African Greys have a hefty reputation, often causing people to place a lot expectation on their eventual performance. True or not, Greys are referred to as the most intelligent, the best speakers, the most neurotic and among the shyest of companion parrot species. They routinely demonstrate perceptual (problem solving and reasoning) abilities. They out talk many other parrot species. Many also bite, pluck their feathers and show a definite preference for only one human.
First, it’s important to know that there are two sub-species of African Grey -- the nominate sub-species, commonly called Congo African Grey and the lesser known Timneh sub-species. Both are from Africa, with Timneh found in a smaller area, including Liberia and the Ivory Coast region.
Congo Greys are larger, lighter colored and have a bright red tail. Timnehs fall into the 275-350 gram range and are a darker grey with maroon colored tail. While not enough Timnehs have been bred domestically to say with certainty, many breeders claim there is a definite personality difference between Congo and Timneh Greys. Timnehs are said to be less shy and potentially neurotic as Congos.
All African Greys have the potential to speak and imitate, not only human, but all manner of sounds and whistles. However, not all Greys speak well or at all. Some birds that are ignored in their cages imitate sounds and language very well. Others that are handled and allowed out of their cages on a regular basis may not speak. There’s no way to say who will talk and who won’t. However, most Greys do talk, starting after their first year of age.
Congos and Timnehs appear to have the same talking ability, with the Congo voice slightly louder than the Timnehs -- as you would expect from a larger bird.
Sex does not appear to make a difference. I know of a female Timneh and a male Congo, both DNA sexed, that do not speak at all. Another male Timneh is one of the most talkative, with a large vocabulary, birds I have ever seen. Sally Blanchard’s female Congo, Bongo Marie, not only has an extensive vocabulary, but uses words and phases meaningfully. My own female Timneh, Jing, vocalizes a lot -- whistling with some words thrown in, demonstrating that she feels good. However, when she wants to communicate she uses only English language, knowing which words to use to describe her needs. She speaks clearly, in my voice, always with the the correct word or phrase to match her desire. Some Greys will not talk if someone is in the room with them. Actively interacting with them and talking to them, repeating the same sounds they are making, often makes them comfortable talking when you or others are in the room with them.
It is true that Greys are notorious feather pluckers. There are some who maintain that Timnehs are less neurotic than Congos and are not apt to pluck or bite their feathers. This may be true. I have yet to see a Timneh who plucks for neurotic reasons.
Greys pluck feathers for a variety of reasons. Sometimes boredom or not enough human interaction causes an African Grey to pull out its feathers. I have also seen birds that pluck because they get too much attention -- with the owner running over every time the Grey pulls out a feather. Others pluck because of dietary imbalances, or environmental problems, such as people smoking or the air too dry. Greys should have regular baths and exposure to some kind of moist air on a regular basis. African Greys who are emotionally abused by someone who bangs on their cage or routinely squirts them in the face with a spray bottle for discipline may pluck. A single frightening experience has caused Greys to become feather pluckers.
Any bird that plucks should first see a veterinarian. If the veterinarian cannot find a physical reason for plucking, behavioral problems should be explored. There is no question that African Greys are among the most intelligent parrot species. This higher degree of intelligence, along with possible incorrect early socialization at the breeders and not understanding the bird’s intellectual needs when it becomes a companion parrot often leads to neurotic habits -- such as plucking.
Why do Timnehs not pluck feathers as much?
Possibly because, until recently, they were not as popular -- having a duller color tail and smaller size -- as Congos. Therefore, they were not bred domestically in large enough numbers to record feather plucking behavior. Or, they may actually have a more stable personality than their larger cousins, Congo African Greys. Whatever the reason, Timnehs are now being bred in much larger numbers, so in a few years we should have some accurate data comparing Timnehs with Congo African Greys.
African Greys bond strongly to one person. If they are not socialized on a regular basis with other people they may become very shy and introverted when people, other than their bonded person, are around. If a Grey lives in a household of more than one person they will often choose only one person for their bonded human, ignoring or even attempting to drive away the other person. I have seen Greys act like hormonally driven Amazons during mating season, attacking anyone who came too close to their preferred human. Like Amazons, it appears the male is the more aggressive of the two sexes.
While African Greys are not as cuddly as some other species, such as cockatoos, they do enjoy frequent mutual preening from their bonded human. Light head, neck and face scratching is a must for African Greys. I believe that Greys who do not receive some kind of preening or scratching from their owners are birds who may easily develop behavioral problems, such as biting, plucking or screaming. Of course, like any other intelligent parrot, there’s a fine line between enough and too much. Your Grey should have special times for head scratching and times when he or she amuses themselves with toys or other diversions.
There appears to be some amount of sexual stimulation for adult male Greys related to preening. If your Grey starts mouthing your fingers, then biting when you scratch its head or neck it may be a sexual response, rather than an angry bird. Once you understand the underlying cause, it’s much easier to deal with the biting problem.
Like any other parrot, African Greys bite for many different reasons. You may not be their chosen person. Or, if you are afraid that the bird will bite, it probably will. They know who is afraid of them and do their best to meet that person’s expectations.
Domestically bred birds often bite when they are not properly socialized. African Greys have the intelligence of small children. Imagine a young child left their own designs, never learning they can’t have their way whenever they want it. The result is much the same.
You should never strike or yell at your Grey. Strong negative reinforcement does not work with parrots. Often the best way to solve behavioral problems is by distracting the bird. For instance, screaming parrots can often be distracted from their yelling by flying them on your finger, or taking them for a walk around the house.
I taught Jing not to squawk in my house by jogging with her at my side the length of the hallway every time she squawked. She hates to jog on the floor, so doesn’t squawk at home. On the other hand, I didn’t want to completely repress a natural parrot behavior, therefore I let her squawk as much as she wants in the car. She goes just about everywhere with me and it can get pretty loud in my car sometimes.
Biting parrots often need to know who is the flock leader (you). Training them with the ‘up’ and ‘down’ command is a good way to establish your dominance. Noted parrot behaviorist Sally Blanchard has an excellent discipline method for wayward parrots that bite. She recommends giving them a strong ‘evil eye’, combined with the word ‘no’.
African Greys are well equipped to be tremendous companions to their bonded human. If you understand and treat them as the geniuses in the parrot world that they are, but still realize they are wild birds only a few generations removed from their wild origins, you will have a lifetime parrot partner.