I saw my first Congo African Grey 27 years ago, and I have
never forgotten the experience.
I walked into a pet store, made eye contact with this bird,
and immediately felt as if he was looking straight into my soul.
By the time I was able to afford to have a Grey, and began
looking around in my area for a baby, I couldn’t find one that I
wanted. Those I found
that were near weaning age were suspicious of me; they weren’t
curious about who I was and certainly had no desire to explore any
interactions with me. They
seemed neither relaxed nor comfortable in their surroundings.
Such a bird was not what I wanted, for instinctively I felt
that the birds I was meeting did not have what it would take to
live successfully in the domestic environment over the long term.
They seemed to have few resources, and appeared to lack any
real sense of self upon which they might draw when meeting the
challenges that life in captivity can hold.
That was the beginning of my fascination with this species,
and my hunch that we are not doing as good a job with them as we
might. I decided at the time that I would breed my own African
Grey, and since then I have worked to tease out the thread of
truth about Greys, so that I could unravel some of the mystery,
and myths, surrounding them for others and myself.
Today, I specialize in breeding Congo Greys on a small
scale. I also have as
companions 8 Greys, 7 Congos and one Timneh.
Four of the seven are birds I raised; four are birds I have
rescued who have needed rehabilitation.
I also do behavioral consulting, and have had many Grey
owners as clients.
Emerging Patterns in Captivity
In dealing with African Greys from all of these
perspectives, I’ve come to the conclusion that living with an
African Grey can either be a magnificent, joyful experience or a
terribly troubling one. And unfortunately, it is a troubling one
far more often than it should be, and I find myself more and more
concerned about the fate of this species in captivity.
African Greys are one of the easiest birds to breed, and
accordingly are being bred in very large numbers.
An African Grey breeder is almost as easy to find as a
budgie breeder. Further,
they remain one of the most sought after parrots in the United
States. Thus, their
population is increasing in our country.
In some ways, I find this unfortunate.
However, there is beginning to be enough anecdotal
information about the species that we can begin to see some
patterns emerging, patterns which indicate that problems exist in
our breeding, rearing and caregiving practices.
Certain health issues are surfacing.
In addition to infectious diseases that are common to
Greys, such as aspergillosis or Psittacine Beak and Feather
Disease (PBFD), there are also some problems for which the cause
isn’t so clear. Feather
picking, which very often has physical causes, has become a widely
recognized phenomenon amongst African Greys.
Seizure activity is not uncommon in older Greys or those
who experience moderate to severe stress, as during a trip to the
and cataracts are not uncommon. Calcium deficiencies are seen
regularly, as are low vitamin A levels.
And, many adult Greys just don’t look well and further,
they look like they don’t feel well; they exhibit pale red,
tattered tails, dull feathers, dry and cracking beaks. (An
exploration into the possible causes for these physical problems
will be covered in Part Two of this article, which will appear in
Pet Bird Report Issue #48.)
African Greys are also becoming known for some typical
behavior problems. Feather
picking, also having behavioral causes, is high on this list.
Phobic Greys are seen more and more often. In general
Greys, as a species, are often described as “nervous” birds. Common are the birds who early on entered a “behavioral
tunnel”. This term,
so aptly coined by breeder and avian behavior analyst Phoebe
Linden, effectively describes what happens so often to so many
Greys… Greys who are afraid of new toys, Greys who can’t be
taken outdoors, Greys who won’t go to anyone but their owner.
None of this is “normal”, nor should it be accepted.
Never should we accept the idea that “this is just the
way they are”. Instead,
we need to be engaged in this process of “teasing out the
truth” about Greys so that we can improve our breeding and care
What Makes the Difference?
So, let’s take a look at some things that can improve our
experiences with our Grey companions. First, the manner in which
the Grey baby is raised is critical.
Greys must be Abundance Weaned™ and Abundance Fed (see Abundance
Weaning by Phoebe Green Linden, PBR issue #13), thereafter.
African Greys are one of the species that fare worst when not
weaned by Abundance Weaning methods.
Most baby birds are still weaned today by what is called
the “deprivation weaning” method.
