Whether you own one or not, there’s a good chance you’ve heard a parrot chattering happily away using what sound very much like human words. Scientists are still unsure whether this often-remarkable skill is simply hollow mimicry or some indication of advanced cognitive ability (Irene Pepperberg’s decades-long experiments with Alex, the African Grey Parrot, are well-known in that regard).
Why do parrots have the impulse to talk back to us in the first place? What are the biological or behavioral underpinnings–and what do they suggest about our relationship with our beloved birds?
The vocal abilities of parrots have been long known to humankind. Ktesias of Cnidus, a Greek who lived for nearly two decades in India during the third century B.C.E., wrote of parrots he’d seen there: “the kind of bird called the parrot … has a tongue and voice like the human.” (1)
Parrots aren’t the only birds that mimic the sound of the human voice. Mynas, flashy songbirds whose stronghold is the Indian subcontinent, are nearly as renowned–particularly the Common Hill Myna. Other passerines well-known for mimicry include certain corvids (crows and jaws), starlings, and mockingbirds.
Like any other bird, a parrot doesn’t have vocal chords; it produces its wild variety of vocalizations through flexing the syrinx, an organ in its throat. (5)
Whatever the exact behavioral motivations are at work when parrots “parrot” back to us, they’re likely connected to the birds’ extreme sociability. Most animals with impressively complex vocalizations are social by nature: certain primates, dolphins, wild dogs, and–yes–lots of kinds of birds. Communal living requires a certain versatility in intra-species communication: not only to coordinate bringing down prey or to warn of approaching predators, but also simply to get along with one another in close quarters and clarify social status.
Parrots often live in flocks, sometimes very large ones. Field studies have suggested that certain species, such as the Yellow-naped Amazon, have roost- and region-specific “dialects” of sorts, and that these distinctive inflections and call structures are learned rather than innate. (3) Research shows young parrots (and some songbirds) refine their vocalizations by imitating others of their kind, and that their unpracticed early attempts seem roughly analogous to human infant nonsense. (5)
One striking illustration of this ability to learn vocalizations has cropped up in Australia, where wild parrots–including Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Galahs–appear to be adopting human words and phrases from captive counterparts that have escaped and joined their feral ranks. (5)
Parrots develop and maintain group identity partly through their intricate vocalizations, so among the simplest explanations for their mimicry of human speech is that they’re doing just this within the “flock” of their human family. A parrot is primed to learn and reproduce the native “tongue” of her particular social group, and so may strive to master the sound of common words and phrases she hears in the household–from “Hello!” and “Good-bye!” to “How are you?” and “Aren’t you a pretty bird?”
In this case, the parrot doesn’t need to understand the meaning behind these human phrases–at least to any degree of exactitude. She merely knows that her flock uses those sounds to communicate and reinforce social bonds. In essence, when she squawks “How are you?” as you enter the room, she may simply be conveying something along the lines of “I know you!” or “We’re in the same flock!”
Another idea–an even more basic one, really–is that a parrot mimicking human speech is just trying to get attention. That’s a notion proposed even by the venerable Irene Pepperberg. (2) Think of it this way: A bird that merely screeches at a person might not elicit much of a response, but if it parrots back a human word–even through a very sloppy attempt–that person may well perk up, come over to the cage, and start trying to have a conversation with it. The parrot’s been reinforced for its mimicry, all the more so if its attempts at speech are rewarded with treats.
Do these explanations, which definitely emphasize the mimicry aspect rather than any remarkable ability to understand and interpret human speech, detract from the parrot’s vocal abilities–or from the human-parrot relationship? They shouldn’t! They’re definitely indications of real interspecies communication: Even if your bird doesn’t know what it’s saying in terms of human language, it’s certainly actively engaging with you.
A Final Thought
Just because you own a species of parrot known for its mimicry of human language–an African Grey Parrot, for example, or a Common Parakeet–doesn’t mean your particular bird will perform the behavior. Don’t buy a parrot for its “talking” ability. Appreciate your bird for its innate parrot-ness–including the most incomprehensible of its babbling–and marvel in the process at the beautiful biological diversity of our planet.
1. Boehrer, Bruce Thomas. Parrot Culture: Our 2,500-year-long Fascination With the World’s Most Talkative Bird. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
3. Wright, Timothy F. Regional dialects in the contact call of a parrot. Proceedings: Biological Sciences Vol. 263, no. 1372 (July 22, 1996), pp. 867-872.
4. Oremus, Will. “Why Parrots Parrot.” Slate. 7 May 2012. Accessed 10 April 2014. [http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2012/05/talking_parakeets_why_do_they_mimic_human_speech_.html]
5. Lane, Megan. “How Can Birds Teach Each Other to Talk?” BBC News Magazine. 16 September 2011. Accessed: 10 April 2014.