Friday Grey Matters: An Intro to African Greys


I'm instituting a new Friday *special* here at Retrospectacle: Friday Grey Matters. While readers might think this have to do with neuroscience (and it does in a way) I'm actually going to be talking about African Grey Parrots, of which I am the proud owner on one! Sometimes it may just be observations about what Pepper does (behaviorally and linguistically) and sometimes research from the literature on these amazing birds. The first episode of Grey Matters will be an introduction to these birds, who are the best mimics in the animal kingdom. (More below the fold....)

African Grey, as their name suggests, originate from Africa. This is unusual, as Africa does not have many species of parrots. Two subspecies exist: The Congo African Grey and the Timneh African Grey. The Congo population is larger, has a black beak, and bright red tail; the Timneh population is smaller, has a brown beak, and a lighter maroon tail. They are essentially the same in any other way, and are merely separated by location. Pepper is a Congo African Grey, and a large one at that.

African greys are some of the smartest animals on the planet, and certainly the smartest species of bird. While of course its difficult to be a good judge of "animal intelligence" (and I might be a bit biased), the scientific community has little protests against these claims. Their high intelligence is believed to have evolved as a result of cooperative feeding on the ground in Africa, as well as using problem solving skills and tools to survive when food sources ran low. As further episodes of Grey Matters will explore, several researchers (most notably Irene Pepperberg) have attempted to characterize and explore the extent of this species intelligence. I believe that it is extremely important for evolutionary neuroscience to understand "minds" other than human ones, especially when they seem primed to take on extremely "human" characteristics such as language, counting, shape categorization, and even the concept of zero. African Greys have exhibited these abilities.

Greys also make great pets, as I can attest to. But, they are not for everyone. You need to spend a significant amount of time and attention on your Grey: it truly must become your friend and equal and not a mere show piece. Some people compare having a Grey to having a toddler, and in many ways this is very apt. They are smart but tricky, a little manipulative but loving, playful yet have little tantrums. They are also quite quiet, but if you get a talker like Pepper, don't even try to shut them up. :) Greys are also one-person birds. They bond STRONGLY to just one person, forever. In the wild, Greys mate for life and when their mate dies they usually stop eating and die too. In captivity, your Grey thinks you are its mate (not sexually so much as socially) and will mourn your "passing" if you die or give it away. This is one reason you should make the decision to get a Grey slowly--they live for 60-90 years. It will love you that long, will you love it?

More to come in future episodes!


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Last week I came across an interesting press release on a strange phenomenon: vocal 'naming' of parrot chicks by their mothers. At the time of that posting I hadn't come across the primary journal article, but a few commenters were kind enough to point me in the direction of this paper by Wanker…
tags: Alex, African grey parrot, Psittacus erithacus, cognition, learning, speech disabilities, Irene Pepperberg Alex, the African grey parrot, Psittacus erithacus, who worked with Irene Pepperberg for more than 30 years. Image: Illustration by Andrew Kuo, Photograph by John Woo. An article…
Well, its been a long time coming, and further delayed by grants, labwork, and Irene's hand injury. But, Irene and I finally got on the phone last weekend and chatted a bit about her work, her birds, and her uncertain future in the field. Irene Pepperberg is someone who I've admired since early…
I'm about to send these questions out to Dr. Pepperberg (hopefully for next week's Grey Matters), and wanted some feedback. Also, please suggest questions if you have some! Q. Initially your research background was not in comparative cognition and language. How did you become interested in this…

I enjoy reading comments on african greys. We just adopted one about 8 days ago. Ola was in quiet a bad shape (feder plugging), living in a noisy family with naughty kids throwing things on her. Probably she was kept on a chain (15cm long only) since ever and also her wings are clipped early in life. She must be somewhere around 1 year ++ of age. After we took the chain of we placed her in a very large cage with natural branches and after about 5 days she feels very comfortable walking around. We keep the cage below our banana trees so she heas natural heat and shade (we are living in Singapore). She has a problem climbing up and down because she was never able to do that before. She is also afraid of heights. She can say "Hallo" and mumbles some other words. She imitates our whisteling since 2 days and she is much more cheerful and stopped plugging the feathers. She enjoys looking at our love birds (9) and tries to imitate them too. Since two days we let her climb out of the cage which is located in the backyard and let her walk around to experience her new home & environment. I believe and hope that she is much happier now and we can give her a good home. Already after only a few days with Ola I strongly believe in the high IQ of african greys. The speed of learing and adapting is amazing!
Just wanted to share this!

