Do Parrots Have Any Idea What They’re Talking About?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 7 2012 6:27 PM

Why Parrots Parrot

When birds mimic human speech, do they know what they’re saying?

Parakeet
Do parakeets understand language, or are they just all talk?

By Duncan Smith/Photodisc

A lost parakeet in Japan was returned safely to its owner last week after it told police its home address. Why do captive birds mimic human speech, and how do they decide what to say?

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

They’re trying to fit in with the flock, and they’ll say whatever it takes. Parrots are among a handful of animal families that possess an aptitude for vocal learning, meaning that they can form new sounds based on experience. Most types of birds, and many other animals, are hard-wired to make a few specific calls, perhaps with slight variations. A mourning dove, for example, pretty much always sings like a mourning dove. But parrots and mockingbirds, among others, can tailor their utterances to their audience.

In the wild, flocks of parrots don’t talk like people, but they do seem to develop distinct local dialects, and mated pairs may even sing unique duets. It’s unclear exactly why they evolved this capability, but research suggests they use it to tell members of their group apart from members of rival groups. Birds seem more likely to respond to calls that are familiar to their own, and they ostracize individuals that don’t speak their language, so to speak. This may allow them to keep untrustworthy newcomers from joining their clan. But if the dialects do serve as a form of immigration control, learning the language seems to be a path to citizenship. In one experiment, a group of parrots from one Costa Rican flock was transplanted to a more northerly flock that showed different vocalization patterns. About half flew right back home, but the rest stayed and formed a sort of immigrant enclave with its own dialect. One even learned the northern tongue and ingratiated itself with locals.

Advertisement

According to this theory, birds that are raised in captivity might mimic their human owners as a way of gaining acceptance as a member of the family. If they hear “pretty bird” a lot, they’ll interpret that as a call distinct to their flock, and try making it themselves. If the parrot gets no response when she squawks, but gets lots of attention or treats when she makes humanlike noises, she has an extra incentive to practice forming words and phrases.

Whether parrots can ever understand what they’re saying is a matter of debate. Researcher Irene Pepperberg trained an African Grey Parrot named Alex to speak with a vocabulary of some 100 human words. Over time, he learned numbers and phrases as well, and when shown a toy, he could correctly identify its name, color, and shape. Skeptics have suggested that Alex’s abilities might have been a product of the “Clever Hans” effect, in which an animal gives correct responses based on its trainer’s body language, as opposed to genuinely understanding the question. Others wonder whether Alex happened to possess a unique language capacity.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis University and Timothy Wright of New Mexico State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The Supreme Court, Throughout Its History, Has Been a Massive Disappointment

Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister

Damned Spot

Now Stare. Don’t Stop.

The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 30 2014 2:36 PM This Court Erred The Supreme Court has almost always sided with the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful.
  Business
Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
  Life
Education
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 2:56 PM How Faithful Is David Fincher’s Gone Girl?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 2:38 PM Scientists Use Electrical Impulses to Help Paralyzed Rats Walk Again
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.