Meet the Grey-Headed Parrot

 grey-headed parrot

You might look at the parrot above and say, “What kind of parrot is that?” Don’t worry, you’re not alone! That’s Poicephalus fuscicolis, which is native to Africa. Two subspecies make up this species: f. fuscicolis and f. suahelicus. But this is where it gets confusing — these parrots have a lot of common names: brown-necked parrot, grey-headed parrot, Cape parrot and uncape parrot. But which is which?

Without going into the controversial debate surrounding these parrots, I can say that “Cape parrot” is an incorrect common name for these birds. Jean “The African Queen” Pattison of African Queen Aviaries in Lakeland, Fla., who has been breeding birds for more than 25 years, believes that we only have P. f. suahelicus here in the United States. “Call them grey-headed parrots,” she said. “The more of these parrots I’ve seen in the United States, the more I believe they are only that subspecies. The range of the grey-headed parrots in the wild is the size of the United States, so it’s most likely we only imported birds from there.”

Luckily, only the names of these parrots are the most challenging aspect about them. You might see these parrots sold as Cape or uncape parrots … but, that’s only if you can find them. Grey-headed parrots are rare in U.S. aviculture, which means that a lot of people don’t know about them.

“It’s only the people who are looking for them that really know what they are,” said Bertha Ohl of Birdies Birds in Missouri, who breeds grey-headed parrots.  "If you can find them, they will most likely be referred to as “Capes” or “uncapes.”

Pattison has had similar experiences and, because they are rarer in U.S. aviculture, she said they can be expensive, which can deter people from getting them as pets. But those who do have them as pets rave about how great they are. (See the “Reader’s Dish” sidebar.)

The “African Caiques”

To best sum up how grey heads play, think “African caique.”  “Grey heads are little clowns,” Ohl said. “They’re like a caique: rambunctious, playful and they can get a little out of control. They play well by themselves, and they don’t have to be entertained by you.”

Pattison shared similar sentiments. “They are really active, entertaining parrots that really get into what they’re doing. They’re headstrong and very intense with toys, and even with you. They can hop, and they love to chase and fling a ball around.”

Pattison said she’s played catch with her grey heads by tossing them wadded paper towels, and her birds toss them back. She noted they have quite an “arm” when it comes to throwing. “I’ve given them a peanut butter jar lid to play with, and they can fling it up to 10 feet. Then they’ll chase after it, push it around with their beaks and toss it again.”

Like their more playful, distant caique cousins, grey heads like to chew. “No toy is safe from a grey head. Have plenty of wood around for them to chew on,” Pattison said.

Phenomenal Mimics

The grey-headed parrots might give the African grey a run for its money when it comes to talking. “They are a bit higher-pitched when it comes to talking,” Ohl said. “But it’s very [articulate] — you can understand what they’re saying.”

Pattison said, “Their voices are not as clear as an African grey, but they talk every bit as much as a grey. They are great imitators, even better than the greys — they’re phenomenal mimics. When I clean my fish aquariums, my grey heads perfectly mimic the squeaking sound of the paper towel on glass.”

Despite their mimicking abilities, both Ohl and Pattison said grey heads are not really loud (with “loud” being relative, of course) … with one exception. “A couple of these birds can be very noisy. They like to call to each other.”

Ohl said the same. “As a group, they make high-pitched sounds together, but I don’t find it annoying.”

So who is the perfect owner for a grey-headed parrot? “They’re actually great pets for someone who works a lot,” Pattison said. “They are so good at keeping themselves entertained. Just have a cage that has plenty of room [for things to play with], and these birds would be fantastic for you.”

Ohl couldn’t describe the perfect owner, but she said that if a potential owner knows what they want in a bird and describes the grey head’s attributes, she would recommend these parrots to them. “Do your research,” she said.

For the person out there interested in the grey-headed parrot, Pattison said, “they are a great pet.”

Fun Fact

Grey-headed parrots have a strong beak. “They can crack open macadamia nuts,” said aviculturist Jean Pattison said. Such a feat is usually reserved for the big macaws, but Pattison jokingly added, “Only some of them will do it. I think those that won’t are just being lazy.”

Even though they have big beaks, they’re not known for biting. “That’s not to say they won’t bite — they will,” Pattison said. “But most of the time, they just open their mouths and shake their heads, as if warning you ‘Hey, look what I can do with this thing.’” When it comes to any parrot, read your bird’s body language to know how it is feeling. 

Health Concerns

Grey-head parrots can have similar health concerns to other African parrots, like the African greys. Margaret A. Wissman, DVM, DABVP — Avian Practice, said that grey-headed parrots can suffer from low blood-calcium problems, due to issues with the uropygial gland. “It’s more common in African greys, but the Poicephalus can have these issues, too,” she said. African parrots should be provided with unfiltered sunlight or artificial full-spectrum lighting.

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  • I love this bird. I have an African senegal the Cape sounds like an awsome companion!!

  • I absolutely love my grey headed cape, Banana. I’m very physical with him, both smothering him with love and rough playing with him. He’s very active, strong willed and will step up onto strangers when we are out of the house. People refer to them as “gentle giants” and “stubborn” which is certainly true with my grey headed. They have a will of their own, which is extremely tame, but maybe not conducive to rigorous training. Hopefully people continue to see how great of a companion they typically are and their number in the US continues to clime, as there are roughly only 1500 or so in the wild.


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