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Home > News & Events > MAARSianChronicles > Issue 12: April 2005 > Avian Health & Wellness: A Touch of Grey

Avian Health & Wellness

Simon, a Congo African Grey, has a black beak and bright scarlet tail. Timneh African Greys are smaller with reddish beaks and darker maroon tails.

Simon, a Congo African Grey, has a black beak and bright scarlet tail. Timneh African Greys are smaller with reddish beaks and darker maroon tails.

A Touch of Grey

by Brenda Weegman, CVT, MAARS Intake Coordinator

The distinctive African Grey Parrot inhabits a large natural range throughout the varied terrain of Western and Central Africa. Large flocks can be found nesting or feeding in lowland forest, clearings, and even mangroves. Although many reports indicate geographical differences in the birds' size and plumage, there are two recognized races or subspecies. The nominate race, (Psittacus erithacus erithacus), is a large parrot, commonly referred to as the Congo African Grey, and can be easily identified by its silver-grey plumage, white facial feathers, black beak, and bright scarlet tail. The Timneh African Grey (Psittacus erithacus timneh) is smaller, and bears dark grey plumage, a maroon tail, and reddish beak.

Known for incredible intelligence and amazing ability to replicate the human voice, African Grey Parrots are often sought after as pets. Unfortunately, many of these birds are either re-homed or surrendered to rescue organizations after only after a few years in the home. Three common reasons greys are surrendered are:

  

 

The guardian feels they cannot meet the time and mental demands of caring for a grey; usually resulting from problem behaviors exhibited by the bird.

 

  

 

The grey did not meet the expectations of the guardian.

 

  

 

Someone in the household is experiencing respiratory ailments.

 

African Greys, like Congo, Chewy, are incredibly empathetic and tend to take on or react to the energy and emotions of the people around them. Frustration and insecurity can lead to feather-plucking behavior.

African Greys, like Congo, Chewy, are incredibly empathetic and tend to take on or react to the energy and emotions of the people around them. Frustration and insecurity can lead to feather-plucking behavior.

Living with African Greys can be an equally rewarding and frustrating experience. There is a full spectrum of personalities in these birds, ranging from introvert to extrovert. They have the intelligence of at least a three- to five-year-old child and the spirit of their wild ancestors. Often times, these birds don't understand what it means to live "indoors" and, as a result, exhibit behaviors that can be perceived as frustration, jealousy, insecurity, and nervousness. These behaviors can manifest through screaming, growling, biting, toenail whittling, or feather plucking. Often times, guardians either blame themselves or the birds for these behaviors. Instead of recognizing these behaviors and finding ways to work with them, some guardians feel that finding a new home for the bird is in everybody's best interest. This is not always the case and many times the bird will continue to exhibit these behaviors in its new environment. Caring for a Grey is mentally quite similar to caring for a child. Taking in a Grey requires a level of commitment from everyone in the household. They are incredibly empathetic and tend to take on or react to the energy and emotions of the people around them. They rely on their guardians for security, confidence, and love — even when they pose a challenge.

Greys are also re-homed because they did not meet the expectations of their guardians. Greys have a reputation for intelligence. They have a remarkable talent to reproduce the human voice, so much so that they sometimes are able to replicate the different voices of each individual in the household (including other animals in the home). They have the ability to learn a large vocabulary and to speak in full sentences — often times very appropriately — and can pick up a word or sound after only hearing it one or two times. This amazing ability attracts many people to want them as pets without fully understanding what they are getting themselves into. Some may expect the bird to be a "tape-recorder," that is, content sitting in its cage, ready to perform at the guardian's will. Of course these same people often find themselves with a very disgruntled bird that either screams instead of talks, or says nothing at all. Greys are independent thinkers, and many times choose only those they are most comfortable with to talk around. This can be frustrating for Grey guardians who boast about their bird's excellent vocabulary, but may be the only ones to ever hear it. Not all Greys will talk; some prefer to imitate various sounds in their environment, like barking dogs, telephones, zippers, running water, smoke detectors, etc. Typically the more ear-piercing it is for their guardian, the more fun it is to do! Many enjoy whistling songs, even making up their own tunes or creating their own versions of old favorites.

Like all African Greys, wild-caught Timneh, Spike, is highly intelligent and prefers to live life on his own terms.

Like all African Greys, wild-caught Timneh, Spike, is highly intelligent and prefers to live life on his own terms.

Another unrealistic expectation some may have of Greys is that they will be as affectionate as other species of companion birds. While Greys can be incredibly affectionate, they generally demonstrate it on their own terms and sometimes people are disappointed that the bird is not as "cuddly" as they had hoped. For many Greys, the trust they put in their human caregiver, the songs they sing, the voices they imitate, the words they speak, and the empathy they exhibit communicate a strong connection that is, perhaps, more significant than permitting a few scratches on the head.

Lastly, African Greys may be re-homed due to the respiratory ailments of their guardians. Greys are considered to be "powder down" birds. Their feathers produce a fine powder that can wreak havoc on those with allergies or other pulmonary conditions. Many times, the amount of dust can be controlled with daily showering of the bird, a good quality, bird-safe air filter, and frequent vacuuming/ cleaning of the household. Allergy symptoms can often be alleviated with over-the-counter or prescription allergy medications.

African Greys, like all species of birds and other wild animals, do not make good "pets." It is my opinion that they should not be marketed as pets at all. However, there are large numbers of these birds currently living in captivity for whom we have a responsibility. With patience, commitment, love, and support, these birds can lead rich, well-adjusted lives. A relationship with a Grey or other parrot must be approached openly, selflessly, and without expectations that may lead to dissatisfaction for everyone. If we allow ourselves to respect these captivating creatures for what they are — wild, intelligent, BIRDS — the honor they bestow on us with their trust will far outweigh the reward of any trick, gimmick, or phrase we can teach them.

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