The surprisingly human habits of parrots make them the 4th most popular pet to own in the United States. However, the most curious thing about parrots is their ability to “speak.” Not even chimpanzees, our closest animal relatives, can mimic human words in the way that parrots do. This has led to a lot of debate in the scientific community about how it’s possible.
Parrots can talk like humans because of the way their brains evolved. They have a special link in their brain that allows them to perceive and mimic sounds better than other animals. They don’t have lips, but they achieve vocalization through the manipulation of their throat muscles. Wild parrots mostly mimic other birds and even predators to improve their survival. In lab settings, parrots have been trained to use correct grammar and context clues.
This implies that some parrots can not only speak like humans, as well as understanding language in the same way as humans. Of course, these studies are still new and limited. As research progresses, we may one day have indisputable proof that parrots do talk like us. For now, we can be sure that domestic pet parrots can only mimic without advanced training.
Why Can Parrots Speak English?
Parrots don’t favor English over other languages. If it seems like it, that’s probably because you’re an English speaker. However, it’s exciting to learn that parrots can speak any language they’re taught. They can even be multilingual. They will learn whatever sounds humans teach them.
There are a few exceptions. For example, parrots cannot learn sign language. It’s not a spoken language, and parrots don’t have hands, so they’re naturally limited. Of the 7,000 languages in the world, parrots are barred from about 150. However, they can excel in nearly every other spoken language.
Parrots may never become fluent in these languages. After all, even an English-speaking parrot cannot hold full conversations with humans. However, they can learn an impressive range of words and be taught certain contexts for them.
The reason for this lies in how parrots mimic. And that, of course, ties into the unique structure of their brain.
Why Do Parrots Repeat Everything You Say?
Parrots mimic and repeat words because their brain is very similar to our own. For example, mammals have two critical parts of our brain:
- The cortex
- The cerebellum
The cerebellum is in charge of voluntary motor functions. On the flip side, the cortex is in charge of:
- Sensory information
When we talk, it’s these two parts of the brain that work in tandem. They allow us to vocalize and communicate.
However, the cortex and cerebellum are located rather far from each other. To work together, they need to be connected by a neural highway. Here, information must be effortlessly transferred between the two areas. This neural highway is called the pontine nuclei.
Bird Brains Have a Different Language Highway
Parrots have extremely complex brains. Many different neural connectors have allowed them to develop intricate cognitive abilities. These are similar to our own. Because of this, researchers at the University of Alberta theorized that parrots had large pontine nuclei. It would allow them to speak in the same way that humans do.
Upon investigating, they discovered this wasn’t entirely true. Instead of a pontine nucleus, parrots have a medial spiriform nucleus. A medial spiriform nucleus serves the same function as the pontine nuclei. While mammals are equipped with the latter, the former is only found in birds.
Biggest Language Highway
In the same study, researchers found a direct correlation between:
- The size of the cortex
- The size of the medial spiriform nucleus
Parrots have a cortex size that rivals those of primates. As such, they also have a bigger medial spiriform nucleus than any other bird. It’s because of this advanced neural pathway that parrots are such great vocal learners.
More Pallium Cells
Scientists looked at the number of cells in the pallium. This is the grey and white matter that covers the cerebellum. The cell number remained pretty consistent among all mammals but varied among different bird groups. Parrots had the most cells.
How did parrots evolve with such complex neurology? How did they learn to talk as a result? That remains something of a mystery. Some people say that they were able to do it because of their long life span. Others argue that they couldn’t have lived for as long without their intelligence.
Why Can Parrots Talk and Not Other Animals?
Even primates can’t match a parrot’s ability to mimic human speech. No other animals in the wild can really compare. That’s because of:
- How developed the medial spiriform nucleus is in parrots
- How underdeveloped the pontine nuclei are in mammals like dogs, cats, and rabbits
A study published in PLOS ONE supports this fact. Here, researchers found that parrots can dance by imitating humans. This means parrots have the ability to:
- See another being with a different body structure from their own
- Map out the motor pattern
- Replicate those patterns in their own body
Parrots use the sensory input provided by the cortex. They match it to the voluntary motor function handled by the cerebellum. As a result, parrots can mimic what they hear and control their vocal cords well enough to talk.
How Do Parrots Talk Without Lips?
This neural connector is also what allows parrots to control their throat muscles. They do so in a way that makes it easy for them to mimic sounds.
Other mammals, like apes and chimpanzees, have less developed pontine nuclei. As such, control over their throat muscles isn’t as refined. It doesn’t matter that they have lips, and parrots don’t.
