Last Updated on February 8, 2024 by Carrie Stephens
For centuries, we have been fascinated with the remarkable ability of certain species of parrots to mimic human speech, often saying words and phrases with skillful precision.
This extraordinary talent doesn’t stop there: from the repetition of a ringing phone to the beep of a microwave or even the steady plip-plop of a dripping tap, there’s little a clever parrot can’t repeat.
We’ll examine how, when, and perhaps most importantly, why parrots learn to talk.
Why Parrots Mimic Speech
This requires an awareness of parrots’ evolutionary biology and an appreciation that in their natural, wild state, many parrots live in biodiverse rainforests bursting with fascinating sounds.
From calling monkeys to chirruping insects to the rustling of the leaves, parrots rarely experience silence. They’re not alone because they’re part of a complex social group (flock).
Social relationships are of fundamental importance to parrots, and many experts agree that keeping a single parrot can cause severe loneliness, psychological problems, and stereotypies.
Parrots learn to imitate each other in the wild and develop context-specific calls. This even extends to the development of local dialects between different bird species.
Imitative vocal learning is a way to prove oneself to be a worthy mate, as the ability to mimic indicates good hearing, adept learning capacity, a healthy memory, and precise muscle control.
These are all desirable characteristics where members of the opposite sex are concerned.
Experts believe parrots mimic human voices and household sounds to compensate for the lack of mental stimulation and to please their owners.
Remember, a parrot is unconfined, surrounded by constantly changing stimuli, required to forage for food, and surrounded by birds of the same species.
Unfortunately, this is often untrue when parrots are kept as pets. So, many will learn to mimic to try to foster a relationship with human caregivers to fill this social void.
How Parrots Learn To Talk
Parrots learn to talk through repetition and will likely repeat sounds they find entertaining or interesting. You can often gauge a parrot’s interest in a sound through its body language.
An inquisitive stance with a tilt of the head and intense eye contact or even eye pinning (eye flashing) suggests that you’ve succeeded in piquing their interest.
So, parrots learn to talk by first becoming interested in and then remembering, practicing, and finessing sounds, resulting in recognizable speech.
How Parrots Talk Without Vocal Cords
Parrots have a specialized vocal organ called the syrinx (which, as an aside, is Greek for a type of musical instrument known as the pan flute).
Located at the lower end of the trachea (windpipe), where it bifurcates into two mainstem bronchi, the syrinx enables parrots, songbirds, and even ducks to produce sounds.
Most parrots have three pairs of muscles controlling the syrinx (for comparison, pigeons only have one pair). So, parrots can produce precise, convincingly human sounds by using their syringeal muscles to modify the air that flows over this useful organ.
Age Parrots Start Talking
Similar to the developmental speed of human babies, every individual is a little different. Some parrots learn to mimic words from 3-4 months, although 6-12 months is more typical.
Your parrot’s memory and motor function (the precision with which it can control its vocal system) need time to develop so that it can learn to speak.
Large parrots mature slower than smaller species, which may explain why it’s reported that small parrot species (like budgies) may start mimicking at a slightly earlier age than larger birds.
Why Parrot Don’t Talk
Intelligence, sociability, species, and training determine whether an individual parrot will learn to talk.
Every parrot has a unique character and personality. There’s no guarantee that any individual will talk, although early and regular training with positive reinforcement can improve the chances.
Parrots kept with a companion or in a group may be less likely to learn to talk as the driving incentive for mimicking humans is frequently an unmet need for social interaction and mental stimulation.
While parrots with friends may be less likely to learn to talk, their emotional well-being will undoubtedly be significantly better in practically every instance compared to a parrot kept in isolation.
If a parrot used to talk and lost the ability to do so, it may have a health problem.
Parrots’ Understanding of What They Say
The scientific community understands that most (emphasis on the ‘most’ part) parrots don’t understand the significance of what they’re saying.
Instead, they mimic sounds to obtain attention, interaction, or rewards, such as food treats. Mimicking can also be a form of stimulus-response.
For example, when a bird encounters a stimulus it recognizes (such as the cover being removed from its cage in the morning), it might repeat a phrase that it has learned through repetitive experience.
This goes hand-in-hand with this situation such as “good morning.” Stimulus-response is different from having an understanding of what is being said.
However, there are exceptions. Perhaps most notably, many readers will already be familiar with the case of Alex, a Timneh African Grey owned, trained, and studied by clinical psychologist Dr Irene Pepperberg.
Alex demonstrated an understanding of situations and a conversational ability that went above and beyond stimulus-response.
For example, when shown a novel object or group of objects, he could answer questions such as “What color?” and “How many?” even without prior experience with the object in front of him.
As with many things, the truth is likely that each bird’s ability to understand the significance of speech lies somewhere on this spectrum, from no understanding to a degree of awareness.
Other Animals That Can Talk
Parrots aren’t the only animals that can mimic human speech, although due to the seemingly supernatural abilities of the syrinx, they are certainly the most accurate and recognizable contenders.
Outside the bird kingdom, several other species (all mammals) have been documented mimicking human speech in a recognizable and repeatable manner.
Durham University recorded an Orangutan named “Rocky” grasping the ability to say “hi” on cue, providing an interesting insight into our evolutionary biology and the development of human speech.
We also have the remarkable case of Koshik, a male Asian elephant who abides at Everland theme park in Yongin, South Korea.
Uniquely inventive and showing incredible adaptability, Koshik has learned to produce a variety of words in his local dialect (Korean), including “annyong” (hello), “aniya” (no), and “choah” (good) by jamming his trunk into his mouth and exhaling.
Several cetacean species – aquatic mammals including beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, and orcas – have been recorded imitating human speech, even mastering recognizable English language sounds such as “hello,” “one, two,” and “A, B, C” when prompted by trainers.
While undoubtedly fascinating, there are ethical considerations here, and previous studies in this area have been rightly criticized by animal welfare advocates.
For example, in one notoriously contentious NASA-funded experiment from the 1960s, a bottlenose dolphin named “Peter” was taught to imitate human sounds to teach dolphins to speak English.
The researcher overseeing this experiment was Dr. John Lilly, also infamous for his later research into psychedelics, which involved ingesting various quantities of ketamine and LSD.
Throughout this experiment, a human-dolphin flat-share was created on a Virgin Islands seashore. While Peter showed promise, the experiment was eventually dropped due to a lack of progression.