Do Parrots Understand What They Say?
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Do Parrots Understand What They Say?

Published on Friday, 26th February 2021
Filed under Avian Articles
An incident at home a few years ago. My elder daughter Habie was visiting from London.
With the bathroom door ajar, she was in the shower and  heard her father, outside calling out, ‘Morning, Hab.’

She yelled back. ‘I’m in the shower.’

The voice repeated, ‘Good morning, how are you?’

Habie cried, ‘I’ve just told you. I’m in the shower.’

‘Morning,’ came the voice repeated for the third time.

Habie angrily wrapped a towel round herself and got out of the shower. Artha Grey, my female African Grey Parrot  was perched on the half open door, saying nothing, her father nowhere in sight.



Artha, who was then  around 2 years old had been speaking for over a year and she always spoke in Wal’s rich umber tones. This deep-toned voice emerging from a grey feathered bird weighing 420 grams always sounded odd. But the question remains, did she understand what she was saying?

I believe so and that also she had a sense of humour and orchestrated a situation where Habie would be duped and confuse Artha’s voice with Wal’s. The tones were identical.

You don’t hear  a Parrot singing opera every day. But Amazons doing just that are YouTube favourites. For some reason, Amazons (and Cockatiels) enjoy singing like human vocalists. They’re  able to memorise a whole song and they’re versatile, their choices cover a wide variety of  musical genres, pop songs, rap, nursery rhymes operatic arias, all performed without a break from start to finish. Often with encores. It’s funny, cute, and impressive.

But of course, all birds and other animals are individuals and their abilities vary. Most Parrots I know that sing, don’t have the X Factor and perform slightly out of tune. ( like some human contestants on the X Factor.) 



Just like someone who speaks foreign phrases with a foreign accent without knowing what they mean, are these  avian mimics simply impersonations?  Many zoos now have bird shows where the star performers are Parrots who answer questions put to them by their human handlers. Few members of the audience believe that these avian performers  understand what they’re saying.

The listeners likely subscribe to  traditional belief  that Parrots are good mimics and no more. After all, ‘Parroting’ and ‘Parrot fashion’ are long established phrases for repeating words with absolutely no understanding of what the words mean.

There used to be little understanding of a bird’s mental capabilities which until relatively recently, were assumed,  on the basis of brain size and structure, to be pretty limited. Mimicry like bird song, nest building, and other apparently ‘clever’ abilities were assumed to be governed by instinct.

The accusation of being a bird brain was no compliment. Research has turned that on its head. Birds should be complimented on their brains. The idea they didn’t have the mental equipment was a misunderstanding of  avian brains. Their structure is different from that of  mammals. Small doesn’t necessarily equal less; microprocessors illustrate that.

Species of birds like Parrots and crows have brains that are densely packed with neurons the electrical circuits that activate the brain, more than many mammals,  and those bird species are now believed to have the equivalent cognitive ability of primates.  Parrot owners of course have always known their birds weren’t simply mimicking human language.

 

But their experiences were dismissed as anthropomorphic, viewing animals in human terms. There was little acceptance that birds could interpret human language. This is a blinkered viewpoint because domesticated  animals trained by humans like dogs and horses respond to our verbal commands. 

Yet  twenty years ago a well-known trainer told me that Parrots did not understand English. Leaving aside for a moment whether or not Parrots can understand what they say, let’s look at how they speak and why they use their voices. What natural purpose does it serve?

Vocal learning
There are just six groups of animals with complex learned vocalisations. Songbirds, hummingbirds, whales, bats, humans and Parrots. Vocal learning in birds has evolved to enable members of a group, flock, or colony, to communicate and pass on information necessary for group success and survival. 

Some species start to vocalise when they are in the egg. Songbirds  like song thrushes warble and twitter while still in the nest. Young Mynah birds, other members of the starling family, and young Parrots  ‘practise’ their vocals from a young age with  beaks closed. The most well-known mimic is the African Grey (Psittacus erithacus).

Suburban Sulphur Crested Cockatoos in Australia have been heard to say human phrases. This is thought to be a cultural acquisition - escaped or released pet Cockatoos have joined flocks and shared their learned phrases.  Some songbirds such as mockingbirds, reed warblers, members of the starling family, and a close relative the Greater Hill Mynah (Gracula religiosa intermedia) (which reproduces the most accurate mimicry of human speech), are also skilled mimics.



Many common songbirds such as blackbirds and starlings include parts of other bird’s songs in their own performances. Blackbirds can imitate car alarms, and even cats. The marsh warbler, a maestro mimic, incorporates 76 calls and songs of other birds into its repertoire. However, songbirds are unable to reproduce human speech, and those that can say the odd word probably don’t have the cognitive ability to understand the context of words or phrases they use.