I have a gray and i just want to say i am in love :D she can talk like a dictionary an its actualy silly on how many things she can say and in the right tone of voice, shes so cute and so loveing, if anyone who wants one but isnt so sure, id recomend it but only if you have time and patiance on your hands, my parrots called bell and shes 3 years old and i have had her for a year now and she took to me really really well and strangly enough she kinda liks my older sister but she hates my mum with a passion lol im only 20 and im lookin forward to a long life with her and i just wanted to share my experiance with my gary......AMAZING they seem almost to good to be true.

It is gratifying to see so many people learning about and appreciating the intellect and value of these remarkable creations. Please consider looking at and learn more about the World Parrot Trust and its work to protect and educate on the Grey and other psittacines. You can also find links to many of the resources needed to answer the questions you are asking. The WPT is headed by some of the leading research biologists and avian experts in the world. There is also a fund specifically for the conservation of Grey Parrots and their habitat.

Thanks and Happy New Year,

Kevin - Life Time Conservationist Member WPT

Hi. We bought an African Grey, which is now 1 years old. He is my husbond's bird! He is quickly picking up on sounds, melodies and words (really fun to witness!) and it's equally fun to watch my husbond handle Felix. I and the two daughters are not allowed (by his chice) to handle him. We are considered spectators to his shows; or feeding-stands when he spots something to be eaten. He loves meat, warm tea and soda... Please note that these parrots MUST have regular baths for their feathers to be healthy. Felix enjoys temperated water - NOT cold water. We have canaries as well; and they love cold baths. But not the African Grey. Even if I am not the chosen one for my husbond's Felix; I'd recomend an African Grey ANY TIME. He's great fun to watch, and VERY CLEVER.

My parrot Charlie is sooooo gorgeous! He came from a famous darts player called Bobby George and when Bobby George got a new parrot Charlie got jealous of the new parrot when they were welcoming it! He's now 8 years old and i got him when he was 7 for my 11th birthday. I'd always wanted an African Grey and i am so glad i've got him!

By Frankie Bethell (not verified) on 24 Feb 2009 #permalink

Hello, a friend of my husbands gave him an african gray parrot last weekend and I have had the best time with her. They had another bird and felt Sugar was not getting the attention she deserved. When my husband brought her home all of her feathers had been plucked on her chest and even on her legs in spots. Sugar is a very smart bird. If you tell her to dance she sways back and forth and bobs her head up and is the cutest thing. She has already learned the dogs name and will say, "Come on Charlie, outside". I have been told several things about their diet and have been trying to read everything I can about what they should eat. Does anyone know what is best for them?
Thanks, Cindy

Ihave three african grey parrots for about four years,two of these parrot have cold ,you can see their nose is blocked.Igave them some anti-biotics but its still not working.What do i do

By KOFI RIVERSON (not verified) on 21 Apr 2010 #permalink

sid my african grey keeps, plucking his feathers out since my mother passed away last year. I have to work now, he only has the dog for company. He seems happy always talking, i worrie all the time about him.

By sue randall (not verified) on 15 Jun 2010 #permalink

Wow that's crazy that they can live that long! Does it really live 60-90 years? That's a big commitment. It's a beautiful bird and I don't think I'd get sick of it after sixty years.

I am a proud owner of a 17 month cag. I like it a lot but it only whistles and does not talk. Is there hope that it might still talk....?

Great stuff Shelley! I look forward to reading more of your adventures with Pepper! I have loved both The Alex Studies and Alex & Me by Dr Irene Pepperberg. Am I correct in guessing that Pepper may be named after her? Cheers Clive

Admittedly I've never heard that african grey's were so smart. I knew that parrots were known for their relative intelligence (my grandmother's relished terrorizing me and stealing my food off my plate), but I've naturally assumed for years that common ravens were considered the defacto brainiac's of the avian world.

so let's put a grey and a raven in a cage with a pencil and paper. the first to figure out Pi to 4 decimals wins the crown.

Ravens and crows are quite smart! They've been seen using tools, and are crafty about stealing shiny things from people that don't want their shiny things stolen. Although Greys have a few "ups" on them: cortical area (Grey's brains are the size of a walnut, their brain to body ratio is quite high)and their insane mimicry ability (which makes them easier to study as they can report choices). Dunno if crows have been found to possess the same level of intelligence (how such things are quantified are sketchy at best), or even if the research has been done.

Really it comes down to what HAS been done (a lot on Greys), and they fact that the author of this post has a Grey and not a crow. :)

Really it comes down to what HAS been done (a lot on Greys), and they fact that the author of this post has a Grey and not a crow. :)?

Well, I knew it was a losing battle given your bias before even posting, but what's tried is what's weighed, so no regrets :)

Maybe instead of calculating Pi we should try something simpler, like one switchblade in the middle of the cage. Two birds enter, one bird leaves......

