Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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African gray parrots form close, human-like bonds with their owners.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

African gray parrot


What is a gray parrot?

Gray parrots, commonly called African grays, are native to rainforests of central Africa, ranging in a band across the continent from Côte d’Ivoire to western Kenya. The largest parrot in Africa, this species has silver feathers, a white mask, and a bright, reddish tail. Males and females are very similar in appearance.

Their colors may be less stunning than other parrots, but African grays are bright in other ways: They’re among the smartest birds in the world and the greatest mimic of human speech among the 350 or so known parrot species. Research has shown that the birds possess cognitive skills equal to that of a five-year-old child. They will also help members of their species, even complete strangers, without expecting their altruism to be reciprocated.

Behavior and mating

African grays are highly social species, flying through the sky in noisy flocks and roosting in big groups amid the treetops each evening. They feed in smaller groups of about 30, eating foods like oil palm nuts and the berries of the cola plant, grasping them in their claws and tearing them open with their strong beak. The birds will also sometimes raid human crops, such as maize.

The monogamous parrots, which mate for life, begin searching for mates between three and five years of age. A pair will seek out pre-existing tree cavities in which to make a nest, lay a clutch of about three to four eggs, which are incubated by the female. Parents are attentive, building well-made nests and feeding their chicks together.

The pet threat

Because of their intelligence and ability to mimic human speech, African grays are the most popular pet bird in the world. The birds breed well in captivity, and at least 1.3 million gray parrots that have been exported legally from Africa over the past four decades, particularly to countries in the Middle East. (Learn more: Have parrots become too popular for their own good?)

However, hundreds of thousands of others—maybe more—have died in transit or been snatched illegally from the forests of West and Central Africa as part of the illegal wildlife trade.

Because grays are gregarious and social, it makes them relatively easy to catch. Trappers, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo, tear down the trees to pluck babies from nests or put out wooden sticks covered with glue to ensnare roosting adults en masse. The majority of wild-caught grays probably die in transit. (Read about the illegal trade in gray parrots.)

In 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, which monitors international trade in rare species, made the controversial decision to ban all international trade in wild African grays, except in “exceptional circumstances.” In 2018, the bird was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

African grays also suffer from habitat loss, in particular because they prefer to nest in tall trees that are targeted by loggers.

Why Are Parrot Species in Decline? Highly intelligent and sociable, parrots are arguably the most popular pet birds. But they face dangers because of the pet trade and habitat destruction, making them among the most threatened species of birds.