Title: Teaching Birds To Talk
Author: Melvyn Greenberg
One of the most magnetic attention-drawing companion animal behaviour features has to be a talking bird.
No one will ignore or snub a parrot that says “Hello”. It is the most amusing and entertaining of human-bird behaviour interactions when people try to talk to a feathered creature believing that the instinctive, idiosyncratic mimicry is understood by the pet bird. Talking birds do not know what they are saying but certainly develop rapid associations with the responses exhibited by people’s presence, human body language, the sounds of man’s vocabulary and surrounding stimuli.
There is an enormous spectrum of potential sounds and words that can be imitated by a wide variety of birds. While there is a species specific ability to copy human words, phrases and environmental sounds, there are also genetic traits amongst those species of birds where some have the capability of developing an enormous repertoire while others are limited to a narrow spectrum simulation.
In the talent of these mimicking birds some individuals are able to acquire a very large vocabulary compiled from the influence of many different people. Some birds can “sing” songs or operettas for lengthy periods of time with incredible precision and accuracy. Before the advent of all the modern technology it has been known for a bird to mimic a song word for word, including all the strange sounds made by numerous scratches on the old recording.
Is it scientifically correct and anthropomorphically incorrect to regard talking birds as intelligent? Intelligence in birds certainly proves itself in learning ability and the human perception thereof by the speed, ease and clarity of learning to talk, and do tricks.
The breeds of birds most capable of talking include the African Grey Parrot (red tail, more than the maroon tail or Timneh species or it could be relative to population percentages), Green Amazon Parrot, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Greater, and lesser), mynahs, crows and some cockatiels and budgies (the best of the small bird species). Throughout the world the African Grey is regarded as the best talker, followed by the Yellow-naped Amazon. Other bird species that are known to talk, with a lot of effort and difficulty, include lovebirds, conures, lorikeets, Indian ring-neck parakeets, Alexandrine and plum-headed parakeets.
Some birds babble, a bit like children, before they learn to speak or mimic. A parrot is physically able to reproduce sounds using a syrinx (voice-box with no vocal cords, situated deep inside the wind-pipe). The design of this mechanism is most suitable for whistling. In nature the bird species that are highly vocal in their communication with each other, are most likely to become talking pet birds. There are no accurate studies regarding avian gender ability to acquire speech; different authors, bird behaviourists, bird trainers and avian veterinarians have had unique experiences with a wide variety of bird species and each professional may have different statistics of talking species. Young birds are more likely to learn to talk than are older birds, particularly after 1 year of age. Hand-reared birds, in most instances, also learn more easily than wild-caught birds. An alert bird that is interested in its surroundings is more likely to talk than a quiet, passive bird. Always be on the look out for a young bird that is interactive and showing a keen, emotional and demonstrative interest in what it sees and hears. A baby of a good talking type of bird will learn the most exciting and enthusiastic words and sounds it hears.
The high-pitched voices of women will most likely and easily be aped by the bird. It is best to start with only one word and then slowly build up its vocabulary over a period of time. A bird will only learn if the environmental situation is conducive to being stress-free. A quiet, calm atmosphere with minimal overriding sounds will facilitate a better learning response from the feathered creature.
If you want to teach your bird so that it appears to understand the meaning of what it is saying then use the same words when you perform the identical task e.g. “Night, night” when you cover the cage at bedtime. By using this form of association the bird can learn to say “Hello, how are you?” when the phone rings or “Come in” when there is a knock at the door. It is, basically, a learned response to a fixed stimulus. Birds can also learn from other talking birds.
In order for any bird to mimic there has to be a system of repetitive conditioning. By the intermittent, consistent repetition of words and sounds the potentially talking bird will eventually mimic. Every time one sees the bird a word or phrase can be repeated or you can use a continuous tape recording. This is not meant to run all day but rather only a few times a day. Some birds are most sensitive to what it is hearing just before going to roost after sunset so when its cage is being covered this may be the most influential moment for conditioning it to sounds.
A bird should be bought because you wish to care for it to the best of your ability, in the interests of the animal and never be bought as a pet for the sole purpose of having a talker. While this may be a wonderful bonus, there can be a serious disappointment if the bird turns out to be a non-talker or a screecher.
One has to be extremely careful what utterances are made by family members once the bird is a talker. Veterinarians specializing in birds, boarding facility owners and avian ethologists (bird behaviourists) often relate anecdotal bird mimickry, no-names-no-pack-drill. Birds are honest accurate narrators of domestic truths and reality e.g. a parrot mimicking the husband coughing in the early stages of emphysema from smoking, the wife shouting at the dogs to get out of the house, the children shouting expletives and a complete commentary of construction activities that must have emanated from building in the neighbourhood. The latter may include the arrival of concrete mixer trucks, revving of engines, nails being hammered in, builders shouting at one another, drills etc.
Removing words or phrases from a talking bird’s vocabulary is difficult, perhaps impossible. It may only be successful if the bird is adopted by new people in a different environment and learns a completely alternative vocabulary over many years. Through the non-use of previously-learnt words and phrases and non-occurrence of certain sounds in the new home, the previously learnt repertoire may become extinct due to the lack of association and overriding current stimuli.
Before a bird can talk it must have developed a meaningful bond and trust with its owner. The person must be calm, confident and consistent. When speaking, the words must be spoken clearly and slowly to enable early recognition. Never teach your bird to say things you may later regret. What may be, initially, a humorous trick to teach a swear word to the parrot, the novelty may eventually wear off and then the excessive vocalization of the bird may become a social embarrassment.
The only guarantee of owning a talking bird is to, obviously, purchase an adult bird that is already talking, otherwise it is a gamble. Parrot breeders and specialized avian retail facilities are the best to approach for young birds.
Once a bird talks the talk the owners may have to walk the walk.