If they were handing out superlatives in the bird world, the African Gray parrot just might win “most intelligent feathered friend.” This gorgeous bird, a native of Africa, is known for its smarts.
While many parrots excel at mimicry, African Grays can actually associate words with their meanings, and some actually have a vocabulary of hundreds of words. In fact, the most well-educated of African Grays, N’kisi, knew more than 950 words as of 2004 and is said to once have greeted noted primatologist Jane Goodall with these words: “Got a chimp?”
Because of their keen observational abilities and amusing repartee, African Grays click easily with their families and are a valued, if rare, breed of pet.
African Gray parrots originally hail from the islands of Principe and Bioko in the Congo, as well as the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. They’re sometimes referred to as CAGs (Congo African Grays).
Alas, over recent years the bird trade in Africa has begun to threaten the population of African Gray parrots. Starting in 2007 they were listed as a “near threatened” species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, up from a species of “least concern.” One study found that a fifth of the bird population is being poached from the wild each year and illegally sold as pets.
The birds are also hurt by the timber trade, which is gobbling up the trees that the African Grays use for nesting. This has led the United States to ban the import of wild-caught CAGs; those sold at pet stores must be bred in captivity.
Personalities and Traits
CAGs are smart and witty, but that doesn’t make them any easier to keep. They require large cages and toys that they can destroy for their own amusement. They also eat a varied diet and crave frequent one-on-one interaction with their owners. If they don’t receive this, they can become destructive.
These birds live long lives. Most survive to an average age of 50, and the “Guinness Book of World Records” lists the oldest known African Gray Parrot as 72 years old.
Famous Owners and Pop Culture Presence
Little wonder that CAGs have taken on an almost legendary status. Their owners include wealthy families in ancient Rome and King Henry VIII. They’ve also been commemorated in works of fiction and non-fiction over the years. An African Gray appears in the classic story “Doctor Dolittle,” and Michael Crichton included the birds in two of his novels, “The Final Solution” and “Next.”
Methusaleh, a character in Barbara Kingsolver’s bestselling work “The Poisonwood Bible,” is also an African Gray Parrot.