Teaching Parrots to Talk

In the wild, many types of birds learn to vocalize by repeating the sounds they hear around them. A young bird raised among its own kind will learn, of course, to make the same sounds and songs as its family and friends. Some species of birds are such natural mimics that they will repeat many other sounds from their environment, and birdsongs of other species. Mynah birds and Mockingbirds are known to do this. Parrots, in particular, are known for their ability to replicate a very specific type of sound in their environment: human speech.

People are often surprised to learn that many of the smaller and more common parrots, such as budgerigars and cockatiels, can learn to talk. In fact, some well-trained budgies are excellent speakers. However, not all birds with the ability to speak will speak, and some species are easier to teach than others. In addition, not all species speak the same way: Macaws are said to have harsh, rough voices, while Cockatoos have very sweet voices but a limited vocabulary.

The uncontested champion of speaking parrots is the African Grey. Although they can be slow to mature (taking up to a year to begin speaking), they will continue to learn throughout their lives and can easily develop vocabularies of 100-300 words. Unfortunately, the incredible intelligence of the African Grey can also make it a very demanding pet: if not rigorously socialized for several hours a day, Greys will often resort to unpleasant and sometimes self-mutilating habits (such as feather plucking) to alleviate boredom.

Although all parrots are social creatures that need daily company and attention, some species are less needy than others. Various types of yellow-headed Amazons are known to be excellent mimics and can learn to speak quite well. Unlike with Greys, however, Amazons may have a “window of opportunity” (before they are one and a half years old) during which they are more likely to pick up human speech, and after which they are less likely to learn new words and phrases. In the wild, they would learn the appropriate calls and songs for their species during this time, and not need to modify them as they aged.

Among all species, there is the chance that a particular individual may simply never become a speaker. The only guarantee of owning a talking parrot is to buy one that already talks, although many owners prefer to buy a very young bird and train him from infancy. Training a bird while it is still being hand-fed ensures a strong bond with people and primes him to learn human language as he matures. Friendly, noisy baby birds are likely to make the best talkers. Shy or fearful birds are less likely to bond with people and less likely to learn to speak. In many species, males are the better talkers, although sexing very young birds may need to be done with a blood sample.

Parrots should be kept in a social environment with plenty of people talking, like a living room or kitchen. Keeping them away from other parrots might encourage them to learn human words rather than “bird talk”- but this may be less practical (and perhaps less kind) in a multi-parrot household. Plenty of word repetition will help the bird learn, especially in association with discrete objects (toys or treats) or activities (uncovering the cage in the morning). Parrots are naturally noisiest in the morning and evening, and these are excellent times to train. In some cases, talking quietly to the birds during these times may help quiet them, as well – they are less likely to squawk if they are listening to you!

Avoid trying to teach the bird more than one word or phrase at a time – consider making a list and working through it as they learn. They are likely to have their own favourite words: those that are easiest to say or elicit the best reaction from bystanders. Profanity can be very tempting for birds to repeat since it is often used with passion by humans, and usually gets a reaction from the audience. Ignoring a problematic word or phrase your bird has picked up is more likely to discourage its use than shouting or punishing them.

The first words or phrases produced by a parrot are usually incoherent mumbles. Consonants are difficult for them to reproduce, and careful, clear repetition on the trainer’s part will help them learn to enunciate. Parrots are more likely to listen to words said with enthusiasm, or in a higher pitch. Training sessions should last only 15-20 minutes to maximize interest and keep the bird’s attention – automated recordings should also be kept to short intervals. Parrots learn best from direct attention and this also facilitates rewarding their efforts – rewards should be frequent and generous.

If you choose to train a baby bird, keep in mind that it may take many months before the first mumbled phrases are produced. In the meantime, keep chatting and repeating phrases to him as you go about your routine, as you give him treats, or when you play with him. When he finally decides to speak up, you may be amazed at how well he has been listening!

By Jennifer Perret – Pets.ca writer