Because parrots can mimic words, you’d be forgiven for thinking they have vocal cords. It may surprise you to know that even though parrots sing, make calls, and say words, they don’t have vocal cords.
Parrots have a larynx, but it doesn’t create sound. Instead, they have a syrinx, a muscular vocal organ that sits at the base of the chest and enables parrots to mimic words and produce sounds. They vocalize by altering the shape and depth of the syrinx. Parrots also use their tongues and beaks to control and change sound frequencies.
Most birds have a syrinx, but scientists don’t know why they stopped using the larynx to produce sound. Seeing as parrots don’t have vocal cords, they can’t strain their voices.
What Is the Function of the Syrinx in Birds?
Parrots have a syrinx (also known as the lower larynx) instead of vocal cords. According to the Journal of Anatomy, the syrinx is essentially the vocal organ of birds and enables them to produce vocalizations, including songs and calls, and mimic words. It has two major functions:
- Control of airflow
- Labial tension
The syrinx is a mysterious organ located deep in their chests. It’s a muscular, fluid-filled cavity that sits at the base of the trachea, where the windpipe splits into two to go into the two lungs.
The syrinx is composed of two parts. Parrots can change the shape of each one and move the valves independently to create sound. They push air through the syrinx, and the muscles and valves vibrate to make the right sounds.
However, while we know that parrots have a syrinx and understand a little bit about how it works, there’s still more to discover. Syrinx structures vary even across parrot species and families. Similarly, not all parrots can produce sound as well as others.
All parrots need to be able to make sounds to fit in with other birds. In the wild, parrots live in large groups or “flocks.” Doing so provides greater protection from predators and other dangers. Making sounds helps them imitate each other and learn each other’s calls, signifying that they’re part of the flock and helping them locate one another.
In captivity, parrots copy human sounds because they consider their owners part of their flock and want to fit in with them.
Do All Birds Have a Syrinx?
The syrinx isn’t something that only parrots have – nearly all birds have one. However, as we’ve mentioned, the structure isn’t the same across all bird species. For example, songbirds have a syrinx that’s roughly the same size as a raindrop. In comparison, the song sparrow has several pairs of muscles that control the organ, giving them a more extensive vocalization range than other birds. In a sparrow, the syrinx is 8mm in diameter.
According to research conducted by Field Museum, other than birds, no other animals have a syrinx. Scientists don’t know where the organ came from or how it evolved, but it’s unique to birds.
Interestingly, parrots and birds do have a larynx, which is how humans produce sound. Unlike ours, the larynx is solely used for breathing and eating. Seeing as birds have both, it’s unclear when they stopped making sounds with their larynx and began using the syrinx to vocalize.
How Do Parrots Talk Without Vocal Cords?
Parrots lack lips, teeth, and vocal cords – three vital things that enable humans to speak. This is one reason why a parrot’s talking abilities are so impressive.
However, it’s important to understand that parrots don’t actually talk. They mimic the sounds and words they hear. In many cases, human brains fill in the gaps and associate the sounds with familiar words, making it appear as if parrots can talk more accurately than they are.
Parrots can “talk” by altering the shape and depth of the syrinx. They can control the muscles with such precision; they can make a broad range of sounds. Similarly, parrots mimic noises from humans and other species by manipulating each part of the syrinx independently of the other.
Even though parrots don’t have vital speaking parts, their tongues still have a big part to play in how well they can talk. Current Biology discovered that parrots use their tongues to control and change sound frequencies. This is known as “lingual articulation.” They also shape the sound with their beaks. Parrots have hook-billed beaks, which is possibly why they mimic more accurately than birds with flatter beaks.
Despite the lack of vocal cords, parrots have other verbal imitation abilities than simply mimicking words. They can also copy each other and animal calls they hear in their environments. As we’ve mentioned, this is how they fit in with their flocks – it’s an essential part of survival in the wild. Depending on which environment they live in, parrots will also copy electronic beeps, car sirens, and even barks and meows.
Behavior is also a significant factor in how well parrots can talk. If they learn to associate words and sounds with specific actions, they’ll speak more accurately and with better precision. They may even gain a contextual awareness of the word.
Why Can Parrots Talk and Not Other Animals?
The ability to speak is unique to humans, parrots, and a few other bird species. Not even primates, who are at least 96% DNA matched to humans, compared to a parrot’s talking abilities. We’ve established that parrots don’t have tongues and vocal cords, so their ability to speak comes from a couple of other significant factors:
- Parrots have a well developed medial spiriform nucleus, which is a region of the brain responsible for their intelligence.
- Other animals, such as dogs and cats, have underdeveloped pontine nuclei, which are involved in motor activity.
Parrots also have a “song system,” which makes up a small part of their brains. While researchers don’t yet fully understand how this works, they’ve discovered that there’s a part inside this system called the “inner core.”
This section of the brain is essential for helping parrots know how to make sounds. Then there’s the outer shell, which scientists theorize makes parrots so good at mimicking sounds. However, they’re still not quite sure how.
PLOS One confirms this, as parrots can dance by copying their owners’ movements. This research goes beyond dancing, as it shows that parrots can:
- Recognize a human’s body parts and associate them with their own
- Map out the motor pattern
- Replicate dancing patterns using their own limbs
The cortex provides sensory input, which parrots use. They match this to the voluntary motor function, which the cerebellum handles. When combined, parrots can mimic what they hear while controlling their syrinx well enough to produce sounds we recognize. They’re not the same as the words we make, but they’re not always too far off.
Can Parrots Lose Their Voice?
Seeing as parrots don’t have vocal cords, you may be wondering whether they could lose their voice, especially if your parrot’s stopped talking or vocalizing.
Technically, parrots don’t have voices to lose. Due to the lack of vocal cords, it’s physically impossible for them to strain their voices and lose them. It’s more likely that a parrot would stop speaking because of health conditions or factors within its environment causing:
Several diseases affect the syrinx, throat, and lungs, such as:
- Cancerous bodies
- Aspergillus spores
Even though parrots don’t have vocal cords, you should always get a vet to look into why your parrot’s stopped speaking.
Parrots are impressive animals – even more so when you consider they can make sounds and mimic words and noises without vocal cords.