How and why do parrots talk, best talking parrot and teaching your parrot to talk

Parrots don’t have vocal chords. Humans have a larynx; parrots have a syrinx. The same as do songbirds and members of the corvid (crow) family, mynah birds and the Australian lyrebird.

How do parrots talk | Why do parrots talk? | What is the best talking parrot? | Best small to medium sized talking parrot | How to train a parrot to talk | When will my parrot start to talk | Do parrots understand what you're saying? |

How do parrots talk?

Parrots, particularly African Greys and members of the Amazon family are particularly good at imitating human words and sounds.

The vocal tract in the parrot is complex. The syrinx is located where the trachea splits into the lungs. Parrots can modify the air flowing over the syrinx to make sounds.

When I consider that a parrot has no lips or teeth the fact that both my Greys can imitate the timbre of my husbands voice never fails to amaze me.

Why do parrots talk?

The majority of parrots are only a few generations removed from their wild cousins. Pssitacines (the parrot family) and Passerines (the song bird families) use their voices to warn, to court, to communicate with their nestlings and to fight to defend a territory.

The sounds they make have a huge variation. Some are so pleasant to our ears that Mozart transcribed his pet starling’s voice into music.

Some like the shrieks of the Macaw or the Cockatoo family or some Conures can be extremely unpleasant. In fact I've known Cockatoo owners wear ear muffs!

Wild parrots use sound, whistles, chirps and squawks to communicate. How can the descendants of these same birds modify the sounds into recognizable human sounds? Ongoing research into birds’ vocal abilities and also their sense of rhythm is discovering more and more on this fascinating topic.

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Alex The Parrot - Pioneer in Parrot Intelligence

The parrot who expanded our understanding of parrot intelligence was Alex, the African Grey whose name is an acronym for Animal Learning Experiment.

Alex, was the subject of a 30-year study by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, carried from 1977–2007.

In December 1980, Kathy Davidson, one of the laboratory students, took Alex to the washroom. Alex noticed the mirror for the first time. He cocked his head back and forth a few times to get a fuller look, and said:"What’s that?" "That’s you. You’re a parrot." Kathy answered. "What colour?" asked the bird. "Grey. You’re a grey parrot, Alex." And that’s how Alex learned the colour grey.

Alex was a captive-bred bird, purchased from a pet shop at about one year old. Although bought as a laboratory research animal, the relationship between Alex and Dr Pepperberg deepened.

‘He became my colleague.’ Dr Pepperberg said. She has never claimed that Alex used language in a human fashion. But the two-way communication code that developed between the bird and researchers, and later with the other African Greys who joined the lab, worked.

Alex provided incontrovertible proof to everyone but the most diehard sceptics that he could perform various cognitive tasks as well as the great apes, and at the level of a young child.

His astounding abilities were displayed through his use of language. Alex could count up to six, knew colours, shapes and qualities of objects. He could tell you what material an object was made of. Towards the end of his life, he appeared to have an awareness of the concept of zero.

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What is the best talking parrot?

The best parrot for talking is the African Grey.

African Greys, both Timnehs and Congos and the yellow-naped Amazon species are considered best at acquiring human speech.

African Greys and Amazons utilise the largest vocabulary of human words and Amazons are the best singers of our music. Although African Greys are fluent speakers, not many of them will speak on cue.

Magnificent macaws and beautiful cockatoos are not the best at talking. At most they’ll say a few words. But they are outstandingly clever. Unless you have got a lot of spare time and a great deal of space, they’re not the most suitable pet parrots for the home environment.

Best small to medium sized talking parrot

Some of the small parrots talk well. One champion budgie Puck (died 1974) was said to have had a vocabulary of 1700 words. But the budgerigar’s voice is high and piping and not easy to understand.

Tame Cockatiels will also talk. But again they will have a limited vocabulary.

Alexandrines, Quakers, Eclectus, Jardines will all pick up some phrases. But if it’s talking - it has to be an African Grey.

Your parrot may not talk – but he may still understand you!

My own pair of wild caught Orange Winged Amazons (both now deceased in their forties and the hen at fifty) were not known for their talking ability.

However, someone had taught Archie in his years as a zoo bird to do the most convincing belly laugh imaginable.

These Amazons had lived for twenty years with a German-speaking couple. Although I never heard them speak a word of German, if any visitor spoke German to them, they’d bob up and down with excited interest.

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Parrots can transpose!

What can be amusing is the way parrots transpose. I taught Artha Grey nursery rhymes. But she altered the words of Georgie Porgy, pudding and pie to ‘Artha- partha pudding and pie, kissed boys made cry.’

Other remarks I cannot think she understood but used them to elicit laughter and applause. To the question, how does the doggie go? She’d reply, ‘woof, woof, meow.’

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How to teach parrots to talk


Parrots, like humans, are vocal learners, meaning they grasp sounds by hearing and then imitating them.

The best way to teach a parrot talk is rather the same way as teaching a baby. A baby parrot babbles like a baby. When baby says Da-da or Mum-mum, the parents are delighted and the baby learns. Much like a baby does, a baby parrot will babble. If you’re attentive and the right sound emerges and you praise, the parrot will pick up on the positive and want to elicit that response again.

