How Can Parrots Talk? In 2010, a parrot that spoke with the same British accent as his owner, went missing. They were reunited four years later, but the intervening time left a conspicuous mark. The parrot had lost its British accent and was instead chattering away in Spanish. Parrots and several other birds are the only other animals that produce human speech. And some parrots do it almost uncannily well.
How is this possible?
Most wild parrots are highly social. They use vocalizations for mating and territorial displays and to coordinate group movements. Some species have flocks that continuously split and fuse, meaning individual parrots must be able to communicate with many others. Parrots use contact calls to interact and stay in touch when others are out of sight. But how exactly they use these calls depends on the species and the size of their flocks.
Monk parakeets, for example, live in large colonies and have individualized contact calls that help them stand out. Yellow-naped Amazon parrots, on the other hand, forage in smaller groups that learn and share highly similar contact calls. This need for sophisticated mimicry may partially explain why yellow-naped Amazons and some other parrots can closely imitate a wide range of sounds—including the human voice.
So, how can parrots talk?
A person would string the sounds together using their larynx, the organ at the top of their windpipe. It consists of rings of muscles and a vibrating membrane that controls air flow. They’d finely shape the vocalization into enunciated words using their tongue and lips.
For a parrot, however, the sound would originate in its syrinx, located at the base of its windpipe. Many other birds have two vibrating membranes within this organ. But parrots, like us, have just one. As sounds leave the airway, parrots shape them using their tongues and beaks. They can do this because they have especially flexible, powerful tongues that help them manipulate seeds and nuts. And while parrots’ beaks are rigid, they have very flexible jaw joints, giving them a lot of control over how wide and how quickly they open their beaks.
Like other animals with learned vocalizations, parrot brains contain interconnected regions that allow them to hear, remember, modify, and produce complex sounds. But while song birds have just one song system in their brains, almost all parrots seem to have an additional circuit. Scientists think that this might give them extra flexibility when it comes to learning the calls of their own species— and ours. With this specialized anatomy, parrots can bark, scream, curse, and recite factoids. One intrepid lost parrot managed to get back home after repeating his full name and address to helpful strangers. But these impressive abilities raise another question: do parrots actually understand what they’re saying?
Do parrots actually understand what they’re saying?
When most captive parrots talk, they’re likely attempting to form social bonds in the absence of their own species. Many probably have associations with words and may be drawn to ones that elicit certain responses—hence their capacity for profanity. But, especially after training, parrots have been observed to say things in the appropriate contexts and assign meaning to words— saying “goodnight” at the end of the day, asking for certain treats, or counting and picking objects. One extensively trained African grey parrot named Alex became the first non-human animal to pose an existential question when he asked what color he was. Whether they’re belting Beyoncé, head-banging to classic rock, or rattling off cuss words at zoo-goers, parrots are constantly astounding us— as they have been for millennia. But our fascination with parrots has also made them vulnerable. Sought by poachers and pet traders, while losing their habitats to deforestation, wild populations have decreased dramatically. To truly understand parrots, we need to preserve and study them in the wild.