CONGO AFRICAN GREY
by Sally Blanchard
For all practical purposes, this short article will discuss Congo African Greys without mentioning the various names that people occasionally used and perhaps still use in their sales pitches to indicate the supposed superiority of the birds they are selling. These include Jocko, Cameroon, Silver, and Red-factor. I wouldn’t worry about these classifications as potential personality traits and abilities seem to be about the same whether they are big or little, dark grey or silver or have red feathers other than on their tails. Many of the geographic races have been interbred in captivity, so it is difficult to tell what is what. Red-factor Greys who have extra red feathers on their bodies don’t make better pets. In fact, the more a parrot species is genetically mutated by breeders for a specific trait, the more likely they are to have health problems. If you want a baby, just look for a well-socialized grey companion who has not been production raised.
Bongo Marie, my wonderful African Grey who lived with me for close to 25 years, was a wild-caught imported bird. She was quite small – but very large in personality. I believe that she was a pure Ghana grey (see below), a race of grey parrots, because of her size and the fact that she was quite dark. I haven't seen another "pure Ghana" for years; I think they have all been interbred with other Congos. She was an excellent talker, sometimes noisy with chatter, playful, acrobatic, occasionally moody, a little standoffish but quite affectionate on her own terms. She had an opinion for almost everything and had the vocabulary to let everyone know what she thought. She kept me entertained during her entire life with me.
My grey Whodee, who came to live with me a few years after Bongo died, is a totally different parrot. He has a generally sweeter personality and I can handle him in ways that Bongo Marie would not permit. He has a limited vocabulary but picks up household sounds readily. He is usually a very sweet bird while Bongo Marie could be a bit grouchy from time to time.
When African Greys are raised right, properly socialized, abundantly weaned, and have nurturing house rules set for them from a young age, there is no doubt that they can be a superb human companion. Contrary to common mythology, if greys are handled frequently in a nurturing manner throughout their lives, they do love physical attention. Greys love ambient attention; they love to be where the action is. Greys don’t do well when they live in an area of the house where they can’t see what is going on; their personalities will wither in a bird room by themselves.
Many Greys are quite acrobatic and love to hang upside down and bat their toys around. My grey, Whodee loves his hanging play gym. While not all greys can answer to the name Einstein, they are generally quite clever. Some will use words, sentences, and even combined sentences appropriately, especially if their caregivers have defined these words and expressions for them in conversations. Greys are also puzzle solvers and enjoy playing with challenging toys. Whodee figures out new foraging toys in a heartbeat.
Greys are generally as quiet as their environment, but will learn to imitate any sound that they find enjoyable or receive attention for making; this is both a positive and a negative grey trait. Greys may exhibit some “weird” habits that people are concerned about such as; toe chewing, "nose-picking", head shaking in response to certain sounds, chest feather shivering, yawning while scratching their face, digging in the bottom of their cages, etc. If not done excessively, these are normal idiosyncrasies and should not cause undue concern.
Caregivers often have high expectations, which can create problems for a developing grey. They will not recite the “Gettysburg Address” by the time they are 6 months old and require time and work on the part of their caregivers to live up to their reputations for talking. Some greys, like my Whodee, are simply not good talkers, but still have lovable personalities.
Poorly socialized production-raised greys and those who have not been made to feel secure at critical developmental and independence stages may become a real mess with phobic behavior and feather picking. Greys still have only-partly-deserved reputations for being “neurotic feather pickers.” I think this comes from the fact that they are intelligent, sensitive parrots with special developmental needs that are not being met by far too many breeders and production farms. The key to getting a good grey is to buy one from a source that respects both their physical and psychological developmental needs. It is important that young greys are not left for any period of time of over a day or two (a perceived abandonment at a significant developmental stage) by the primary people in their lives from the ages of about 6 to 12 months. If you need to leave, make sure that your grey stays with someone he is comfortable with. This is a critical developmental and independence stage that occurs during a time when consistent parental reassurance is extremely important.
Greys may become bitey at various stages in their life and some have a tendency to be one-person birds. If you become afraid of being bitten, you will need to calm down and continue to handle your grey. However if the caregivers receive good behavioral information to provide proper instruction and guidance, these problems are easy to solve. It is not uncommon for greys to form a strong bond with one person and a “I tolerate you” bond with another. The “I tolerate you” person can usually handle the parrot in a cautious manner and pet him through the cage bars. Greys will often talk in the voice of the “I tolerate you” person. Greys may readily learn obnoxious or irritating noises and may actually use them to irritate their caregivers if the people continually reinforce the noises by responding to them in a dramatic way.
Youngsters can be quite clumsy and their cage bottoms and grates should be padded until they develop their balance skills. Young greys should not be allowed up high (including the top of their cages) if they can jump off and hurt themselves. When greys fall to the floor, the can easily split the skin around their keel bone and this can be a very difficult injury to treat successfully. Early traumatic injuries from falling and getting tangled in their cage grate or thudding to the floor like a lead balloon may account for both phobic and feather picking problems.
An excellent diet with lots of fresh vegetables, fruits and grains, is essential for grey parrots. Most don’t live past the age of ten if fed a nutritionally abusive seed-only diet or any diet lacking in essential nutrients, especially calcium. Greys are also one of the parrots that can develop serious problems from a pellet only diet, especially when they are fed one of the chemical-laden, colored manufactured diets. If your grey is on a colored pellet, please switch him or her to one of the diets without food coloring. I highly recommend Totally Organics as it is the only pellet that is truly organic and doesn't doesn't contain any artificial anything or chemical supplementation.
GHANA AFRICAN GREY
In the late 1970's, I began to realize that my African grey Bongo Marie was quite a bit different in appearance than most of the Congo greys that I was seeing. She was smaller (just a bit bigger than a Timneh grey) and darker with more delicate facial features. After doing some research, I decided that she was a true Ghana grey ... a race of psittacus erithacus. I have seen a few more of these bird over the years but haven't seen any for several years. The true Ghanas that came into this country were most likely bred to the other Congo greys, losing their unique characteristics. I have seen quite a few Congo greys over the years who probably have had some of the Ghana race in their parentage or ancestry. I find that they are often excellent talkers like Bongo Marie was.