By Phillip Samuelson
The African grey parrot has the reputation for being the world’s greatest talking parrot. I consider this an accurate claim to fame, but having spent time around a number of greys, both pets and aviary birds, I’ve developed a fascination for this species that extends well beyond its speaking ability.
These birds are known for being somewhat nervous parrots that stress fairly easily. Tell-tale signs of African grey stress are somewhat unique and include ruffled feathers, pinned eyes, and nervous chewing of their toenails, often alternating feet to chew one set of toes, then the other. Frequently stressed greys are also near the top of the list when it comes to developing feather chewing and plucking behavior.
African grey vocalizations are unique. The squawks and screams common to neotropical parrots like Amazons, conures and macaws are not a part of the grey repertoire. Instead, greys use a range of piercing clicks and whistles. The wolf whistle comes naturally to them, and they pick it up easily if encouraged. But they need little encouragement. Teaching an African grey to whistle is about as pointless as teaching a fish to swim.
It wasn’t until a friend gave me a pampered hand-fed grey that I came to realize what all the fuss was about. This bird had been my friend’s personal pet. She called me one day to ask if I could care for it while she was on vacation. I was happy to oblige, but when I stopped by her house to pick up the bird, I was greatly disturbed to see my friend’s weakened and sickly condition. Lung cancer had taken a huge toll, and the end of her battle with this horrible disease was near. She was an elderly, gruff woman who always had a seemingly ornery disposition, but I knew her as a lovable grump with a heart of gold. During my visit that day, I knew it was the last time I would ever see her. She just didn’t know how to say good-bye, so I played along with her story about “going on vacation.” I left her house with a new pet, but very sad.
I arrived home that evening tired and depressed about my friend. My bedroom had a huge walk-in closet with a large window at one end, so I decided to put the grey in there in a cage by the window. I would find a permanent place for the bird later. Sleep came quickly that evening, and I planned to sleep in the next day.
I awoke at the crack of dawn to the sound of a phone ringing. But this was a ring tone I had never heard. All of a sudden came my friend’s voice from the closet saying, “Hello?” Then came, “Hold on a moment please. Michael!” Next there was the adult male voice of my friend’ son, Michael. “Yeah. What’s up? OK. I’ll meet you there. See you later,” followed by the clattering sound of a phone being hung up. By that point I was sitting up in bed, wide-eyed and amazed. It was the grey making the noise! I had owned talking parrots for years but had never heard anything like that. It was truly amazing–the proverbial jaw dropper.