This means simply that the babies are fed and weaned on a
schedule, and that once they reach a certain age, feedings are
dropped at intervals, with the idea that the baby will get hungry
enough to eat. However,
being hungry creates an extreme sense of anxiety in baby birds,
and many African Greys, because of their innate personality
characteristics, become distrustful of their human caregivers when
this most basic need for food is not met.
How can you tell if a bird is being deprivation weaned? One
very sure way is to look at the time frames.
Greys fledge, or start to fly, at between 9 to 11 weeks.
We can safely assume that, since this is an instinctive
behavior, it is occurring in domestic situations at approximately
the same time as it would occur in the wild.
In the wild, after babies fledge, their parents start
showing them how to find food.
That is the beginning
of food independence. It
could not possibly occur before.
Therefore, if a breeder is weaning Greys at 10, 11 or 12
weeks, it is obviously through “deprivation” methods, rather
than according to the babies’ own developmental time frames.
In reality, domestically raised Grey babies cut down on
food intake while fledging, needing instead to focus on the
challenge of learning to fly and land. Once these skills are mastered, they then have several more
weeks of learning to become completely food independent.
We might ask ourselves, when then do African Greys normally
wean when fed abundantly? When
a baby is fed and weaned using the Abundance Weaning methods
developed by Phoebe Linden of the Santa Barbara Bird Farm, he is
fed upon demand instead of on a schedule and is weaned in such a
way that he is able to develop his eating skills without having to
be hungry. This
provides him with the early assurance that humans are to be
trusted. The earliest
I ever sent babies home is 16 weeks and often they stay with me
until they are 20 weeks old or beyond.
I think that those who don’t go home until that later
date have the advantage.
I would like to see us dispense, however, with the whole
idea of a “weaned” parrot. Even when they are able to meet all
their nutritional needs by themselves, I still continue to feed
them and encourage new owners to do the same. We are learning that
feeding others is, among certain species of parrots, a
much-enjoyed social activity, not necessarily restricted to
breeding pairs. Among the Greys I have, many of them feed each
other, and I observe that the babies feed each other during the
time they are with me. I
think we are sadly “missing the boat” if we do not continue to
feed our older birds, and especially those younger fledglings we
have just taken home.
Second, it is critical that African Greys be allowed to
learn to fly and land before being gradually clipped back. Very
unfortunately, they have gained a reputation for being clumsy
birds that fall often, splitting their keel bones when they do.
However, African Greys in the wild are extremely
coordinated, graceful and supremely confident.
The only reason our domestic Greys are uncoordinated and
lacking in confidence is that they were not allowed this natural
process. I think we
must recognize and come to terms with the fact that allowing young
birds to learn to fly and land is not optional, not something that
is negotiable. It is
as necessary as their learning to breathe.
Even if we choose to keep our birds’ wings clipped, they
must have that initial experience.
Learning to fly and land is an experience that forever
changes the personality of the bird.
When the babies initially venture out and contemplate their
first flights, they show uncertainty, excitement, and tension.
The first flights themselves often are clumsy and sometimes
result in some sort of “crash” landing.
However, over the course of a couple of weeks, these same
birds learn to fly with ease, to turn in mid-air and to land
carefully, even on some difficult landing sites.
The change in their personalities lasts for the life of the
bird. They become, not just coordinated physically, but confident
psychologically, and they learn to think. When flying, they learn
to plan ahead about where they will land, and they learn to act
volitionally. This is a totally new thought process for them.
Until that point in their development, much of their
experience has been passive.
Now, suddenly, they have the opportunity to move through
space by their own volition.
They learn a whole new way of being in the world. As I
observe young fledglings, I am always impressed with their energy,
their intelligence, coordination and confidence. It is this type
of baby, coordinated from flying and secure because it has been
abundance weaned, that has the skills to meet the challenges of
making that transition to a new home.
The Significance of the Flock
Once we have acquired an African Grey as a companion, where
do we go from there? What
makes the difference once that bird is home? The single greatest
factor, which decides our relative success in having a Grey, is
our understanding of their innate temperament, and their needs
relative to the “social climate” we provide for them in our
homes. They are very
different creatures from our Amazons, macaws and other New World
birds. If we
understand these differences, then we can tailor our approach to
dealing with them in such a way that it makes life easier for both
human and bird.
