How Do Parrots Talk? Do They Understand What They're Saying?
Known for saying charming phrases such as “Polly wants a cracker,” parrots are a beloved animal found in popular media and pet stores alike. In addition to their peculiar skill of being able to produce speech, they also boast other awe-inspiring traits, such as beautiful feathers and unique personalities.
The thought of birds being able to speak like humans is relatively unique, as they share very few traits with us. For instance, they don’t possess teeth or lips, which are integral (or at least thought to be integral) in producing speech. This leads people to wonder what mechanisms they use to talk given these major differences in anatomy.
How exactly can parrots talk? Can they uphold a conversation? Do they understand what they are saying? If you also share these burning questions, this article is for you!
How Do Parrots Talk?
Instead of having vocal cords, parrots talk by using a “voice box” otherwise known as a syrinx. The syrinx is a branched organ that lies at the conjunction of the trachea and the lungs. Interestingly, birds evolved this organ independently of almost all other organisms. Additionally, they also have a larynx, which is the organ found in other animals (such as humans) that allows them to speak!
At each of the two branches in the syrinx, there are thin membranes that can be controlled by precise muscles. When air passes through, the bird can manipulate these membranes to create specific sounds and frequencies. Birds can control this organ with extreme accuracy, producing incredibly clear sounds, or even multiple sounds at once.
In the case of songbirds, this can sound like whistling, but for parrots, can actually mimic speech! There are some birds, such as the lyrebird, which are known to be “vocal mimics,” meaning they can copy almost any sound they hear.
Birds that can copy speech and learn a multitude of sounds are known as open learners. In contrast to the premise of learning a singular song in their life, they can pick up new songs and even speech lines as they age!
Open-learning birds often have extremely well-defined and large neurons that are correlated to hearing, understanding, and producing speech. This dedication to speech processing is the main reason why they can mimic noises so well.
Do Parrots Understand What They Say?
It is likely every parrot owner’s dream to uphold full conversations with their beloved pet. I mean, if this were the case, having a parrot would be like having a built-in companion to talk to every day. Can they understand what they say though? Let’s discuss it!
Unfortunately, it is generally understood that parrots don’t understand what they are saying. While they can hear and correctly imitate noises they hear, they probably are cognizant of the “human meanings” of their words.
Most talking birds likely associate what they hear humans say with the context of where they hear them. In that sense, they don’t learn the word meanings. Instead, they learn when the words are supposed to be said, and to whom they are supposed to be said.
One phrase that many parrots learn is “Hi, how are you?” For most, this phrase was likely learned because they saw and heard people saying this phrase whenever they saw someone for the first time in a while. After learning this, parrots will associate the event of someone new entering the room with asking the question “Hi, how are you?” Thus, your parrot likely understands the context of what it is saying, but not what it means!
Other open-ended talking birds, such as the famous lyrebird, will entirely disregard the source of the noises they learn. Many copy the most elaborate sounds they hear in an attempt to increase the chances of females mating with them.
How to Teach a Parrot to Talk
Like most animal training, teaching your parrot to talk can be a long and challenging process. Luckily, parrots are exceptionally smart animals, so they will likely pick up speech quickly! Many pet parrots “accidentally” pick up phrases if you say them too much around the house.
When your parrot is learning its first words, it is best to say something simple. Words that have as few syllables as possible are best. Words such as “hi” and “hello” are great. It is best to introduce speech learning after your parrot is already used to being around you. You may also want to make phrases that include these words paired with their name. Using their name can help grab their attention when you are speaking to them.
After you introduce the word for a while, you may also want to introduce some type of reward system. Giving your parrot a treat after it says the correct word or phrase is a common reward. As your bird gets older and more confident with picking up words, you can start to introduce it to full sentences as phrases. Also, some parrot owners swear by using audio recordings and CDs to teach their parrots specific phrases over time!