In their daily lives they do interpret the language of other species and make association between a vocalisation and an event. Most species respond to other animal’s alarm calls, and as many species have different calls for each predator they have to ‘learn’ which call identifies which predator and respond accordingly. Some bird species use mimicry to deceive by mimicking calls of hawks to scare other birds away from food.

However,  no other creature on the planet has the range of mimicry which includes  human speech, song and sound effects, as accurately as a captive Parrot.  If you’ve run to the telephone or tried to answer the door as often as we have and exclaimed ‘that **** Parrot again,’ you know what I mean.

Most tame Parrots readily copy and repeat hundreds of individual sounds, including human phrases, with uncanny accuracy. What’s more, they’re eager to do so. The idea that they have to be trained to mimic is false  They’re self taught and diligent pupils. What’s up for discussion is how much of the human language they reproduce do they understand?



In the wild, birds use their voices to advertise: they have a territory, attract a mate, communicate within flock members, warn of predators, locate where they are. When juvenile songbirds move to new territories, they assume the song dialect of the new area to conform. Everyone likes to fit in.

This characteristic is probably the reason why captive birds like Parrots, corvids and starlings bond with human keepers by imitating our vocalisations. A young Parrot coming into a human household wants to belong to the new flock no matter how strange and un-birdlike they appear.

They soon realise that speaking to us in our language grabs our attention and elicits praise and rewards. They have an emotional connection. Most Parrots with large vocabularies are often single Parrots and the human household becomes their flock.

Among the animals that use complex vocalisations, no other animal other than a Parrot uses an other species’ language to communicate, by answering questions and makes associations by labelling items and events.   

How this is done
Parrots along with other species of bird use an organ called the syrinx located deep in the chest. By drawing air over it, they are able to produce various sounds, at the same time as breathing (even two sounds or two song melodies at once, singing opera is easy.)  Songbirds have species and individual repertoires.

 

Some birds like the lyre bird copy faultlessly other birds’ songs. They also include environmental sounds - one of the saddest being the sound of the chain saw cutting down the mature trees of the lyre birds’ habitat.

Conventional opinion averred that Parrots were merely imitating. This view is slowly being rescinded by scientific studies that demonstrate that Parrots understand a  great deal of what they say.

Neurobiologists have located areas in a Parrot brain which facilitate mimicry. These areas are similar in structure to identical areas found in human brains. In Parrots, who excel at mimicry, these areas were found to be more pronounced than in Parrots not known for mimicry.

In the Macaws, the Greys the Amazons, this area, named the shell, is larger and more pronounced; the better at imitating any Parrot species is, the larger researchers found the shell region.

Parrots’ abilities through vocal learning are essential  for wild birds to communicate with one another —to mate, pass along alarms, defend territory, or identify one another. The shell region may have originally began evolving when the song nuclei, which is like that of songbirds, completely duplicated within the brain, and then began evolving new functions.
If this hypothesis holds true, future studies on the Parrot vocal shell could give key insight into the origins of such brain duplications which have been hypothesized to occur in the past and could explain complex areas of the brain in humans and other animals.

So, the accepted evidence of the last 20 years shows that vocal learning is an avian characteristic and that vocal imitation is more highly developed in certain species – most notable the African Grey.  To what extent do they understand what they’re saying when they use human languages?

Alex
Any discussion of Parrots’ abilities needs to mention Alex and his successors. Irene Pepperberg began training Alex, Grey Parrot, a year old, purchased from a pet store in 1977. She believed that he could be trained to demonstrate various cognitive abilities. Another sign of intelligence, once thought to be absent in most non-human animals, is the ability to engage in complex, meaningful communication.

Alex is one of a number of Parrots and Macaws now believed to have the intelligence and emotional make-up of a 3 to 4-year-old child. Under the tutelage of Professor Pepperberg, he acquired a vocabulary of over 100 words. He learned the words for colours, their shapes and materials and how to use them in the correct context.

He learned to verbally label 35 different objects; he knew when to use “no,” and phrases such as “come here”, “I want X,” and “I Wanna go Y.”

Pepperberg discovered that Alex worked out the concept of zero or none. When shown a tray of different objects and asked which are the same, Alex said ‘None.’

We to use their brain for cognitive purposes. They worked on instinct. However, recent research has shown that Parrots and crows have an area in the forebrain which deals with cognition to work out solutions to problems.

In demonstrating his ability to count and choose between objects and material Alex used English. Not always with the correct answer. Irene believes he sometimes became bored or wouldn’t cooperate (reminiscent of a young child). Not all scientists were convinced, there was entrenched opposition to Dr Pepperberg’s finding and she had difficulties with funding for years.

