How is it that certain birds are able to mimic back what humans say to them? It would take not only the vocal cords, but some level of intelligence to comprehend what we are saying. Dogs are able to understand what we say to a large enough level to respond with the appropriate action - such as sit - but they never talk back. Is there a difference in the vocal cords of some birds that permits them to speak back to us?


1 Answer 1

  • Birds that are trained to say human words are not actually speaking with human language but are imitating often heard repeated sounds. Many birds will do this of any type of repetitive sound within their environment. It is still unclear why birds mimic sounds, but there are several theories abounding. None, yet conclusive. (1)

  • Birds that are good mimics have larger range of vocal expression, which enables them to mimic a variety of sounds, not natural to their species. This is due to these birds have a more flexible syrinx, vocal cords of the bird. Their vocal box is not unlike humans, as air is passed through two membranes to create sounds, humans can only control both membranes in unison, birds can control each membrane separately and are able to produce two separate notes simultaneously. for further reading (2)

  • Including lyrebirds, imitating the sound of a chainsaw, (from local deforestation) and it's a convincing imitation, one would be hard pressed to realise it wasn't a real chain saw they were hearing.

  • Some birds are adapted to mimicking the sounds of their environment, it is hypothesized, as a survival skill. A small parrot, might well be the prey of larger birds, so learning and imitating the calls of predators, can serve as defence of aural camouflage. At least possibly confusing the predator long enough to find escape.

  • Some birds will also mimic human behavior, they will mirror their owner's movements for example, when the person rocks side to side the bird will copy. This is in keeping with the sensation people have that a bird is actually talking to them.

  • As birds that are good at imitating human speech, are generally sociable with human (when captive) and will also imitate the actions and attitudes of the people they are in regular contact with. This may precipitate a learnt phrase on queue from a person, as the intelligence with these types of birds, is not in understanding the human language, but by reading the queues of other animals. (3)

  • An interesting feature of the Albatross, they mate for life and spend many months choosing a mate. The entire mating process is done by prospective suitors imitating each other movements, like in a dance. As they begin to settle on a mate these movements or dances become more and more intricate between each pair of mates. By the time a pair have settled upon each other the dance is so intricate, that it is entirely unique between the pair. Both birds mirroring each other's movements, so every intricate detail. Funnily, they never perform the dance again, after mating.

  • Like the Albatross it is theorised that parrots, capable of mimicry, use unique sounds to identify each other in large flocks. This type of mimicry can be used in the negotiation of flocks deciding whether or not to join as a flock. (3)

  • Dogs, like birds, do not cognitively understand what a word or phrase means, they are trained in a pavlovian manner to associate a particular sound with certain actions or consequences. For example, the sound sit!, is associated with the fact that if the dog sits, it will, most likely receive a reward. (4)

  • These differences may seem inconsequential, petty or subtle, but are not, as to truly comprehend language as the human being does, requires development within the brain that these species do not have. Most animals have a level of language to communicate base emotions between each other or possible predators or prey; fear, aggression, and the like. Growling will, generally, instill fear in other animals (including humans). This is a more primitive form of communication. This type of analysis and evolution would make a good question on Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange.

  • There are sometimes sensational claims made about a bird's ability to comprehend human language and converse authentically with human beings; this has not been proven by objective, statistically significant scientific research. The evidence is usually anecdotal and the full process of the bird's attainment of such skills cannot be objectively assessed.

  • Scientifically, the following would not hold up to scrutiny. In the case in the daily mail Alex, the parrot who learned to say 'I love you' and MEAN it: In an astonishing new book, a woman scientist says she's proved animals can talk. This woman, has spent 30 years, owning, training and interacting with this bird and has been actively attempting to precipitate meaningful dialogue with this particular bird. It should be noted that this individual has financial interest vested in this story. .


But just why some birds learn and repeat sounds - lyrebirds, crows, budgerigars and parrots are known to - is a mystery experts are gradually unravelling. "It's a part of their language," says Jaynia Sladek, from the Australian Museum's ornithology department. "For some species it's like advertising 'I am very fit because I can learn a lot of different birds' [calls]'" (1)

Thorsten argues that parrots have developed the ability to communicate in this noisy, constantly-changing environment. (3)

Researchers are yet to work out why the birds converse with each other in this way. One theory is that the mimicking calls are part of a negotiation about whether flocks should join together, or who should lead the fused flock. (3)

WHO'S A BRAINY boy then? African grey parrots not only learn to talk, but outperform human two-year-olds in a test of intelligent reasoning.

No other animals apart from great apes match the birds' ability to understand noise-related causal connections, say scientists. (4)

  • I wouldn't be so sure. The case of Alex the African Grey Parrot provides convincing evidence that parrots can understand what they say (dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2458346/…)
    – JohnFx
    Commented Oct 20, 2013 at 19:20
  • The experiments I saw were pretty convincing. The animal clearly could differentiate between questions asking about shape, material and color. She seemed to do pretty good controls changing different aspects of the object and even showed objects the parrot hadn't seen before.
    – JohnFx
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 1:14
  • 2
    I own an African Grey and while I don't believe they have a cognitive association with language, I do think their psychology is a hard thing to grasp for people. When I leave the room he calls for me. When the dog comes by his cage he gets stress and calls him name. He associates me changing batteries in various devices with the smoke alarm and mimics the sound. When he wants to be held he asks to "Step up". I think they associate their emotions and desires with sounds, and they vocalize it not because of even a Pavlovian response but because they feel compelled to vocalize the association. Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 11:17

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