African Grey Parrots may well be the most intelligent birds in existence, and are often described as having the emotional maturity of a two year old child and the intelligence of a five year old. This means that they regularly exhibit complex behavior – not just the speech they are famous for, but also temper tantrums and attention seeking. Understanding this behavior is one of the keys to keeping your pet African Grey happy. Plus the more you know about African Grey Parrots and their behavior, the more fascinating these amazing birds become.
Talking is of course the first thing most people will think of when you say the words ‘pet parrot’. African Greys are thought to have the capacity to learn in excess of 2000 words, and even to understand the context in which many of these should be used. Some individual parrots learn to communicate with simple sentences, and it’s even possible to have a basic conversation with some well-trained parrots. However, it’s a common misconception that all African Grey Parrots talk, as some will never utter a single word. They are all capable of mimicry though, and most African Greys will master a range of sounds that they frequently hear, including door bells and ringtones.
This ability to imitate is great fun and highly entertaining, but if you swear too often when your parrot’s around, it could lead to your next dinner party being a lot more uncomfortable than you were hoping for! There’s even a well known story of a pet African Grey exposing an affair as he repeatedly called out the name of the wife’s lover in her voice. Obviously this story can’t be substantiated, but we like to think it’s true!
Mimicry is certainly a sign of intelligence, but actually understanding words and phrases and being able to use them in context is on a completely different level. The most widely known example of this ability is…
Alex was the subject of a study into the intelligence of African Grey Parrots over a period of 30 years until he died at an unusually early age. Irene Pepperberg, the psychologist who undertook the study, claimed that he was capable of achieving more than he already had if only he had lived longer, but his list of achievements is nevertheless astounding. Among other things, Alex could count to six and, even more impressively, understand the concept of zero. He actually mastered a number of abstract concepts, including ‘bigger’ and ‘smaller’, and he could recognize several different shapes and colors.
Pepperberg thought that Alex had the same level of cognitive ability as dolphins and some of the great apes, which is particularly remarkable given his comparatively tiny brain. She was able to cite plenty of accomplishments to back this up such as his clear understanding of self (he used different pronouns for himself and for others) or his demonstrable understanding of the words he was using. He even learned what color he himself was after asking Pepperberg to tell him the answer.
(You can read more about Alex on his Wikipedia page here.)
It is this extraordinary level of intelligence that leads to African Greys bonding so well with their owners, but this only happens if you spend enough time with your bird. Failure to do so won’t just mean a less satisfactory relationship with your pet, but also a far lower quality of life for your parrot, who really will need a huge amount of stimulation.
African Greys have something of a reputation for being so called ‘one-person birds’, meaning they will bond to only one person, normally the owner and primary caregiver. This is not necessarily true, and is usually the result of no one else devoting sufficient time to the bird to generate the same amount of affection. Most individuals will interact with many different people if they are conditioned to do so, but they do need time to get used to a stranger and learn to trust them.
Behavioral problems normally only occur in African Greys as a result of poor treatment. This doesn’t necessarily mean abuse in the same way a dog may be abused, but can simply be down to not giving your parrot enough attention – what would be plenty of affection for almost any other animal may constitute neglect for an African Grey Parrot.
One of the most commonly reported issues with African Greys is biting. There are a few reasons for this, and it’s important to realize that a stranger is far more likely to be bitten than the bird’s owner. These attacks are normally because the stranger was too impatient with the parrot – bonds aren’t formed instantly, and any stranger who gets too close or tries to force interaction with an African Grey risks receiving a sharp bite.
A person who’s in a bad mood or in a hurry is also more likely to be bitten. This is because African Grey Parrots can sense the moods of nearby people and respond accordingly, much like dogs can. So you should always approach African Greys calmly and with a gentle smile so that they don’t get overexcited or stressed.
Parrots kept in poor conditions, fed an unsatisfactory diet, or which are suffering in some other way are also liable to bite more often, which is understandable really.
The other problem many African Grey owners encounter is a parrot picking at its own feathers. This could be due to a physical problem, so you should always take your African Grey to an avian vet as soon as possible after it begins to pick its feathers. This is necessary in order to rule out any illnesses or other physiological issues.
However, this self-destructive behavior is usually the result of stress or a sign that your parrot isn’t getting the love and attention he/she so desperately needs. African Grey Parrots will sometimes resort to other forms of self-harm, and once they start it can sadly be very hard to get them to stop. It’s important to reiterate once again just how important it is to spend lots of quality time with your parrot, ideally letting them out of their cage as often as possible as well.
Changes in Behavior
If you notice your African Grey behaving differently to normal, it’s worth getting an avian veterinarian to give your pet a check up. There are various different illnesses and infections that can affect behavior in African Greys. This is especially true if the change in behavior is sudden, but it’s always better to err on the side of caution.
For more information on taking care of the physical needs of an African Grey Parrot, please take a look at our African Grey Parrot care sheet.