Setting Up Your African Grey Parrot’s Bird Cage

Appeal to your African grey parrot's natural instincts with a straight-from-the-wild bird cage housing setup.

African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus). Via Rob/Flickr

Because of their unique personalities companion African grey parrots require special consideration when it comes to their cages and the area around them. Many clues come from studies of African grey wild behaviors, which can be applied to their lives in our living rooms. Understanding the basics of a wild African grey’s life helps us understand a great deal about meeting an African grey’s needs as a pet bird.

African grey parrots travel and forage in groups. Part of the African grey flock forages in trees while the rest feed on the ground below. Ground-foraging increases a bird’s vulnerability to predators. With a split flock, the African greys in the treetops act as sentinels, warning of any approaching danger. At the slightest provocation, the flock flies away.

African grey parrots feed on a variety of food sources in the wild, and they’re creative at finding those opportunities. African greys often seek out elephant herds because of the food opportunities they provide. The weight of these huge mammals creates depressions in the ground that fill with water, and the parrots feed on the calcium-rich grasses that grow in these micro-mini swamps.

Many people think of African greys as clumsy parrots, but watching one of these silvery beauties land on a twig-sized African tree branch quickly dispels this theory. It might appear to land in a clumsy manner as its grabs hold of the thin perch, which sways beneath its weight, but being able hang onto a moving branch exemplifies the African grey’s athletic prowess.

Create A Safe Haven For Your African Grey Parrots

Because of their group dynamics, I imagine that a pet African grey depends a great deal on its human flock to warn of danger. A bird cage placed in an area with a lot of unexpected and unknown situations (e.g., doors opening, traffic noise, people passing by) would make life more stressful for an African grey.

After working and living with African greys for more than 30 years, I discovered that it is unexpected change—not just any change—that frightens them the most. Their stress elevates if their people are not around to soothe them. When a parrot forms bonds with the people in the family, the pet bird depends on them for “social security” in the same manner it would depend on its wild flock.

My wild-caught African grey, Bongo Marie, who lived with me for 25 years, rarely became upset with unusual events if I was there to calmly tell her, “That’s OK.” If I wasn’t nearby, however, she became quite alarmed. Eventually, she learned to sooth herself by saying, That’s OK, when something unexpected happened. My supporting presence, however, remained the most effective tool.

For example, after an earthquake, I calmly entered her room, sat in the middle of it and peacefully hummed. She quickly calmed down to match my energy.

Although they might be sensitive parrots, I don’t believe the myth that African greys are frightened of almost every new item that crosses their paths. Rather, their fear stems from facing that perceived danger alone, without a flock. Considering this concept, unless you have an adventurous African grey, locate the cage in an area where your bird won’t be disturbed by frequent surprises.

Years ago I worked, with an African grey that was becoming more and more fearful in his new home, which confused his owners. After I saw (or mostly heard) about his cage placement, it turned out to be a relatively simple problem to solve. The couple, who lived in an apartment, had placed his cage against an inside wall.

Placing one side of a bird’s cage against a wall often provides a sense of security, but in this case, a staircase ran along the other side of the wall. In addition, the entryway to the apartment above was not carpeted. The African grey could hear and feel the constant comings and goings of the people on the stairs and above him, and he had no reference point as to what was creating the commotion. The African grey had not lived with his new family long enough to seek security from them, so he was in a high level of stress. On my suggestion, the couple moved his cage away from the wall and closer to their couch. He almost immediately relaxed and became more responsive to their attention.

In another situation, after moving to a new home with its owners, an African grey began thrashing around at night. He had other drastic behavior changes as well after the move, so his owners assumed it was all due to the move. Although this major change probably played a role in his behavioral changes, there was more to it.

His cage in the new home was directly across from a window, which faced a busy street. Throughout the night, car headlights shined through the window, casting shadows and flashes of light through his cage and against the wall. When his human flock remained in the room, he stayed relatively calm, but once they went to bed, his agitation grew. After situating his bird cage so the headlights did not hit him at night, he returned to the confident bird he had once been.

In another example, an African grey with its bird cage placed next to the front door became stressed whenever the family’s teenage son and his rowdy friends entered the house. The boy had joined a sports team, and the group often met in the basement rec room of his house before and after games. The boys rarely gave the bird attention but their high energy and loud voices made the bird hyper-vigilant.

Moving the bird cage from its front door location to the living room reduced the African grey’s fear for its safety. Although some African greys are quite happy to live next to a window or by the front door, it might not be the best place for others. For most African greys, the bird cage should be in an area free of big surprises.

This concept of social security also means that a pet African grey should not be shuttered away in a bird room that isolates the pet bird from the people in its life. African greys need to be where their families spend most of their time. If there are several other parrots in the bird room that the African grey relates to in a positive manner, a bird room might work out; African greys, however, are less likely to form friendly bonds with other parrot species unless they were raised with them.

African greys thrive in a family room where they receive both indirect and direct attention. If their people are there hanging out, many African greys seem to enjoy just observing and listening. These activities let them know that they’re part of the group. Direct a conversation their way or respond to their calls, and you will add to their sense of social security.

Choose The Right Bird Cage For Your African Grey Parrot
I have talked with many cage manufacturers over the years to convince them to build a cage that works well for African grey parrots. Today there is certainly a better variety of cages available.

Ideally, your African grey’s cage should be at least 36 inches wide, although 48 inches is even better. The depth should measure 30 to 36 inches deep. Width and depth are more important than height, but the cage’s vertical space should measure at least 30 inches.

Your African grey will utilize its horizontal space the most, but there should be enough height for your pet bird to hang upside down and flap its wings. African greys love to play a game that I call “bat bird,” where they hang upside down like a bat and hammer on their toys. To encourage this play in my African grey, Whodee, I stretched a short, fairly thin rope perch diagonally across the inside of his cage. It is placed too high for him to sit on but is perfect for hanging upside down.

I am not a fan of bird cages that only allow a perch to go from one side to the other. I prefer some space on each side of the front door so that a variety of perches can also run from front to back or even diagonally. This affords your pet bird more variety and opportunities to exercise.

Bird Cage Accessories For Your African Grey Parrot

The use of grates elicit strong opinions from the bird community, but I don’t use them. I opt for plain white paper on the cage bottoms to make their droppings stand out, so I can see any changes that could indicate a health concern.

African greys often enjoy a low perch or even hanging out on the cage floor, but pet owners worry that their pet birds might walk in the droppings. My African grey, Bongo Marie, never had a cage with a grate, and I can’t remember one time in 25 years when she walked in her poop. She passed droppings into only one area of the cage, leaving the rest of the space clean enough for play.

Although some African greys do not like being showered with water, you might encourage bathing by appealing to your African grey’s ground instinct. Bongo Marie’s favorite cage event was when I placed a few leaves of soaking-wet collared greens and about 1 inch of water in a flat pan placed on the bottom of her cage. This setup mimics leaf bathing in the wild. My African grey rolled around in the wet leaves with great gusto. Afterward, I replaced her cage liner with dry paper.

I also like to hang toys from the bottom perches so that my African grey, Whodee, can play with them from the floor of his cage. He also likes to bat toys around on the bottom of his cage while he hangs upside down from the lowest perch. His floor toys include high-impact plastic balls with noisy bells inside of them.

A variety of perch sizes and materials is essential for African greys. In his bird cage, Whodee perches on items ranging from 1/4 to 4 inch in diameter that are made of metal, wood, rope, acrylic, stainless-steel chain, coconut, high-impact plastic, bird-safe rubber and a few other materials.

I was always amazed at my African grey’s ability to find the thinnest perch in the cage to stand on. You would think that a pet bird would choose a sturdier perch, wouldn’t you? My point is that African greys don’t just perch on their perches. Whether they are upside down or right side up, African greys will perch from almost anything in their cages that they can put their feet around.

Encourage Curiosity In Your African Grey Parrot

Clean water should always be easily available; however, I like to make my grey work a bit for his food. African greys in the wild spend a great deal of time foraging for their daily nourishment, which is not always an easy task. Our pet African greys can become very lazy with all of their food placed in a bowl right in front of them. Although I do put Whodee’s most basic foods, such as pellets, in his bowl, the foods he most enjoys are usually a bit more difficult for him to obtain.

I hang fresh veggies, greens and fruits from a skewer or a tortilla piñata from the top of his cage. I also wrap his seeds and nuts in a foraging toy, little cardboard boxes or clean cotton fabric that he has to rip apart to get his treats. I attach these treat packages to various areas of his cage so he has to climb or explore to find them.

It is obvious from watching videos of African greys in the wild that these parrots possess natural athleticism. It is not natural for them to just sit on their perches like lumps on a log. A lot of their athleticism in our homes depends on us providing the security and opportunities that bring out the best in their natural behaviors. These include a cage with adequate horizontal space, several perches of varied sizes and materials, multiple toys that they can chew on, hang from and bat around, and a human flock who encourage their activity and play with verbal praise.

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Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Birds