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A Wilder View: Why do parrots talk?

Posted at 10:47 AM, Nov 02, 2022

MISSOULA - There are more than 20 million pet birds in the United States, and some may be able to say your name or even sing song lyrics. But why do parrots talk in the first place?

Every animal may have something to say but only two can actually produce human language. The first is obviously us. And birds are the only other animal capable of human language.

Certain species like crows, ravens, or hummingbirds can imitate a few words. But out of all the birds, parrots seem to be the best. They can learn to say hundreds of words and can even understand what some of the words mean.

Parrots are vocal learners, which means they obtain sounds by hearing them and then imitating them. Any bird that’s a vocal learner can do this because of a part of their brain called the "song system.” Inside this system is a part called the “inner core” which is crucial to helping these birds learn how to make sounds.

But a parrot’s song system goes one step further. They have a portion called the “outer shell.” This shell is what gives parrots the edge to be experts at copying sounds. Although biologists are not sure exactly how it works.

Researchers say even some of the most ancient species of parrots have this outer shell. Meaning this part of the song system dates back to almost 29 million years ago.

So why do they copy human speech? It’s because they're just trying to fit in.

In the wild, parrots use their voices to share important information and fit in with the flock. Just one bird in the wild by itself is likely a dead bird. It’s not able to look for food to eat and predators at the same time.

But in a flock, they can each take on a duty. So, if you place a parrot in a home with people, it will try to integrate itself into the environment. Imitating our words because they see their owners as part of their new flock. When out in the wild parrots look to other parrots to learn.

But when this shifts to our homes then people become their point of interaction. Just like if you were trying to learn a new language, a pet parrot has all the necessary circumstances to learn words. They have an abundance of time, brain power, and encouragement.

Hearing a parrot speak is quite fascinating but there is debate as to how much parrots actually understand what they’re saying. Most parrot owners would have to wonder if their parrots don’t understand at least a few of the words they say.

To parrots, words may have some associations but not complex understandings. What makes them seem so convincing that they are comprehending these words is that parrots are very aware of the context in which words are used.

If your parrot says “hi, how are you” every time you walk into the room it likely isn't interested in how you actually are feeling but is copying what it hears you saying when you walk into a room.

Parrots are also intrigued by phrases tied with excitement. This doesn’t mean your parrot can’t know what you’re saying though. It all just comes with the proper education. For instance, a parrot trained to identify favorite foods will know what they mean when they’re asking for them.

Vice reported the drummer for the band Hatebeak, had a parrot that enjoyed eating bananas and crackers. When they got him banana chips, the parrot was able to comprehend the new food item and called them ‘banana crackers’ on his own.

Whether an animal can speak our language or not, most animals do communicate with sounds. But parrots will always be particularly captivating.