Why Do Parrots Speak?

And do they know what they’re saying?

Alex the parrot counts red and blue objects at the behest of his owner, Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Photo: Jeff Topping for The New York Times/Redux

Only two species on Earth can develop human language: humans...and birds. Parrots are definitely the greatest at imitating the human speech of the few birds that can, including mynah birds, crows, and ravens—they give TED presentations, speak many languages, and even front heavy metal bands. So, why can parrots communicate but our closest ape ancestors cannot?

Parrots are vocal learners, which means they learn sounds by hearing them and then mimicking them. Although other bird species can recognize and repeat sounds, parrots are the experts.

Erich Jarvis, a Duke University neurologist, and vocal learning expert, has explained why in a paper published in Plos One. Any vocal learner has a section of the brain devoted to this, known as the song system.' However, the song system in parrots has two layers: an inner 'core,' which is shared by all avian vocal learners, and an outer shell,' which is unique to parrots. Jarvis believes that the freshly discovered'shell' is what permits parrots to be such good mimickers (albeit he hasn't figured out how it works yet).

But why do they replicate human speech? It turns out that peer pressure is a thing. Parrots instinctively strive to blend in, whether with other parrots or with humans.

According to Irene Pepperberg, a research associate and part-time lecturer at Harvard, parrots use their vocal prowess in the wild to transmit crucial information and blend in with the flock. Pepperberg is well known for her research on the intelligence of Alex, an African Grey Parrot that lived in Pepperberg's lab for 30 years before dying 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 explains, whereas, in a flock, tasks may be shared.

Parrots can even learn and speak different dialects. Amazon with a yellow nape Parrots in Costa Rica, for example, have regional dialects, and when they change places, the transplants frequently pick up the local twang, according to Tim Wright, a parrot vocalization researcher at New Mexico State University.

Put a parrot in a human household, and it will "try to integrate itself into the situation as though the people were flock members," according to Pepperberg.

Time, inspiration, and mental aptitude are all required for pet parrots to learn English. Wild parrots, on the other hand, lack the near proximity to speech required. (Although wild parrots have been overheard reciting human sentences, presumably learned from escaped pet parrots, this is a rare occurrence.) "In the wild, parrots focus on other parrots for what they want to learn," Wright explains. Only in captivity, when humans become their primary source of social connection, do they begin to pay attention to us.

The question is, do these oblivious birds understand what they're saying?

Words may have connotations for parrots, but not complicated meanings, according to Wright. "But they are very sensitive to the context in which we use [words], and I think that frequently fools people." as a parrot says "Hello; how are you?" as its owner enters the room, it is "not necessarily interested in your well-being" but simply copying what the owner says when he or she enters. In fact, a parrot's interpretation of "How are you?" is most likely "Oh look, someone has entered the room." Wright adds that parrots are drawn to phrases and sounds linked with excitement and bustle, which may explain why the birds are so adept at learning profanity.

Training, on the other hand, can be a different story, according to Pepperberg. She purchased Alex shortly after finishing her Ph.D. in 1977 and decided to rigorously teach him: The bird observed and listened as two researchers identified and exchanged basic objects (importantly, objects Alex loved). While Alex watched, one human functioned as a model for the bird, swapping things with the other researcher. They created mistakes on purpose so the bird could see that "not any random new noise mediates the transfer of the object"—just its label. Only after the bird was "practically falling off his perch" with want for these goods did the researchers bring him into the conversation—and, if he correctly identified an object, let him play with it.

"Parrots that talk know what they're saying if they're properly taught," Pepperberg explains. A bird trained to recognize favorite meals, for example, understands exactly what they mean when they ask for them. Waldo, a 21-year-old African Grey Parrot who has been a member of the band Hatebeak for 12 years (what began as a joke has become a successful endeavor), for example, like bananas and crackers.

"We got him dehydrated banana chips, and he pieced it together and called them 'banana crackers' on his own," drummer Blake Harrison told Vice. It's a little unsettling."

What distinguished Alex was not his vocabulary (which, at roughly 100 words, was typical for a parrot). It was his ability to acquire and repeat topics that distinguished him: When researchers offered Alex cake on his birthday one year, he described it as "yummy bread." He also had his own word for 'apple,' 'banner,' "because it probably tasted like a banana and looked like a big cherry," Pepperberg said.

While that may appear to be quite clever, keep in mind that many other creatures, whether they have vocal learning or not, have sounds that they use to communicate (especially regarding food, which is one of the most crucial components of any animal's life). We probably find parrots especially endearing because we can understand them.

Pepperberg's Alex had learned to distinguish 50 things, seven colors, six shapes (such as "three-corner" for triangle and "four corners" for square), and amounts up to eight by the end of his life. For example, he could tell you how many purple popsicle sticks ("How many purple wood?") were on a tray of various objects. He could also tell the difference between "same" and "different," as well as "bigger" and "smaller."

Post a Comment

To Top