What is an African Grey Parrot?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The African grey parrot is an intelligent bird with a long history of interaction with humans. Known for its talent for mimicking human speech, African greys are considered one of the smartest birds in the world. African grey parrots are frequently kept as pets, but some warn they should only be owned by experienced bird handlers, since a bird that can talk back requires considerable attention and care.


The tradition of keeping the African grey parrot as a pet dates back to ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphs frequently depict the bird, with similar descriptions being found in Greece, Rome, and other ancient cultures. Henry VIII of England is believed to have carried on the tradition in his court, keeping a parrot by his side.

These pale grey birds are striking for their monochromatic plumage, though some color mutations can occur. Some parrots, known as king greys, have a genetic mutation that causes the growth of some scarlet red feathers among the grey. Other mutations can include the appearance of white or yellow plumage. While some color mutation is believed to have originated in the wild, much is considered the result of pet breeding populations, which usually involve some inbreeding.

A medium sized bird, the adult African grey parrot is about 10-14 inches (25.4-35.56 centimeters) in length. Males are slightly larger than females, but the sexes look remarkably similar. The lifespan of the African grey is extensive, reaching up to 90 years. Anyone planning to purchase an African grey parrot as a pet should be prepared for a lifetime commitment to the bird.

Endemic to Africa, African grey parrots hail from rainforests throughout the west coast and central regions of the continent. They subsist on a diet of leaves, berries, and seeds, though some have also been observed eating insects and snails. Breeding typically results in a small clutch of five or fewer eggs, which incubate for about one month before hatching.

When purchasing an African grey parrot, it is important to discover the bird's origins. Some environmental groups warn against wild-capture birds, as the wild population cannot sustain a loss of numbers due to the pet trade. However, there are many breeders throughout the world who breed captive populations of African greys that will not adversely affect the wild birds in Africa.

According to bird experts, African greys are an easy pet to handle, but are subject to boredom. Their considerable intelligence means that sitting alone in a cage all day can result in depression and habits such as feather picking, which can injure the bird. Experts recommend keeping the African grey in company with other intelligent parrots, either of their own species or of a similar breed. This, along with human interaction, an explorable environment, and toys, should help keep the bird cheerful and occupied.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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