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

The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.