Can A Parrot Teach Another Parrot To Talk?
Parrots don’t just learn words from humans. They can even learn from each other. In domestic settings, one talking parrot may teach those words to its cage mate. You can also help parrots adapt to words faster by playing videos of other birds speaking. It’s easier for them to adapt to language from a ‘parrot tongue’ rather than directly from a human’s pronunciation.
Even budgerigars (one of the smallest types of parrots) will regularly share words. It doesn’t take a big African grey to get a conversation going.
This is even seen in the wild. All animals use sound to communicate with members of their species. For the most part, these sounds are produced instinctually. Only some of them are passed down from adults to juveniles. That’s where parrots flip the script.
Parrots do produce some instinctual sounds. However, for the most part, they learn how to talk from other parrots by mimicking them.
Other animals have basic, vocalized communication to express certain feelings. However, parrots can go much deeper than that. They have an elaborate neural network and large brains. As such, they can memorize and mimic the sounds they hear – not just from the birds in their flock but from birds in other territories too. Because of this, regional dialects are common among different parrot flocks in the wild.
Why Did Parrots Evolve to Talk?
There are evolutionary and survival perks to speech. Parrots have all the right mental capacities for a higher level of communication. As such, they evolved to talk to make life easier for themselves and survive as a group. These are the most common ways parrots use this ability in the wild:
As mentioned previously, parrots can express their feelings in a much deeper way than other animals. For example, a cat might hiss at a predator in a way that lets other cats know it is in danger. However, the other cats will not know the exact context of the situation.
Parrots have good memories. They can use their voice to give names to certain things and situations. This is done by manipulating their throat muscles and reaching a wider range of pitches. Certain tones will give other parrots context when encountering different situations, whether they are good or bad. As a result, they can avoid:
- Territorial flocks
- Environmental dangers
When it comes to mate selection, parrots are far pickier than other animals. It’s suspected that their unique ability to communicate is the cause of this. Not only does a male parrot have to be healthy to be chosen. He also has to verbally impress his mate by mimicking her and other pleasant sounds she might like.
Avoiding And Finding Others
Each flock will develop its own dialect. It becomes easier to identify individual birds that belong to the flock and those that belong to other regions. This allows parrots to find (or avoid) other birds.
Have you ever stood among a flock of wild parrots? Then you know just how noisy it can get. If it seems loud to you, you’re definitely not the only one. Parrots think flock-life is pretty loud too.
They are more responsive to the sounds they like to use frequently. So, being able to mimic another parrot’s speech to grab its attention is a great help when you live among a rowdy bunch. This is usually how mates find each other.
Sometimes, a parrot will be excommunicated from its flock. Being the social creatures they are, they cannot stand living alone. They will immediately look for another flock that is willing to accept them.
Parrots learn quickly. After spending some time among parrots of a different region, the banished parrot will imitate their speech to appease the flock.
Do Parrots Mimic Other Animals?
Apart from mimicking their own species, parrots also mimic other animals. When a predator is near, parrots will imitate the sounds of either:
- An animal the predator does not eat
- An animal the predator is afraid of in order to ward them off.
Do Parrots Understand What They Say?
Researchers aren’t sure if parrots can understand language. There is overwhelming evidence that suggests that parrots do have the cognitive ability to communicate like us. However, the theories are not concrete.
Researchers do agree that most domestic parrots can’t actually understand what they say. They are only mimicking.
Parrot Mimicry Vs. Parrot Speech
There’s a difference between mimicry and intelligent forms of communication. Mimicry is when an animal changes its form to:
- Imitate its surroundings
- Avoid detection from predators
In the wild, parrots mimic their partners and family members as a way to:
- Associate certain things with the sounds
Domestic parrots also do this. However, instead of repeating the squawks they hear from other parrots, they repeat the words they learn from humans.
Parrots That Mimic
For example, you may say, “What’s up?” to your parrot every time you enter your home. The parrot may begin imitating you. However, it isn’t actually asking how you feel. It just associates the phrase “What’s up?” with you entering the room.
Many parrot owners think they’ve trained their birds to actually “talk” like we do. However, they are actually just conditioning their bird to associate certain words with certain situations and phrases.
Parrots That Speak
However, certain parrot species show a high level of cognitive ability. These are said to be able to understand what they say. African greys are a perfect example. They have been studied and professionally trained by avian experts to:
- Have extensive vocabularies
- Mix and match the words according to the situation.
