. Females are colored like males, often slightly smaller. Juveniles have a slightly brown-grey plumage on the back and wings and different tail colors.

The iris changes color from black to dark grey, gray to white-yellow after 6-8 months. The nominate form has a bright bright red tail.

The Timneh Gray is slightly smaller, its tail feathers are a dirty burgundy, its upper beak is not black but a lighter brownish-pink and its plumage is a darker grey.

Depending on the region of origin, the Congo gray parrot shows differences in body size and coloration. For example, birds from Cameroon are darker gray in color than birds from the Congo.

Mutation breeding plays no role in gray parrots. In the case of the so-called king gray parrots, which have numerous red feathers on their bodies and whose existence is discussed above all in shallow literature, among keepers and breeders as well as in internet forums, there is probably a pathological or diet-related deviation in the plumage coloration.


The distribution area of ​​the gray parrot

The Gray Parrot inhabits Central and West Africa and is resident throughout its range. The distribution reflects the occurrence of tropical rain forests quite accurately and extends somewhat into the area of ​​the wet savannas at the edges of the area.
The Congo gray parrot is distributed northward to southern Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic, eastward to western Kenya, and northwestern Tanzania.


Core areas of distribution are Gabon, the Republic of the Congo, and the north and central parts of theDemocratic Republic of the Congo.

Western range outposts are in southern Ghana and southeastern Côte d’Ivoire, and as the “Principe gray parrot” on the islands of Bioko (Fernando Poo), São Tomé, and Príncipe.
The Timneh gray parrot is found in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and southeastern Guinea.

African Grey Parrot Habitat 

The gray parrot is a typical tree dweller. Its habitat includes tropical rainforests, mangroves, and wet savannas. It likes to stay on the fringes of forests towards the open countryside, where it also frequents cultivated land and gardens but avoids human settlements.

African Grey Parrot Diet

African Grey Parrot Diet

The gray parrot prefers vegetarian food such as fruits ( nuts, berries ), seeds, flowers, and buds. They are to be regarded as less specialized generalists.

The main sources of food for parrots are fruits and parts of plants that grow on trees and shrubs. Gray Parrots are excellently adapted to life in treetops due to their climbing foot and beak used for climbing.

Plants they eat include Elaeis guineensis (African oil palm ), Kigelia pinata ( sausage tree ), Bombax sp., Ceiba sp., Dacryodes sp., tamarind Tamarindus indica, Carica papaya ( pawpaw ), Harungana sp., Combretum sp. (bushwillow),

Terminalis sp., Macaranga sp., Heisteria sp., Parkia sp., Ficus sp., also Ficus sykomorus and Ficus sur, Musa sp. ( bananas ), millet, Zea mays ( corn ), Raphia sp., Prunus Africana (African Almond), Prunus sp., acacia Blighia sapida, Cola tragacanth, Celtis sp. ( hackberry ).

The main food plants probably differ regionally and seasonally according to the supply, different observers indicate different preferences, which is also clear in the older literature.

The food plants also include non-native species such as bananas or corn, which speaks for the gray parrots’ ability to adapt.

For a subpopulation of gray parrots, the intake of soil or clay is probably documented for mineral absorption or detoxification of food in the digestive tract.

African Grey Parrot in the wild

In the wild, gray parrots communicate with screeching sounds and high-pitched whistles. They often fly at high altitudes and communicate loudly with each other.

african parrot grey Gray parrot in flight

Daily routine and social structure

The shy birds stay in pairs or in small groups during the day. At dusk, they often form larger swarms.

African Grey Parrot Reproduction

grey parrot

Psittacus erithacus

Gray parrots are likely to form a lifelong pair bond. They breed outside of the rainiest season. The breeding season changes from region to region depending on the position of the rainy season.

The bird’s nest in tree cavities, often in large dead trees. The nest cavity is padded with mold wood. The female lays 2-5 eggs and incubates them for about 4 weeks while being guarded and fed by the male. The young birds, cared for by both parents, take almost 3 months to fledge.

The reproductive performance of a pair in captivity can be very high. From 1962 to 1974, 87 young were hand-reared by a single pair in the United States. This corresponds to 7.25 pups per year. The reproduction rate in the wild is certainly lower.

Baby African grey parrot

SOURCE: PetraGrey

Natural enemies 

grey parrot

Natural predators include birds of prey, protective behavior is elicited against flying black-axed eagles ( Cassinaëtus Africanus ), but not by palm vultures ( Gypohierax angolensis ),

although they have been observed successfully preying on the rather awkwardly flying gray parrots. Goshawks also hunt gray parrots. Nests are often robbed by monkeys and snakes.

Endangerment and protection of species 

A particular threat is a capture and trade. The IUCN assumes that the populations are in decline. Since 2016, she has classified the species as “Vulnerable”. The causes of the decline in the species include capture for the international bird trade and increasing habitat loss.

Since 1981, the species has been subject to the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES, German WA) and since 1987 it has been specially protected under European law.

It has been listed in Appendix A of Regulation (EC) No. 338/97 ( EU Species Protection Regulation ) since February 4, 2017, and thus enjoys the highest protection status in the European Union.

Therefore, without formal approval from the competent authority, any import into the EU and any marketing in the EU is prohibited; in Germany, this is a criminal offense; this applies to living specimens as well as to parts from animals of this species or to eggs.



