Yes, I will be the first to admit I love my little talking companion, Barnaby, who happens to be a Timneh African Grey. He is quite the little chatterbox and I find it endearing. If you click play on the video below, you’ll hear a sample of one of our morning conversations.
But, does every companion parrot talk in human language?
Parrots form sounds by manipulating and expelling air across their syrinx, a distended portion of their trachea, and because they need to be light enough to fly, they have an extra supply of air sacs. While parrots do have the ability to mimic sounds that have value to them, not all will make sounds that you want them to make. And if that is your primary reason for bringing a parrot into your home, I ask that you reconsider your choice of pet. Also, keep in mind that a bird that learns to mimic sounds does not only choose human speech – you may also hear other bird screams (if other birds are near), the sound of a loud drill from workers outside, appliances, and more. They vocalize to communicate and possibly relieve boredom; and they are more likely to vocalize when they are not stressed. If a certain sound causes a positive consequence, it is more likely to be repeated.
Here, while Barnaby will learn sounds on his own if he associates it with something of value, I also teach him language by word association just as I’d teach a human infant – by pairing the word with what the word means (saying ‘want water’ when I give him water for example). You can also teach parrots to say sounds on cue through training with positive reinforcement.