I don’t usually write articles that are species specific. Sure, they generate website traffic – everyone wants to know more about their own bird. But the reality is that most parrot species are so similar to the other parrot species that the articles are all interchangeable: “Things You Should Know About Your (insert bird species here).” They all require a good diet, toys, proper caging and a caring human for all the same reasons.
When I do write species specific articles it is because that species possesses traits that are unique, misunderstood or overlooked. The African Grey most definitely qualifies in that way. Following are some things you should know about the African grey you are looking to spend a good portion of the rest of your life with.
A fear of hands or objects is an actual thing with African greys. I don’t have an explanation for why they tend to be more fearful than other parrots, but it can be debilitating for some of them. I believe that when their fear is extensive, it is because we are more likely to miss the signs of distress in a bird that isn’t prone to outbursts when something is concerning to them. Many African greys have a quiet demeanor and I think we may often mistake that for contentment and proceed in ways we shouldn’t. Take the time necessary to introduce new things cautiously and thoughtfully.
- African greys can drive you crazy. Many people choose an African grey based on their talking capabilities. The extensiveness of their vocabulary is enhanced by the clarity of their speech - it sometimes feels like you are talking to another human, sometimes that “human” sounds exactly like yourself or another member of the family.
The way they use speech begins with their uncanny ability to mimic. When they are not wowing you with “conversation” your grey might enjoy relentlessly replaying every annoying sound in your house. Or outside your house. All day.
Then there are the ear-splitting factory setting “pings” all greys seem to come with having no known origin. This is typical of an African grey, it can be maddening and it makes some people want to run away from home. Consider your level of tolerance for bird noise BEFORE you get your bird.
- The appropriate healthy weight of your African grey is going to be different from the healthy weight of someone else’s African grey. In the wild, they occupy a huge range of territory in the east and west central parts of Africa. Within the different regions inside this range, there is enormous variety in the size and color of the greys produced there. A healthy Congo African grey on the east coast of Africa can weight 400 grams while a Congo on the west coast might weight 700 grams.
In captivity, birds originating from different regions are being bred together and the weight results in the pet bird population is all over the charts. This means that you should let your vet determine YOUR bird’s healthy weight and disregard whatever you read online about average African grey weights.
- African greys have a tendency towards hypocalcemia (calcium deficiency). Aside from the obvious devastating effects on bones and beaks, muscles are weakened and the eggs shells produced by calcium deficient females can be soft and poorly formed and can become trapped inside the bird’s body (egg binding) usually with fatal results. A severe calcium deficiency usually leads to seizures in African greys.
The biggest problem with a calcium deficiency is that it is hard to detect. Normally, dietary deficiencies are determined through blood work, but when calcium is lacking in the blood steam, it is the body’s habit to replenish it using the calcium stored in other areas such as the bones - essentially taking from Peter to pay Paul, as the saying goes.
This may lead the person interpreting the blood work to falsely believe there are no calcium issues. That there is calcium present in the blood, doesn’t mean that bones are not brittle and the problem often goes untreated.
Adding to the problem for captive birds is a lack of exposure to sun’s UV rays which leads the body to manufacture vitamin D3 – essential for the absorption of calcium.
If you have an African grey (male or female) just automatically add a calcium supplement to the diet no matter what the blood work reveals or how good your bird’s diet is. If you do are unable to safely get your bird out into the sunshine often, make sure you provide full spectrum lighting by your bird’s cage. Calcium deficiency is a big problem for all parrot species, but is especially problematic for a grey.
- Atherosclerosis, a sticky build-up of plaque in artery walls, is killing a lot of African greys. It is a disease that typically causes trouble after a lifetime of cholesterol build-up, but vets report finding signs of severe atherosclerosis in relatively young greys. Unfortunately, this is generally discovered during necropsy. There are some fairly recent study results compiled by a couple of vets examining the remains of about 50 African greys. Nearly all the birds had some degree of atherosclerosis and it contributed to the cause of death of many of them – some as young as 12 years old.
This means that it is especially imperative for the owners of African greys to watch the snack foods. The natural diet of parrots does not include foods that would cause this problem. Avoid high fat cheeses, ice cream, anything fried and fatty meats.
Captive parrots have a sedentary life compared to wild parrots. Make sure your grey gets exercise by making him walk/climb/fly to where he wants to go and arrange the cage in a way that encourages activity inside. Exercise will play a key role in helping to keep your bird’s arteries clear.
Here is some addition reading on topics mentioned within this post:
- Calcium deficiency is a big problem for pet parrots
- The benefits of sunshine for our birds
- Tips to help your pet parrot get more exercise
- How to get your bird over fear of objects one step at a time
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.