Unknown Man and Gray Parrot, painting by Francesco Melzi 1525, Portrait of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as St. Jerome in the Case with Gray Parrot, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder 1526, Gray Parrots are very intelligent birds. They can mimic human speech.

parrot african grey

History of keeping in Europe

Whether gray parrots were known in ancient Europe is questionable, as evidence for this is lacking. News of gray parrots may have first reached Europe when Portuguese seafarers reached the Canary Islands

– where gray parrots are said to have existed – after 1400 or the natural African range of the parrots around 1455 Although the distribution area predated that of the Neotropical parrots, they can only be found in paintings from around 1525.

The Neotropical parrots are shown much earlier. Dürer drew the first Amazon as early as 1498, just six years after the discovery of America. 

Conrad Gessner’s animal book clearly mentions a gray parrot in its 1555 edition. At the beginning of the 17th century, gray parrots were well known in Europe, since they were brought alive to Europe by seafarers.

Eleazar Albin ‘s ‘Natural history of Birds’, published between 1731 and 1738, also contains a colored illustration of the gray parrot.

The depictions on paintings, engravings, or watercolors from this period, some of which are very lifelike, show that gray parrots were also kept more often in private hands in Europe and could therefore be known to the artists from their own observations. However, the more colorful parrot species, especially from Asia and America, dominate the paintings.

Gray parrots are one of the few parrot species that Linne names in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae from 1758 and are today the only parrot species that still bears the original Linnean genus name.

Two broods, which took place in France in 1799, are considered the world’s first breed. Further national breedings took place in England in 1843, in Germany in 1899, in the USA in 1931, and in Sweden in 1953.

The dates of the first breeds are later for Timneh gray parrots. The transition from random breeding to regular captive breeding occurred in the second half of the 20th century.

Breeding is no longer a problem. They are propagated in such large numbers in private hands and by commercial breeders that the need no longer has to be covered from the field. Apart from budgerigars, the gray parrot is one of the most commonly kept and well-known parrot species today.

Modern attitude 

african grey parrot baby

African grey parrot baby

Gray parrots are mainly kept for their intelligence and ability to speak. Intelligent birds can react extremely sensitively to changes or the loss of partner birds or caregivers. Picking can be a result of such changes.

If gray parrots are to be kept according to modern zoological concepts, they must be kept in groups or at least in pairs.

According to these ideas, keeping them alone indoors, long practiced as the normal form of keeping, is criticized as not being appropriate to the species, as is clipping their wings, for example, to enable them to be kept outdoors on a parrot tree.

The German Animal Welfare Association also rejects amputations and “other manipulations on the animal in order to adapt it to the husbandry system”.

In 1995 published and revised 2005 expert report on the minimum requirements for keeping parrots, an aviary size of at least 2 × 1 × 1 m (width × depth × height) is given for a gray parrot as a guide, which is described as too small in the different protocol of the German Animal Welfare Association.

There, a minimum size is required that allows «1 – 2 flight turns in the cage». In addition, the animal protection association demands free flight and not only recommends it, as in the report.

In order to limit the endangerment of wild populations, species protection laws must be observed when buying and importing animals and bred animals are to be preferred.

The super-tame hand-rearing that is often offered on the market is problematic from a zoo-biological point of view, and there can be massive problems when the animals reach sexual maturity. A market for advising pet owners has developed here.

Feeding and keeping the animals in captivity is not a problem today.

For every legal animal, there is a so-called CITES certificate in the European Union, i.e. a formal official document on the exception to the import and purchase bans.

In Germany, every attitude and change in the regular location of a specimen must be reported immediately to the local nature conservation authority, including its identification, i.e. regularly with the individual ring number.

The import of wild birds into the EU is currently prohibited due to bird flu prophylaxis.

Tool Use

Tool use is documented in gray parrots in human care. For example, twigs can be used to clean feathers. Hollow objects can serve to absorb water. Tools can also be used for digging. 

African Grey Parrot LIfespan

Information on the average and maximum age of gray parrots living in the wild is not available. In captivity, the species can live up to 60 years. An age of 73 years is documented as an extreme case.

Grey Parrot

African Grey Parrot

Individual gray parrots have achieved worldwide fame. The gray parrot Alex (1976 to 2007), which belonged to the scientist Irene Pepperberg, became particularly well-known.

Pepperberg used him to study the cognitive abilities of gray parrots, specifically their ability not only to mimic human speech but to use the words in a meaningful context.

Among other things, Alex learned how to correctly name 50 objects presented to him using a special vocalization, plus seven colors and five shapes.

According to Pepperberg, he could also make simple additions and refer to nonexistent objects as nonexistent, which they call a “zero-like concept”.

However, the researcher herself admits that non-existent and zero are by no means the same thing. Alex’s abilities were unmatched by any other parrot in her group.

Joseph Haydn’s Grauparrot was able to whistle along to several melodies that Haydn composed. At parties in Haydn’s house in the Vienna suburb of Windmühle, when a toast was offered to the Emperor and a glass raised,

he is said to have whistled the melody to God preserve Franz the Emperor. After the composer’s death, the bird was finally auctioned off for the enormous price of 1,415 guilders – the equivalent of around 32,500  euros today.

African grey parrot talk


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