how many birds can talk

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

Parrots are vocal learners, meaning they grasp sounds by hearing and then imitating them. Although several other bird species can discern and repeat sounds, parrots are the pros.

Erich Jarvis, a Duke University neuroscientist and vocal learning expert, recently published a study in Plos One explaining why. Any bird that’s a vocal learner has a part of the brain devoted to this, called the ‘song system.’ But in parrots, the song system has two layers—an inner ‘core,’ common to all avian vocal learners, and an outer ‘shell,’ which is unique to parrots. Jarvis thinks that this recently discovered ‘shell’ is what allows parrots to be such expert mimickers (though he hasn’t figured out exactly how it works yet).

But why do they copy human speech? Peer pressure, it turns out. Parrots naturally try to fit in, be it among other parrots or other people.

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. Pepperberg is best known for her work probing the intelligence of an African Grey Parrot called Alex, who lived in Pepperberg’s lab for 30 years, until his death in 2007. “A single bird in the wild is a dead bird; It can’t look for food and look for predators at the same time,” Pepperberg says—but in a flock they can trade off responsibilities.

Parrots are even capable of learning and using varying dialects. Yellow-naped Amazon Parrots in Costa Rica, for example, have regional dialects, and when they swap regions, the transplants often pick up the local twang, Tim Wright, who studies parrot vocalization at New Mexico State University, found in his research.

So plop a parrot into a human household, and it will “try to integrate itself into the situation as though the people were its flock members,” says Pepperberg.

Pet parrots have all the essential conditions for picking up language—time, inspiration, and mental ability. Wild parrots, on the other hand, lack the needed close proximity to speech. (Though wild parrots have been overheard spouting human phrases, presumably learned from escaped pet parrots, this behavior is rare.) “In the wild, parrots focus on other parrots for what they want to learn,” Wright says. It’s only in captivity, when humans become their sources of social interaction, that they start paying attention to us. The question is, do these precocious birds know what they’re saying?

The question is, do these precocious birds know what they’re saying? For parrots, words may have some associations but not complex meanings, says Wright. “But they are very attuned to the context in which we use [words], and so I think that often fools people a little bit.” When a parrot says “Hello; how are you?” when its owner enters the room, for example, it’s “not necessarily interested in your well being” but is mimicking what it hears the owner saying when he or she comes in. In fact, a parrot’s understanding of “how are you,” is probably “Oh look, someone has come into the room.” Parrots are also drawn to phrases and sounds associated with excitement and commotion, Wright adds, which may be why the birds are so good at learning profanity.

With training, though, it can be a different story, says Pepperberg. She bought Alex right after she completed her PhD in 1977, and decided to train him rigorously: The bird listened and watched a pair of researchers identify and exchange simple objects (importantly, objects Alex liked). One human acted as a model for the bird, exchanging objects with the other researcher while Alex watched. They sometimes intentionally made mistakes, so the bird could see that “not any random new noise mediates transfer of the object”—just its label. Only when the bird was “practically falling off his perch” lusting after these objects did the researchers loop him into the conversation—and, if he identified an object correctly, let him play with it.

“Parrots who talk know what they’re saying if they are taught appropriately,” Pepperberg says. For example, a bird trained to identify favorite foods knows exactly what they mean when they ask for them. For example, Waldo, a 21-year-old African Grey Parrot who has been part of the band Hatebeak for 12 years (what started as a joke has become a successful venture), likes snacking on bananas and crackers. As drummer Blake Harrison told Vice, “We got him dehydrated banana chips, and he pieced it together and called them ‘banana crackers’ on his own. Its a little creepy.”

