One of my colleagues once invited me to their home for Christmas. On my arrival at the door, I was greeted by their pet parrot, Ditto. It cheerfully greeted me “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” I greeted it back in confusion. Since then I have been wondering if parrots do understand what they are saying or not?
On further researching the topic, I found the answer to be: No, not really. They respond to the stimulus and not the idea. So you entering the door would be stimulus while the parrot greeting you would be a reaction. They don’t grasp the idea to why they are doing it.
Ditto didn’t greet me Merry Christmas because he understands the concept of Christmas or has the idea about the date. The reason was he heard people repeating it and often got treat in encouragement.
But why do they mimic us in the first place if they don’t understand us? The answer would surprise you! Continue reading to find out.
Songbirds versus parrots
Not all birds can tell the difference from one sound to another. Songbirds are the species of birds that are vocal learners. But not all songbirds can mimic human voice or speech. Parrots are not songbirds but they are vocal learners as well. They are brilliant at mimicking human speech.
When we get into the anatomy of these two birds, they both have something in common. According to a recent study, these types of birds have a section of their brain dedicated to a ‘song system’.
But the difference is that parrots have two layers of song system – called core (inner layer) and shell (outer layer).
This has somehow justified how most of the species of parrots adapt to their environment vocally. The outer layer, shell, is unique to the species of parrots.
It is further being researched on how this ‘shell’ actually makes them better than other songbirds (for instance, Hill mynah) that can mimic human speech.
They don’t understand the language but they respond to stimulus
Now that you know what makes them different, you must be curious to know if they really do understand anything or not. If you take personal accounts of pet owners, they would want you to believe that they understand what they are saying. But that topic is debatable.
Most people confuse the parrot’s ability to respond to stimuli with a general understanding of the concept. They don’t necessarily understand what your words mean but they do observe what those words can make you do.
To rephrase it – what words you speak and action they do would get them a treat.
The interesting story of Alex – the African grey parrot
Parrots are very intelligent creatures. One case in point is of the parrot named Alex who lived till 30 years of age. It was a male African Grey parrot who was studied to better understand if parrots can really use their intelligence to put 2+2 together.
After years of research, the findings were astonishing.
Alex could identify 50 objects, seven colors, six shapes, and could also count up to 8. He could also understand ideas and try to put it together. For example, he used to call the cake as ‘yummy bread’.
He also called apples ‘banerry’ because it tasted like banana and looked like a big cherry.
But one should also take a mental note that Alex was trained to develop his intelligence in a laboratory. If you have the time and patience to make your parrot understand concepts, then you can find interesting results.
They would take their own sweet time to do that, but even achieving this feat also means that we are taking tiny steps to understand animals as well. (Source)
African grey parrots are highly intelligent. We compared the intelligence of an African grey to the intelligence of a macaw in this article – Read it here!
Wild parrots versus captive parrots: behavior and learning patterns
Coming back to the question we left at the beginning: why do they mimic humans anyway? The answer might generate some empathy for them. They get into peer-pressure to fit into their environment. They want to fit in because they want to survive.
Wild parrots are known to learn social behavior from social cues they observe in their circle. They develop dialects that are unique to their territory and group. This also helps them to distinguish between their tribe versus other immigrant parrots.
Wild parrots are dependent on other parrots to understand social cues. Also, their display of vocal prowess helps them in attracting a mate. Although they can pick up what they hear or find interesting, they are not dependent on humans to survive.
In contrast to this, captive parrots are dependent on their adoptive human to understand social cues. Also, if they need to survive, they need to ‘fit’ in the new tribe. Since they are adaptable and have been hardwired to understand that they cannot survive alone – they mimic to fit in.
The fate of parrots that leave the cage and go to the wild
We have already mentioned that parrots are adaptive and know that they need to fit in to survive. When a caged parrot is left open in the wild, they would either be adopted by the wild parrots or ignored by them.
It depends on the social ability of the parrot to learn the local dialect and fit in.
Those who are successful at it enters and mates with the local wild parrots. In fact, they start to learn from each other about the things they like. For example, pet parrots were observed teaching wild parrots their slangs and words they learned.
Those who are not successful end up alone or ostracized from the group. If a flock of parrots migrated from one region to another, some would gel well with the locals while others will not. Those who don’t would form their own group since they don’t like to be left alone.
Teaching your parrot how to talk
The first thing that you should know is that not all parrots can talk with the same ferocity. Some are quieter and some would not shut up. African Grey parrots, Amazon parrots, cockatoos, cockatiels, and likes are the chatters.
Macaws, Senegal parrots, Pionus, and likes will use their words wisely and sparingly. (If you want to know how many words a parrot can learn, read this article!)
If you know your species then proceed with these steps:
- Start with simple words such as “Hi”, “Hello”, “pretty bird”, “Bye”, etc.
- Repeat the words as often as you can. Help them understand the stimulus and context.
- Use the same pitch and voice when you introduce them to the new word.
- Use a reward system as a positive reinforcement for them to learn more. They would become more attentive to the word and result.
- There will be times when your parrot wouldn’t be able to repeat the exact word correctly. Be patient with them and try again with them.
- Make sure not to exhaust them with training and treats. Take a few breaks and let them enjoy the process.
- If they are not getting the word, don’t be harsh on them. Accept your parrot’s limitations and work around it.
Fun fact: Parrots are prone to learning profanity, as they are quick to learn words associated with excitement or commotion. So make sure that you are extra careful not to use bad language around your parrot.
How many birds can mimic human speech? Apart from parrots, Indian Mynah, Corvids, Starlings, Mockingbirds, Lyrebirds, and Australian Magpie can mimic human speech. There are songbirds that can mimic voices they hear in their environment such as of another bird, animal, or even alarm noises.
Can my pet parrot recognize its name?
Your pet parrot may just be responding to a stimulus without actually knowing what it means. You can train it to respond to its name but it might not necessarily understand that it is its name. On the other hand, it has been found that wild parrots are given their names by their parents when they are born. They also respond to their given name as well.
Can a bird recognize its owner?
According to a study, birds can recognize and distinguish between people on the basis of sound and face. So yes, they can recognize their owner.