Steve Hartman says: "Talk to your parrot regularly. Constant consistent verbal communication will help your bird develop into an intelligent, independent, self confident individual. Explain what you are doing – when you are cleaning the cage, cooking dinner, or watching television. You might be surprised at the results!"

Talking in your parrots language

Some carers try to use parrot language; it’s almost impossible. Try it for yourself. I have a communication whistle with my Greys. I’ve tried a few squawks with the macaws - not with much success.

Its a myth that whistling with your parrot hinders it speaking. But why should they copy human speech? Peer pressure, it turns out. Parrots naturally try to fit in, be it among other parrots or other people. In the wild, parrots use their vocal prowess to share important information with the flock. In a human household, a parrot will try to communicate with its huge, sometimes scary, flightless, flock members.

When will my parrot start to talk?

Parrots start to use English from three months old to one year. And parrots already speaking, will increase their vocabulary throughout their lives given the right opportunities.

If you buy a baby parrot, one that was hatched in the nest will have been spoken to by its parents. A parrot who can communicate well in in her own parrot language, I believe, has a better base from which to acquire human language.

It’s alleged, though unproven, that the offspring of talking parrots may inherit the ability.

A word of warning here. Some parrots - even Greys and Amazons -won’t learn to speak human language and you should be prepared to accept that your funny, lovable acrobatic pet may never speak English. If you insist on a talking parrot it might be better to acquire one that already talks.

Do parrots understand what you're saying?

I believe they do. For sceptics Irene Pepperberg’s work should be sufficient. For parrots, words may have associations rather than complex meanings. So when your parrot says, ‘How are you?’ It’s not your health he’s asking about. He associates someone coming into the room with that phrase. In the same way, he’ll say, ‘Goodbye,’ when he sees you put on a coat.

Steve Hartman from the Parrot University points out that understanding human language and being able to reproduce it are two entirely different skills. Parrots - just like children that are too young to speak – can and do understand a lot of what you are saying.

I have found that entirely true when training my young macaw. He doesn’t speak more than a few words but understands much more. If I say ‘Bed time Benni’ too early he’ll immediately fly off his perch and land out of reach on the picture rail.

If I say ‘bed time, Benni’ at what he considers a suitable time around 9 pm, he’ll reply ‘step up,’ come back to his cage on my arm.

Talk as much and as often as you can to your parrot and he will be more likely to understand and more likely to use words appropriately.

Parrots communicate through body language

Parrots are capable of displaying extreme emotion. But unlike humans, parrots communicate their emotions mostly through body language.

If you want to communicate well with a parrot learn what its body language signals mean.

Humans also use body language to communicate. Since our vocabulary exceeds thousands of words - body language is often ignored.

For other mammals and birds, body language accounts for up to ninety percent of all communication.

Parrots can speak in context

Parrots will speak in whatever language is relevant to them, whether that be English, Japanese, Arabic or any other language they’ve heard spoken. Do parrots know what they are saying? Most parrot owners swear that they do.

During an hour-long Skype conversation I was having with an American Grey owner, Paula Feldman, neither her Grey, Rachel, nor my Grey, Artha, uttered a word. However, I believe that Rachel’s vocabulary of over 300 words, as transcribed by Paula, is quite accurate. Paula said, ‘As an English professor, I love being able to have a conversation with my companion animal.'

Like many Greys, if Rachel does not get what she wants, she insists. Her favourite food, corn-on-the-cob, is prepared in the microwave. When it pings, she often calls out ‘corn’. If corn isn’t forthcoming, she will sing in an operatic voice, ‘coo-r-r-r-r-n’.

Paula returned one day from the office and, as usual, greeted her Grey. ‘Hi, how are you, Rachel?' The bird replied, ‘Incarcerated’. Paula told me, ‘I never taught her that word, but she’d have heard me use it occasionally. There are simply too many instances in which Rachel uses language appropriately for it to be mere coincidence’.

Sole birds are often reported to have vast vocabularies. Seventeen -year-old N’kisi, an African Grey, who lives in New York with her carer Morgana, has a vocabulary of over 1000 words. On one occasion, N’Kisi asked Jane Goodall, who was visiting the apartment, ‘Got a chimp?’ Morgana said that before Goodall’s arrival, she had explained to N’kisi about her work with chimpanzees.

Love your parrot for herself, not for whether she can talk

Bird owners often remark that one of their main reasons for buying a parrot was the possibility of communicating with the bird in his or her own language. Do remember that talking is only a small part of the joy of these amazing intelligent creatures.

I asked Dr Susan Friedman one of USA leading teachers of the science of behaviour for people, animals and birds whether any of her personal birds talked and she said: “all four of my parrots talk, but not often in English! Since parrots’ talking ability was one of their main attractions for me, it was a good lesson in unconditional acceptance and an opportunity for me to rethink what caring for parrots means. I understand now that meeting the needs of parrots as companion animals is very, very challenging and my focus is on arranging the environment for them to succeed in my care.”

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Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo

Snowball an Elanora cockatoo is a star on Youtube. The video is well worth watching.

Additional resources

Barbara Heidenreich has an instructive DVD available on Amazon called Teach your parrot to Talk