African grey parrots, endemic to 23 central African countries, possess a reputation for being the smartest of all parrots. Perhaps the most famous of these birds was Alex, owned by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, who could name over 100 items, colors and actions. Today, wild populations of the African grey are declining, making successful captive breeding programs more important to ensure the survival of this remarkable species. Since African grey males and females look quite similar, it's important to confirm the sex of any bird that will become part of a breeding pair.
The Great Gender Debate
Some owners and breeders of African greys say it's easy to discern the subtle differences between males and females once they reach an age of 18 months or more, or after their first molt. A male African grey's tail will remain solid red, while a female's red tail feathers become tipped with silver. The undersides of a male's wings become dark, while a female's remain light. Other subtle differences between the male and female African grey include a more slender neck and narrower head in the female, and a rounded eye patch. The male eye patch becomes somewhat pointed behind the eye.
Going Under the Knife
For many years, surgical sexing was the most common surgical procedure performed by veterinarians. Prior to surgery, a parrot needs to fast for a period of time to prevent unintended regurgitation during the procedure. Your veterinarian will make a small incision on your parrot's left side, since this is where the female African grey's single ovary is located. A tube inserted through the muscle tissue provides a clear path for a small fiber optic scope, which is used to view your bird's sex organs and other vital internal organs. Following confirmation of the bird's sex, a tattoo placed on the underside of the wing indicates the sex of the bird.
The Mail Order Bride
Today, scientific advances have made DNA sexing of African greys possible, with almost 100 percent accuracy. A blood or feather sample, collected by your veterinarian, is labeled and sent to a laboratory. If identification of the bird's sex depends upon feather collection, four or five feathers must be plucked close to the skin, since the DNA resides in the base of the feather. Your veterinarian can pluck the feathers or may otherwise obtain a blood sample either through a blood draw from a vein or from a toenail clipping.
The Pros and Cons
Surgical sexing, while nearly 100 percent accurate, puts your bird through quite a medical ordeal. Errors in surgical sexing normally result from poor visual identification of the sex organs due to a cloudy air sac or an enlarged stomach. Risks are associated with any surgical procedure, but the most common complication of surgical sexing is the risk of hemorrhage. Surgery comes with a higher cost and a longer recuperation period. DNA sexing of African greys, nearly as accurate as surgical sexing, presents fewer risks. A plucked feather or clipped nail could potentially become infected, leading to skin cysts or malformed feathers. An improperly packaged blood sample, such as sealing it in plastic during warm months, could cause fungal or bacterial growth, rendering the sample unusable.