A talking parrot?
One of the most frequent questions we get about our parrots at the World of Wild Theater is, “Can they talk?” We prefer to use the term “mimic” rather than talk, because we don’t know that they understand what words they are saying. We *do* know they have learned that if one of their care team members says a cue word, and they say the correct response to that cue, they’re going to get something they like, usually a piece of parrot chow or other favored food. To learn how to mimic words, they have to hear the word over and over again and then practice it for a while before they get it right. It’s kind of like toddlers learning to speak for the first time.
But just because we can’t say that birds understand what they’re saying, doesn’t mean that they don’t understand something. It just means that we humans have a lot of studying to do in order to better understand bird minds. One study was conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia in Athens. They studied a young grey parrot named Cosmo and collected data on the nature of the words she used under different circumstances. They found that the situation the parrot found herself in (alone in the home, in a room with her owner, etc.) influenced the vocalizations she made. For example, the researchers found that when her owner was home but not in the room, Cosmo was more likely to use words and phrases related to location (such as “Where are you?”). This makes sense with parrots, as their wild counterparts are frequently (and loudly) calling to each other to keep in touch with their flockmates, even when they’re out of sight.
So what’s happening with the parrots at the World of Wild Theater? While we can never truly know what’s going on in their heads, they do seem to have some context for the words they use. Larry the grey parrot, for example, says “Good morning” as people arrive in the morning. He’s even accidentally tricked one of our Animal Nutrition team members into thinking there was a person in the building by calling out “Good morning!” to them. Larry may not understand what “good morning” means, but he seems to understand when we humans say it.
Larry isn’t the only bird. Reko, our yellow-naped Amazon, seems to pick up on cues indicating that a visitor to the building (a vet, curator, or keeper from another area) is about to leave. Just before we humans say “bye,” she often says “bye” first! She also seems to know that we say “bye” at the end of the day, too – and that we feed the parrots their last meal of the day just before then. Sometimes I think she’s saying “bye” near day’s end to encourage the keepers to give her supper! And finally, Cortez, our blue-and-yellow macaw, can see our keepers leave for lunch and at the end of the day, and he calls out “Bye!” to them as well.
While we still wouldn’t say our parrots can “talk,” it is pretty interesting to see what they learn about humans and their patterns — and they always keep us humans on our toes!
Senior Keeper, Ambassador Animals