One of the most notable features of parrots is their ability to mimic human sounds and speech.
Whether kind words or foul, parrots can learn human speech and produce it themselves.
Some species, such as the African gray parrot are more proficient at this skill than other species, but all parrots can use human speech to some degree.
It can be incredibly endearing to have a pet that can talk back to you, and some parrots even use human words when communicating to other parrots!
Humans have known about parrots, as well as other birds, possessing the ability to mimic human sounds for a long time but when exactly was it discovered that parrots had this ability?
To answer the question simply, the first recorded instance of a talking parrot date to the fifth century B.C. in Greece. Ctesias of Cnidus, a Greek historian, wrote about a talking bird called Bittacus. The description of Bittacus leads scholars to believe that he was a Plum-headed parakeet, a species of parrot.
Parrots are not the only species of bird that possess the ability to mimic and subsequently use human speech, but they are the most notable.
It was likely very jarring for more primitive humans to hear animals mimicking their speech, and likely led to the creation of myths surrounding famous monsters that lure people to their death by mimicking other people.
Human speech can even be shared between parrots, with wild birds learning words from birds that have been in captivity before being released back into the wild.
It is time to talk in more depth about the speaking abilities of parrots.
Table of Contents
Who was Ctesias of Cnidus?
Ctesias of Cnidus was a Greek physician and historian who lived during the 5th century B.C. and served King Artaxerxes II, ruler of the Achaemenid Empire.
He has written a handful of historical accounts and descriptions of places such as the Indian subcontinent in his work Indica, as well as a documentary history of the Persian Empire in a work titled Persica.
His work has largely been discredited, however, as his accounts do not line up with other works recovered from the time as well as some accounts in Indica that are markedly false.
His account of a talking bird is still regarded as accurate however, as the description of the bird he called Bittacus closely matches a known talking bird today, the plum-headed parakeet. His discovery of the parrot’s speaking abilities is summarized in a later work by another historian named Photius, as the original has been lost to time.
How do parrots talk?
Parrots talk by altering the flow of air that passes across an organ known at the syrinx.
Birds do not possess vocal cords like mammals do, with the syrinx being the closest analog in their body.
The syrinx is located at the base of the trachea, and this organ is what allows those birds that can replicate human speech to do so.
Why do parrots talk?
Parrots are vocal learners, meaning they learn by hearing something and then attempting to replicate it.
This likely stems from a social drive present in the bird, as it hears the members of its flock speaking it then mimics them to fit in.
This is so that the bird is accepted into the flock and able to communicate with the rest of its fellows.
When a parrot is raised in a human household it hears human speech more often than it would hear the calls of other birds, so it mimics human speech to fit in with its new flock.
The mimicry is a social tool used by the bird to fit into its surroundings.
Can parrots learn any language?
A mentioned above the first parrot recorded speaking, Bittacus, likely spoke Greek.
Parrots do not actually learn the language the same way humans do, instead simply mimicking the sounds made by humans.
A clever enough parrot may begin to associate words with certain objects, but they do not understand what they are saying in the same way humans do.
Parrots have been found to mimic almost every language they have been exposed to, from English to Cantonese.
Given the difference in physiological structure between humans and parrots, some sounds cannot be replicated but for the most part parrots are able to replicate any language they hear.
Can Amazon parrots talk?
Yes, Amazon parrots can talk.
They have been found to be among the best talkers in the avian world, being able to connect sounds to relationships in a more coherent way.
This allows them to function better in social environments when compared to some of their relatives.
Can African grey parrots talk?
African greys have been observed talking even as early as one year into life, sooner than human children in most cases.
This is owed to the higher cognitive abilities that the African grey possesses when compared to its peers.
The Amazon parrot has a higher level of association between sounds and objects, however.
Can Cockatoos talk?
Cockatoos can speak, though their ability to learn words is markedly inferior to their cousins.
Some species of cockatoo are more proficient than others, with the long-billed corella being the best of the bunch.
They may even learn words from other birds that are cohabiting with, a trait shared between many parrot species.
Can Parakeets talk?
As mentioned above, the first recorded instance of a talking bird was likely a parakeet, specifically a plum-headed parakeet.
In fact, a budgerigar, known as the common parakeet, was credited in 1995 with possessing the largest vocabulary of any bird.
This bird, named Puck, was credited by Guinness World Records for knowing 1,728 words.
Some species of parakeet do not possess this ability however, as the slaty-headed parakeet has only rarely been found to talk even if raised by humans for most of its life.
These parakeets may lack the mental wherewithal that their kin possess, but make good pets, nonetheless.
What other types of bird can talk?
The other types of talking bird fall under the category of songbirds, and their ability to talk stems from the same place that the parrot’s does.
They mimic human speech by passing air over their syrinx. Starlings, corvids, mockingbirds, magpies, lyrebirds, and hill mynahs all possess the ability to mimic human speech, learning it from proximity to humans whether captive or wild.
The ability for parrots to speak is incredible and unique in the animal world as they, along with songbirds are the only creatures other than humans who can create human speech.
This ability has endeared them to pet owners the world over and can even be seen in their wild relatives.
While they might not understand what they are saying in the same vein that humans do, their intelligence is certainly something to marvel at all the same.