I once shared an apartment with five human roommates and an African Gray. I worked at home; several of the others were also freelancers, who might be in and out of the apartment several times a day. Time after time, I thought I heard them in conversation down the hall -- only to find the parrot alone, producing both voices. Its "words" were mostly gibberish, but the intonation and timing were magically convincing.

As readers/writers we can fall into the error of thinking language is all about syntax and vocabulary, and be most impressed by animals demonstrating skills with those. The parrot -- and later, watching my children's babbling as they learned to speak -- impressed me with the importance of the "music" beneath.

By Monte Davis (not verified) on 15 Jul 2006 #permalink

i want a congo grey soo bad..ive wanted one for as long as i can remember..
but im not allowed one, i live in a basement suite..but my landlord loves birds! the only reason i cant get one is because my mom says it too many...i have 2 cockatiels i love them ever so dearly...I asked my mom if i could foster a grey and show her that its a big responsability but i can handle cockatiels are always out of their cage.

I just had my 12th birthday 2 days do enything to prove to my mom that i can get one of theese birds and it wont be to crowded!


I have an african grey at home. His name is Roxy and I love him to bits.!! He calls all the members of the household by their names. He calls my domestic helper, margaret, my son Wezley, the dogs, Cody and Angie. He mimics my tone of voice when calling them and when he says "Hello" he mimics my helpers voice to the T.. He is an absolute pleasure and he has certainly bonded with me. So I am his friend!! Amongst a few other words already coming through, he imitates every sound almost imagineable, including the car alrams and the house alarm. At night I bring him into the Laundry to sleep. Once in his cage there, he will greet "hello" to whoever may come past him. He also says "bye" when you walk out the laundry room. It is ever so cute. Everyday there is a new sound and a new word. I am very pleased I made the decision to buy him and I have had the pleasure of hand rearing him from 6 weeks or so old.

for all those who want african Grey's - my advice - It will be one of the best investments you will ever make! Enjoy and love them.

By Rene Calafato-… (not verified) on 13 Jul 2007 #permalink

I also love my Grey -- he is quite the character!

I have heard some fascinating things about research with Greys; for instance, Greys seem to learn verbal communication by rote in a way similar to that of some autistic children, and they are studying this to try to develop new ways of teaching language to autistic kids. I also heard that Dr Pepperberg is initiating a study which is to see if a parrot, dolphin, and ape will learn to 'talk' with one another if taught a common way to communicate. This is really cool stuff!

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 18 Jul 2007 #permalink

I have my daughter's African Grey. Her name is Pink & she is so smart. We have a dog named Duffy and she will whistle & call him sweetie or Wuffy come on. When she says,fire fire fire call 911 it is so funny. The very best is, Dana took her to the office every day & she had a girl that worked for her & she had a slight cough, well Pink coughs & says excuse me or sorry.
Another one is when I cook dinner she will start with I love watermellon or what you doing girl friend. We have enjoyed Pink , but she is alot of work.

By Elizabeth Williams (not verified) on 31 Aug 2007 #permalink

hi i am gia From pakistan. few days back i bought two african grey parrots from here but unfortunately we dont have the proper shops from where we could buy it, who would know how to handle them and teach them,the shop keepers ,they dont know much about the breeds or parrots or there behaviour, how to handle them , now i am having difficulties in handling them. i really love animals and parrots , they are not trained or a speakin parrot.. the keeper said that they can learn in any stage you dont need to buy a baby parrot... they seems quite grown up to me... well my prOblem is, they are inside the house, and whenever any one goes near to them they start yelling n screaming, i just wana know whether i'd be able to trained them n to make them speak or not? and if so , what i've to do to do so? how to make their fear go away and how to make them fimiliar with me, they havent ate anything today , they eat when noone's around.. and do i've to keep them in the house or keep them outside..? please guide me through...

Gia, reading your story made me very sad. The two parrots you bought are wild-caught parrots poached from their natural habitat. It is unlikely they will ever speak and you will have a hard enough time just getting them used to people, as they are wild animals and not tame at all. The wild bird trade kills millions of endangered species, you should ONLY buy weaned babies from a liscensed breeded, NEVER wild caught birds. For every one bird that makes it to its destination from Africa, three others die.

If there is a bird shelter in your area, I recommend asking them for advice, and possibly giving them up to the shelter. I doubt these birds will make good pets and the shop owner did an unethical thing by buying them from poachers and selling them to you.

Please email me for more.

I grew up with an African Grey and, even though he was attached to my mom and basically saw me as competition for her affection, I loved having him. One day my mom heard the phone ring and heard me go through an entire conversation, then say goodbye and hang up the phone(including the "beep" the off button made) only to find out it was the bird the whole time.

If you have the time and responsibility and are thinking about getting a parrot I'd definitely recommend an African Grey.

hey could you tell me how much you paid for your african gray please?

