How and Why Do Parrots Talk?

“Polly wants a cracker” is the quintessential catch-phrase of any parrot worthy of a pirate’s shoulder, but does Polly the Parrot know what she is actually saying?

According to Tim Wright, a professor at New Mexico State University who studies vocalization, parrots do understand context, although not necessarily complex meaning.  In fact, “they are very attuned to the context,” Wright asserts. For example, when a parrot says “Hello! How are you?” as its owner enters the room, it is “not necessarily interested in your well-being” but is repeating what it hears people say when they greet each other after an absence. Wright believes the parrot’s understanding of “how are you,” is probably “oh look, someone has come into the room.” As socially-attuned animals, parrots also pay close attention to phrases and sounds that are delivered with high energy, intense emotion and commotion, which may be why parrots have an uncanny proclivity to repeat profanity!

Many birds are vocal learners, meaning they are inclined to listen and repeat what they hear, but parrots are the bird pros at imitating complex sounds and the reason why may lie in the duel neurological system only parrots seem to possess. Erich Jarvis, a Duke University neuroscientist and vocal learning expert, explains this in a recent study published in Plos One: Birds have a section of the brain devoted to vocalizations, called the ‘song system.’ In parrots, unlike in other birds, the song system has a double layer —an inner ‘core,’ common to all avian vocal learners, and an outer ‘shell,’ which is unique to parrots. Jarvis believes this recently identified second ‘shell’ is what allows parrots to mimic what they hear better than any other bird or non-human mammal. How exactly this works, Jarvis is not sure, but he hopes to find out.

While it seems completely natural for parrots to listen and repeat sounds delivered by their own species, why do they mimic human speech?  Two words: Peer pressure. As social creatures, they naturally try to fit in, whether their social group is avian or homo sapien. In the wild, parrots rely on vocalization to exchange important information and to fit in with the flock. According to Wright, different flocks of the same species separated by geography actually have different dialects and when a parrot finds itself suddenly in a new flock, the transplant will actually pick-up the local twang. So, the same phenomenon seems to occur when a bird suddenly finds it’s flock is now human.

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Domesticated parrots living in close proximity to people indeed possess the essential conditions for picking up human language—time, proximity, inspiration and mental capacity. Wild parrots, on the other hand, lack the inspiration and proximity which is why it would be utterly bizarre to hear a wild African Grey say “Polly wants a cracker!”

“In the wild, parrots focus on other parrots for what they want to learn,” Wright says. “It’s only in captivity, when humans become their source of social interaction, that they start paying attention to us.” Funny enough, they not only pay attention to their human companions, they also consider other pets in the household, bird or otherwise, also part of the flock and pay close attention to their vocalizations as well. Many parrot owners have been duped into thinking their dog, for example, was barking, only to discover it was their mischievous bird mimicking the dog.

Parrots with intensive training have however demonstrated their ability to understand context and at times, meaning, of the human words they repeat. Waldo, the 21-year-old African Grey Parrot who is part of the band Hatebeak (yes, really—and for over 12 years), loves to munch on both bananas and crackers— and one day when Waldo was given dried bananas as a snack he suddenly called them “banana crackers.”  In another example of a parrot’s mental fluidity, a bird named Alex being trained by a Harvard researcher was given cake on his birthday one year and after indulging in this tasty treat he exclaimed it was “yummy bread.”

Not only could Alex creatively combine new words to describe his experiences, he was able to consistently identify objects as “bigger” or “smaller” as well as “same” and “different.” He was also able to count quantities of objects up to eight, identify seven colors and six shapes. For example, he could correctly identify how many purple wooden sticks were on a tray of assorted objects. The work done over 30 years with Alex revolutionized the way scientists look at bird brains. Diana Reiss, a psychologist at Hunter College who works with dolphins and elephants, told the New York Times that the term bird brain has taken on a new meaning:  “That [bird brain] used to be a pejorative, but now we look at those brains — at least Alex’s — with some awe.”

What is so amazing to me about such experiments, is not just that a parrot can learn such things, or that  humans and other species can share a common language and communicate with each other (which are all amazing), but rather that we get a rare window of clarity into the mind of another species and their capacity for complex thinking. And next time Polly asks for the cracker you are eating, she likely isn’t just repeating your words, but she really wants that cracker — and be careful, she also may know if you do not divide it fairly!

Click here for a video of Alex problem-solving and answering questions.

For great tips on teaching a pet parrot to talk check-out this link from the Bird Channel.

139 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran2 years ago

very interesting

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Payton Godon
Payton Godon2 years ago

One of my parrots Jaymes can say many sentences and will yell 'DANCE' when the music is turned on! She also calls my dogs hehe they are truly amazing creatures

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Paula Lambert
Paula L2 years ago

Thanks

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Ant m.
Ant m2 years ago

Cool .....

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Jonathan Harper
Jonathan H2 years ago

ty

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Jonathan Harper
Jonathan H2 years ago

ty

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Lisa D.
Lisa D2 years ago

Interesting

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Cherise U.
Cherise U.2 years ago

glad you enjoyed the article!

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Tiffany Schreiner

very cool! thx :)

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