Do Parrots Understand What They Say?

Most parrot owners firmly believe that their pets understand at least some of what they say. My own experience also indicates that this is true there are just far too many examples of parrots utterances fitting the situation to be mere coincidence. Then, of course, there was the famous Alex, an African Grey Parrot whose amazing learning abilities shocked even seasoned animal behaviorists (please see article below). A recent study took an interesting new approach to analyzing parrot speech, and yielded some surprising findings.

My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door.

Do parrots understand human language?

Parrots are one of the few animals that can learn human language. While other birds can mimic certain human sounds, parrots can imitate human speech better than other creatures.

Can parrots hold a conversation?

Researchers have found that flocks of parrots have “conversations,” and analysis of their brains shows that they learn languages in a similar way to humans. … Once you hear that, the ability to mimic human speech seems like the least impressive thing a bird can do.

Do parrots remember words?

The answer to this question is yes, parrots do have a long term memory. Given the fact that they can memorize and repeat over 150 words and phrases, this isn’t really shocking.

Of all the creatures on Earth, only two can produce human language: humansand birds. Of the few birds that can imitate human speech, including mynah birds, crows, and ravens, parrots are clearly the best at itthey give TED talks, speak multiple languages, and even front heavy metal bands. So why can parrots talk when our closer primate relatives cannot?

In the wild, parrots use their vocal prowess to share important information and fit in with the flock, says Irene Pepperberg , a research associate and part-time lecturer at Harvard.

Those with companion birds like to think that their birds can understand what both the owner and the birds themselves are saying, and often ask me if that is possible. My answer is that it is definitely possible, but that the answer depends on the type of interactions the parrots have with their owners. A bit of background will help explain my response.

In contrast, if an owner takes the time and energy to work with the bird, the parrot can learn the meaning of the speech it hears and produces. The most effective way to achieve such understanding involves the model/rival technique that I described in a previous blog, in which two humans demonstrate for the bird the use of relevant labels.

As many people already know, Ive shown that African grey parrots can, for example, learn labels for objects, colors, shapes, numbers, categories, and concepts in this manner.

A Unique Look at Parrot Speech

Most folks have utilized “question-answer” type research in order to determine if parrots actually respond with correct answers, indicating that they understand the question posed. However, researchers at the University of Georgia (USA) were interested in parrots’ spontaneous vocalizations. They wanted to see if parrots might change what they said to fit different situations, without being prompted by people.The study’s results, published in the May, 2011 issue of

Parrot Changes Words to Fit Situation

If Cosmo’s owner was in another room, Cosmo spoke twice as many words as when the owner was in the same room as himself, or was not present in the house. Amazingly, when the owner was in another room, Cosmo’s words very frequently related to location – “When owner and Cosmo were in the same room, most of his words were designed to elicit interaction – i.e.The researchers concluded that Cosmo was choosing specific words to fit different situations, and had grasped the concepts behind the words he used. Cosmo’s behavior was more clearly understood by viewing “communication units” rather specific individual words. All told, Cosmo used 278 distinct communication units.

Flock Safety

The first, most important, issue is that parrots are flock animals. A parrot alone in the wild has almost zero chance of surviving — it cannot both watch for predators and forage successfully. Thus, parrots are almost always in groups — often small subsets of the entire flock — where they rotate the job of “sentinel”: the bird that keeps watch while the others feed. While in Australia, I saw a juvenile rosella, all alone at the top of a tree, screaming loudly. It was clearly in distress, and being so noticeable would make it a target for any predator in range. The bird knew, however, that its only chance of surviving was to find the rest of its flock; it would not last long by itself.

Contact Calling

The second issue is that one of the main ways that parrots maintain their bonds with one another, often while hidden in foliage, is by vocalizing. We know that these vocalization are so important for identifying who is a flock member that some parrot species have flock dialects to ensure group cohesion. Interestingly, juveniles may learn a novel dialect if they find themselves in a new flock, but older birds are willing to fly long distances to return to their natal flock if they have been displaced by researchers (see Salinas-Melgoza & Wright, 2012). These data provide additional evidence for the importance of being in a flock, particularly for the use of specific “contact calls” to keep in touch with flock-mates.

Single Bird Or A Flock Member?

The third issue, that is relevant for bird stewards, is whether their bird is part of a group of parrots or a singleton. A bird that is part of a flock (in captivity, even a mixed-species flock) may or may not care to learn human speech or other human-related noises, as it has natural compatriots with whom it can whistle, call, and interact. The bird’s willingness to learn a human system, therefore, depends on how much it wants to connect with the humans in its life compared to the other birds. A bird that is a singleton, however, will try extremely hard to become integrated into its human “flock.”