Rebecca K. O'Connor
One of the first things a visitor asks you when you have a parrot in your home is, "Does it talk?” It seems that everyone is fascinated by the ability of parrots to mimic the language spoken by her people. Why wouldn’t they be?
Many parrot lovers bring home a bouncing baby bird hoping that she learns to talk, but there are a lot of myths about how and why a parrot does or does not learn to speak our language. Do you know which are true and which are false?
If you have more than one parrot none of them will learn to talk.
False: Many people believe that the only way a parrot will talk is if she lives alone. This is perhaps most frequently said of budgies (parakeets), because, when two birds are together in the same cage, they often do not talk. This is not because they won’t talk, however. As long as a parrot is comfortable and has a positive relationship with the people in the house, she may learn to talk to them.
A parrot that is paired with another parrot and does not interact much or at all with people has no reason to mimic voices. It may be perfectly content to speak "parrot” to her mate and completely ignore the people in the house.
If your parrot comes out of the cage and frequently spends time with you, then having multiple parrots in the house can sometimes make all the birds in the house more likely to talk. Parrots often learn behaviors from one another, including talking. If one of your parrots is a blabbermouth when it interacts with you, the other parrots in the house might pick up a few words from it.
Only hand-raised parrots learn to talk.
False: While it certainly may be easier to work with a hand-raised bird, this does not necessarily make her more likely to speak. Parrots learn to imitate sounds as a way to interact with their environment and the other animals (including people) in it.
There are parrots that were taken from the wild and never tamed that learned to talk, although their tendency is to say very little. Parrots in a sanctuary situation that spend more time with other parrots than people may still talk.
Even if your parrot was not hand-raised, if you spend time with her, handle her and interact with her frequently, she is likely to learn some vocalizations to get your attention. Parrots are social animals, and interacting with their environment is quite rewarding to them. No matter how your parrot was raised, it may still learn to talk.
Parrots understand everything you say.
False: This myth gets a lot of parrots in trouble with their owners. Parrots have an uncanny ability to say the right thing at the right time. Irene Pepperberg, a researcher from Brandeis University, has studied African grey parrots’ cognitive and communication abilities for more than 30 years. Her late, famous African grey parrot, Alex, demonstrated that parrots can label items in their world using the correct word for the correct item. Alex could identify 50 objects, and he could also describe their colors, shapes and the materials they were made from. He also understood the concepts of "bigger,” "smaller,” "same” and "different,” could count up to 6, and understood a concept similar to our idea of zero. This was startling, because people do not grasp the idea of zero until age 3 or 4.
While Alex proved that a parrot’s ability to comprehend words was nothing short of amazing, this still isn’t language. The parrot in your home may learn to use the right word for many things and may even utter phrases at the appropriate moment, but it won’t learn language the way we use it. Your parrot may say, "Goodbye, I’ll see you tonight,” when you leave because that is the appropriate sound for when you pick up your keys and head for the door. It doesn’t really know that "See you later” means you’ll be back around 6 pm.
Parrots love to curse.
False: It seems that everyone has a story about a parrot that curses. In fact, most of the historical records of parrots include tales of foul-mouthed parrots that got in trouble at some point because of it. While there certainly are parrots that curse, it isn’t that it is a favorite parrot pastime, but people seem to love the idea of it.
Parrots are more likely to learn words and phrases that are said with some "oomph” — if someone is screaming it, it must be fun. Your parrot is more likely to learn anything you yell out. For example, parrots often learn to call the dog or yell for a teenager to come to the phone. So if you don’t want your parrot to curse, be careful what you say and how you say it the next time you stub your toe.
Talking is a sign of intelligence.
False: There are many animals that scientists consider very intelligent that do not mimic human speech. Dolphins, primates, elephants and other animals are considered to be just as, or more, intelligent as parrots, yet they do not mimic human speech.
All animals have their own form of communication, and animals that are quite intelligent are able to learn to recognize some human sounds. Although dolphins cannot imitate speech, they can certainly learn words. Primates have even been taught to use sign language, but not all animals have hands to prove they can communicate to us this way.
So language is not the only quantifier of intelligence. Tool use, self-recognition, understanding abstract concepts and innovation are other ways scientists quantify intelligence. No matter how you look at it, parrots are smart. So just because your parrot has never said a word doesn’t mean it’s a dunce.
Want to learn more about teaching your parrot to talk? Check out these articles:
5 Parrot Talking Myths & Facts
10 Tips To Teach Your Pet Parrot To Talk
Top 3 Best Talking Parrots