Old World Aviaries

What kind of Grey do I have?

Jean (The African Queen) Pattison
6615 New Tampa Highway
Lakeland, Florida 33815, U. S. A.

The second most common question I'm asked is: "What subspecies of Congo Grey do I have?

An education

Going back to basic biology one needs to understand a type of trickle down effect. Life starts at the top and can be divided into two types, animals and plants. Each of these are split into more types. In the animal world we find mammals, insects, birds, fish, etc. Each of these are further split into types. Bird types are split into flightless birds, water birds, perching birds, birds of prey, and parrots, as well as some others. Parrots are further split into types known as genera. A genus is a group exhibiting very similar characteristics. The genus is broken down further into types called species. A species is a more finely tuned group whose members share the same general characteristics. And, if that isn't enough, the species are broken down into even more types called subspecies.

The African Grey belongs to the genus Psittacus. The genus is always capitalized so you know you are dealing with a genus. The species is erithacus, which follows the genus name and is always a lower case letter, thus one knows it is a species of that genus. When the genus and species are followed by additional names, for example, Psittacus erithacus erithacus, and P.e. timneh, one knows that the species contains subspecies. One also will know that the first name that repeats the species is the nominate subspecies of that species....in other words, it is the first subspecies that was discovered. For African Greys, P.e. erithacus is the nominate subspecies.

Some of the guidelines for defining a subspecies are bone structure, size, shape, color difference, habitat needs, and physical separation, such as mountain ranges, canyons, deserts or large expanses of unpopulated areas. Unfortunately, there are many gray areas when defining a subspecies, and much depends on the group of scientists involved.

The genus Psittacus, has only one species, erithacus, and two subspecies, erithacus and timneh, plus a questionable third, princeps. P.e. erithacus is the "Congo" Grey, P.e. timneh is the Timneh Grey, and the third, P.e. princeps, which is believed by many aviculturists and ornithologists to be a variation of P.e. erithacus, instead of separate subspecies, has no common name.

So what does Congo mean?

Now where do all these subspecies of "Congo" Greys fit into the scheme of things? Simply put, they don't! They are simply variations of the same subspecies based on the areas in which they live.

If you refer to the regional map, drawn based on an exhibit from "Parrots of the World" by Joseph Forshaw, the lighter area is the range of the African Grey, P.e. erithacus. It is one contiguous range with no physical breaks or barriers. Further, the expanding circles indicate the following: The smallest darkest African Greys, about 300g and almost as dark as the Timneh Grey, can be found in the countries nearest the center. As the circles radiate out through the region of African Greys, the Greys get larger. Greys found in countries on the outer fringes of the circles will have the largest Greys, well over 600g. I have spoken with people that live east of lake Victoria who claim Greys from the islands in the lake are in the 700g range.

As the circle radiates east through the range, the African Greys also get lighter in color, and as the circle radiates south from the center, the color remains the same, a darker gray. Logically, African Greys in the middle circles east of center will be medium in size and color while African Greys on the same circular ring southerly will be the same in size but as dark as the Greys north of them.

When people refer to Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, Congo and Angola Greys, they are referring to the region or country from which these parrots originated. These are their "street names" and they refer to "variations," not subspecies.

Origin confusion

The Cameroon Greys that most people erroneously refer to in the Untied States are large silver Greys. However, these Greys actually came from the old Congo, turned Zaire, and now turned back to Congo region. Originally, the Congo exported their birds, and they were the largest and lightest in color, the Congo Grey. The Congo ceased exporting their birds, but during this era, Africa was exporting birds out of Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, and other countries. But of course, by this time, the term Congo Grey was a permanent "generic" label for any red tail.

Trappers in Africa were trapping birds in Zaire (the old Congo) and smuggling them to Cameroon. Cameroon would then legally export them out of Africa (legal, but NOT legal). So we in the United States received birds from Zaire (475 - 600+ grams) with papers saying the birds originated in Cameroon; and on top of that, we continued to also receive birds that actually did originate in Cameroon (425-500 grams).

Brokers decided to get more money for the larger parrots, thus marketing them as Cameroon Greys (also, they had to, because it was illegal to have Zaire/Congo birds), and then they sold the smaller darker birds as the common generic Congo Grey (any red tail). Are you confused yet? If not, try this.... We now have Cameroon Greys that are really Congo in origin, and we have Congos that are really Cameroon in origin.We even have Zaire Greys that were imported out of Togo; therefore, so much for the "street names." However, after all is said and done, they are all one and the same subspecies, the nominate Psittacus erithacus erithacus.

One more thing: the most common question that I'm asked is: "How do I know the sex of my Grey?" Maybe next time....

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