Parrots are one of the few animals that can learn human language. While other birds can mimic certain human sounds, parrots can imitate human speech better than other creatures.
While some parrots have advanced mimicking abilities that allow them to vocalize human words and phrases, they don’t understand the meanings behind them.
However, when owners regularly interact with their parrots through speech, parrots may gain a contextual understanding of these words and phrases.
Communication is vital for wild flock parrots, so captive parrots talk to their owners because they see them as part of their flock.
While we want to believe that parrots understand what we say, how much of our language they can decipher is the subject of much debate.
Do Parrots Understand What We Say?
It’s unlikely that parrots can understand human words, but they may recognize the context.
For example, if an owner says, “Hello” as they walk into a room, the parrot will likely say it back because it recognizes that they make this sound when entering a room.
However, there’s no context behind the word, and parrots don’t actually know what “Hello” means.
Similarly, when an appliance, such as a microwave or oven, beeps, humans tend to rush to it. Therefore, parrots treat the beeping sound in the same way as a human word.
The “beep” has no contextual meaning, but parrots understand that the sound gets attention.
So, it’s up to owners to spend time nurturing their parrot’s talking ability by engaging in conversation. That way, parrots may gain some contextual understanding of the sounds that owners regularly use.
Do Parrots Understand English?
Parrots aren’t advanced enough to distinguish between our languages. They learn the languages of their owners, but they don’t understand what the words and phrases mean, regardless of what language they’re in.
While it might sound like parrots understand English, they’re making similar-sounding words. Our brains fill in the blanks, fooling us into thinking that a parrot has said a word when it’s made a gibberish sound. That being said, parrots have mimicry skills that are so advanced that their sounds are an authentic replica of the word.
Can Parrots Hold A Conversation?
Parrots can hold conversations in a loose sense. While they likely don’t understand precisely what they’re saying, they can vocalize enough words and phrases for us to be able to hold a conversation with them. As mentioned, this is only possible when their owners engage in regular conversation.
However, in the wild, parrots hold conversations with their flock by creating unique songs. That’s so they can recognize each other. They also learn languages in a similar way to humans.
Therefore, making human sounds is a way for parrots to communicate with you and be considered a type of conversation. By making human sounds back to your parrot, you’re accepting that you’re a part of the flock.
How Do Parrots Vocalize Human Speech?
Parrots are vocal learners, grasping sounds by imitating them. A PLOS One study describes how the parrots’ brain is unique in that it contains a song system within a song system.
The core song system is the same as songbirds and hummingbirds, but the shell is exclusive to parrots. While researchers haven’t figured out how this shell system works, they believe it’s key to their expert mimicking abilities.
Parrots learn human words because they’re ingrained to fit in. In the wild, parrots vocalize essential information with their flock. They also use sounds to fit in. Joining a flock provides protection from predators and allows parrots to forage for food together, giving them a better chance of survival.
As a result, pet parrots imitate human sounds because they see owners as their flock. That means they integrate into it by mimicking words and phrases.
Similarly, parrots make sounds by modifying the air that flows over the syrinx. This is a fluid-filled cavity within the spinal cord or brain stem. It’s known as the vocal organ of birds and is located at the base of the trachea.
Parrots use their tongue to create vibrations that pass through the syrinx, reproducing the sounds they hear to make a sound. Because parrots don’t have vocal cords, they don’t “talk” as such, but they mimic human speech sounds.
How Do Parrots Remember Words?
Scientists believe that parrots have memories that are just as good as ours. They have brain areas that work in a similar way to the human cortex. That’s because they have high neuron densities and advanced cognitive functions, which means that parrots have excellent memories.
It’s also been found that parrots can remember situations, people, and other parrots throughout their lifetime. Unfortunately, this also means they can remember abusive situations, which causes stress and symptoms of PTSD.
Therefore, parrots use their advanced memories to learn and distinguish words and phrases. They then store that information until they decide to use it.
Do Parrots Understand What They’re Saying?
Many owners believe that their pet parrots respond to what they say with comprehension, especially when they specifically respond to a question they’ve been asked. Parrots are intelligent creatures, and there are many instances where they seem to understand the words they’re saying.
The Journal of Comparative Psychology examined Cosmo, a pet Congo African grey parrot, to see how her speech and non-word sounds changed with social context. Researchers wanted to determine whether the parrot responded using the correct answers to its owner’s questions.
