One of the reasons parrots are such popular pet birds is their ability to talk. But have you ever wondered how parrots are capable of speaking? After all, they don’t have lips to help them form words. And do parrots have vocal cords?
It turns out that the way parrots mimic our speech is very interesting (and no, these birds don’t have vocal cords). So, how does it all work? Parrots are capable of producing speech because of their syrinx and a unique “song system” in their brains.
Why Do Parrots Talk?
Before we look at how parrots talk, it’s important to know why they speak in the first place. Like many bird species, these birds are vocal learners, which means they hear sounds and then imitate them. Unlike other bird species, though, parrots are top-notch at mimicking what they hear.
But why copy the things their owners say? Parrots are big fans of fitting in with their flock; if you have a pet parrot, you are part of their flock. In the wild, parrots will listen to what the parrots around them are saying and make the same sounds to fit in (and to share vital information). But parrots kept as pets will only have the people (or other pets) in their homes to mimic, so the sounds they make will be that of human words.
So, your parrot is talking as a way to fit in with you since you’re a member of their flock!
How Do Parrots Talk?
How exactly are parrots capable of talking without lips or vocal cords, then? While humans have vocal cords, which are bands of muscle on each side of the larynx that vibrate to produce sound, parrots have what is called the syrinx. The syrinx is located at the point where the trachea splits to go into the lungs. Air flows through this and vibrates, which produces sound, similar to the way vocal cords work.
And the reason parrots are able to make certain sounds that typically require lips is because the syrinx is very finely controlled by numerous muscles and soft rings on the outside of it. This allows the parrot to mimic word formation, pitch, and more. The parrot’s tongue may also play a part.
Then there’s the part of the parrot’s brain known as the “song system” 1. All birds who are vocal learners have this area of the brain. However, parrots are unique in that their song system has more than one layer or a “song system within a song system”. What exactly is the song system? This part of the brain is an area dedicated to learning and repeating sounds. Parrots’ song systems have two layers, though. Their song system has the core (or the same area as all other birds that learn vocally), but then they have an outer shell (which only parrots have). That little extra area dedicated to repeating sounds is thought to be why parrots are so good at mimicking.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Parrots and Talking
Now you know why and how parrots talk, but you likely have a few more questions (most people do!). Here are a handful of questions people frequently ask about parrots and talking.
Do all parrots speak?
They do not! While most parrots have the ability to speak, each bird is an individual, so some may choose not to ever talk.
Do wild parrots speak?
Parrots in the wild don’t typically mimic human speech because they don’t hear it very often. However, there have been a few instances where snippets of parrots talking in the wild were overheard. It’s believed these wild parrots picked up the language from captive parrots that escaped and made their way back to the wild.
Do only male parrots talk?
You might have heard that it’s only male parrots that speak, but this isn’t true. Females are just as capable of speaking as males.
Do parrots understand what they’re saying?
Not exactly. Most of the time, pet parrots simply repeat the phrases they hear often, especially if those phrases are said with more emphasis or excitement (hence, why parrots tend to be excellent at swearing!). But they don’t necessarily know what the words mean. For example, if you say “hello” to your bird each time you see it, and your bird begins to repeat it back, the bird is likely associating that word with “oh, someone else is in the room now”. But parrots can be trained to speak and know what they’re saying (to an extent).
Parrots are pretty impressive with their mimicking abilities and ability to produce speech. But they don’t talk in the same way we do because they lack vocal cords and lips. Instead, they use the syrinx to make the same sounds they hear. The reason parrots speak in the first place is they like to fit in with their flock (which is you!). As cool as it is to have your bird talk to you, parrots don’t really know what the words they’re repeating mean. However, with a lot of time and patience, you can train your pet to not only speak but recognize the meaning of some words.
Featured Photo Credit: mlorenz, Shutterstock