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’.

Scarlet-shouldered parrotlet – Gray-hooded parakeet – Mountain parakeet – Barred parakeet – Andean parakeet – Amazonian parrotlet – Monk parakeet – Tui parakeet – Yellow-chevroned – – parakeet – Cobalt-winged parakeet – Golden-winged parakeet – Black-winged parrot- -Orange-cheeked parrot – Red-billed parrot – Scaly-headed parrot – Speckle-faced parrot – Blue-headed parrot – Yellow-faced parrot – Festive parrot – Tucuman parrot – Yellow-crowned – parrot – Turquoise-fronted parrot – Mealy parrot – Orange-winged parrot – Scaly-naped parrot – Blue-winged parrotlet – Dusky-billed parrotlet – White-bellied parrot – Crimson-bellied parakeet – Green-cheeked parakeet – Santarem parakeet – ose-fronted parakeet – Black-capped parakeet – Hyacinth macaw – Peach-fronted parakeet – Dusky-headed parakeet – Nanday parakeet – Red-bellied macaw – Blue-headed macaw – Yellow-collared macaw – Blue-and-yellow macaw – Blue-throated macaw – Military macaw – Scarlet macaw – Red-and-green macaw – Red-fronted – macaw – Chestnut-fronted macaw – Blue-crowned parakeet – Red-shouldered macaw – Mitred – parakeet – White-eyed parakeet

The hypothetical is obviously who’s going to survive in the rainforest longer? A formerly captive parrot that’s never been in the rainforest or a human that’s never been in the rainforest? What’s your guess on who will survive longer?

I’d like to repeat – 99 million years of instinctual expectations.

We didn’t get involved with birds as pets until somewhere around the 15th century. That means they had a 99 million year head start and were able to survive with nothing more than their feathers, beaks and feet.

Stupid (and slow) animals simply can’t evolve over that period of time

Now let’s change continents, stream across the Pacific to Australia.

Catherine says I use this video a little too often but it just makes so many great points.

Here’s a flock of budgies numbering in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

Listening to the narration you learn that the flock acts as a giant organic being.

Search parties are sent off following kangaroos looking for the best places to graze for grass seed.

Yes seed – seed does not kill birds as stated in another Quora answer. A narrative this video fills is illustrating how where and why birds find the seeds that they need to survive.

The search parties returned to the flock and provide guidance to the newly found food.

A predator is seen but is unable to catch one single bird because of the communication and flight skills of these little animals.

After watching this video you can’t walk away without thinking that communication is happening at a level that humans will never understand.

The counterpoint to that videos this video, a human crowd doing what we consider efficiently communicating.

 

 

Now let’s break it down further. There’s communications and there’s mimicry with birds.

This is what I consider mimicry “with a purpose”

 

 

Here we have a bird that is “mimicking” other birds to attract other birds – and it works. So we have to believe that this is more of a mating strategy than simply repeating random sounds.

Here’s a Raven, talking

 

 

When the Raven goes off script it appears to be intentional and perhaps the bird is actually translating words a girl assaying into a language that he would prefer to speak – how do we know that’s not the case?

I’ve saved the best to last. Disco the budgie recently passed away but I got a huge video legacy with this being one of my favorites.

Talking is a way to express wild behavior in the content of his home.

 

 

Disco had a sense (or seemed to) of his own identity and in the wild birds will name their babies that they can recognize by their unique sound.

In conclusion if you’re making the assumption that the sounds coming from your birds are simply senseless repetitive sound, could it be that you are once again greatly under estimating their intelligence and ability to communicate?

written by mitch rezman
approved by catherine tobsing

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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.