Posted: June 13, 2013, 11:00 a.m. PDT
Remember to give your bird lots of praise when it's trying to talk.
Change Your Behavior
Birds are self-centered pets and have behaviors that get them things they want. Engage your bird in conversation that satisfies its need for socialization. When your bird says something, offer it praise; go over to it and repeat the word yourself, using it in various ways.
The best talking birds often live in households with talkative people. In one of the few studies on parrot vocalizations in the wild, Mike Schindlinger, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate, found that double yellow-headed Amazon parrots learn a flock language after fledging.
In our homes, the flock language that our parrots learn is what they hear in a human household. Think about what your bird hears in your home and how it interprets this language. Start talking to your bird as though it is a young child. Name things, say "Hello” and "Goodbye” as you come and go or talk about the weather, the family and what you’re doing. Name things that are important to your bird like "shower,” "apple,” "nut” and "bed time.”
Don’t expect philosophical discussions with your parrot. Rather, you’ll have the best success talking about things that are important to a bird. You can name food, toys and treats, or letting your bird know what you call its cage or aviary. Also mention the colors of objects.
Reward Your Bird
One behavior to modify is how you reward your bird. To a bird, food and attention are rewards. A bird will continue exhibiting behaviors for which it is rewarded. Sometimes, we inadvertently reward behaviors that we would rather not see a pet bird repeat. An example of this is when a bird "burps”. Most people react to this vocalization by commenting on it, laughing or running over to the bird’s cage. To your bird, this type of attention is a reward for its behavior and it’s a sound that will most likely be repeated.
First, you can discourage some of the ruder sounds a parrot might learn by not reacting to those burps, raspberries or offensive words. Include your family and friends in this endeavor as well, so everyone is clear on which sounds/words should be rewarded and which should be ignored.
Second, you can use this knowledge about what constitutes as a reward to your parrot to your advantage. When there’s a word you want your parrot to say, and it makes any attempt to say it, get excited, repeat the word and go over to the cage to interact. Give your parrot praise and/or a treat when it exhibits a behavior you would like to see again.
Although there are cases where a bird hears a phrase once and repeats it perfectly a short time later, it is normal for a bird to learn vocalizations gradually. Often, the first indication that a bird wants to learn to talk is when it makes garbled attempts to talk. Birds mumble and create an imitation of the intonation of human speech before actually saying a word or phrase clearly.
If your bird is in this stage of learning to talk, encouragement is crucial. Repeat what you think your bird is trying to say or what you want to be said. Work with your bird as it makes a natural progression from intonation to words to a whole phrase.
You might have a talking bird and not know it. That can be the case with male budgies, which are prolific talkers but they vocalize in a high-pitched, squeaky voice. What you might think is mindless chatter often turns out to be an imitation of words if you listen closely.
No matter what your bird says or asks for through body language, you’ll end up with a more communicative pet if you react to its requests. Tell your bird where you are going when you are together. After a while, ask your bird if it wants to go in the living room, outdoor aviary, bedroom, etc? Watch for the response. Most birds will probably anticipate going somewhere by getting excited and reaching up to go with you. Often a bird shaking its head "No” really does mean no. So react accordingly. Leave your bird where it is or go where it wants to go.
With a verbal bird, talk about what you are doing. If your bird is not verbal, this is one way the two of you can communicate without language. Your non-verbal bird can still understand what you are saying and react. Watch your bird’s body language and start using language to answer what it is asking or communicating.
Saying a word with enthusiasm is a good way to get it noticed by your parrot. Saying a word often will encourage your bird to learn it, too. Combine these techniques and choose a word to say often and in exciting ways to your parrot. If your bird is learning to say "grape,” then grab a grape yourself, exclaim how round it is, how bright green it is and how much you like grapes, taking opportunities to use the word grape often.
One of the activities of wild Amazons pointed out by Schindlinger’s work was the act of "duetting,” — when two mature Amazons engage in a call that they perform in harmony or complete for one another.
It’s possible that your parrot could enjoy an interactive word game or singing session between the two of you. When just speaking a word doesn’t get results from your parrot, try humming a word, singing it or including it in a song.
Try formal training with your bird, offering a food reward for talking and teaching your bird to talk on cue. For talking lessons, choose a quiet place that’s free of distractions. Place your bird on the back of a chair, on a stand or on a tabletop perch so you have its attention. Decide on a cue to give your bird for talking and also decide what it will be saying. Food is a good reward, but make it a special treat that isn’t readily available in the cage. Choose something that can be consumed quickly so that you can move on to further training.
Training sessions can last as long as both you and your bird are having fun, anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. You might start out teaching your bird to say "Hello” or its name. Say the word you want your bird to say, and if it makes any noise, offer a reward. As time goes on, reward your bird only when it says the word more clearly. Then, add a cue to your training. You say "What’s your name? Humphrey,” and your bird, which has been working on saying his name, says "Humphrey.” Teach him that when you say "What’s your name?” that his response should be "Humphrey” and that he will be rewarded for that.
Do you expect your bird to have the verbal capabilities of Alex the African grey? Alex had the benefit of structured training, hours of work with graduate students and an instructional program designed by a brilliant scientist. With fewer resources and time, you should expect fewer results.
Also, consider if your bird talks at all. African grey parrots are renowned for their talking ability, however, you can’t expect a Congo or his timneh cousin to speak words before they turn a year old. During the first year of an African grey’s life, it is listening, not necessarily talking back. What you are saying to a parrot is important to your bird and influences what you will hear back from it.
Other species learn to talk at an early age, sometimes before they wean. Young cockatiels often learn to say a few words or phrases, but won’t learn any more vocabulary after a couple of years of age. If you have a female budgie (parakeet) or cockatiel, you can’t expect your bird to ever learn to talk. Many parrots speak in squeaky voices or don’t speak clearly at all. Listen to the intonation of your bird’s vocalizations. Your bird may be "talking” more than you think, but the words just aren’t all that clear.
The only real way to know that you have a talented talking bird is to adopt an older bird that is already talking. Many talking birds are also vocal birds, because the two traits go hand in hand. So, if you have a quiet bird, you could count your blessings! Even a non-verbal bird can learn what words mean and react accordingly. Don’t let the lack of verbal ability deter you from communicating with your bird. Learn to love and appreciate the bird you have.
Check out more tips on teaching birds how to talk in this exclusive BirdChannel video: