African Grey Parrots
African Grey Parrot Advice Sheet
At AlphaPet, we see a significant number of African Greys, but we are continually surprised at how little many owners have been told about how best to look after their pet. This advice sheet aims to address the most commonly seen questions from clients.
African Greys are one of the more common parrots kept as pets in the UK. There are two main varieties – the Timneh and the Congo. Timnehs are slightly smaller and lack the vibrant red tail of the Congo.
As the name suggests, these birds evolved in the rainforests of Africa. Unfortunately, most of the problems we see with keeping African Greys result from an inability to emulate rainforest conditions in the front room of a domestic UK house! Remember too that in the wild, the African grey lives in social flocks whereas we choose to keep them in solitary confinement in a cage – quite a difference. With an average lifespan of 40-80 years, most African Greys available in the UK are only a few generations away from their wild ancestors and cannot be described as “domesticated” birds. They are also a relatively intelligent bird, often being likened to a 9-13 year old human child. This means that if you do decide to keep these as pets, you will have to be prepared to devote significant time and money in their health and welfare – living with a 9-13 year old child for the next 80 years can be challenging! Failure to provide for this will result in mental and medical problems sometimes necessitating euthanasia.
That said, many owners do successfully provide adequate conditions for keeping African Greys. Your lifestyle is critical and if you work and don’t spend much time at home, an African Grey is not for you!
Always try to purchase a baby from an experienced reputable breeder. Preferably, spend some time with your prospective bird, to get to know them before purchase. If the breeder seems reluctant to devote the time to allow you to do this, walk away and choose a different breeder.
Taking on an adult bird from someone in the pub is a sure-fire recipe for and expensive disaster. You may also be taking on a stolen or illegally imported bird.
The sex of African Greys can be determined by differences in behaviour, size, shape and personality but to be sure, DNA sexing is the quickest and most definitive method, requiring either a small amount of blood or a blood feather for analysis.
African greys are social animals. Keeping them on their own in a house means that YOU become their social outlet. You will need to spend a great deal of time (several hours) every day with your bird. Failure to do this will result in your bird becoming aggressive, vocally loud and often will start feather plucking.
The rule with housing of African Greys is the bigger the better. The minimum legal requirement is for the bird to be able to stretch its wings open in all directions in the cage, however this is the absolute minimum and totally inadequate in the longer term. The minimum I would be OK with would be a cage of 3ft x 3ft x 4ft tall. Bar spacing should be ¾” to 1”. You should also ensure that the bar coating is safe for birds (some old bird cages have toxic paint or chemical coatings!).
There should be a variety of perches provided of varying size (1” to 2” diameter for an adult bird) and materials. Natural wood perches are ideal as are some of the newer bolt–on epoxy perches available from pet shops. Avoid smooth perches and sandpaper coverings as these can cause feet problems.
A variety of suitable parrot specific toys can be provided but avoid cluttering the cage too much with these. Instead, plan to have your bird spend a significant amount of time outside of their cage every day. A play perch or a small tree branch shaped perch located close to the cage will provide lots of exercise and create a more natural environment.
Siting of the cage
The cage should be sited in a part of the house where there will be lots of contact with people but ideally not in the busiest area of the home. Avoid siting too close to windows where direct sunlight could cause overheating problems. Also avoid siting close to radiators and heating ducts and keep away from draughts.
Harmful house products
African Greys were never designed to live in modern houses. Their metabolism and physiology is very different from that of humans for whom houses were designed. Consequently, there are a number of common household products that pose significant risks for an African Grey which all owners should be aware of.
Many cleaning products (eg Febreeze, bleach, oven cleaners and floor cleaners), perfumes, hair sprays and nail polish removers emit odours which can be very harmful to African Greys. Avoid using these products and instead only use natural cleaning products.
Non-stick cookware (eg Teflon coated) can emit toxic fumes and should not be used if you keep birds in the house.
Many common houseplants can also be toxic. These include Amaryllis, Hyacinth, Mistletoe, Philodendron, Poinsettias and ivy. Given that your parrot should have time out of the cage, you should avoid keeping these sort of houseplants.
Dogs and cats can both pose dangers fro your African Grey. Given that your African Grey will hopefully be spending much time outside their cage, the possibility of direct contact between cats and dogs in the house is high. Apart from the potential for causing direct injury and even death for your African Grey, they can also pose a significant stressor.
In the wild, African Greys feed in a variety of fruits, nuts, leafy materials and the occasional meat meal. This is a far cry from the traditional sunflower and groundnut based “Parrot” mixes available in most pet shops. PLEASE DO NOT FEED THESE DIETS TO AFRICAN GREYS! African Greys, given the choice, will selectively eat sunflower seeds and ground nuts. This creates an unhealthy and unbalanced dietary intake which, in the long term can be fatal.
