Why Do Parrots Imitate Humans?

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Nov. 1 2012 5:02 PM

Polly Want a #$%@!

A mini-Explainer on why parrots mimic us and why they seem to swear so much.

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An African Grey, one of several types of parrots that can repeat what humans say

Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is trying to find a good home for a parrot that swears all the time. Why do parrots repeat things that humans say?

Because there aren’t any other birds around. Most animals are born with their species’ distinctive calls programmed into their brains. Parrots are among the few animals, along with dolphins, whales, hummingbirds, songbirds, bats, and some primates, that learn their species’ communication patterns. Wild parrots typically only repeat the sounds that other parrots make, although they’ve occasionally been observed mimicking other species. When forced to live with humans, parrots repeat what their owners say.

Parrot expert Michael Schindlinger of Lesley University explained in Scientific American in 2007 that mimicking helps parrots separate members of their own community from outsiders. It can allow a bird to find its mate and prevent intracommunity conflicts over territory.

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The obscene or vulgar parrot is an old standby in Western humor and lore. In Othello, Shakespeare refers to swearing as “speak[ing] parrot.” (Some scholars think “speak parrot” means “talk nonsense,” but the surrounding words—“drunk,” “squabble,” and “swear”—make vulgarity the more likely reference.) In Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor, Gershon Legman devoted an entire section to parrot jokes. In one joke, a parrot tells his naked owner, “I see your ass,” and is punished with a dousing of water. When the owner’s daughter later enters the house, drenched from the rain, the parrot asks, “Whose ass did you see?” Andrew Jackson, the rough-hewn seventh president of the United States, famously owned a bawdy, foul-mouthed parrot. According to legend, Jackson’s funeral was interrupted by the bird’s incessant cursing.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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