How to Visually Sex
African Grey Parrots

While there are naysayers in the avian community, visually sexing the Congo African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) can be done. It must be noted that all of the “tells” are subjective, and there are exceptions, but when used together the “tells” can make the visual sexing much more accurate. It’s important to note, when you only have one bird, with no other grey birds to compare him or her to, it’s much harder to figure out which gender you have. These descriptors do not apply to timneh greys. To my knowledge, no one has figured that one out.

I rarely bother with DNA sexing on any of the birds I own, or intend to keep for myself. When a client wants a certain sex, I will do DNA sexing for everyone’s peace of mind.

I once received a group of 12 African greys—believed to be six pairs. While doing all the vet checks, we saw none of the birds had been tattooed, and no DNA testing had been done. As my vet, her husband and I were going over the birds, we did visual sexing. When we came upon one particular bird in the group, none of us could define whether it was male or female, so we did take blood to send off. When I released the bird back into the flock, I said, “never mind, it is a male.” My vet insisted we send the blood to make sure. As it turned out, I did indeed have a male, and indeed, there were six pairs of birds.

It should be noted, the birds were sent to me using visual sexing by the original shipper. That goes to show, some people are better at seeing the “tells” than I when doing visual sexing. The one male grey, upon being released into the flight, had a “posture” that I intuitively knew was indicative of the male birds. Much of visual sexing is trying not to second-guess oneself.

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. I won’t have to type so much if we take a look at these examples.

The under-tail coverts

By far the quickest and most popular method for visual sexing is looking at the under-tail coverts. The amount of gray edging can vary widely, with some birds having almost no gray edging at all. In that event, use some of the other methods listed below. When using this method, there are generally 10 feathers that make up the “V” shape under the tail. The individual feathers in this grouping will be solid red on the males. They’ll be edged in gray on females. This does NOT work on babies.

Under-wing shades of gray

It is often best to “see” the different shades of gray by doing just a quick glance. Try doing this while standing 5 to 10 feet away from the bird, while the bird is on top of its cage or play stand, just flapping its wings. If you study, or stare too hard at the under-wing, it is easy to second-guess yourself, and see three shades of gray. In males it should appear to be two shades of gray. In females there should appear to be three shades.

Wing length in relation to the tail

This is an easy one. Male wings fall short of the tail tip, while female’s wing tips will normally touch or fall a bit beyond the tip of the tail.

Contrast of Primary feathers to Primary coverts

Primary remiges and major primary, secondary coverts feather contrast. Again, while standing away from the bird and looking at the side of the bird, notice the dark primary feathers in relation to the primary coverts. In males the contrast is blended or smudgy-looking. In hens there is a more obvious contrast where the primary coverts overlap the primary flight feathers.

Front wing closed contrast

This one is a bit harder than the others. While the African grey is perched, facing you, there is a sliver of feathers peeking out from under the wing. In males this sliver of feathers is blended. In females the contrast is more obvious. Can sometimes work with babies.

Male African greys tend to be darker in color than the hens, but that will only apply if their origin is from the same area in Africa. The African grey will also lighten with age, which is something to note if comparing a young female to an older male.

Babies in a clutch from the same parents will also have that shade difference. Babies from different clutches will not be as easy to identify visually.

I have found my male greys’ tails are a more vibrant red than my hens’ tails. This may be due to the fact that all my birds are outside, but it is something to note.

Some folks try to visually sex the African grey by observing the head shape, noting the flat, bulkiness of the male’s head. Eye shape has also come into play, with some having almond shape and the other sex having round. Neither observing head shape nor eye shape has worked for me. With both of these methods, I’ve observed birds of both of the sexes displaying the differences.

Although we worked to get the best pictures of African greys in these photographs, some may have flaws because we were trying for the “tell” in each picture. Noted will be what people in the avian community have labeled “stress bars.” Most veterinarians will call any abnormality in a feather a stress bar. Much has been made about stress bars being caused from a bad diet, or caused by illness at the time the feather was developing. All feathers in that group will have the same stress lines all across all feathers, in the case of diet or illness. In our case, stress and illness are not the causes. Usually when you see a stress bar on an otherwise healthy bird, the bars are actually “cut lines” in the feather due to rubbing from the shaft after it hardens. This hardened shaft just wasn’t removed in a timely manner, and the edge caused an imperfection in the feather that is not cause for alarm.

All Photos in this article are courtesy of P. Thistlethwaite with the exception of Picture #1 Male undertail coverts courtesy of Filipko Titi Blazek

©Jean Pattison