Do parrots know what they’re saying or are they just repeating sounds?

2 green budgies talking on a perch
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The following are the leading paragraphs to some of the more than 30 answers to this question on Quora.

“My African Grey has startled me so many times that I now assume he knows what he’s saying, even if he doesn’t always choose to communicate on that level with My African Grey has startled me so many times that I now assume he knows what he’s saying, even if he doesn’t always choose to communicate on that level with me”.

“Many people believe that parrots are mimics, at best. I would say that parrots use of language does not equal understanding of that language, but can convey meaning.”

“I would say the parrots know what they are saying, but we may not know what they are saying.”

“At that point, the parrot spontaneously replied, “Nobody is at home, nobody is at home!”

The neighbour was surprised at this response and waited to confirm if someone was at home or not!”

“My impressions is that they CAN know what they are saying, if they have been taught. In the work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg, her African Grey parrot, Alex, demonstrated he understood colors and concepts such as shapes and amounts.”

Being a data guy and seeing the preponderance of comments in this long stream of answers, a common thread emerged. Every anecdotal story relied on the birds inability or ability to speak a “human language”. Many of the birds were written off as making “random noises”.

Isn’t that an assumption? What if the bird is choosing to answer you in its own language? Laboratory birds have been shown they can count up to eight. I find that demeaning for a parrot.

Although some birds were given credit for actual speech and human interaction in the plethora of answers.

Big birds like scarlet macaws in the wild will get up and search in upwards of 50 different areas to forage in. It makes mental maps.

If you have a flighted bird in your home you’ll see the same behavior. Peaches our Senegal will come into our guest bedroom where I dress in the morning sitting upon a small stand atop the relic of an old CD case.

She doesn’t like it (the little stand) I can tell. She solves her own problem though. She can take off and do the necessary immediate 180° U-turn, pointing her directly back to “home”.

Not impressed?

Lets say I take a Military Macaw I’ve rehabbed and my sexless human friend we’ll call Kim. Kim is a fitness buff and doesn’t go anywhere without a fitbit strapped to the wrist.

For this experiment I’m going to helicopter into a remote area of the rainforest in Bolivia and sit down just long enough for the rotors to stop spinning so I can release the macaw.

Kim gets released at the same time wearing nothing, no electronics just that giant human brain to survive with.

The bird has a lot of friends in Bolivia with the same 99 million year old instinctual expectations – just sayin’.

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Author:

He's handled a 1000 birds of numerous species when they would visit their monthly birdie brunch in the old Portage Park (Chicago, IL) facility. The one with the parrot playground. Mitch has written and published more than 1100 articles on captive bird care. He's met with the majority of  CEO's and business owners for most brands in the pet bird space and does so on a regular basis. He also constantly interacts with avian veterinarians and influencers globally.

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