After various tests, they discovered that many of the parrot’s vocalizations were specific to the context. During the study, the parrot’s repertoire consisted of 278 different units ranging from 1-8 words. Some vocalizations were non-word sounds. 219 of the units used were English speech units. Phrases included:
- “Cosmo go up.”
- “Cosmo wanna go up.”
- “Okay go up.”
- “Wanna go up.”
Even more impressively, Cosmo uttered some phrases with their correct grammar structure, such as, “We’re gonna go for a walk.” Similarly, whenever Cosmo’s owner wasn’t in the room, she would say things like, “I’m here,” and “Where are you?” These phrases suggest that Cosmo grasped the concept behind the things she said.
As a result, other parrots may also be able to understand the context of what they’re saying. However, in most cases, parrots may associate some words to their context but not complex meanings. Because they’re attuned to the context in which we use phrases, parrots fool people with what they say.
For example, if a parrot were to say, “How are you?” every time its owner walks into the room, it’s just mimicking something it hears its owner said.
Do Parrots Know Their Names?
The first thing most owners do when acquiring a bird is to give their parrot a name. Parrots are unlikely to understand their name without training. However, you can teach parrots to recognize it using the tips below:
- Allow your parrot a few weeks to adjust to its new surroundings, giving it time to feel comfortable and secure.
- Work on forming a strong bond with your parrot, handling it regularly, and practicing easy socialization techniques.
- Find a quiet spot within your home without any distractions to start training your parrot. Choose somewhere that doesn’t get much through traffic.
- Have some treats to hand and say your parrot’s name a few times, rewarding it each time with a small piece of food.
- Repeat this process as much as you can for 15-20 minutes. Attempt it a few times every day.
- Eventually, your parrot will expect a treat every time you say its name. It should also display a sign of understanding, such as a turn of the head.
- After a few weeks, start reducing the number of treats you feed until your bird responds to your name without reinforcement.
Once you have a name, stick to it so that your parrot doesn’t become confused.
Not only can parrots learn their name, but it seems as if wild birds name their babies. As described by The Royal Society Publishing, a team of researchers set up video cameras and sound recorders inside and outside several nests containing newly-hatched green-rumped parrots.
After listening to their vocalizations, the team found that the chicks used specific peeps to identify themselves to other birds. They also learned the peeping names of their family in conversation.
A possible explanation for this is that parent parrots name their chicks, giving them a unique identifier. As a result, it’s also possible that parrots understand the names given to them by their human caregivers.
While more research is needed, training your parrot to understand its name using a distinctive, consistent noise, like a peep, can help them recognize it more effectively.
What Are The Best Talking Parrots?
Not all parrots are equal when it comes to their talking abilities. Some never make a sound, while others have an impressive repertoire of human words and phrases at their disposal. Therefore, if you’re looking for a pet parrot with good mimicking abilities, consider the following species:
African Grey Parrots
African grey parrots are without doubt the parrot family’s best vocalizers and are famous for their talking abilities. According to Applied Animal Behavior Science, African greys can use English speech the same way as young children.
Many African grey parrot owners claim that their birds can speak in context and learn vocalizations after only hearing them once or twice. This is likely because of their advanced cognitive and memory abilities.
Not only can they vocalize phrases and commands, but they can recite numbers. They usually develop their mimicking abilities at around the age of one.
Amazon parrots are advanced talkers. Throughout their lifetime, they can learn between 100 to 120 words. They also pick up and learn different dialects. When they swap regions after migration, they pick up the local twang. Some owners claim that their speech is clearer than African grey parrots.
In particular, yellow-naped Amazon parrots are known for being the best singers of human songs. They’re also the best chatters amongst all Amazon parrots.
Budgies can learn a wide variety of words and phrases. They’re also one of the most common pet parrots. However, the sounds budgies make are relatively low and gravelly and can be difficult to understand. That being said, budgies are social, interactive birds that enjoy practicing new words and phrases with their owners.
Amazingly, Puck, the budgie, holds the Guinness world record for holding the most extensive vocabulary out of all birds and was acknowledged as having a repertoire of 1,728 words. While this is impressive, most budgies have a broad range of around 120 to 500 words.
Even if your parrot doesn’t quite understand what you’re saying, regularly interacting with them through speech and sound is a great way to bond. By doing this, you’re also recognizing that you’re part of the same flock.