Talking bird

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Video of a caged orange-winged amazon saying "Hello" having been prompted by visitors.

Talking birds are birds that can mimic the speech of humans. There is debate within the scientific community over whether some talking parrots also have some cognitive understanding of the language. Birds have varying degrees of talking ability: some, like the corvids, are able to mimic only a few words and phrases, while some budgerigars have been observed to have a vocabulary of almost 2,000 words. The hill myna, a common pet, is well known for its talking ability and its relative, the European starling, is also adept at mimicry.[1] Wild cockatoos in Australia have been reported to have learned human speech by cultural transmission from ex-captive birds that have integrated into the flock.[2]

The earliest reference to a talking bird comes from Ctesias in the 5th century BC. The bird which he called Bittacus,[3] may have been a plum-headed parakeet.[4]


The young of some birds learn to communicate vocally by social learning, imitating their parents, as well as the dominant birds of their flock. Lacking vocal cords, birds are thought to make tones and sounds using throat muscles and membranes – the syrinx in particular.[5] There are likely to be limitations on the sounds that birds can mimic due to differences in anatomical structures, such as their lacking lips. However, it has been suggested that mimicry amongst birds is almost ubiquitous and it is likely that eventually, all species will be shown to be able to have some ability to mimic extra-specific sounds (but not necessarily human speech).[6]

Songbirds and parrots are the two groups of birds able to learn and mimic human speech.[5][7] However, it has been found that the mynah bird, part of the starling family, can also be conditioned to learn and create human speech.[8] Pet birds can be taught to speak by their owners by mimicking their voice. If then introduced to wild birds, the wild birds may also mimic the new sounds. This phenomenon has been observed in public parks in Sydney, Australia, where wild parrots utter phrases such as "Hello darling!" and "What's happening?"[5]


Mimicking human speech is not limited to captive birds. Wild Australian magpies, lyrebirds and bowerbirds that interact with humans but remain free can still mimic human speech.[6]



The eclectus parrot (Eclectus roratus) is a strong talker, although these abilities depend entirely on training from an early age.[9] The Abyssinian lovebird (Agapornis taranta) can talk if trained at an early age; however, they only rarely develop into competent talkers. [10]

Amazon parrots

Many species of the genus Amazona are talkers, including the yellow-headed amazon (Amazona oratrix), yellow-crowned amazon (Amazona ochrocephala), yellow-naped amazon (Amazona auropalliata), blue-fronted amazon (Amazona aestiva), white-fronted amazon (Amazona albifrons), lilac-crowned amazon (Amazona finschi), orange-winged amazon (Amazona amazonica), Panama amazon (Amazona ochrocephala panamensis) and mealy amazon (Amazona farinosa).[9][11][12][13][14][15][16] They tend to relate sounds to relationships more than the grey parrots, and therefore outperform the grey parrots in more social environments.[citation needed]

Grey parrots

The African grey parrots (Psittacus) are particularly noted for their advanced cognitive abilities and their ability to talk. There are two commonly kept species of which the Timneh parrot (Psittacus timneh) tends to learn to speak at a younger age than the Congo parrot (Psittacus erithacus).[9] Pet Congo greys may learn to speak within their first year, but many do not say their first word until 12–18 months old.[17] Timnehs are generally observed to start speaking earlier, some in their late first year.[18]


Australian galahs (Eolophus roseicapilla) can talk, although not as well as some other parrots. Male galahs are reportedly easier to teach than females.[19]

The yellow-crested cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea) is rated as a fair-to-good talker.[20][21]

The long-billed corella (Cacatua tenuirostris) is described as being able to talk "very clearly".[22]


The budgerigar, or common parakeet (Melopsittacus undulatus), is a popular talking-bird species because of their potential for large vocabularies, ease of care and well-socialized demeanor.[23] Between 1954 and 1962, a budgerigar named Sparkie Williams held the record for having the largest vocabulary of a talking bird; at his death, he knew 531 words and 383 sentences.[3] In 1995, a budgerigar named Puck was credited by Guinness World Records as having the largest vocabulary of any bird, at 1,728 words.[24]

The monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus), sometimes known as the quaker parakeet, is also a skilled talker.[9]

The Australian king parrot (Alisterus scapularis) can be trained to talk if it is hand-reared.[25]

The rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri manillensis), also known as the ring-necked or Indian ring-neck parakeet, is an accomplished talker and popular pet which can develop a large vocabulary and talk clearly in sentences.[9]

