My Greys used to talk
I sometimes take Artha and Casper, my two African Grey Parrots (19 and 17 years old) out wearing their Aviator harness, which you can buy here.) They sit (often) motionless - one on each shoulder. The questions I am most often asked: ‘Are they real?” Answer: No, they’re electric.’ and the other is ’Do they talk?’ Answer: ‘Yes, if they want to but they usually don’t.’
Artha and Casper were bred by an experienced conscientious breeder, Barrett Watson in Suffolk. That is to say, they had no negative experiences with people and were trusting and friendly as a well-handled young Parrot should be. So, if you want a talking bird, find a youngster, who has been well socialised.
Artha’s ability to speak English and her subsequent disinclination makes an interesting story. She was 18-months-old before I acquired Casper. In speaking, she seemed to have an inborn knowledge of the stages to go through in learning English.
Starting ‘Hi, Artha,’ at six months, her vocabulary increased exponentially. As I am an avid note taker, every word she uttered was logged and dated. (I also did the same for my kids, when they acquiring language. At 12 months, Artha’s vocabulary rivalled them apart
from the eldest Habie, chatterer at one who hasn’t stopped.
Casper came here just after weaning. Artha and I fell in love instantaneously. Within days Artha was saying ‘Good boy,’ Casper.’ ‘Step up, Casper.’ Out of her 150-word vocabulary which included 30 sounds like telephone, tap dripping, dog barking, snake hissing and several sentences, my non-scientific but closely observed conclusion was that 40% of sounds and words were used correctly. She never said, ‘Good night,’ before evening or ‘Goodbye,’ unless you were leaving. She never said ‘Meow’ if asked how does a dog go?
Casper quickly learned 12 animal sounds from her. He never picked up many human words. He displayed a talent Artha did not have. He was, and still is, musical. He learned to imitate bird songs and whistle in tune including Mozart and Beethoven. Then something strange and never satisfactorily explained. This has been the case for about 17 years.
Occasionally Artha can be heard muttering ‘Artha- Partha pudd’n and pie kissed the boys and made them cry.’ Casper will sing only the first bar of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Asked to ‘sing nightingale’ which he once did to limpid perfection, there is no longer any response apart from wing bobbing.
No one with whom I have discussed this situation has given a plausible answer. Sometimes Casper, in the street if the stranger has been charming, might go ‘Wheep’ in Parrot language - once they are out of earshot. Why, oh, why, can I no longer get them to speak on cue?
How and why Parrots talk
Parrots are highly sociable and interact continually with their flock. When they are captive and have no bird flock they try to integrate with us. Many Parrots will resort to our language. Others won’t. I think it’s a sad mistake to regret a non-vocal bird even one who belongs to a talking species. Non-talking Parrots are just as affectionate, intelligent and interesting as their vocal counterparts.
Among species held to have the talking ability are: Budgerigars, African Parrots, Double Yellow-headed and Yellow-fronted Amazons and Eclectus Parrots. Macaws are not great talkers but there will be great variety within any particular species.
Cockatoos who are superbly intelligent usually do not acquire huge vocabularies. Their screeches are horrendous but their speaking voice soft and gentle. Most smaller breeds like Conures or Jardines will sometimes acquire a few words and phrases. Talking also reinforces the bond between you and your bird. To develop strong group bonds, some but not all Parrots feel the need to sound similar to their flock – aka, you.
As Parrots have no vocal chords or larynx - how can they talk. Another sign of their intelligence is that they have discovered how to speak, although our noises are not a part of their natural behaviour in the wild. This isn’t unique to psittacines, other species also use human sounds. Without a flexible mouth, no lips or vocal cords, learning how to speak human language might have been an insurmountable challenge.
Parrots have a structure called a syrinx that is similar to the larynx. The syrinx, located in the chest at the bottom of the trachea, can be manipulated to imitate human sounds as well as other noises. As the Parrot attempts to use speech, the air passes through the throat and mouth and is manipulated by the tongue. The baby Parrot babbles until it gradually learns to refine the words and often speaks in one chosen person’s voice.
Talking Parrot carers often report a similar experience to this one. My daughter Habie was in the shower. Her Dad called, ‘How are you?’ ‘I’m in the shower,’ she replied. Her ‘Dad’ repeated, ‘Good morning. How are you? She flung apart the shower curtains to find Artha perched on the bathroom mirror.
A helpful DVD
Barbara Heidenreich’s DVD Teaching Your Parrot To Talk makes a useful starting point. Barbara, one of America’s foremost bird and animal trainers, has been producing DVDS on every aspect of training companion Parrots with the most gentle and successful methods of positive reinforcement. Her method is called FFAT (Free Free Animal Training).
