© Jean Pattison — The African Queen
Since the advent of the Internet and bird behaviorists, we have found ourselves with a whole new generation of pet bird owners. There is an overwhelming amount of information out there regarding how to care for your pet bird, where and how to find a good avian vet, where to find a good breeder and, it seems, least of all how to find a good pet shop. It behooves us all to know the public that is buying our birds. Many of the savvy clients will besiege the pet shop with a multitude of questions, often times brining with them a list. More often than not, this list of questions has been taken off of the Internet. Some of this information is good and some is bad, the worst of course, is the information that is bad but sounds so good.
The African grey (Psittacus erithacus) is perhaps the most well known and sought after parrot of all the species, and more misinformation is perpetuated about this bird than any other.
One of the biggest misinformed ideas is that African greys are clumsy. If the African grey is allowed to fly for a few weeks during weaning, they will learn how to hover, turn on a dime, balance by one toenail, and land anywhere they set their mind to. If this is allowed, then after their wing clip they will still be as agile in or out of their cage. In pet shop situations this may not be a practice that can easily be accomplished. If not allowed to fly, they still become graceful self confident birds. It just may take a bit longer. When weaning, it is advantageous to put the African grey in a cage of limited height. With perches placed just high enough for the grey to comfortably crawl under, they will not be forced to climb to heights that will cause injury if they should fall from the perch, or the high corners of the cage. Falling from a perch can cause the African grey to become less confident and this can lead to unsteadiness while climbing around in the cage. African greys need confidence to become agile and well balanced. Another advantage to a low weaning cage is the fact that weaning babies tend to climb as high as they can, and not having learned how to climb down, they often hang in the corners hungry. It can be a real struggle trying to get them out of these corners for hand-feeding. When moving from the weaning cage to their manufactured cage, it is a good idea to place the perch in the new cage, close to the floor, or one may move the grate higher, raising the floor. Of course, when doing this food bowls will need to be placed on the floor for a period until the bird learns to maneuver around in its new cage. Once the African grey becomes comfortable in its new cage the perch and grate should be placed in their normal positions.
Pet shops have practiced for years, what recently has been termed, abundance weaning and bountiful weaning. A variety of foods everywhere at all times. When chicks are starting to pick at bedding, an abundance of soft foods and weaning foods need to be provided for the babies. Foods high in calories are most desirable. Muffins with human baby foods and/or vegetables added are great starter foods, as well as weaning pellets. Although they are not actually eating them at this age they will be with familiar with them once they do start eating on their own. There are many commercial brands, of assorted beans/corn and rice mixes, made especially for birds which are also relished. These cook and serve foods are readily accepted as the baby matures.
Adult African greys do very well on a pelleted diet with some seed and vegetables as treats. Vegetables should consist of the dark yellow and orange types, such as, sweet potatoes and carrots for their beneficial natural vitamin A, as well as broccoli and the other dark green vegetables.
Due to the sensitive nature of the African grey it is advisable to expose it to a variety of toys and situations early on. African greys can settle into a routine and habits that later may be very hard to change, and the best way to avoid that is with a lot of variety in their lives. As a general rule, African greys are suited to adult families, young energetic children seem to make most greys nervous and pets running around can also have the same effect. African greys tend to "think" of themselves as part of the human family, so the need for a feathered companion is often times a wasted effort. Many times it can actually result in resentment, or insecurity on the part of the pet grey. Of course, it is okay to have another pet bird for oneself, but one shouldn't feel the African grey needs a companion. As with anything else, there are exceptions, and so it is here. There are many African greys that do marvelous with children, and actually chase the dogs. Much will depend on the temperament of the grey, and careful introduction to these situations. An African grey can learn to adjust, and become quite comfortable in these family settings. All members of the family should interact and play with the African grey if you are trying to encourage it to be a very social bird. In a family situation it is not always better to place their cage in the most active area of the house. A play area consisting of a play stand with food and water bowls available and some fun toys better serves the purpose. Their cage then may be placed off to the side of the family gathering place. African greys seem to need their "own space" for parts of the day, where they can retreat for time alone or the occasional nap. Cage size for the African grey should at the very minimum be 24" x 24" x 30". It has been found many African greys do well with a small sleep cage, in another area of the home, in which to retreat to for the nights sleep.
Nurturing dominance is another catch phrase our new generation of pet owners is using with much frequency. Nurturing is fine, but with the African parrots, dominance is definitely out. African greys react very strongly to any type of negativity, and they never forget. An African grey thrives on being treaded with tender respect. One should gently guide their bird away from negative behaviors and not make a scene when a grey is acting inappropriately. Changing the subject by using positive distractions works well with African greys.
Now, the one thing that is undeniably true about the African grey is that they are exquisite mimics. There are a very few greys that will not talk; in this regard there are no guarantees. Their natural noises are a multitude of clicks, beeps and wonderful whistles. It is unusual for most greys to start talking much before the age of one-year-old. Once they do start mimicking words they can learn for the rest of their lives. In teaching an African grey to talk the new pet owner should talk in human tones, and with a lot of animation and inflection. This is one reason birds will pick up dirty words. The emotion behind them is what is exciting and fun, not the words themselves. An owner with a monotone voice will have to work hard to get their African grey talking. African greys can mimic sirens, microwave beeps, fire alarms, smoke detectors, construction work, other animals, and even two sided arguments, water running, toilets flushing and other assorted bathroom noises, so be careful. African greys are also very smart, even to the point of being called headstrong. They will test you, and can figure out how to maneuver you, so one must be one step ahead of them. Of course this is one of the things that seems to draw people to African greys.
An annual check up should be encouraged with all pet birds, and when dealing with the African grey, it is advisable to also have a calcium level done. Although a gram scale may seem like an unnecessary investment, it is a good idea to weigh one's pet bird weekly. The first indication of a problem is usually weight loss. When going to the veterinarian for the first time, it is beneficial to take the scale along to compare it to the one at the veterinarian's clinic. New owners should be advised a just weaned baby may often experience minor weight loss when being put into a new environment. A bird can lose 20 grams overnight, just from the move. An African grey can weigh anywhere from around 400 grams (14.28 oz.) to over 600 grams (21.42 oz.), and they average 12-14 inches from the top of the head to the tip of the tail. Speaking of the tail, juvenile African greys have black tips on their tails, and one should not think that this indicates a Timneh grey, or a cross with the Timneh.
With proper guidance and understanding an African grey can be a wonderful addition to your family and will live with you for many years.