But she persevered and eventually the results of her work were generally accepted. Her work with Alex changed the view of bird intelligence. Although, we carers of companion Parrots have always known just how clever our birds are. Anecdotes show that Alex could use language outside of his test situation.

Here’s an example. Dr Pepperberg  instructed her students never to leave Alex alone the lab where he could be destructive. One of the students, Kathy Davidson, took Alex with her to the washroom. Alex marched up and down in front of the mirror and watched himself.              

‘What’s that’? he asked.

‘That’s you,’ Kathy replied. ‘You’re a Parrot.’

Alex already knew the labels for several colours. He looked at himself and asked, ‘What colour?’

Kathy said, ‘Grey, You’re a Grey Parrot, Alex.’

Katy and Alex went through the sequence again. In her biography of Alex, Irene writes: ‘And that’s how Alex learned the colour grey. ”You’re a Grey Parrot, Alex.”

Alex died at 31 unexpectedly. A global celebrity, his death was reported world-wide. And Irene Pepperberg continues her research with Griffin and other Greys. She wrote a memoir describing for the general public their 30 years’ work together. “Alex and Me" which is an absorbing read. If you want to support her work the Alex Foundation gives plenty of opportunity. https://alexfoundation.org/

Alex of course was an international sensation. But many unknown Greys and their carers outside the laboratory produce compelling evidence that their  Parrots not only use human language correctly - but also use it to express their own ideas. One such person is Virginia Bush who lives in USA with Chaucer a captive bred Grey and his cat friends.

Virginia believes that the way in which she’s spoken to Chaucer over many years has enabled him to use language creatively not simply imitating what she says.

Summing up twenty years of their interactions together, Virginia said, “In retrospect, I have come to see that my ESL background may have been very useful in enabling a Parrot to acquire functional use of English - a human language.” She gives evidence of Chaucer correcting her English.

‘He’s heard me saying "Oh, good grief!" On one particularly irksome day that Virginia used the phrase several times, Chaucer didn’t Parrot what she said. “Instead, he first said, "Oh ... grief" and then "Oh, bad grief" and in a while, "Oh, awful grief", both of which actually make much better sense!” Chaucer’s phrase has now become the one used in her house.

Another example of Chaucer’s thoughtful use of words is his own construction "orange potato".  Virginia says: “I always used "sweet potato" to refer to yams, but Chaucer never, ever has said that.  He’s always said, "orange potato". 

When talking with Chaucer, I’ve never used the word "sweet" to refer to taste, because I have always been acutely aware that I use "sweet" as an endearment, in "my sweet Chaucer", "oh, you're so sweet!" "I love you, sweetie" and so on. 

To Chaucer, therefore, "sweet" didn't make any sense when used with "potato".  To him, the colour word "orange" actually made much better sense!  And rightly so!”

She adds, “I try to take special care always to use words that Chaucer will find useful and meaningful.  I never engage in 'nonsense talk' with him -- no silly nursery rhymes or anything that does not have a true, verifiable connection with our daily lives.  I try to make sure that he will be able to deduce the meanings of the words that I use, from his own experiences. 

I therefore use words again and again in ways that will allow him to have confidence that his conclusions about their meanings are accurate.  I never use words purely with the expectation that he will repeat them, whether or not he understands them.” 

And finally
Learning language as Alex did - a simplified syntax and grammar worked well. Another method of talking to a Parrot much as we would to a young child as Virginia Bush has shown, also produces interesting results. Most companion Parrot owners do enjoy teaching words that they doubt the Parrot understands. But what research and the example of Chaucer shows us is that our language can and does have meaning for a bird brain.

Chaucer uses many words and phrases. Virginia only counts 270 as a true use of a word. It reminds us that we must always take care to provide enough interest and simulation in their lives. With my own African Greys, I’ve taught nursey rhymes simply as parlor tricks. How does the doggie go? How does the pussy go? Artha might reply mixing up the two and giving a barking meow. And when taught ‘Georgie Porgie Puddin’ and pie,’ she transposed that to ‘Artha Partha, Puddin’ and pie… ’

It should not therefore be supposed, however, that Parrots can only cope with much-simplified language, or that an instructional approach is the only way in which they can acquire functional use of human language, or indeed that it is the best way. Should your own Parrot decide to communicate with you in your language, enjoy and appreciate it.

As you can see from the photographs included, a lot of communication from Parrots to other birds or people comes across via their body language. A Parrot can be well socialized, affectionate and be a superb companion with or without human speech.


 
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