African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus)

Also known as: African gray parrot, grey parrot
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPsittaciformes
FamilyPsittacidae
GenusPsittacus (1)
SizeLength: 33 cm (2)
Weight400 - 490 g (3)
Top facts

The African grey parrot is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (4).

The African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) is famous for its intelligence and ability to mimic human speech, making it one of the most popular of all avian pets (2). One of the largest parrots in Africa (5), the African grey parrot has pale grey plumage, with whitish edges to the feathers on the head and neck, which give a lacy or ‘scalloped’ appearance. The flight feathers are darker grey, the rump pale and the short tail a striking red. The beak is black, and on the face a large area of bare white skin surrounds the pale yellow eye (3) (6) (7). Both male and female African grey parrots are similar in appearance, while juveniles can be recognised by a dark grey or black eye, grey-tinged undertail-coverts and a darker red tip to the tail (6) (7).

Two subspecies of African grey parrot were previously recognised: Psittacus erithacus erithacus, sometimes known as the red-tailed African grey parrot or the Congo African grey parrot, and Psittacus erithacus timneh, also known as the Timneh African grey parrot (2) (8). However, P. e. timneh is now believed to be a separate species, the Timneh parrot (Psittacus timneh) (2). A separate population of African grey parrots on the island of Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea was previously considered to be a third subspecies, Psittacus erithacus princeps, but is now included with P. e. erithacus (4) (9).

The African grey parrot has a wide distribution across tropical Africa, from south-eastern Côte d’Ivoire east to Kenya and Tanzania, and south to Angola (2), including populations on the islands of Príncipe and São Tomé (3).

The African grey parrot inhabits both primary and secondary lowland moist forest. It has also been observed at forest edges and clearings, and sometimes occurs in mangrove forest, gallery forest, savanna woodland and in cultivated areas. The African grey parrot is often found in areas of oil-palms (Elaeis guineensis), on which it likes to feed, and commonly roosts in raphia palms overhanging watercourses, or on offshore islands (2) (3).

The African grey parrot feeds on a variety of fruits, seeds and nuts, particularly those of the oil-palm, Elaeis guineensis. It is also known to do damage to maize crops (3) (8). The species can travel considerable distances in search of fruiting trees (3), and may also make seasonal movements out of the driest parts of its range during the dry season (2). The African grey parrot often roosts in large groups, and forms large, noisy flocks, the birds calling to each other with a variety of squawks, whistles, shrieks and screams, both at rest and in flight (7). In addition to its ability to mimic human speech, this parrot has also been found to mimic other bird and mammal calls in the wild (10).

The nest of the African grey parrot is generally a simple cavity, high in a tree (3). Two to three eggs are usually laid, and hatch after an incubation period of between 21 and 30 days, the young leaving the nest around 80 days later (3). Captive African grey parrots may live for up to 50 years (11).

In recent years, research on a captive African grey parrot known as ‘Alex’ has highlighted the impressive intelligence of this species. As well as learning the names of over 50 objects, Alex was able to use English words to identify colours, shapes and quantities up to six, as well as to demonstrate an understanding of concepts such as bigger / smaller, same / different, and absence, and to use words and phrases to make simple requests. Such studies suggest that the intelligence of African grey parrots is comparable to that of marine mammals, apes and even young children (12).

Habitat loss, particularly the loss of large nesting trees, is likely to be having a significant impact on African grey parrot populations. However, the main threat is the capture of large numbers of wild individuals for the international pet trade (2) (13). Estimates suggest that up to a fifth of the global population may be harvested annually to be sold as pets, though actual numbers captured are likely to be higher than those officially recorded, due to the number of birds that die during capture or transport, and due to illegal trade (2) (13).

Worryingly, there also appears to be an increasing market for parrot heads and tail feathers, which are being harvested for purported medicinal purposes, and which are more easily stored and transported than live birds (14).

The African grey parrot is still numerous and found over a wide range, and occurs in a number of protected areas such as Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This park is a World Heritage Site and the largest tropical rainforest reserve in Africa, although political instability there makes protection difficult (15). However, despite trade being monitored to some extent under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (4), current levels are considered unsustainable and the African grey parrot is now in decline (2) (13).

Conservation measures proposed for the African grey parrot include reducing quotas and banning exports from some countries, as well as attempting tighter control of trade and increased monitoring and research (2) (13). It has been suggested that the population of African grey parrots on Príncipe should be treated separately in terms of its conservation, as it is heavily harvested. Conservation of this isolated and perhaps unique population should be aided by the fact that it is the symbol of the island (9).

The import of wild-caught African grey parrots is now banned in the USA and in Europe (16) (17) (18), and this may further help to decrease the level of trade in this highly intelligent bird. However, more research may now be needed into the trade in parrot heads and feathers if this emerging threat is to be effectively countered (14).

Find out more about the African grey parrot and its conservation:

More information on research into African grey parrot cognition and communication:

Authenticated (18/02/09) by Dr Irene Pepperberg, Adjunct Associate Professor in Psychology, Brandeis University, and Research Associate and Lecturer in Psychology, Harvard University.
http://www.alexfoundation.org

  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2013)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. BirdLife International - Grey parrot (February, 2013)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=112657
  3. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1997) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 4: Sandgrouse to Cuckoos. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  4. CITES (November, 2008)
    http://www.cites.org/
  5. Alden, P.C., Estes, R.D., Schlitter, D. and McBridge, B. (1996) Collins Guide to African Wildlife. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  6. Erritzoe, J. (1993) The Birds of CITES and How to Identify Them. The Lutterworth Press, Cambridge.
  7. World Parrot Trust - Grey Parrot (November, 2008)
    http://www.parrots.org/index.php/encyclopedia/profile/grey_parrot/
  8. Athan, M.S. and Deter, D. (2000) The African Grey Parrot Handbook. Barron’s Educational Series, New York.
  9. Melo, M. and O’Ryan, C. (2007) Genetic differentiation between Príncipe Island and mainland populations of the grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus), and implications for conservation. Molecular Ecology, 16: 1673-1685.
  10. Cruickshank, A.J., Gautier, J.P. and Chappuis, C. (1993) Vocal mimicry in wild African Grey Parrots Psittacus erithacus. Ibis, 135(3): 293-299.
  11. Brouwer, K., Jones, M.L., King, C.E. and Schifter, H. (2000) Longevity records for Psittaciformes in captivity. International Zoo Yearbook, 37(1): 299-316.
  12. Pepperberg, I.M. (2006) Cognitive and communicative abilities of Grey parrots. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100: 77-86.
  13. BirdLife International (2006) BirdLife International’s Review of the Status of the African Grey Parrot and Proposals to CITES for its Conservation. 22nd meeting of the Animals Committee, Lima, Peru.
  14. EcoLocalizer: Smuggler caught with heads of 353 African gray parrots (February, 2009)
    http://ecolocalizer.com/2009/01/25/smuggler-caught-with-heads-of-353-african-gray-parrots/
  15. UNEP-WCMC: Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo (November, 2008)
    http://www.unep-wcmc.org/medialibrary/2011/06/24/d3e1c39a/Salonga%20National%20Park.pdf
  16. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Wild Bird Conservation Act (February, 2013)
    http://www.fws.gov/international/DMA_DSA/Permits/web_list_wbca.html
  17. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1994) Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA) of 1992; Decision concerning petition for suspension of imports of African grey parrots to the United States. Federal Register, 59(58). Available at:
    http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-1994-03-25/html/94-7072.htm
  18. European Union: Commission Regulation (EC) No. 318/2007 (February, 2013)
    http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/site/en/oj/2007/l_084/l_08420070324en00070029.pdf