I have, for some time now, theorized that “the flock”
has a greater significant to Greys than to other species, and that
knowledge of this can provide us with tools for better dealing
with them. African Greys are innately relatively shy, reclusive birds.
They are also very empathic, sensitive birds.
Both characteristics can make life difficult for them in
our homes, if we don’t understand what our role with them should
I have had the pleasure of viewing a videotape made by
Irene Pepperberg’s students in Africa of Greys in the wild. I was struck by two things.
First, as a flock of Greys fly together, the sunlight
bounces off of the different shades of grey and white with
different intensities. The
image reminds me of an M.C. Escher print almost. As I watched this
video, I realized the purpose of this coloration…any predator
would have a very difficult time picking out any one bird to
attack. In other
words, I believe that Greys derive their physical protection, and
sense of safety, from being with the flock. Conversely, Amazons,
many of the smaller macaws, Pionus, conures…most of the New
World birds…are primarily green in color, indicating to me that
their protection, their sense of safety, comes from blending in
with the foliage in the rain forest.
This same video also showed a flock of African Greys
feeding on the ground. This
aspect of their culture often remains unrecognized when we speak
about this species, but does have some ramifications for their
care. These Greys, when on the ground will often hop and fly
about, landing almost on top of each other. None minds this intrusion…it’s almost as if they act as
one entity. However,
New World birds, when feeding at a clay lick for instance, will
often strike out at the most recent newcomer, as an expression of
territory and the need to defend this.
Again, I see this as further evidence of the “flock
mentality” which Greys manifest.
Further, it has now been observed that African Greys often
breed in flocks of one to two hundred birds. Each pair, of course,
has their own nest. However,
many pairs may nest in relatively close physical proximity as a
group. Contrary to this practice, Amazons and other New World birds
usually break away from the larger flock when going to nest as a
Each of these observations supports, I believe, the
conclusion that the flock has perhaps even greater significance to
Greys than to the New World species.
I believe we also see evidence of this truth as we observe
Greys in the domestic environment.
The Impact of the Human Flock
Reference has been made often and for some time now of the
impact that human emotions can have on our African Grey
behavioral consultant can tell you that chronic stress in family
members or household upsets which are long-lasting may impact
Greys in such a way that they feather pick or become difficult to
interact with. When
they sense that the integrity and health of “the flock” is
impaired, they themselves become anxious.
Even their “demeanor” with us reflects their strong
“flock connection.” I
have both New World birds and African Greys in my main living
area. The Amazons, macaw and Pionus go about their business in
rather easy-going fashion, loving my attention when it is
received, and happy to entertain themselves when I am busy.
My Greys also are content to keep themselves busy, but seem
to do it with one eye on me.
I will often look up to find one of my Greys watching me.
African Grey companions maintain a more constant mental
awareness of the humans they live with, and thus are more aware of
our feelings and emotions.
Using the Flock Dynamic
Taking this assertion about the significance of the flock
to our Greys, and applying it to our care-giving practices, can
assist us in having more successful experiences with our African
Greys. It can also be
used at times when we have to rehabilitate rescued Greys, and when
we raise young Greys.
I have created an area in my home, about 18 feet long,
which I call African Alley. Rollo
and Sister Woman, my Nanny Birds, live here and it is where I
raise the babies I produce. Once
these babies are old enough to be placed in a cage, just prior to
fledging, they are moved onto African Alley.
It is from here that they fledge and “join the flock,”
so to speak. They
interact with both older Greys, and spend much time observing the
activities and behavior of the older Greys.
I have observed Rollo both feeding and preening the young
babies, caring for them as members of his “flock”.
He also engages with the young males in what I call
“sparring” activities, as each bird attempts to attain the
highest perch on the climbing structure.
It has become clear to me that there is great benefit to
the young Greys from being raised among older Greys.
I have a young male right now who at 17 weeks says
“Hello”, “How are you?” “What are you doing?” “Good
morning”, “I love you”, and “No, No, No!”
He also plays in ways that he has seen Rollo play.
By observing Rollo and Sister Woman, the young Greys learn
how to play with toys, how to interact with humans and a great
many other things. There
is no doubt in my mind that they mimic the behavior of the older
Greys in their midst, and that this gives them an advantage as
they grow and learn.
