Teaching Your Parrot To Talk
Ron Hines DVM PhD
Keeping parrots has been a tradition in my part of South Texas for at least a thousand years. The beauty of their feathers and the bird’s amazing ability to repeat words account for that. You can read more about that long history here.
Why Do Parrots Even Want To Talk?
Parrots are extremely social creatures that cannot tolerate loneliness or boredom.
All social creatures must find ways to communicate with each other. Most do so through subtle body language – barely noticeable to us humans. But parrots are an ancient class of birds that, independently of other birds and mammals, developed complex calls and sounds that allowed them to communicate so that they could live safely and harmoniously in their social groups.
When you keep a parrot as a pet, it uses the same thought processes and physical structures that it would normally use to learn its wild communication calls or “songs” to copy the things you say and communicate with you. Much of that communication is no more than letting you know it is there and part of your “Flock”. But sometimes it goes considerably beyond the simple imitation of sounds.
Biologists believe that only humans, bats, cetaceans (whales and porpoises) and parrots have developed complex vocal communication. Parrots can not form word sounds like we do. That is because we use our face, lips and mouth to shape sounds that our vocal cords produce (ref ).
Parrots have no vocal cords or flexible mouth. Instead, they have a two-part kazoo-like structure, their syrinx, deep in their chest where the tubes (major bronchi ) that connect their lungs to their windpipe (trachea) all meet. (You can see a representation of this structure in a cockatiel below:
Parrots do use their tongues to a lesser degree to shape sounds. (ref)
Parrots differ from humans in both their hearing and sound modulating ability (phonation). That is why they frequently cannot distinguish between “a” and “i” sounds. That common “speech impediment” is one reason some people understand talking birds better than others. But having the “tools” required to talk is not sufficient; parrots need specialized speech areas in their brains as well. Their brains are organized quite differently from ours (you can see a comparative diagram of their vocal centers and yours here ).
Many birds, besides parrots, make complex sounds. In those species, it is the male birds that tend to excel in producing them. But parrots of both sexes are unique in the “plasticity” of their voice and sounds. Unlike other birds, their utterances are much less dependent on an inborn genetic program and much more dependent on mimicking (copying) the sounds they hear around them. (You can read in more detail the contrast between the speaking ability of parrots and non-parrot birds here.)
All parrots develop strong mate bonds and strong group bonds and they continuously reinforce those bonds vocally. In doing so, they have a need to sound similar to their mate and to their group. This need is so strong that females of any one flock group eventually settle on a common call that is unique to them. (You can read a study of how that occurs in budgerigars here.)
Are There Any Hard And Fast Rules About Speech?
Not really. There is remarkable variation in the ability of individual parrots of the same species as well as in the ways pet parrots learn to speak. Parrots are flock or group animals, and all animals that live in groups vary widely in their individual interests and talents. My suggestions are only based on the parrots I have owned and my client’s pets that I have worked with.
What Species Of Parrots Have The Most Talking Potential?
The king of the talking parrots is the Congo African Grey Parrot. Grey parrots split from their South American and Pacific brethren eons ago. We do not know why, but grey parrots seem to have developed mental abilities that surpass most other members of the parrot clan. (There is a flip side to that – grey parrots are also the most socially demanding of the parrots. They are extremely needy for constant companionship and interaction when they are maintained singly as a member of a human family. Consider that carefully before purchasing one.)
The next best talkers are the larger South and Central American Amazon parrots. Of the Amazons, those that have at least a small patch of yellow on their head or nape tend to talk best. Unlike grey parrots that easily learn new words throughout their lives, Amazon parrots tend to have a shorter learning window. (Mine have learned the majority of their vocabulary by the age of two.)
Smaller parrots, budgies and cockatiels learn to talk as well. These smaller parrots appear to have considerably great individual variation. A few remarkable budgies and cockatoos seem to have a special gift but no one knows why. There is even an article that claims that being right or left “handed” influences a parrots talking ability. (ref)
Macaws, although the largest of the parrots, are not generally great talkers. In that same study, none of 51 macaws were able to pronounce more than 10 words. Macaws tend to have rather croaky voices. (Mine always sounded like they had laryngitis.)
Cockatoos can also learn to talk. But, like macaws, they usually have a limited vocabulary. But unlike macaws, cockatoos tend to have rather sweet soft voices (when they are not doing their normal morning and evening screaming).