The blossom-headed parakeet (Psittacula roseata) is rare and therefore not often kept as a pet, however, they are good talkers.[26]

The African ring-neck parakeet (Psittacula krameri krameri) can also talk, but some may never learn if not trained at an early age.[27]

The Derbyan parakeet (Psittacula derbianais) is an excellent talker. The clarity of their speech has been compared to that of amazon parrots although they may not learn extensive vocabularies.[28]

The slaty-headed parakeet (Psittacula himalayana) generally does not learn to talk.[29]


Hill mynahs

Hill mynahs (tropical members of the starling family of birds) are renowned for their ability to mimic the human voice. It has been claimed that the hill mynah is the best talking bird and the best mimic in the world.[30]


Several members of the corvids, or crow family, can mimic human speech. The best talking crows may be the ones found in captivity at zoos and wildlife centers.[31][32]

A blue jay named "Bindie Sue" learned to mimick sounds such as the barking of a dog and to say her own name.[33][34] Another example is a pet Eurasian jay named "Gemmy" talking.[35]


European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are exceptional mimics, including human speech.[36] Their ability at mimicry is so great that strangers have looked in vain for the human they think they have just heard speak.[37]


The northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), as both the common and taxonomic names suggest, are mimickers of a great number of sounds. This includes human speech. [38]


In Australia, lyrebirds are great mimics of many sounds, including the human voice. Lyrebirds have three syringeal muscles whereas most other songbirds have four. This could make the syrinx of the lyrebird more flexible.[6][39] In a study comparing the sonograms of lyrebirds and Australian magpies during mimicking, the author stated that the mimicry of the lyrebird was "impressionistic" while that of the magpie was "realistic".[6]

Australian magpie

One hand-raised Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) developed the ability to mimic human speech, including words and phrases. This individual mimicked a large number of (non-human) sounds, but a third of all mimicked sounds were of human speech.[6] The author stated that mimicry by the magpie was far more accurate than that of the lyrebird.[6]

Famous talking birds

"Alex", a grey parrot, had a vocabulary of about 100 words, substantially fewer than world record holders,[40] but he is perhaps the best known talking bird due to the publicity surrounding his potential cognitive abilities. In learning to speak, Alex showed scientist Irene Pepperberg that he understood categorization like "same and different" and "bigger and smaller". He could identify objects by their shape ("Three-corner", "Four-corner", up to "Six-corner") and material: when shown a pom-pom or a wooden block, he could answer "Wool" or "Wood" correctly, approximately 80% of the time. Alex could identify the difference between yellow and green same-sized objects by saying "Color" or identify a larger one by naming its color. If asked what the difference was between two identical blue keys, Alex learned to reply, "None" (he pronounced it "Nuh").[41][42][43] Alex died on September 6, 2007.[44]

"Prudle" held the Guinness World Record for many years as the bird with the largest vocabulary - a documented 800 words.[45]

"N'kisi", another grey parrot, is noted for his impressive English usage skills and other abilities. As of January 2004, he had a documented vocabulary of 950 words. N'kisi is believed to be one of the most advanced users of human language in the animal world.[46]

"Einstein" appeared on many television shows and became famous for her ability to recreate sounds as well as talking. Video clips show her making the sound of a laser beam generator and an evil-sounding laugh. She has been trained by Stephanie White.[47]

"Disco", a budgerigar,[48] is an internet sensation that has scored millions of views in its YouTube channel. One of his most famous phrases, is the impressively long: "What seems to be the problem officer? I am not a Crook, my name is Disco, I'm a Parakeet."[49] Disco passed away in January 2017.


Several theories have been proposed regarding the function of audible mimicry in general; however, these do not make a specific theory regarding why human speech is mimicked. Several of the theories will apply to only some species due to social structure, habitat and behavioural ecology.

Mistaken copying

It has been suggested that (general) mimicry of non-bird related sounds is in fact, simply a mistaken attempt to copy species-specific calls.[6]

Flock recognition

In the wild, flocks of parrots develop distinct local dialects. Research indicates they use these to distinguish familiar members of their flock from unfamiliar birds of other flocks. Birds respond more to vocalisations that are familiar to their own, and they ostracize individuals that vocalise in a different way. Birds raised in captivity might mimic humans, particularly their owners, to gain acceptance as a member of the family (flock). If they hear a word or phrase repeatedly, they might interpret that as a vocalisation distinct to their flock. They then attempt to make the vocalisation themselves to maintain their membership of that flock. If the parrot gets no response when it squawks a natural parrot vocalisation, but receives attention or food when it mimics human speech, it has an extra incentive to repeat human words and phrases.[50]


The territorial song of lyrebirds is relatively simple and substantially different from that of the sounds they mimic — including human speech.

