We’ve all seen the video clips of parrots singing, saying the Pledge of Allegiance, seemingly responding to questions, etc. But how do parrots talk? Do they actually talk in the way humans understand the word? Yes and no.
Parrots talk in the same way they make their native sounds of chirping, screaming, cooing and other sounds they use within a flock. However, they cannot exactly imitate human speech because they do not form sounds in the same way humans do. Parrots talk or form sounds by expelling air across their syrinx, a distended portion of the trachea. Parrots are in general, intelligent birds, and are social creatures, so it may seem advantageous from a survival standpoint to learn the language of their new “flock” – the humans in their home.
Parrots talk at different ability levels, depending on the species, individual bird and time the owner spends training the bird. Amazons and African Greys in particular, are well known for their ability to talk, as well as to imitate other common household sounds, such as the doorbell or telephone, or even the computer. Some parrot owners declare their parrots know when they are busy, and time their telephone or doorbell sounds to coincide with that circumstance.
There is debate as to how much parrots actually understand of human speech. Are these just sounds, or do they have actual meaning to the bird? Longtime parrot owners will say they have to wonder if their parrots don’t understand at least a few of the words they say, judging by their behavior when they say these words. Parrots, of course, do not have any sort of “naughty” filter, so a bird kept where profanity or crude talk is used, will invariably say these words, and as with a child, usually at the most inappropriate times. The debate will continue to go on about how much parrots understand what they are saying.
Parrots talk to communicate, and possibly to relieve boredom. If a certain sound produces a certain positive result, such as attention or a treat, they are more likely to repeat the behavior. This then, is the desirable way to train a parrot to talk: repetition, treats and affection. An inappropriate word should be ignored completely, while an appropriate word should bring treats and caresses.
Listening to parrots talk is always entertaining, since there is something fascinating about a creature not of our species imitating our behavior. And, there is always the question of whether the parrot knows the impact of what it is saying. Does “I love you” really mean that? Many parrot owners will answer an enthusiastic “yes.”