The DVD on talking is a corker; not least from the pleasure of the additional second disc which records 18 Parrots speaking with space to add your own. Barbara gives good advice on acquiring a talking bird and then, after teaching various strategies for success, she finishes with a chapter on training her Amazon Delbert, to sneeze on cue.
She begins by dispelling some myths. All Parrots talk. Not true but many will, given the right conditions. Myth: if you whistle to your Parrot it won’t talk. Not true. Barbara polled 900 bird owners. 78% kept birds who whistled and spoke. That males speak more readily than females can be true of some species like Cockatiels but in general, it is the individual bird who may or may not be a talker.
If you are fortunate to be choosing your baby bird and particularly wish a talker, Barbara suggests Congo Greys and among the Amazons and Yellow-naped, Double Yellow-headed and Blue-fronted Amazon . known for good mimicry. She discounts a reputation for aggression amongst Amazons and considers aggressive behaviour results more from poor or wrong training than a species characteristic.
Of the small birds, Budgerigars and Quakers will also talk. Cockatiels can also talk. Talking is neither the most important, nor only sign of avian intelligence. Corvids including magpies are considered highly intelligent by experts but they are not great talkers. Nor are the Cockatoo family even though they have shown the most amazing cleverness. Goffins in Vienna have manufactured tool use although wild Goffins don’t use tools.
Check out talking Parrots on YouTube and see wonderful examples of birds using human language. You have to experiment to find what stimulates your bird to speak. Music makes many birds sing and talk. Sound of water and bath time is another trigger. Some birds will speak when greeting another bird that was absent.
Greys in particular irritate their owners by floods of conversation when they are out of the room and silence when they come in. My Greys will sing and whistle to music whereas the Cockatoos will dance. Putting words on cue means the bird will speak when you want to show off to sceptical friends and relations.
If you can find a breeder who has Parrot parents that talk, the offspring will be more likely too. Before Delbert came home, Barbara asked the breeder to play recordings of birds speaking and also of her own voice. Baby Delbert at weaning must have assimilated these sounds for he began to use them at the age of 6/7 months. Now 8 years old he has a vocabulary of 50 sounds with ten on cue and more being learned the time.
In Barbara’s DVD, you’ll watch many entrancing shots of Delbert’s speaking. Barbara noticed he copied her sneeze. This she wanted to put on cue. So, whenever he sneezed, she straightaway reinforced and praised. Delbert likes his nut treats and extra attention so sneezed frequently. Barbara points out when putting a word or action on cue concentrate on just that one so as not to confuse the bird.
Soon, whenever Barbara sneezed herself and said ‘sneeze’, Delbert copied her Barbara trained the wanted behaviour with the action of her sneezing plus the verbal cue ‘sneeze’.
As soon as Delbert responded she faded out her own sneeze action. For this sort of training, you need to use a bridge, the signal to the bird that the reinforcement (food reward, toy or attention) is coming. Barbara uses ‘good’ as a bridge; other trainers use clickers. The importance of the bridge is in timing. If the bird says a desired word when you are out of the room, he needs to hear the bridge immediately and know the reward is coming.
How to start speech training
A quiet room, a receptive bird, one that isn’t tired or full of food and a calm trainer.
Start by ‘Hi,’ (followed by the bird’s name). Show and name a common object, a ball, a nut, a seed. Repeat the lesson a couple of times a day. Vary the words and objects as soon as the Parrot knows and names them. Praise lavishly.
What has worked for me and my Parrot friends is also always speaking in context to the Parrot as much as possible. Step up,’ ‘Come here,’ ‘Good Night,’ “Good bird,’ ‘Here’s your supper.’ I always tell my birds what is about to happen. I believe they understand my meaning even if they make no comment. Otherwise why would both Macaws perching
quietly on the ceiling rope fly off onto the picture rail, as soon as I say at 9 pm ‘Bed time.’
Reliable, lasting results seem to occur when the Parrot picks up the word for herself. Can I make a plea? Birds will pick up anything forceful; they love drama. That’s why some Parrots swear. Unless you are sure the Parrot will never have to find another home, a Parrot that has learned to swear is at a great disadvantage; most people hate it. Having
Parrots has improved bad language at home. I wasn’t enchanted to hear Artha years ago, call out, ‘shut up, you idiot.’
www.goodbird.com for all Barbara Heidenreich’s books and DVDs
Northern Parrots stock her products also here.
Avian Cognition Forum on the Internet is a valuable resource for talking and related behaviour