Sexual selection for large repertoire

One proposed function for (general) mimicry is that mimics have evolved to have a wide repertoire of vocalisations to increase their reproductive success. The male lyrebird, for example, adorns his song with many different mimicked sounds, often the songs of other nearby birds, but can include car horns, chainsaws and barking dogs.


General mimicry may help a bird prevent itself or its offspring from being preyed upon. For example, the Australian magpie mimics the call of the barking owl and the boobook owl, both predators of the magpie's young.

Auditory map

Some birds, such as the Australian magpie, mimic only those noises it hears whilst in its territory. It has been suggested that birds with complex social organisation may develop an auditory map of their territory, as well as visual, and that mimicking facilitates this process.[6]

Cognition controversy

There is controversy about whether parrots are capable of using language, or merely mimic what they hear. However, some scientific studies—for example those conducted over a 30-year period by Irene Pepperberg with a grey named Alex and other parrots, covered in stories on network television on numerous occasions[51]—have suggested that these parrots are capable of using words meaningfully in linguistic tasks.[52]

Some in the scientific community are skeptical of Pepperberg's findings, pointing to Alex's communications as operant conditioning.[53] Critics point to the case of Clever Hans, a horse whose owner claimed could count, but who instead was actually understanding subtle cues from him.[54] In another case, Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee, was thought to be using language, but there is some debate over whether he simply imitated his teacher.[54] Dr. Herbert Terrace, who worked with Nim Chimpsky, says he thinks Alex performed by rote rather than using language; he calls Alex's responses "a complex discriminating performance", adding that in every situation, "there is an external stimulus that guides his response."[54] However, supporters of Alex mention that Alex was able to talk to and perform for anyone involved in the project as well as complete strangers who recorded findings unassisted and during first contact with the bird, making the arguments of rote learning and operant conditioning difficult to substantiate.[55]

Scientists in France and the Czech Republic have also had some success in teaching grey parrots to label items referentially using human language, albeit using a different teaching methodology to that of Pepperberg — which was found to be ineffective in the case of the particular birds within the study.[56]

In fiction

Talking birds are used as a plot element in fiction, notably in many works by Gabriel García Márquez.[57]

In The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot by Robert Arthur, Jr., the young protagonists look for a group of talking birds, each of whom gives a cryptic clue to the location of a valuable treasure.

They are used to humorous effect in the Tintin books The Broken Ear, Red Rackham's Treasure and The Castafiore Emerald by Hergé.

In Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling, a grey parrot lives aboard Witta's ship. "When first we entered there a loud voice cried, 'Out swords! Out swords! Kill, kill!' Seeing us start Witta laughed, and showed us it was but a great-beaked grey bird with a red tail. He sat her on his shoulder, and she called for bread and wine hoarsely, and prayed him to kiss her.'

"Captain Flint", named for a notorious deceased pirate captain, is Long John Silver's talking parrot in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island (1883). Her habitual refrain: "Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!"

In the narrative poem The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe the titular bird famously recites the word "Nevermore" throughout.

Talking ravens are a notable element in the series A Song of Ice and Fire by author George R. R. Martin. One in particular has the ability to say "Corn!" when hungry, but many say "Snow!" as well.

The 2017 Doctor Who episode The Eaters of Light depicts talking crows in Scotland at the time of the Picts' wars against the Romans. It further suggests that the cawing of crows originated from their being trained by the Picts to say the name of Kar, a female warrior killed fighting the titular monsters.

A common hill myna provides important clues about the night of Laura Palmer's death in the television show Twin Peaks by David Lynch and Mark Frost.

Mercedes Lackey has at least 2 novels with significant roles for a talking Grey: "The Wizard of London," and "Grey's Ghost."

Two LucasArts Adventure Games -- Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge -- feature talking parrots as a crucial means to solve certain puzzles. In the former, a parrot reveals the title of Plato's Lost Dialogue; In the latter, a parrot dispenses instructions on how to reach a fabled treasure.


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Further reading

  • Smith, Fran (2008). Friendly Feathers: Life with Pierre, an African Grey Parrot. Frances L. Smith. ISBN 978-0-615-22232-5

External links

  • Recordings of a grey parrot talking
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