Thoughts on talking parrots: How, why and what

Do talking parrots understand what they’re saying? It often seems they do, but it can be difficult to differentiate between mimicking and true understanding. Thoughts on stubborn African greys, Barbara Heidenreich’s work with parrots and how you can stimulate your own psittacine to mimic your speech.

Arthur & CasperI sometimes take Artha and Casper, my African Greys who are well harness-trained, on shopping trips in town. Why wouldn’t captive birds, who in the wild would travel kilometres each day, enjoy a change of scene? When strangers accost me with Artha and Casper, one on each shoulder, the first question that I’m asked is, ‘Does he talk?’ Yes, I reply but not on demand. Sometimes Casper, if he has liked the look of the questioner, might go ‘Wheep’ – once they are out of earshot. I believe that Wheep means ‘Hello,’ in African Grey language. Why, oh, why cannot I get them to speak on cue? Help is on hand.

Getting your parrot to talk

Barbara and DelbertBarbara Heidenreich, one of America’s foremost bird and animal trainers, has, for the last few years been producing DVDS on every aspect of training companion parrots using the most gentle and successful methods of positive reinforcement. One of the series is how to get your parrot to talk. The DVD is a corker; not least from the pleasure of the additional second disc which records 18 parrots speaking with space to add your own. Barbara dismisses some current myths and gives good advice on acquiring a talking bird. Then, after teaching various strategies for success, she finishes with a chapter on training her yellow-naped Amazon Delbert, to sneeze on cue.

The myths

She begins by dispelling some myths, about talking parrots, like the one that all parrots talk. They do not, though many will if they’re given the right conditions. Another myth: if you whistle to your parrot, it won’t talk. Not true. Barbara took a poll of 900 bird owners. 78% kept birds who both whistled and spoke. That males speak more readily than females can be true of some species, like cockatiels. That being said, usually it’s an individual bird who may or may not be a talker.

Which parrots talk?

If you are fortunate to be choosing your baby bird and particularly wish a talker, Barbara suggests Congo Greys or Timnehs. Among the Amazons, Yellow-naped, DYH and Blue-fronted Amazon are known for good mimicry. She discounts a reputation for aggression amongst Amazons and considers that aggressive behaviour results more from poor or wrong training than a species’ inherent characteristic. Of the small birds, budgerigars and Quakers are among the talking parrots. Although their intelligence is outstanding, cockatoos and macaws will never speak more than rudimentary human language. There are always exceptions, though. the DVD shows various birds speaking, some charming shots of a ringneck talking and kissing a plush toy, a macaw talking to herself in a mirror.

Talking parrots: Barbara HeidenreichYou have to experiment to find what stimulates your bird to speak. Delbert, Barbara’s young Yellow-naped Amazon is turned on by the vacuum cleaner. Music makes many birds sing and talk. The sound of water and bath time is another trigger. Some talking parrots will speak when greeting another bird that was absent. Greys, in particular, irritate their owners by floods of conversation when they are out of the room and silence when they come in. My Greys will sing and whistle to music whereas the cockatoos will dance. Putting words on cue means the bird will speak when you want to show off to sceptical friends and relations.

If you find a breeder who has parrot parents that talk, the offspring will be more likely to end up doing so, too. Before Delbert came home, Barbara asked the breeder to play recordings of birds speaking and also of her own voice. Baby Delbert at weaning must have assimilated these sounds, because he began to use them at the age of 6/7 months. Three years old when the DVD was filmed, he had a vocabulary of 50 sounds with ten on cue and more being learned the time.

Talking on cue

You’ll watch many entrancing shots of Delbert’s speaking. Barbara noticed he copied her sneeze. This she wanted to put on cue. So whenever he sneezed, she straightaway reinforced and praised him. Delbert likes his nut treats and extra attention, so sneezed frequently. Barbara points out when putting a word or action on cue concentrate on just that one so as not to confuse the bird. Soon, whenever Barbara sneezed herself and said ‘sneeze’, Delbert copied her (Barbara, I hope you’re not offended if I say Delbert looks cuter than you do sneezing).

Barbara began training the wanted behaviour with the action of her sneezing plus the verbal cue ‘sneeze’. As soon as Delbert responded, she faded out her own sneeze action. In this sort of positive reinforcement training, you need to use a bridge, the signal to the bird that the reinforcement (food reward, toy or attention) is coming. Barbara uses ‘good’ as a bridge; other trainers may use clickers. The importance of the bridge is in timing. If the bird says a desired word when you are out of the room, he needs to hear the bridge immediately and know the reward is coming.

How much do talking parrots understand what they are saying?

Most carers believe they understand well. Much as a human baby learns to associate an action with a word, so do our parrots.

Here is an anecdote about Chaucer Grey, who has lived with Virginia Bush in the USA for the last 17 years. Virginia told me: ‘Perhaps the most convincing demonstration of his intelligence – his ability to THINK clearly and independently – comes from the changes that he makes in the English terms and expressions that he hears me use, when he finds that these do not make perfectly good, logical sense. For example, one day when numerous things went wrong (a leak under the kitchen sink that turned into a flood, etc., etc.). He heard me say “Oh good grief!” time after time, in intense exasperation. After a few hours, he himself began to say “Oh … grief!” But he always left out “good”. A little later I heard him say “Oh, bad grief!”. A while after that he said “Oh awful grief!”.

These were expressions that he had absolutely never heard anyone say. Thinking about the phrase he had heard me use (“Oh, good grief”), he must have concluded that “good” did not make sense, for the situation in which I had used it. Entirely on his own, he changed the expression so that it did make good sense. That’s clear, logical thinking – an excellent indication of intelligence.

Talking parrots: Irene Pepperberg with AlexIn the controversy of how much talking parrots do understand, I firmly believe that they do. Barbara Heidenreich avoids that controversy in this DVD. But anyone who has watched Alex, Dr Pepperberg’s late- lamented Grey, asked successfully to pick out numbers, colours and material from a tray of 20 objects or who has had the tragic-comic-sweet experience of his bird nipping him, laughing loudly, saying, ‘Ouch, bad bird’ before flying off, knows perfectly well that they do have the capacity to understand a lot of what they say.

I’ve had the experience of picking up the telephone – the caller asking for Wal and me saying, ‘Sorry, he’s out,’. The caller says but I heard him saying, ‘Hello, who is it?’ in the background. When told ‘Sorry, it was the parrot,’ the caller hangs up.

Lastly…

What has never been ‘proved’ in tests or research is the fact that a lone bird generally speaks more human language than a bird with other parrot companions. That has been my personal experience. When Artha Grey was a sole bird, she had a vocabulary of 150 words. 40 of these she’d use in the correct context. For example, she only said, ‘Good morning,’ and ‘Good night,’ at the appropriate times of the day.

Once Casper Grey joined her, her use of English rapidly diminished. She has developed an irritating but endearing habit. When I ask her, ‘How does the doggie go? To which she used to reply, ‘Woof, woof.’ Now all she‘ll do is to raise her wings and bob her head in acknowledgement that I‘m asking her to do something which she’s politely refusing.

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