Parrots are born communicators, and they have a natural desire to communicate. In addition, parrots are highly sociable animals. They form strong bonds with their flocks in the wild, but the parrot forms a social bond with a human in captivity.
They have the vocal anatomy to start mimicking you. Birds like hummingbirds, songbirds, and parrots are vocal learners. They have defined centers called cores in their brain. It controls their vocal learning. However, only parrots can talk like humans. They’re mostly limited to repeating short words or sometimes even phrases.
Parrots differ from other birds because they have a rather thick tongue. Unlike other birds, they know how to use it to shape sounds. The most important thing that allows parrots to be so good at imitating us is how their brains are designed. Have you ever wondered how parrots do human mimics? Today we will reveal their secret.
How can parrots talk?
Parrots are vocal learners, but humans are the best. In 2016, research showed that monkeys’ vocal cords are ready to mimic human behavior. But they don’t hear that much sense. Parrots have a very high sense of hearing to produce a sound. They hear and repeat that in their voice. Also, they speak about the same frequency. It won’t be easy to produce a sound of that frequency to which they listen.
Parrots can talk about their two unique things.
- Vocal parts: mouth and neck.
- Brain part.
Parrots have a syrinx like humans have a larynx called the voice box. This syrinx is located between the voice box and two bronchial tubes. Now, what do two bronchial tubes do? The syrinx is split into two bronchi, whereas humans have a voicebox. In mammals, the voice is produced vocal fold in the voice box.
- In parrots, the sound is produced by the vibration of the syrinx, known as membrane tympaniformis.
The muscles produce the sound by changing the opening size of membranes and bronchi. The sound they produce has a huge vibration as their syrinx is split into two bronchi. Therefore they can produce sound with two tones at the same frequency simultaneously. Parrots also have a very thick tongue, likely the human tongue. So they don’t need lips.
Suppose they had lips, then they could eat grains without their beak. Parrots use their tongue to produce sounds in their throat and mouth. The varieties of so many sounds are affected by the length of its windpipe and the structure of its beak.
The lower respiratory system is shaped like an upside-down slingshot in birds and humans. The top part is the trachea or windpipe, and the bottom part is the lungs, and these two pieces move air in and out. Instead of sending air through vocal folds as we do, parrots control the muscles on the walls of the syrinx to shape and produce sound.
Parrots extend and shorten their neck and open or close their beak to refine the noise. But most of the control is happening in the syrinx. They’re seamlessly switching from one side of the syrinx to another to make this incredible span of pitches.
- The syrinx also lets some birds replicate sounds with astonishing accuracy.
Each side of the syrinx can work independently. That’s why birds can produce two sounds at once. They can also breathe through one chamber while continuously singing through the other! Can you talk and breathe at the same time? You can’t, but you can try and test this out if you want! The syrinx, in addition to some beak movement, allows birds to create and imitate sounds.
According to Dr. Erich Jarvis, the key brain region that controls the muscles for vocalization is the forebrain. Their brain is designed to quiet differently than other birds. In their brains, they have an additional structure. Scientists call it shells or outer rings surrounding the cores. The shells are believed to help parrots be good at copying sounds. It gives them the ability to talk like humans.
From the start, their brains are smart for speech. So when they’re first hatched, they’re learning right away and from everything around them. But speaking human is no easy feat. So to pull off such clarity in human speech, parrots show off their ability to manipulate their vocal tract.
Researchers have found that parrots move their tongues forward and backward and adjust their beak opening to alter the sound. It seems like they are the only birds using their tongue like humans do to shape the sound coming out.
In 2004, research was released describing that a region of our brain connects with the vocal fold muscles. This brain part helps parrots and us to learn and produce the learned languages. Animals like dogs and cows don’t have this brain to mimic humans. These animals only make the sounds they are born with, like dogs bark. They can’t produce new sounds, but some animals are over-smart.
Experiment of parrot talk
In his 2004 paper, Jarvis described a forebrain region directly connected to human and parrots’ voice muscles. With the help of those brain circuits, parrots learn new sounds and then control their vocal muscles to produce the sounds they learned. Animals that aren’t very good at vocal learning don’t have these forebrain pathways.
Dr. Jarvis also studied over 50 genes and found a similar pattern of activity in the speech-control centers of several vocal learners, including humans, parrots, songbirds, and hummingbirds. Humans and these bird species use the same genes to speak and sing.
Pet birds, however, try to interact with humans since they don’t have anyone of their kind to talk to. They learn from their environment and start mimicking their owners, which isn’t as easy as it may seem.
Parrots mostly struggle with pronouncing plosive consonants, which are sounds we make by stopping the airflow with our lips, like the /p/ or /b/ sounds, to name a few. Since parrots don’t have lips, they use the muscles in their windpipe to trap air and let it out in one short burst. Probably the most famous parrot who mastered human speech was Alex.
Dr. Irene Pepperberg got the African gray parrot from a Chicago pet store in 1977 and decided to test his learning abilities. She trained him for almost 30 years and was a pretty good teacher! Alex knew about 150 words, could distinguish colors and shapes, and count using small numbers. Alex didn’t repeat the words but seemed to understand their meaning.
Frequently asked questions
Which animals can mimic?
You are wrong if you think only parrots and humans can mimic someone. Bats, seals, dolphins, whales, hummingbirds songbirds can also produce varieties of sounds.
Do all parrots talk?
Most parrots can talk, but some parrots can’t do that. It is because they are individuals from one another. Some species mimic and use human speech, like African grey parrots and Amazon parrots.
Do parrots understand what we are saying?
They don’t understand. So how do they speak hi or good morning? It is because they were trained for it and thought someone had come in your language.
Which parrot can talk?
- Amazon parrots.
- Grey parrots.
- Hill mynahs.
Why can parrots talk?
As social animals, parrots like to communicate. When humans feed and care for them, they want to communicate and express their feelings. So they want to follow you and mimic you.
Can you teach a parrot to talk to?
As good learners and listeners, parrots learn to mimic through repetition. When you say the word over and over again, it encourages your bird to say it back. After a few days they can talk, and you should make a good friendship. A friendship and priority make a parrot a good learner.
- How Do Lizards Regenerate Their Tails?
- How Do Eels Produce Electricity?
- Why Can’t Animals Speak?
- How Do Hummingbirds Fly So Fast Speed?
Price, Hannah. “Birds of a feather talk together.” Australian Geographic.
Mancini, Julie Rach. Why Does My Bird Do That: A Guide to Parrot Behavior. John Wiley & Sons.
Waterhouse, D. M., “Parrots in a nutshell: The fossil record of Psittaciformes (Aves).” Historical Biology.