I have also used this concept of “flock significance”
when rehabilitating older Greys. I took in a year ago a 4-year-old
female named Rosie. She
was nervous and fearful, did not much like humans, could not be
handled, would not eat anything but seed, and did not know how to
play with toys. Since she had not previously developed a real bond
of trust with a human, she presented a special challenge.
Either I could spend months developing such a bond, and
then teach her the skills I wanted her to learn, or I could allow
the other Greys I had to do so.
As an experiment, I placed her on African Alley in one of
the five cages incorporated into this structure and allowed the
Greys there to teach her. Within a very short time, she was eating
fresh food and playing with toys.
She also became more animated and “outgoing” because of
the stimulation of “the flock” she encountered daily.
She also appeared to enjoy interacting with the babies, and
she too, while there, acted as Nanny Bird to the chicks.
I finally moved her off of African Alley, but she still
goes back to visit the babies when they are there.
Prior to that experience, I had taken in a very old
male Grey named Sterling. He
had been a breeder that had not produced.
When, because of this failure, he was taken to the vet, it
was discovered that he was blind.
I also placed him in a cage on African Alley.
He and Rollo immediately became friends. Rollo would visit him in his cage, and then after some weeks,
Rollo led him around African Alley, as well as the entire living
area on the floor. Rollo
actually served as Sterling’s eyes.
As Sterling followed Rollo around, Rollo would stop and
wait for him if he fell behind.
Sterling learned to traverse the entire structure of the
Alley, as well as the living room floor before he died of a
At this juncture, a word or two of caution is appropriate.
The above two examples are provided only as specific
instances that show what can be possible. I do not mean to imply that any two, or even more Greys, can
be placed together with the expectation that the outcome will be a
happy, or productive, one. The
successful outcome of such experiments depends upon many factors,
including the age of the birds involved, the timing with which
they are introduced, method and location of introduction, number
of birds present, and whether or not a “flock mentality” or
atmosphere has been previously established. It would be foolish to
assume that any two Greys in a home would necessarily get along
without problems with aggression.
In fact, Rosie was ultimately removed from African Alley
because of problems with Sister Woman.
I mention these examples solely to underscore the fact that
there exists a significant “flock awareness” amongst Greys.
Our Role with Companion Greys
The application pertinent to most Grey owners will be to
learn how this aspect of the Grey personality can be used to
enhance their relationship with their own parrot.
A simple demonstration of this lies in the fact that Greys
do best when placed in the living area of the home, close to their
human “flock.” They
do not do well, usually, in bird rooms – where their cage is set
off from the living area. It’s not the same to bring them out on a play stand.
Greys stay in very close touch psychically with their
humans, and are happiest when in the middle of family life…
happy healthy family life.
Further it is critically important that we socialize young
Greys well, and again, our awareness of their “flock
mentality” can be used to help us understand what our role must
be in this venture. As previously stated, Greys are relatively
shy, reclusive creatures. That
is their nature in the wild.
They nest in such secluded settings that their study is
very difficult. When
we breed them in captivity, we often have the best results when we
create a sheltered entrance to the nest box so that they will have
the same measure of privacy they might create for themselves were
they still in the wild.
This awareness will lead us to recognize that when we take
Greys traveling, for rides in the car, or ask them to go to a
stranger, we are asking something that goes against their
instinctive nature. It is incumbent upon us to ask these things of them in a way
that does not frighten them. We can make these requests much
easier for them by acting as a bridge ourselves to the new
experience. We must act in such a way that we convey to our Greys that
they can depend upon us to keep them safe, while at the same time
we challenge them with new experiences.
We can quite successfully communicate this to them in
several ways - verbally, by quieting our own energy in situations
that they might find stressful, by using our body language, and by
acting as a “bridge” to new people and experiences. Those of
us who talk out loud to our Greys can attest to the fact that this
is a very effective tool for reassuring them, as well as for
explaining our desires. In much the same way that a two-year-old
child can understand most of what we say, but can not yet speak
those same words and phrases himself, our Greys understand much of
what we tell them. We
can capitalize further on this by consciously working on and
teaching to them a flock language.
If we use the same phrases in situations that are
encountered routinely (“Do you want some water?” “Are you
hungry?” “I have to go bye-bye…I’ll be right back!”, we
can provide a greater sense of safety and belonging to our Greys.
We now know Greys to be very empathic.
They know the minute something is up with us. Many of my clients have a hard time understanding that their
own stress affects their Grey enough to cause problems for the
bird. When I point
this out, a frequent response is – “oh, I’m not
stressed!”. What I
have come to realize is that a fairly high stress level has become
so normal in our society that we become inured to it…we don’t
even realize that we are stressed.
Consciously quieting our own energy at those times when we
anticipate the bird will be stressed anyway…such as during a
trip to the vet…will go a long way toward reassuring the bird.
Body language is very effective in giving the Grey the
constant message, “Don’t worry…I will protect you.” At the
Pet Bird Report convention, I had Rollo with me…and I know I
raised a few eyebrows because he was on my shoulder most of the
time. I was using my
body language in this way to tell him he was safe. Since he is a
rather dominant bird, who can also be aggressive, this is a
privilege I would never
allow him at home. However,
when we go out in public, especially to something like that which
can seem quite threatening, I believe it is entirely appropriate
to allow him this comfort.
Lastly, we need to act as a bridge to new experiences and
new people. While at
the convention, I had a man come up to me while I had Rollo on my
shoulder and tell him, “Up!”
I backed away quickly, protecting Rollo from this
inappropriate intrusion. I would never allow anyone to interact
with one of my Greys in this manner, whether in public or at home.
Instead, I act as a “bridge” to that person. If I feel good
about the person (because my Grey will know it if I
don’t)…then I tell the bird I am going to hand him off, and
then place him on the person’s hand with the “up” command. Further, I do not require that my Greys go to all people, the
way I might with my New World birds. I instead watch them as
carefully as they watch me, attempting to determine a measure of
their reaction or comfort with a certain person or situation.
African Greys are complex birds.
Many of us who have had them as companions state that,
should we be able to keep only one parrot as a friend, it would be
a Grey. Hands down.
No contest. The
gifts they have to share are exceptional, but will be received in
full measure only when we ourselves are exceptional in our
relationships with them…when we honor their innate timetables
for development, allow them to develop physically into the
incredible creatures they have evolved to be, and honor their
sensitivities in our care practices.
Due to the popularity of African Greys, and the relative
ease with which they are bred, their population has increased
dramatically, and they are now a commonly kept companion parrot.
As a result, we are beginning to have a body of information
about them as a species, especially in terms of how they fare with
us as companions in captivity.
We are beginning to see certain problems emerge with them
as a species, both behavioral and physical.
(Behavioral issues and social needs of African Greys are
described in Part One of this article.)
Several physical problems are coming to be recognized as
typical to African Greys. Aside
from infectious diseases common to their species, they also
experience other maladies for which the cause is not as easily
abusive behavior, seizure activity, blindness and cataracts are
becoming more commonly seen.
Calcium deficiencies and low vitamin A levels are
frequently seen in older birds. Many adult Greys do not display
the vibrant red tails, shiny black beaks, and gray feathers that
have sheen to them that are all characteristic of a healthy
I have come to believe that many of the problems, both
behavioral and physical, that Greys manifest in the domestic world
are a result of inadequate nutrition.
From what I’ve been able to determine, a lot of Greys
just don’t feel really well as a result of poor diets.
The types of problems that I described above suggest that
Greys are not receiving adequate levels of vitamins D3 and A, the
minerals calcium and selenium, and the essential fatty acids.
In the last few years, there has grown to be an increased
awareness of the benefits of full spectrum lighting, primarily
because it allows parrots to manufacture vitamin D.
However, there is also some confusion about whether full
spectrum lighting is really necessary for parrots receiving
vitamin D3 in their diets. If they are, they may not need full spectrum lighting.
However, this line of reasoning assumes that most species
can successfully absorb vitamin D from their digestive tracts.
At the last PBR convention, Tammy Jenkins, DVM brought up
an interesting point. Greys
in the wild live close to the equator and get the maximum possible
number of hours of sunlight each day.
They have evolved a dark coloring to their feathers, much
the same that dark skinned peoples have who live in these same
geographical regions. This
dark coloring is responsible for screening out much of the UV
light which hits them. The
hypothesis that might be drawn from these observations states that
Greys may have evolved in such a way that they do not, in the
wild, have to be as effective in absorbing vitamin D from their
diets because they manufacture adequate amounts from their
exposure to the sunlight. In
other words, they may depend upon exposure to sunlight for their
source of this vitamin, rather than diet.
If true, this would suggest that it is critical for African
Greys to receive either full spectrum lighting close to their
cages, or have frequent access to an outdoor aviary to enjoy the
benefits of natural sunshine. My own observations have lent
credibility to this theory.
Because of my frequent use of outdoor aviaries for my
companion birds, I have been able to observe very diverse
responses to sunlight among the species that live in my home.
In my largest outdoor aviary on the deck just off my
kitchen, there is opportunity to move from sunlight into shade.
My macaws, Amazons and Pionus will spend some time in the
sun, but will then rest in the shade when they nap.
All in all, they spend less time in the sun than they do in
the shade on any given day. My
African Greys are the only birds that truly bask in the sunlight.
Rollo will sit on a perch in the sun for hours.
One day, I saw something I found astonishing. I saw Sister Woman on the floor of the aviary, head down and
wings spread out. I
was afraid that she was ill or hurt, but when I approached it
became obvious that she had only been sunbathing.
If we look at the benefits of Vitamin D in the diet, we see
that it is involved in calcium absorption.
In view of the fact that many Greys are found to have low
levels of calcium, I am beginning to wonder if inadequate lighting
is contributing to this. I
believe it essential that African Grey owners make some provision
for either full spectrum lighting or exposure to natural sunlight
on a regular basis.
Next, older African Greys are often found to be deficient
in Vitamin A. This is
undoubtedly due in large part to inadequate levels in the diet,
especially for those birds eating a seed diet. Even without the
results of a blood panel, a physical examination of an older Grey
can give some indication of such a deficiency.
With the exception of the Timneh, Greys should have bright
red tails, yet many older Greys display a faded red color.
It is the carotenoids in vitamin A rich foods that provide
for the vibrant red that is natural to Grey tails.
Therefore, we can reasonably conclude that older Greys
displaying very faded red tails are flirting with a vitamin A
This may also be true of Greys with eyesight problems.
Since vitamin A is largely involved in the state of good
eyesight, I have to wonder how much of a role malnutrition is
playing in these cases. I
am not aware of any research that has been done with parrots into
It is also of significance to this discussion that the
carotenoid or vitamin A content of tissue is the most significant
factor in determining maximal life span potential of mammalian
species. Mammal species that are the longest lived have the highest
requirements for vitamin A, and those who reach that maximal life
span are those who demonstrate the highest levels of vitamin A in
the blood and tissue. This is important information and suggests
that we certainly are well advised to provide a diet rich in this
nutrient. The best
dietary sources for our birds of vitamin A carotenes are dark
green leafy vegetables, such as collard greens and kale, and
yellow-orange vegetables and fruits such as carrots, yams, sweet
potatoes, apricots, mangoes, chili peppers, and winter squash.
An abundance of both should be provided every day.
Further, Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin. Most parrots do not have an effective mechanism for fat
storage the way that humans do; the necessity and ability to fly
precludes this. Accordingly, even if adequate levels of vitamin A
are present in the diet, it will not be able to be used most
effectively in the body, unless the diet of Greys also contains
adequate levels of fat. And
this leads me to a fascinating observation.
We have largely ignored a very important fact regarding the
diet of wild African Greys. Greys
naturally feed extensively on the fruits of the oil palm.
Numerous references to this can be found in avicultural
Forshaw, in Parrots of the World, mentions in a discussion of their natural
diet, “They are particularly fond of fruits of the oil palm (Elaeis
guinensis).” According to aviculturist David Poole, these
fruits contain 90% oil and are available throughout the year.
We also see that, in captivity, African Greys appear to be
better able to cope with slightly higher levels of fat in the diet
than most parrots and in fact, such levels appear to be
beneficial. There are
numerous anecdotal reports that Greys who feather pick have been
cured of the problem when extra fats were included in their diet. This was true of one of my own Greys, Sister Woman. Signs of
fatty acid deficiency in humans include dry skin, cracked nails,
dry lifeless hair; I believe that the Greys that we see with dry
skin and feathers, or cracking and peeling beaks are exhibiting
similar symptoms. This leads us to the question of whether we
might wisely and intentionally include more fat in an African
Grey’s diet, and if so…how?
In answering that question, we must recognize that not all
fats are “created equal.” A complete explanation of the
differences between saturated and unsaturated fats, as well as a
full definition of essential fatty acids, are not within the scope
of this article. However,
the following is pertinent to our discussion.
Unsaturated and naturally occurring oils are rich in
nutrients called “essential fatty acids,” specifically the
omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.
They are called “essential” fatty acids because they
are essential for normal growth and development, and they can not
be manufactured by the body, as other fats can. They must come from the diet.
If we look at the role these EFAs have in the diet, we are
astounded. They are
involved in many, many biological processes.
Essential fatty acids are critically important in
maintaining brain function, a strong immune system, and good
eyesight, among other things. What interests me most, however, is the fact that essential
fatty acids are vital for the healthy functioning of the nervous
The brain is largely made up of fat - not the kind that you
store on your thighs, but “structural” fat, the kind that
forms cell membranes and plays a vital role in how cells function.
Neurons, the cells that transmit chemical messages are
unusually rich in omega-3 fatty acids.[i]
The latter is an important fact, which the following will
One of the first animal studies demonstrating a link
between fat and intelligence was published in 1975.[ii]
In this experiment, one group of rats was raised on a
safflower oil diet, which is very high in omega-6 fatty acids but
has only trace amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
A second group of rats was raised on a diet that contained
an appreciable amount of LNA (the omega-3 essential fat).
When tested in a simple maze, the rats raised on safflower
oil made the right choice only 60% of the time, compared with a
90% success rate for rats whose diets contained an adequate amount
of omega-3 fatty acids. Other studies have shown similar results.
Further, it has been shown that omega-3 fatty acids help
humans learn and remember. Human
breast milk contains DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid), but infant
formulas do not. Studies have documented that breast-fed babies
have better visual acuity and scored higher on many tests designed
to measure learning.[iii]
In short, there have been ample studies with both animals
and humans that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that those
provided with a good blend of essential fatty acids in the diet
were capable of better learning and were happier with improved
mental state. I must wonder if the behavioral problems encountered
among African Greys, including phobia and feather picking, might
not frequently be at least a partial result of inadequate fatty
acid levels in the diet.
Given this, coupled with the fact that Greys evolved to
enjoy optimal health eating a diet high in palm oil, as well as
native plants, in their native habitat, I do believe we should
examine the wisdom of making sure that Greys get an adequate
amount of fat, specifically essential fatty acids, in their
captive diets. I
believe it of no coincidence that the Greys I encounter who seem
not to feel very well often are eating a 100% pelleted diet,
usually a chemically-dyed, extruded pellet. According to
Simopoulos, “If you foraged your food from the wild, it would be
impossible to be deficient in this nutrient because it would be
present in virtually everything you ate.”[iv]
The author is referring to the plant-based form of omega-3 fatty
acids – LNA. The omega-3 fatty acids are easily destroyed by
light, air, and heat. Pellets
therefore are exceptionally poor sources of these nutrients.
If we look at the need to insure that the diet of domestic
Greys contains adequate levels of some sort of fat or oil, we have
to go back to the assertion that all fats are not created equal.
I have had it suggested to me that we should use palm oil
for this purpose of supplementation, since it is closest to what
Greys eat in the wild. However,
I remain unconvinced, although I think that occasional
supplementation with this product could be beneficial due to its
high vitamin A content. However,
palm oil is largely saturated fat, as are most vegetable fats
grown near equatorial regions.
Wild parrots that are engaged in strenuous daily flying
exercise would easily metabolize this type of saturated fat.
However, in looking at ways to supplement our domestic
Greys, we must recognize the very different, sedentary lifestyle
they now have.
Perhaps our own species can serve as an example here.
Whereas man once ate the saturated fat of the animals he
killed without adverse effect on his health because of the
physically challenging existence he led, he now flirts with the
probability of death from heart disease if eating a diet high in
saturated fat. Thus, for the moment, I prefer to supplement my
Greys with unsaturated fats high in essential fatty acids.
Seeds are a natural source of oils and essential fatty
acids, but should be limited to about 10% of the diet I think,
because of the poor calcium/phosphorus ratio they contain, as well
as the lack of other important nutrients.
I think the best solution lies with the provision of abundant
fresh vegetables, some nuts and seeds, and very small amounts of a high quality oil blend, the sort
sold as a nutritional supplement in health food stores. Found in
the refrigerator section of the health food store, these products
usually contain some blend of oils such as flax seed oil, borage
oil, pumpkin seed oil, evening primrose oil, etc. Commonly found
brands include Udo’s Perfected Oil Blend, Spectrum Essentials,
and Arrowhead Mills. An appropriate “dose” for supplementation
with such an oil blend would be between two and six drops per day.
This can be put on a piece of toast or other absorbent
bread or treat.
However, such supplementation should not take the place of
fresh foods in the diet. Good food sources of omega-3 fatty acids
include walnuts and Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, dark green leafy
vegetables, salmon, tuna, trout, flax seeds, canola oil, legumes,
soybeans (sprouted and steamed) and oats. In fact, flax seed has a
unique feature in that it may contain a substance that helps to
regulate immune function, inflammatory response, and play an
important role in calcium and energy metabolism.[v]
The leafy greens high in fatty acids are arugula, chicory, collard
greens, kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard, dandelion greens. The
common “weed” purslane is also an exceptional source of
omega-3 fatty acids. Purslane seeds can be ordered from Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com
Greys are also often said to have a greater need for
calcium than other species. This
is not technically true. The
truth is that they are more sensitive to inadequate levels of
calcium in their bloodstream.
The best sources of calcium are tofu, kale, turnip greens,
and other green leafy vegetables. Calcium from spinach is poorly
absorbed, but kale is an excellent source of absorbable calcium.
Further, at the PBR convention, Dr. Tammy Jenkins indicated
that there is some new evidence that Greys may not adequately
absorb the mineral selenium. She suggested that we be more aware
of providing good sources for this mineral in the diet of domestic
Greys. For one thing,
selenium is antagonistic to heavy metals like lead in the body.
Further, low levels of selenium promote cataract formation.
Unfortunately, blindness caused by cataracts is not
uncommon in Greys. Good
food sources include Brazil nuts, wheat germ, oats, whole wheat
bread, bran, and red Swiss chard.
Generally speaking, the level of selenium in a food is
directly related to the level of selenium in the soil. This
is interesting in view of the fact that Greys in the wild often
feed on the ground and dig in the soil.
In keeping African Greys as our companions, it is important
to understand their innate psychological nature, as well as their
unique physical needs. It
is important to understand that when we go about socializing them
in our world, we are asking much of them that goes against their
instinctive nature. If
we do, then we can tailor our expectations to be more reasonable,
we can foresee problems which might arise, and we can find
creative ways to honor their naturally suspicious and aloof
natures, while still affording them the experiences that will keep
them socialized to our world.
We must recognize in the clearest way that we must pattern
them to accept new experiences, toys, and cages since this does
not come easily to them. And,
above all, we must strive to provide them with the nutritional
resources that will allow them to enjoy perfect health, thus
equipping them with the physical resources they need to meet the
demands of life in our world.
Keeping a Grey successfully requires that we act quite
consciously. We have much more to learn about these exquisite
present us with a challenge, but there is no greater gift than
sharing life with a healthy, happy African Grey.
Schmidt, Michael A. Smart Fats: How Dietary Fats and Oils
Affect Mental, Physical and Emotional Intelligence. Berkeley,
California: Frog, Ltd., 1997: 16-18
Simopoulos, M.D., Artemis and Robinson, Jo. The Omega Diet.
New York, N.Y: HarperPerennial/HarperCollins, 1999: 87
Erasmus, Udo. Fats that Heal Fats that Kill. Burnaby BC
Canada: Alive Books, 1993: 282