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 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 or lose their voices in the same way that humans can.
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.
The syrinx has two major functions:
- Control of airflow
- Labial tension
The syrinx is an 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.
While we know that parrots have a syrinx and understand how it works, there’s more to discover. Syrinx structures vary 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 flocks. Doing so provides greater protection from predators and other dangers.
Making sounds enables them to 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.
Do All Birds Have a Syrinx?
Almost all birds have a syrinx, not just parrots. However, 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 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, birds do have a larynx, which is how humans produce sound. Unlike ours, the avian larynx is solely used for breathing and eating.
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 body parts that enable humans to speak. This is one reason why a parrot’s talking abilities are so impressive.
However, parrots don’t actually talk. They mimic the sounds and words they hear. Human brains fill in the gaps and associate the sounds with familiar words, making it appear as if parrots can talk more accurately.
Parrots can talk by altering the shape and depth of the syrinx. They can control the muscles with such precision that 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.
Even though parrots don’t have vital speaking parts, their tongues still have a 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 mimicking words. They can copy each other and animal calls they hear in their environments.
As 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 copy electronic beeps, car sirens, and even barks and meows.
Behavior is 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. 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 other bird species. Not even primates, who are at least 96% DNA matched to humans, can compare to a parrot’s talking abilities.
Their ability to speak comes from other 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 enabling parrots to know how to make sounds. Then, there’s the outer shell, which scientists theorize makes parrots so good at mimicking sounds.
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 far off.
Can Parrots Lose Their Voice?
Seeing as parrots don’t have vocal cords, you may wonder if they can lose their voice, especially if your parrot’s stopped talking or vocalizing.
Technically, parrots don’t have voices to lose. Due to not having 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 due to health or environmental conditions:
Several diseases affect the syrinx, throat, and lungs, such as:
- Cancerous bodies
- Aspergillus spores
Even though parrots don’t have vocal cords, 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.