Parrots Can Understand What They Are Saying…But It Depends on You!
Those with companion birds like to think that their birds can understand what both the owner and the birds themselves are saying, and often ask me if that is possible. My answer is that it is definitely “possible,” but that the answer depends on the type of interactions the parrots have with their owners. A bit of background will help explain my response.
The first, most important, issue is that parrots are flock animals. A parrot alone in the wild has almost zero chance of surviving—it cannot both watch for predators and forage successfully. Thus, parrots are almost always in groups—often small subsets of the entire flock—where they rotate the job of “sentinel”: the bird that keeps watch while the others feed. While in Australia, I saw a juvenile rosella, all alone at the top of a tree, screaming loudly. It was clearly in distress, and being so noticeable would make it a target for any predator in range. The bird knew, however, that its only chance of surviving was to find the rest of its flock; it would not last long by itself.
The second issue is that one of the main ways that parrots maintain their bonds with one another, often while hidden in foliage, is by vocalizing. We know that these vocalization are so important for identifying who is a flock member that some parrot species have flock dialects to ensure group cohesion. Interestingly, juveniles may learn a novel dialect if they find themselves in a new flock, but older birds are willing to fly long distances to return to their natal flock if they have been displaced by researchers (see Salinas-Melgoza & Wright, 2012). These data provide additional evidence for the importance of being in a flock, particularly for the use of specific “contact calls” to keep in touch with flock-mates.
Single Bird or a Flock Member?
The third issue, that is relevant for bird stewards, is whether their bird is part of a group of parrots or a singleton. A bird that is part of a flock (in captivity, even a mixed-species flock) may or may not care to learn human speech or other human-related noises, as it has natural compatriots with whom it can whistle, call, and interact. The bird’s willingness to learn a human system, therefore, depends on how much it wants to connect with the humans in its life compared to the other birds. A bird that is a singleton, however, will try extremely hard to become integrated into its human “flock.”
Trying to Figure Out the Human’s “Contact Call
And that brings up the fourth issue: What happens in the singleton case depends almost entirely on human behavior. If the parrot is not given much input, it will use what it observes in its environment in order to develop what it thinks are contact calls. It will see its human run to the microwave when the machine beeps—and figure that maybe a human will pay attention and come to it if it “beeps”. Ditto for the ring tone on a mobile phone, or the routine calls amongst family members, or other sorts of noises that attract humans. Too, if the only thing the bird hears in one-to-one conversation during the day from its human companions is something like “Who’s a pretty boy?” when its cage cover is lifted in the morning, that is what it will learn for a contact call. And that is all it will learn, and obviously it will not understand the meaning of the phrase.
In contrast, if an owner takes the time and energy to work with the bird, the parrot can learn the meaning of the speech it hears and produces. The most effective way to achieve such understanding involves the model/rival technique that I described in a previous blog, in which two humans demonstrate for the bird the use of relevant labels. As many people already know, I’ve shown that African grey parrots can, for example, learn labels for objects, colors, shapes, numbers, categories and concepts in this manner. What we try to do in my lab is demonstrate the full extent of possible learning, and, not surprisingly, few owners can invest the same level of time and energy into training as does my research team.
However, birds can learn some labels simply by association, if the labels represent things that are important in their lives. If an owner consistently labels each food upon presentation, and labels the various toys upon presentation, the colors and shapes of the toys along with the relevant category (“Here’s your BALL! The color is GREEN!”); if the owner consistently labels the site where the bird is being placed (“We’re going to the CAGE”) and various frequently occurring actions (“Want SHOWER?”), the bird will very often learn these labels so that it can request objects, actions, and to be placed at sites. Different birds will have different levels of motivation, different levels of learning, and different levels of speech clarity, so results are sure to vary. However, parrots are NOT simply mindless mimics—unless their owners treat them as such!
It is therefore up to the human caretaker to decide whether its parrot companion will have the chance to learn to engage in some form of meaningful communication, or simply learn a few party tricks. Given that these birds have the intelligence of about an 8-year-old child(e.g., Pepperberg et al., 2017, 2018), I for one believe that we certainly should give them the chance to develop to their full potential. We humans have to invest our time and energy, but the parrots will very likely try to reward our efforts.
Clements, K., Gray, S.L., Gross, B., & Pepperberg, I.M. (2018). Initial evidence for probabilistic learning by a Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). Journal of Comparative Psychology. 132:166-177.
Pepperberg, I.M., Gray, S., Lesser, J.S., & Hartsfield, L.A. (2017). Piagetian liquid conservation in Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 131:370-383.
Salinsas-Melgoza, A., & Wright, T.F. (2012). Evidence for vocal learning and limited dispersal as dual mechanisms for dialect maintenance in a parrot. PLoS ONE 7(11):e48667.