I often mention that pet shops are not good places to purchase parrots. But if you do purchase from a group of already-perching smaller parrots, budgies or cockatiels, pick the more vocal ones in the group. As a rule, these species do not speak as distinctly as larger parrots. Stand quietly to the side and observe the whole group before you decide which one to buy. If it is a cockatiel or budgie (and old enough) have an experienced pet professional guess on their sex and choose a male. If they are all the same age, choose among the largest ones. As you approach the cage, note which individuals are least fearful and inclined to back away.
There is an article that hints that the ears of different species of parrots become functional at different times. (ref)
Choosing A Parrot With The Right Temperament
Parrot temperament has a lot to do with the conditions under which it was raised. Once a parrots temperament toward humans has been established, it can be very difficult to alter it. How your parrot relates to you can be critical in its talking ability; so avoid fearful or shy birds when choosing a parrot to train. Later in life, parrots tend to choose one family member over another as their preferred “mate”. Those parrots can be quite aggressive to those other family members, but they retain the talking abilities the developed before they became sexually mature. (Their laughing-cackling sounds and dilating-constricting pupils are signs of aggression and dominance – not fear.)
If at all possible, select a bird that has just finished being hand fed. These birds are better purchased directly from a small scale, conscientious breeder than from a pet store. Young birds will still have pinfeathers sprouting from their head and neck and , perhaps, a beak soiled with caked formula. Never select a bird with occluded (plugged up) nostrils as these often have chronic respiratory disease or vitamin deficiencies (vit A) . Sickly birds will not learn to talk well. The youngster should not crouch when you approach it, growl, or fall asleep. There should be few or no stress bars in its feathers).
Just because a parrot can say a few words when you get it does not necessarily mean it will learn more words. Talking parrots do have an advantage over quiet ones, but if they are Amazon parrots, their window for learning may have already closed. I personally prefer starting from scratch with a younger bird if I am intent on a talking parrot.
What Is The Best Age To Purchase A Parrot If Its Talking Ability Is Important To Me?
At What Age Should I Begin Training My Parrot To Talk?
Parrots are never too young to talk to. They may be too young to talk back – but they are never too young to remember words. If you obtain a baby parrot, just out of the nest, talking will come a lot easier. Start training as early as you can while the baby is still on formula. Birds of this age bond readily to humans and develop the relaxed confidence necessary for vocal interaction. Be gentle, kind and patient and these birds will quickly learn to trust and respond to you. They should be completely trusting and comfortable when being handled. Don’t expect a young baby parrot to start talking immediately. As long as they are “clucking” for food they are unlikely to talk. But exposing them to words and phrases at this early age primes them to talk rapidly when they are old enough. Experimenting with words, flapping wings and experimenting with flight often occur at about the same age. These babies will cock their heads, listen to you intently and recognize words even though they are too young to repeat them. By the time smaller parrots are 3-6 month old and larger parrots are 6-12 months old they will begin repeating words and phrases. Their first attempt to copy a word may be only a soft, poorly-formed mumble that is difficult for you to identify. But with time, and your repetition, it will become closer to the word you said.
If you pick an older bird that is fearful of humans, teaching it to talk will be difficult if not impossible. These birds must first learn to trust people. Many never do. For them, a lengthy period of socialization and calming is required. Taming wild birds is not the subject of this article, but you can read a bit about that here.
Amazon parrots learn to talk during the time they would normally learn their wild calls. This window for learning is no more than a year or so long. After this window closes some exceptional birds will still learn new words and phrases easily but many will not. African Gray parrots on the other hand begin learning later in life and continue to learn words, phrases and mechanical sounds throughout their lives.
Can Every Parrot Be Taught To Talk?
Not every parrot will learn to talk. There are a variety of reasons for that. Smaller species of parrots are not known for outstanding talking abilities nor for the clarity of their words. Birds that have learned to scream or whistle may be less inclined to learn words (try not to teach your parrot to whistle – if ever – before it knows quite a few distinct words. Most people who teach their parrot to whistle dearly regret it quite soon. ). Parrots that are held in groups and those that had little or no human contact during their formative period are also less inclined to talk. (They are just as vocal, but it will be squawks and native calls that they produce.)
Just because your parrot does not repeat a word does not mean it does not understand its meaning and vice versa. Those are two completely different processes. (ref)
Many bird owners initially chose a parrot as a pet for its talking ability. But over time, most find out that the bird’s ability to talk had very little, if any, bearing on its desirability as a pet, family member or long-time companion. If you are like most folks, with time, your parrot’s talking ability will mean less and less to you and its general temperament and compatibility, more and more.