By the end of his life, Pepperberg’s Alex had learned to identify 50 objects, seven colors, six shapes (such as “three-corner” for triangle and “four corner” for square), and quantities up to eight. He could tell you, for instance, how many purple popsicle sticks (“How many purple wood?”) were on a tray of assorted objects. He could also identify things that were the “same” or “different,” as well as “bigger” and “smaller.” What stood out about Alex was not his vocabulary (at around 100 words, it was average for a parrot). Instead, it was his ability to learn and repeat concepts: For example, when researchers fed Alex cake on his birthday one year, he called it “yummy bread.” He also had his own special word for ‘apple’—‘bannery,’ “cause it probably tasted a bit like a banana and looked like a big cherry,” Pepperberg says.

While that might sound pretty ingenious, remember that many other animals—vocal learning or not—have sounds that they use to communicate (particularly about food, one of the most important aspects of any animal’s life). We likely just find parrots particularly endearing because we can understand them.

Pledge to stand with Audubon to call on elected officials to listen to science and work towards climate solutions.

Flock recognition edit

In the wild, flocks of parrots develop distinct local dialects. According to research, they use these to tell familiar birds in their flock apart from unfamiliar birds in other flocks. Birds react more favorably to vocalizations that resemble their own, and they shun those who use different vocalizations. Captive birds may imitate people, especially their owners, in an attempt to fit in and be accepted as family (flock). They may perceive a word or phrase that they hear frequently as a vocalization unique to their flock. Then, in an effort to keep their flock membership, they try to vocalize themselves. The parrot is more inclined to mimic human words and phrases if it mimics human speech and gets food or attention in return, rather than receiving no response when it makes a natural parrot vocalization. [43].

Cognition controversy edit

The question of whether parrots can speak or just mimic what they hear is up for debate. But according to some scientific research, these parrots may be able to use words meaningfully in linguistic tasks. One such study was carried out over a 30-year period by Irene Pepperberg with a grey parrot named Alex and other parrots; the results were featured on network television on multiple occasions[44]. [45].

Citing Alex’s communications as an example of operant conditioning, some scientists cast doubt on Pepperberg’s findings. [46] Opponents cite the instance of Clever Hans, a horse whose owner claimed to be able to count but who was actually picking up on subtle cues from him. [47] Another instance involved the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky, who was believed to be speaking, though there is disagreement over whether or not he was just copying his teacher. [47] Dr. Working with Nim Chimpsky, Herbert Terrace claims that he believes Alex responded rotely rather than verbally, referring to Alex’s responses as “a complex discriminating performance” and stating that “there is an external stimulus that guides his response in every situation.” The arguments of rote learning and operant conditioning, however, are hard to support given that Alex’s supporters point out that Alex was able to communicate with and perform for everyone involved in the project as well as total strangers who recorded findings on their own and during the bird’s initial interaction. [48].

Grey parrots can also be taught to label objects referentially using human language by scientists in France and the Czech Republic, though they haven’t had much success with Pepperberg’s method—which was discovered to be ineffective for the specific birds in the study. [49].

Sexual selection for large repertoire edit

One hypothesised [citation needed] purpose of mimicry in general is that mimics have developed a vast vocalization repertoire in order to improve their chances of successful reproduction. For instance, the male lyrebird embellishes his song with a variety of mimicked noises, such as car horns, chainsaws, and barking dogs, in addition to the songs of other nearby birds.

A bird may use general mimicry to shield itself from predators or to protect its young. The Australian magpie, for instance, imitates the calls of the boobook and barking owls, which are both predators of the magpies’ young.

FAQ

What is the most talkative bird?

The African grey parrot ranks number one in the list of most intelligent talking parrots.

Can you teach all birds to talk?

Not all bird species can talk, and even those that have the ability sometimes choose not to use it. To determine if your bird is a good candidate for speech training, do a bit of research on your pet’s species.

How many birds can mimic?

More than 300 songbirds are known to mimic at least one other creature; some, including mockingbirds, imitate so often that less than half of their “speaking” happens in their native tongue.

Can male birds talk?

You’ll find they tend to imitate words that their owners frequently use. Both females and males can imitate human speech, though male birds appear to be better at speaking words in the right tone.