One very important thing about owning a parrot ... it is best to have only one ! If there are two ... they will befriend one another and more than likely will not be interested in you. I
I owned a wonderful cockatoo ... beginning when it was only weeks old. Within a year he was friendly with everyone in the family ... a regular comedian. After owning an African Grey the cockatoo did not do much talking so I decided to buy another parrot that was known for talking ... a yellow neck amazon. My cockatoo immediately became very jealous and whenever I gave the parrot attention ... my cockatoo began to scream ... very loud. He had never reacted this way during the first year we had him ... only since our new friend was brought into the scene. I had to find a home for the parrot ... and low and behold the cockatoo stopped screaming and returned to his wonderful self.
Regarding parrots both larger and smaller ones ... you can expect to have a wonderful friendly bird ... but you must have only one.
Good Luck !!

Very interesting.

I inherited a yellow-napped amazonian parrot from an aged relative.

He stays in our family room, and displays distinct preferences for certain TV shows, and does not like basketball. I think the squeaky shoes on the floor might be the issue.

We've noticed that he gets most excited, ringing his bell and cause trouble when he's hanging upside down. Do you think the extra blood to his head causes this?

I have a 30 + year old Congo African grey at my house. She is a darling and keeps us posted if anybody enters the house through her "Kaun" which means in Urdu who's there.

She been with us since my childhood and part of our family now but sometimes i feel its not fair to keep such a darling parrot in captivity for so long. she been with us since past 30 years and from what i gather through the parrots age, it can still go on for another 30.

I am currently looking for a new kinda activity for her within the cage.


I have an African grey and she is about 8 months old not talking yet, I was wondering when she will start talking. My other question is I live in California and the weather is not that bad except it can get very chilly outside during winter and raining; can I keep my bird outside or not; I mean in the garage. Thanks Saya

Not all Greys talk. Pepper started talking around 1 year (when he said his first real word) and was babbling at a couple months before that.

I would not recommend putting a bird in the garage. Greys come from Africa, ie hot humid weather. Chills will kill them. Garages are musty, damp, full of dust and clutter, car exhaust, etc. All very harmful for birds. The bird should be inside with you, and on nice warm days, outside in a cage if you want.

I have a little concern with my African Grey named Coco, once a week or so she bleeds from the middle of her little feet, right between them almost on her ribcage, i'm not sure if that is something normal or not, but after about an hour or so the bleeding stops and may come back in a week or so. Is there something wrong with my bird should I take her to the vet or not. It does not look like she is in pain but it just hurts me to see her like that. Is there anything I can do?

Thanks Saya

I enjoyed your comments on your experience with your gray. I have enjoyed sharing a household with a Congo for the last 8 years and don't know who would be classified as the pet in this relationship, him or me.

i stay in mumbai india , i was earlier staying in east africa and had a grey african congo earlier when i was young i still remember that he was talking very much and now i bought one from here yet few days back but seller told me its not wild but does it take long time to get familiar i paid apprx 500$ and what should i feed him now

I hope to have an African Grey parrot one day .

By Json Leary (not verified) on 03 Feb 2008 #permalink

Hi there. Thanks for the precious information you provide here. I have a gray parrot who is two years old. he talks a lot and is very very cute. the problem is that he suffers from feather plucking recently. he looks ver ugly and im too miserable. Could you please help me with this.

Hi there. Thanks for the precious information you provide here. I have a gray parrot who is two years old. he talks a lot and is very very cute. the problem is that he suffers from feather plucking recently. he looks ver ugly and im too miserable. Could you please help me with this.

My Gray is bout 2 have his 1st HatchDay! Ivan has been babbling and making very distinct sounds 4 a few mo now. I'm sur he'll b a big talker. I was pleased 2 c lots of good advice above, from Shelley Batts. I was a premature Gray owner (sorta a love a 1st site) & had 2 do a lot of research -Quick!; however, my mom is a bird lover w/many birds; in which, prepared me. I became overwhelmed when I relized what I got myself into; however, the bond that my gray friend and I have is inreplacable. And with reading books & internet searches, I feel confident that my friend is well taken care of. With Vet visit(s), pellet diet, cage location, activity & ATTENTION, Ivan is doing great :). I hope for any bird owner; especially Grays and Cockatoos, that owners would educate themselves before or immediately afterwards to prevent 'bird turnover'.

Paria, did you get some advice for your feather-plucking grey? My baby started plucking about 6 months after I bought her. I was informed that she needed bathing regularly and once I did that she has been fine. Also, they need "toys" which are basically something to keep them occupied, like bells and wood toys to chew on, so they will not get bored and start picking at themselves. Please feel free to email me at renee_ (underscore sign) at yahoo dot com.

By Renee Gardner (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink