The African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) has the distinction of being one of the finest mimics in nature. These popular and long-lived pets are traded and kept in captivity all over the world. Many of us have seen and interacted with these incredibly intelligent birds in a captive setting, but there is another side to these animals that many people may not be aware of.
African greys are native to forests and savanna woodland habitats in equatorial Africa. They occur from Guinea in the west to Kenya in the East. They are social birds in nature that forage for fruits, seeds, and bulbs in flocks of up to 30 individuals. There are three accepted subspecies of African grey parrots, although the timneh parrot (P. e. timneh or P. timneh) is also regarded by many sources as a full species.
African grey parrots have an estimated average lifespan of 22.7 years in their natural environment. They are very long-lived in captivity, potentially surviving for 40-60 years with good care. The oldest African grey parrot we know of was an amazing 55 years old when it died.
African grey parrots face many threats in the wild, including predators, habitat destruction, hunting, and illegal trapping. African greys make intelligent and long-lived pets, although they can be affected by many infectious and non-infectious diseases.
Read on to learn all about the lifespan of one of the world's most remarkable birds.
In the wild, African grey parrots live for around 22 years, but in captivity, can live up to 60 years
African grey parrots are long-lived birds in captivity and in the wild. Their average estimated lifespan in the wild is 22.7 years. These birds have to survive the elements and predation by vultures, hawks, squirrels, monkeys, and humans to reach this age.
African grey parrots can live remarkably long in captivity with the right care. These birds can reach impressive ages of between 40 and 60 years, which means they frequently outlive their carers. Careful thought should go into adopting a young African grey parrot for just this reason.
In captivity, African grey parrots can live for a long time with the right care
African grey parrots are still caught in the wild and traded in the exotic pet market despite new laws and trade restrictions. It is estimated that over 40% of wild-caught birds will die before being sold by the trapper. By the time they reach a trading hub, further losses mean that over 60% of the birds will have perished before being sold as pets.
Unfortunately, these intelligent birds are easily trapped and hunted in nature due to their reliance on natural salt licks. Not everyone sees these birds as companions, however. African greys are frequently consumed as ‘bush meat’ and used in traditional medicine.
In the wild, African grey parrots are vulnerable to a wide variety of predators, diseases, and extreme weather events. Chicks and eggs are vulnerable to predation, flooding, overgrowing vegetation, and collapsing or harvesting of the trees where they nest.
In captivity, African greys are susceptible to many infectious and non-infectious diseases that can be fatal. These are some of the most frequently reported health issues:
An African Grey Parrot perched on a post
African grey parrots are thought to be monogamous, and they provide a high degree of parental care to their offspring. These birds also reach sexual maturity quite late, meaning it can take four years or more for a young parrot to begin reproducing.
African greys nest in natural cavities 30-100 feet (10-30m) above ground in tall forest trees. The female will lay 1-5 eggs (usually 2-3) between April and May. The eggs are incubated by the female for about 31 days, during which time the male will bring her food.
African grey chicks are helpless when they hatch. The female feeds the chicks for the first few days, but the male brings the food to the nest. Both parents will begin to feed the chicks when they reach about a week old.
African grey parrot chicks develop slowly and have been reported to take as long as five months to leave the nest. After fledging, the parents will continue to feed the young parrots for a further month. African grey parrots are ready to breed by their third or fourth year and will form pairs in March or April in preparation for producing a new generation of their species.
Close up of a three month old African Grey parrot chick
African grey parrots are vulnerable to predation at every stage of their lifecycle. Palm-nut vultures and other raptors are the most significant predators of nesting African greys, but squirrels and humans are also enemies.
Carnivorous mammals, birds of prey, and larger reptiles like pythons are also likely to hunt adult African grey parrots. Humans also trap and hunt adult African greys, both for sale in the pet trade and for food and medicinal purposes.
The oldest living African grey parrot may have been a male named Tarbu that was born in Tanzania in 1957. This special bird lived a full 55 years before passing away in England in 2012.
The oldest recorded bird in the Psittaciforme order (Parrots, macaws, cockatoos, etc.) was a Major Mitchell's cockatoo named Cookie. This amazing bird lived to be over 82 years old. Cookie’s lifespan provides a good indication of the potential age of captive psittacine birds, even though he was not an African grey.
A pair of African Grey parrots in flight in the wild
African grey parrots are said to be able to go two to four days without food, although they will feed every day under normal circumstances. Many factors will determine how long a bird can survive without food, however.
The most important factors are:
African grey parrots are an endangered species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the population is still in decline and the species is already extinct in some parts of its former range.
African greys are most threatened by collection for the pet trade. It is estimated that a staggering 21% of the population is harvested annually. This combined with habitat destruction for forestry and agriculture is the most important threat to the species.
As of 2016, all trade in wild African grey parrots has been banned. As a measure to prevent illegal trade, captive breeding facilities must now be registered with CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
Close up of a perched African Gray Parrot
Knowing when an adult African grey parrot was born is the only truly reliable way of knowing its age. It is possible to estimate the age of birds that are about five years or younger by looking at their eye color, however.
African grey parrots have black irises until the age of about four months. By the age of approximately one year, the eyes will have lightened to a gray color. At the age of approximately two years, most African greys will have straw-colored eyes, and by four years the iris should have become the characteristic light yellow color of the adults.
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