|African Grey Parrot "Psittacus erithacus erithacus"|
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A wise person once said that imitation is the best form of flattery, but some birds take this idiom to a whole new level. Almost every species of bird produces some sort of vocalization. Parrots are renowned for their deafening calls that can be heard for miles. Owls famously hoot, hawks scream, and crows caw. Ask any child, and he will be able to tell you what sound a turkey makes. Birds are even named for their distinct calls - the Whip-poor-will is a memorable favorite.
Mockingbirds not only produce their own distinct call, but expertly mimic the calls of other birds. Mockingbirds have also been known to repeat the sounds of other animals, and even mechanical sounds such as car alarms. Scientists believe that the mockingbird's imitating calls serve to expand its repertoir, thus seeming more attractive to a mate. However, mockingbirds are limited to short, uncomplicated bird songs and noises. For example, the complex song of the Song Sparrow cannot be adequately copied, even by the most talented mockingbird.
Closely related to mockingbirds, mynas (or mynahs) are known for their ability to mimic human voices. For this reason, the birds are sought after as pets. However, when it comes to imitating humans, parrots have emerged as the true bird-brains. While passerines such as crows are only able to repeat a few words or simple phrases, psittacines like budgerigars have been known to possess a vocabulary of almost two thousand words.
Experts believe that parrots are particularly adept at "talking" because they are highly intelligent and naturally social. In the wild, they form close-knit social groups. When they are raised in our home, they view humans as part of their flock, and want to interact, entertain, and be entertained. Parrots therefore mimic human voices because it interests them and gains them attention.
Many resources exist for parrot owners who want to teach their bird to talk. Generally, younger birds learn to repeat phrases more quickly than older birds. Early in its life, a parrot learning to talk will generally make unintelligible noises, not unlike a baby learning to speak. The more language the parrot is exposed to, the more he is likely to learn. Some owners have been successful by using pre-recorded CDs. Some species of parrot are more adept at learning to talk than others, and some owners never successfully teach their parrots to talk. One species that has consistently excelled at talking is the African Grey Parrot.
One of the most famous talking African Greys was Alex, who was the subject of a thirty-year experiment by his owner and animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg. Alex not only exceeded the expectations of the science community with his impressive vocabulary, but pushed the boundaries of what is understood about animal intelligence in general. By the time he died in 2007, he had a vocabulary of 150 words, and understood abstract concepts such as "over," "bigger," and "different." He could identify shapes, colors, and quantities up to six. Alex is immortalized in Pepperberg's book, Alex and Me.