With that said, these birds have been specifically trained for parrot studies. It would be a bit difficult to replicate the results in your own home.
At What Age Do Parrots Start Talking?
Parrots learn to talk at different ages, depending on their:
Every bird species has a different cognitive ability from the rest. Some begin repeating words while only a few months old. Others won’t talk until they are a few years old.
|Parrot Species||Age Parrots Begin to Talk|
|African grey parrots:||12 to 18 months|
|Cockatoos:||2 to 3 years|
|Amazon Parrots:||3 to 12 months|
Male parrots speak more and earlier than female parrots. That’s because male parrots have to impress the female ones vocally to catch their attention and mate.
Parrots that have been traumatized or have gone through a significant amount of stress might have trouble mimicking in the future. Wild parrots captured for profit are usually the prime example.
Once traumatized, they are unable to do more than scream. They are difficult to train because stress inhibits their cognitive and emotional abilities. People have the most success in teaching parrots to talk if:
- They’ve had them from an early age.
- The parrot had a healthy life before being acquired by the owners.
How To Teach A Parrot To Talk
Unless an avian expert has professionally trained your parrot, it won’t be able to ‘talk.’ Instead, it will just mimic your words.
There have been exceptions. Some pet parrots have been able to string a few words together to warn their owners of danger. This shows a high level of understanding when it comes to grammar and context.
However, those instances have little to do with the training an owner can provide. It has more to do with the parrot’s individual intelligence. This will vary from species to species.
If you want to teach your parrot to mimic, that won’t be a problem. It’s no different from teaching a puppy a trick.
Start with simple words, especially if your parrot is young and is learning to speak for the first time. As time goes on and they get comfortable mimicking humans, they will learn how to say longer phrases.
Human babies learn their first words by mimicking words they hear often. In the same way, parrots mimic the most frequent words they hear. Make sure to use the word or phrase you want your parrot to learn constantly. It will eventually add it to its vocabulary.
Try to get your parrot to associate the word with:
- An object
- An action
- A sound
- An expression
Parrots can mimic faster if they can associate a word with something they see or hear. Be sure to repeat the action, make the sound, and raise the object to their eye level before repeating the word.
Consistency is key when it comes to training any pet. Sure, parrots do have an amazing memory and can sometimes learn a word or phrase after only hearing it one time. However, there are times when you need to train your parrot daily before it can say what you want it to.
It’s not always going to be easy. Some parrots are extremely stubborn and have no interest in mimicking what you say. Others have gone through stressful events that have unfortunately ruined some of their mental capacity.
Either way, you should be very patient with your parrot. It may refuse to talk if pushed too hard. The parrot could even grow to resent you if pressured, which will only make it harder for you to train it.
Build A Bond
Your bird will be more likely to mimic if it trusts you. If you are a new parrot owner and want to train it to speak right away, try to spend some time with it first. In the wild, parrots often mimic sounds they find appealing or that they associate with pleasant things. When your parrot learns to love you, it will want to imitate you day in and day out.
Like any living creature, human or otherwise, parrots are more motivated to do things if there’s food involved. Only give it treats after it has spoken the word to encourage the behavior.
If the method you’re using doesn’t work, try to change things up. Parrots have different personalities and respond to different things. Getting to know your parrot better will help.
Organize a play date with another parrot owner that has a talking parrot. Parrots can teach each other how to speak, so hearing another parrot talk might inspire yours. You could also take your parrot to the local breeder or pet store with talking parrots.
Keep The Lessons Short
If the parrot gets bored, it won’t learn anything. There’s also the risk of your parrot feeling pressured after a prolonged series of speech training. Keep the lessons under 10 minutes a day and do them when your parrot is at its most energetic.
How Long Does It Take To Teach A Parrot To Talk?
As mentioned, a parrot will pick up words at its own pace. Depending on its gender, species, and background, this could be weeks or months. For most types of parrots, it takes 12 months or more to form clear, coherent phrases.
Smarter parrots may pick up individual words within a few weeks. However, they could sound malformed and only mildly resemble the original word. With more practice and honing, the parrot can mimic more effectively.
Of course, pronunciation will be more easily adapted between parrots. If your bird can learn from another bird, it may grasp the basics faster. After all, it doesn’t have to translate human sounds into a parrot mimicry; it can take it directly from a mimicry.
Parrots can talk like humans because they’re intelligent. If you want to help develop that intellect, parrots will always benefit from the company of a more experienced parrot.