In addition, you should offer a variety of fruit (e.g. apples, oranges, lemons, grapes, bananas, mango, melon, pineapple) and vegetables (e.g. carrots, potato, celery, green beans, corn on the cob, peas, peppers, broccoli, spinach, spring greens, kale) and nuts (unsalted!). Once a week, you can offer cooked chicken leg bones (they crack the bones and eat the marrow), yoghurt and scrambled egg.
African Greys will essentially eat most foodstuffs. Variety is definitely important but as with humans, the unhealthy stuff (fatty, salty, high preservative) needs to be given in strict moderation or you may do harm.
Foods to avoid are chocolate, avocados, alcohol, raw meat, raw eggs and any mouldy or poorly stored foodstuffs as these can be toxic and could prove fatal.
Hiding food & working for it
OK, so you have your caged parrot with his various toys and he gets his food and water in little trays provided for him/her. So what do they do for the rest of the day. You can only play with toys for so long!
In the wild, African Greys are foragers. Like most birds, they spend a good proportion of their day looking for food and we just provide it to them literally on a plate.
As intelligent animals, we need to stimulate their brains. We need to get them to work for their food. Hiding food in and under objects means they have to do something for that food, both physically (exercise) and mentally. There is a variety of foraging toys available to hide food in for parrots, but simply hiding food around your room under plastic cups and plates can work just as well. YOUR imagination is the only limit to this!
Routine is important to African Greys. They are very observant and conservative in their ways and do not appreciate changes to their environment. Changing toys or perches in their cage should always be done gradually and you should expect some reaction. Persevere and they will eventually get used to the new items or routines.
African Greys are highly social animals that live in flocks in the wild. Imagine what it would be like living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and have no contact with anyone similar to yourself. Without getting additional African Greys, a quick and simple way of enriching your bird’s environment is to take advantage of modern technology! The internet is a wonderful place to source recordings of rainforests and specific bird calls which can be played through a computer, TV or DVD player.
Temperature and humidity
There is a huge contrast between the conditions found in an African rainforest (warm, moist with several showers daily) and the average UK front room of a house (cool and dry). This can create problems for your bird and so creating a local environment that more closely emulates an African rainforest climate is desirable.
Keeping general room temperatures between 70-75oF are acceptable. Placing a tray of water in the bottom of the cage will improve local humidity in and around the cage. Commercially available humidifiers can also be used to increase local humidity.
Misting your bird several times daily is also advised. Never spray directly towards your bird but instead spray upwards and allow the mist to gently fall onto your bird. Air plant misters (available from garden centres) are ideal for this. If possible use rainwater rather than tap water.
A commonly overlooked issue is how long your African Grey is exposed to light. In the wild, they have evolved to be happy with approximately 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night.
In the UK, we have significant variation in daylight times depending on the season. Superimposed on this is the fact that many birds are kept in the main living room and are exposed to even longer lighting regimes because of household lights. So some birds are woken up at 4am with dawn light coming through the windows and then are kept awake with house lights and TVs until midnight! On 4 hours sleep a night, just imagine what effect that might have on a 9-13 year old human child!
It is vital to try and control the lighting duration your African Grey is exposed to. The simplest way for this to be done is place a cover over their cage and remove it 12 hours later. The actual timing of when this is done can be done to suit your lifestyle to allow you to spend as much time as possible with your bird.
Unlike humans, birds are able to see ultraviolet light. We now know that this is important to parrots and is a vital part of providing an appropriate environment for an African Grey.
Sunlight coming through a window is filtered light meaning that much of the UV light never reaches the inside of a room.
Providing a proper full spectrum UV light for your African Grey not only allows them to see a more natural view of their surroundings, encourages natural behaviour but also has significant other health benefits including helping to absorb calcium from the diet.
Arcadia produce a very good bird-specific UV lamp that we highly recommend.
We recommend that all African Greys should be microchipped. This will not only identify this bird as being yours in the event of theft, but also we have had several instances of escaped birds being successfully reunited with their frantic owners via microchip identification. The recently introduced mini-microchip means that this is now a very straightforward and almost painless procedure to insert them.
Wing clipping is a controversial subject. At AlphaPet we would prefer not to deprive a bird of the ability to fly, but understand that in some circumstances this may be the only way to ensure the safety of the bird (either from escape or injury).
A bird that is able to exhibit normal behaviour (including flight) is generally going to be a healthier bird. African Greys are accomplished fliers and even though they are medium sizes parrots, they can easily negotiate flight around a medium sized living room.
The risk is that someone leaves a door open and your bird might escape. You also have the problem of defaecation all over the place in your living area which is both unpleasant and can pose some human health issues.
Generally, before agreeing to wing clip a bird, we would like to be sure of the reasons why this is necessary. The overall welfare of your African Grey is always our priority.