The primary requirement needed in teaching a bird to talk is a good relationship with your pet. If that relaxed, trusting relationship is not there, spend some time first developing it.
Parrots that are distrustful or frightened are not going to repeat things you say any more than you would. They are more likely to stay quiet and as far away as possible, hoping that they aren’t notices.
Attentive parrots stand high on their perch and track your movements. They constrict and dilate their pupils as they examine the environment around them. When they see you as a flock mate rather than a predator, they will begin attempting to communicate with you to get your attention – well-adjusted parrots hate to be alone or out of verbal contact with their companions.
If your parrot appears apprehensive, place its cage in a less traveled area and gradually (over weeks) move it into more occupied family areas. No matter where the parrot resides, the area needs to be well lit with full-spectrum light. I like to keep my parrots in locations that are colorful, and airy and where family activity and sounds are common place. That is where they appear happiest.
A parrot’s sense of its environment is in many ways quite different from yours. Their eyesight may is 2-8 times better than yours and their ability to simultaneously analyze what is in their visual field and subtle motion is also greater than ours. Their eyes sense colors in the short wavelengths that are invisible to us (UV spectrum). You can read more about their remarkable sensory capacities here.
Turn off the TV, cell phone and computer and stop any activities that may be a distraction. Have other family members and pets leave the room. Let in the sunlight. Birds key off of the emotion and gusto in your voice more than the word itself. So how you say a word is more important to the parrot than what you say. To teach a parrot to talk you need to be the center of the bird’s attention. A parrot that is learning will look and listen to you intently while you speak. It will stand high on the perch with an alert body stance. You may notice that its eye pupils change in size rapidly. Say the word in a loud clear voice with a slight hesitation between repetitions. Remember – emotion and gusto! (That may be one reason they seem to learn curses so quickly.)
What Are Some Good First Words?
Parrots are natural mimics. They will experiment and imitate most any sound they hear over and over again. Experiment with a few two or three syllable words or phrases spoken slowly and with enthusiasm! Timing and regularity are important – mornings and evenings tend to be when a parrot’s powers of concentration and absorption are greatest.
Good morning! Who’s there? Answer the door. Come here! are all good starters. From there, graduate to naming specific items and situations. Wana grape? Up we go! Most parrots are intelligent enough to eventually associate a specific word or phrase with a specific situation or desire.
When your parrot cocks its head to be scratched, you might say “Wana scratch” or “feels great”. When you give him a toy, be sure to name it. When you open his cage door, say “wana come out”. When you begin your morning activities “rise and shine ! “
Parrots learn to talk more rapidly when they can associate a word with an action or an object. For example, when you give your parrot a peanut you might say “Peanut Mmmm, Peanut Mmmm”. When you get up in the morning say Rise And Shine!. It is amazing how much your little bird will understand and he is more likely to use words when he has an inkling of what they mean.
When teaching your bird to name objects, pick objects that are small and colorful. The reward in these cases should be giving the bird the object. For example, if the bird correctly calls key chain, give the bird the key chain to play with. This technique works well with the word grape. Grape is apparently an easy word for parrots to say. Some other easy words are key, paper, box, corn, carrot, nail, water, treat, bean, and rock.
(Be sure that trinkets offered to your parrot are not made of soft metal (pot metals) – things like monopoly game pieces are “verboten” (prohibited) as they often contain poisonous lead, zinc or antimony).
Parrots may learn to talk better from the high-pitched feminine voices of women and children. Once the bird is relaxed, begin the lesion. Keep the training periods no longer than 10 or 15 minutes at a stretch. Start with simple, short words and phrases such as hello and good morning. Hold the bird perched on your hand or finger about twelve inches from your mouth. You can also do this with the bird perched on a tee stand or on the top of its cage.
All parrots talk, it is just that wild ones do not use human language to do so. Parrots talk in two situations. The first, loudest and most important to them is their contact call. That is the call or sounds they use to keep track of the location of their mate. Pet parrots will eventually consider a single family member their bonded mate. They will demand that person’s attention by vocalizing the words you have taught them. Not all parrots bond to the same degree. As a rule, New World parrots (amazons, macaws, conures, etc.) are most intense in this regard and Pacific Rim parrots and cockatoos the least.
But they all carry out singing “duets”.
You can read more about the complex babbling duets that parrots normally perform here,here and here. Your pet parrot will perform the same ritual, it will just use the human words that you have taught it.
Many parrots are more inclined to talk and duet when the person they perceive as their mate is not actually in sight – say you in the kitchen and them in the living room or upstairs. Parrots are very needy for tactile (touch) affection and close physical proximity to their feathered or human mate. Talking is their primary way to request your presence and attention. Parrots are extremely accurate in recognizing specific voices. In the wild, they easily recognize the voice of their mate and up to hundreds of flock mates from considerable distance away. They even recognize the distinct dialects (accents) of adjacent flocks. You can read about that remarkable ability here. Even little budgies perform their duets. You can read about them doing so here.
A second group of words and sounds your parrot will learn are those I call chatter. They are how, a relaxed group of parrots communicate when in close proximity. Think of it as tea time chatter. You can read about that sort of chatter here.
Parrots learn to talk best through one-on-one relationship with their owners. Do not have more than one parrot in the room or even in adjoining rooms when you are attempting to teach a parrot to talk. It is also very difficult to teach two birds to talk at the same time or more than one word or phrase at a time – parrots do not multi-task.
Parrots, like human infants, repeat the words they hear most often. But just like infants, the word or phrase has to be one that is attractive to their ear. I have no idea what attracts birds to one phrase over another. Perhaps the rhythm of the phrase, perhaps the particular vowels and consonants within it, perhaps the characteristics of the human voice that says it. Some people’s voices and mannerisms seem to teach parrots to talk better than others.
Do not become frustrated if your bird just stares at you when you speak as if you were an idiot. It heard everything you said. It is not uncommon for a parrot to suddenly repeat a word that your say today on tomorrow or on the day after. That occurs in other species of birds as well. You can read how it occurs in finches learning their song here.
You may also find that repeat words, like “coochi-coochi” makes it easier or more attractive for the bird to repeat.
Reinforce Success With Rewards
The best reinforcements to learning of all kind is positive social contact between you and your parrot. When it appears that your parrot made an attempt to repeat something you said, reward it. There are four things parrots like: the eye contact and attention of their owner, tactile contact (stroking and scratching = allogrooming ), food treats and toys. Parrots will learn vocabulary more rapidly if you offer them one of those rewards for success.
When you offer treats, offer them sparingly (in small amounts). A single raisin will due. Pick a treat that the bird really enjoys and reserve that treat only as a reward for the behaviors you desire.
What Are The Absolute Limits To How Many Words Your Parrot Can Learn ?
That depends on a combination of four things: the species of parrot, the age at which you begin training, the parrot’s individual abilities and the amount of time you are willing to devote to teaching it. African grey parrots seem to top the pyramid in talking ability. The maximum number of “words” units or individual sounds these birds can make is close to 300. You can read an article about the abilities of one exceptional grey parrot, Cosmo, here.
There are reports of budgies and cockatiels with amazing talking abilities as well. But they are considerably less well documented. I have seen many that talked, but none that I have met had those extraordinary talents.
What Aviculture Breeding Methods Produces The Best Talkers?
Human-reared baby parrots, taken from their parrot parents early in life, tend to be the best talkers. Those are the parrots that form the closest bonds to their human owners , and bonding is a very important motivator to copying human words. You can read an extensive article on the attributes of human vs. parent-raised grey parrots here.
However, human imprinting and dependency on a human companion also has its drawbacks. Birds that become neurotic, feather pluckers or screamers also tend to be the ones that were hand raised from an early age. In most of those cases, the bird’s need for one-on-one companionship, time and attention was more than the owners were able to provide.
Success Comes In Small Steps
It is quite unusual for a parrot to repeat a word correctly the first few times it tries. It needs to hear you repeat the word and work on pronouncing it right. So its first few attempts usually sound like gibberish. The length of the word, the correct tone and accent usually precede success at pronouncing the vowels and consonants.
What About Using Tape Recorders, Etc.?
Parrots need visual motivation to talk as well as exposure to words and phrases. The driving force for social calls is the owner’s presence or a demand for his/her presence.
A tape recorder or other mechanical sound device does not provide that. Some parrots will eventually mimic the sound of machines – but few if any will learn to speak words from machines.
I have never used a tape recording to teach my parrots to talk. But many of us believe that because mechanical systems lack human interaction, the birds quickly tire of them. Parrots really need to bond with the source of their vocabulary and a mechanical source just doesn’t interest them. If you do use a recording, do not play it for more than half an hour at a stretch. If you don’t have the time to spend with your pet (or your life situation changes) consider purchasing another parrot of the same species and enjoy listening them jabber contentedly to each other.
The Model-Rival Method For Teaching Parrots To Talk
Dr. Irene Pepperberg popularized the Model-Rival Method in teaching her famous African Grey parrot, Alex, to talk. That method theorized that rivalry for affection would motivate a parrot to speak. It appeared to work well for Alex. You can read about her method here.
Others have not found that method as effective as she did – nor was she as successful on later attempts. Read another similar but less successful study here. (Dr. Giret and I have joked that perhaps grey parrots prefer English over French and Czech.)
Do Male And Female Parrots Differ In Their Talking Ability?
Many believe that male parrots seem to be more talkative than females. This is not always the case however, since so many other factors come into play. The majority of parrots are monomorphic. That means that one cannot tell a male from female parrot by its external body characteristics. (However, female “normal”coloration cockatiels have horizontal stripes or bars on their tail feathers . The cerre or nostril area of adult male budgerigars is larger and more bluish in males than females. The eyes of adult male cockatoos are jet black while females and juveniles are dark brown.Only female eclectus parrots are red. The heads of male macaws and conures is are usually more elongated in males than females and the shoulders (alula) of only the male spectacled and yellow-lored parrots are red. But all parrots can be genetically sexed from a drop of their blood.)
Even in the wild, we know that the chatter of male and female parrots have different characteristics. (ref)
Will My Parrot Say Different Things To Different People?
Probably so. Even wild parrots recognize the individual voices of their flockmates and respond to them with different sounds. So your parrot will recognize the members of your family and probably respond to them with different words as well. If your parrot is calling for you as part of its duet, it will be quite disappointed if someone else shows up in response. You can read a bit about that ability in spectacled parrotlets here.
How Long Do Parrots Remember The Words They Have Learn?
With repetition from their owner, parrots will remember the words you teach them for their entire life. With less repetition from you, pronunciation may drift and become less accurate or the word may be forgotten entirely.
Wild yellow nape parrots, maintained their calls and chatter quite stably over an 11-year study period. You can read that study here.
Are Some People’s Voices Better At Training Parrots To Talk ?
Probably so. Certain frequencies (2-4KHz) are easier for parrots to perceive and mimic. That is a narrower band of frequencies than humans use in ordinary speech. So it is conceivable that the tone and voice of some speakers is easier for parrots to copy than others. (we know that parrots prefer certain other human traits as well (ref) . You can read studies on the hearing and vocal range of parrots in several studies; in budgies here and in orange-fronted conures here.
Will I Be Able To Teach My Parrot New Words Throughout Its Life?
Although parrots have the most “plastic” or changeable vocabularies of all birds, much of their vocabulary tends to “crystallize” and be less amenable (less able) to change over time. Amazon parrots are considerably less successful in adding vocabulary after they have reached sexual maturity. That is less of a problem in grey parrots – many greys seem anxious to add to their repertoire throughout their lives.
If I Have A Parrot That Doesn’t Talk, Does That Mean It Is Less Intelligent Than One That Does?
Recognition of what you say and the ability to repeat it are quite different and parrots can excel in both or one.
Is It Easier To Teach A Single Parrot To Talk Or A Pair Of Birds?
Parrots tend to mimic one another. You will do better instructing a single bird. Similar to getting your kids to do their homework lessons, the presence of another parrot (kid) within hearing range is sufficient to distract your parrot from its speech lessons.
What Is The Best Time Of Day For Lessons?
Parrots are most vocal in the morning and early evenings. This corresponds to the times of day that they normally would disburse in the morning to feed and congregate in the evening to roost. Their calls and chatter aid in this. Those are the times I would concentrate my talking lesions.
It is also futile to attempt to keep parrots quiet at those times – just get used to the noise. Don’t cover their cage, move the cage to a corner or scold the bird.
Proper Nutrition Is Important
Parrots that are living on a diet rich in sunflower or safflower seeds or cereal grains are always duller and less aware of their surroundings than birds fed a more natural diet. This is because parrots on seed and cereal grain-based diets are nutritionally deprived; those eating mainly pellets are often frustrated and bored. If you want your parrot to live a long healthy life and learn to talk well, spend a few weeks to a few months converting it from a commercial seed/pelleted diet to a diet more akin to what parrots were designed by their Maker to eat. You will be amazed in the positive psychological and physical changes you will see in your pet. You can read how to do that here.