As parrots are natural mimics, many people think they have vocal cords. After all, parrots can sing songs, make contact calls to their flock, and speak clearly in English.
No, parrots don’t have vocal cords. They have a syrinx, which is a vocal organ at the base of the chest. This enables parrots to produce vocalizations (squawking, screaming, chirping, growling, etc.), mimic sounds from household items (doorbells, microwave ovens, etc.), and repeat human words.
Parrots vocalize by altering the shape and depth of the syrinx, using their tongues and beaks to modify the sound frequencies. This means that parrots can’t strain or lose their voices.
What Is the Function of the Syrinx in Birds?
Parrots have a syrinx (also called the lower larynx) rather than vocal cords like humans.
According to the Journal of Anatomy, the syrinx is the vocal organ (voice box) of birds, enabling them to produce different vocalizations. The syrinx has two primary functions:
- The control of airflow.
- Labial tension.
The syrinx is located deep in birds’ chests. It’s a muscular, fluid-filled cavity at the base of the trachea, where the windpipe splits enter 2 lungs. The syrinx comprises 2 separate parts.
Parrots can change the shape of each area 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.
Syrinx structures vary across species and families, so not all parrots can produce sounds as well as others. Usually, larger parrots are better talkers than smaller parrots, but there are exceptions (like budgies).
All parrots must be able to make sounds to be accepted. Making sounds enables parrots to imitate and learn each other’s calls, signifying they’re part of the same flock.
Captive parrots learn and repeat human sounds because they want to be in their owner’s flock. So, they seek out sounds and noises that get a response from humans, like doorbells and kettles.
Do All Birds Have a Syrinx?
Most birds have a syrinx but not new world vultures or syringes. The birds with one have significant differences in syrinx size and structure.
Songbirds have a syrinx 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 sparrows, the syrinx is 8 mm in diameter.
Field Museum stated that no other animals have a syrinx other than birds.
Interestingly, birds have a larynx, which is how humans produce sound. Unlike the human larynx, the avian larynx is solely used for breathing and food consumption.
How Do Parrots Talk Without Vocal Cords?
Parrots lack lips, teeth, and vocal cords – 3 vital body parts that enable humans to speak clearly.
However, parrots mimic the sounds and words they hear. Then, human brains fill in the gaps and associate the sounds with familiar words, making it appear that parrots understand the context.
Parrots can talk by altering the shape and depth of the syrinx, and they can control the muscles with such precision that they can make a wide range of sounds that express how they feel.
Similarly, parrots mimic noises from humans and other species by manipulating each part of the syrinx.
Even though parrots lack the right parts, their tongues have a part to play in how well they can talk. Current Biology found that parrots use 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 may be why they mimic more accurately than birds with flatter beaks.
Despite lacking vocal cords, parrots have other verbal imitation abilities than mimicking words. They copy each other’s sounds and other animal calls.
As mentioned, this is how they fit in with their flocks, as it’s essential to survival in the wild. Parrots can copy electronic beeps, car sirens, barks, and meows, depending on their living environment.
Behavior affects how well parrots can talk. They’ll speak more accurately if they learn to associate words and sounds with specific actions.
They may even gain a contextual awareness of some words. For example, saying hello when you enter the parrot’s room may be repeated in kind. The bird likely understands that it’s a greeting.
Why Can Parrots Talk and Not Other Animals?
The ability to speak is unique to humans, parrots, and other bird species. Even primates (at least 96% DNA matched to humans) can’t match a parrot’s talking abilities.
Their ability to speak is due to other factors, including the following:
- Parrots have a well-developed medial spiriform nucleus, which explains their high intelligence.
- Other animals, like dogs, 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.
This section of the brain is essential for enabling parrots to know how to make sounds. Then, there’s the outer shell, which scientists theorize makes parrots so good at mimicking different sounds.
- Recognize a human’s body parts and associate them with their own.
- Map out motor patterns.
- Replicate dancing patterns using their limbs.
The cortex provides sensory input, which parrots combine with voluntary motor function, which the cerebellum handles.
Can Parrots Lose Their Voice?
Parrots don’t have vocal cords, so you may wonder if they can lose their voice, especially if they’ve stopped talking or vocalizing.
Technically, parrots don’t have voices to lose. Parrots don’t have vocal cords, so it’s physically impossible for them to strain and lose their voices.
It’s more likely that a parrot would stop speaking due to health or environmental conditions:
Several diseases affect the syrinx, throat, lungs, and air sacs, including the following:
- Cancerous bodies.
- Aspergillus spores.
Parrots can mimic what they hear while controlling their syrinx well enough to produce sounds humans recognize. Their words aren’t always said with the same precision as ours, but they’re very close.