Have you wondered how parrots can mimic human sounds while most other birds cannot? The answer may not be what you expect. While parrots are known for being highly intelligent compared to most animals, their mimicry owes more to their physical design.
From an anatomical perspective, parrots have thick tongues that enable them to imitate sounds. Additionally, they can position their tongues in ways that pronounce that advantage even more. This explains why larger parrots generally find mimicry easier than smaller ones. But what makes them interested in learning human speech to begin with? We’ll explore more of that below.
The Mimicking Ability
The physiology of the parrot is unique. An electromyographic study of a parrot reveals an organ known as the syrinx, the sound-initiating organ composed of a pair of vibrating membranes. The parrot can combine tongue modulation and the vocal power of the syrinx to produce sounds of varying spectral content. Unlike the mammal’s voice box, at the bottom of the pharynx in the trachea, the parrot’s syrinx is located between two bronchi entering the lungs. In this section, the trachea divides into two. As air flows through this section, the membranes stretch and vibrate. This process produces sounds. The air sac around the syrinx amplifies such sounds. That advantage allows the parrot to mimic human words.
Recent research suggests that parrots’ ability to mimic speech may also be owed to the anatomy of their brains. Birds capable of vocal learning have a specific part of the brain dedicated to remembering and repeating sounds. In parrots, this “song system” is more complex than in other birds, consisting of two distinct layers instead of one.
How Do Parrots Talk Like Humans?
When kept as a pet, the parrot will gradually learn calls and sounds from its adoptive human partners. They use imitative vocal learning and rely a lot on repetitive exposure. The parrot can learn human words very well, but only if drilled into their memory. In addition to their anatomical advantages, the parrot can leverage repetitive auditory exposures to improve their hearing, memory, and vocal muscle control. In other words, repetition improves parrots’ sound production with time.
Why Do Parrots Talk?
When a parrot uses human speech, it does so for a reason, even if the phrase doesn’t always fit the context. Pay attention to your parrot’s mannerisms and environment when speaking and you’ll likely be able to discern their motives. Here are some reasons parrots choose to talk:
To Get Attention
Your parrot will focus a lot on imitating sounds that cause some reaction from you. They do so to get your attention. If you do not react, they might keep repeating phrases and sounds relentlessly until you give them the attention they crave.
Their ability to accurately mimic human sounds makes them very efficient at communicating in context-specific cases. For instance, your parrot can be your alarm in the morning when it mimics alarm sounds. Such a sound can cause a reaction from you, which also gives them attention.
It’s in Their Nature
Parrots talk because it is who they are. Every species of parrot has a unique dialect it uses to fit into its current establishment. In the wild, parrots use their vocal abilities to communicate with their flocks. Your parrot mimics your words because you are its companion; it simply wants to fit in and interact with you.
Now you know how and why your pet parrot can adeptly mimic speech. Parrots are unique as one of the few birds who can imitate human speech and one of the only pets who can, in some ways, communicate using our language. Just be careful what you say in front of them!