Insight into African Grey Parrot Intelligence
by Phil Samuelson, Guest Blogger
Back in the early 1990s when I was an editor on a popular national bird magazine, I attended the American Federation of Aviculture annual convention in San Diego.
One of the lectures I was looking forward to was about breeding and enriching for African grey intellect. Greys, a species I had kept as a breeding aviary bird. A pair of Congo greys (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) a friend and I owned seemed to settle into their captive environment quickly and soon were on eggs. A typical elevated flight cage and nest box were used, and the diet was a standard seed mix supplemented with fruits and vegetables. Years later, when I acquired and paired up a male and female of the smaller African grey subspecies, the Timneh grey (Psittacus erithacus timneh), I came to realize all African greys were not created equal. The Timnehs would sleep in their nest box but never perched together, preened each other or seemed in sync as a breeding pair. Eggs never resulted. I was looking forward to the AFA lecture to learn more about this interesting, intelligent species.
The speaker was a man named Dave Blynn, from Georgia. Dave had bred numerous African grey parrots, and I found his level of success impressive. He was quick to recognize the keen intelligence of the species. Dave admitted that when he first started breeding greys he had little luck. This was back when parrot importation was wide open, and Dave's breeding stock consisted entirely of nervous imports. Once acclimated to captivity, the birds were sexed and broken up into pairs. They were fed a proper diet and given appropriate cages and nest boxes. Very little breeding occurred the first year, and most of the eggs were infertile.
Faced with disappointing production, Dave had an idea. He gathered all of the pairs and gave them identifying marks with a nontoxic marker before placing them all together in a huge cage. Then, with a closed-circuit television, he observed the birds. He was amazed that many pairs separated quickly and paired with other birds. It seems that African greys--like people--appreciate a choice when selecting mates! Dave then broke the birds up again, this time with their chosen mates. A high percentage of the birds were on fertile eggs within months.
I found the lecture and slide show fascinating, and I introduced myself to Dave after the lecture. We became good phone friends and often had long conversations about birds. When Dave later tried his hand at breeding Vasa parrots, I had him write an article, and we published one of the first accounts of breeding this bizarre species.
But do all African greys possess a remarkable intellect? The answer is probably yes. Many bird fanciers know of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her work with Alex the African grey parrot. When I had lunch with Dr. Pepperberg in the mid '90s, I asked her if she thought Alex was exceptionally gifted or just an ordinary grey. She considered the question and responded that she thought he was probably typical. She had started working with some younger greys and had found them similar. What many of Alex's fans probably never realized was that he was a feather chewer with a bare chest. African Greys are infamous for this self-destructive behavior, so Alex was certainly typical in that regard. He was an excellent talker, but still a bit nervous and maladjusted.
Don't sell the African grey parrot short in the smarts department. I suspect their mental abilities are greater than most bird owners think!
- Diane Burroughs