Parrots, apart from being cloaked in astounding colorations, are best known for its distinctive ability to speech. Of course, ‘speech’ would be too large a word; we can rather call it as ‘mimicking’. We might have seen lot of YouTube videos of parrots wittily answering questions, singing etc. However, the big question is how and why do parrots talk? And, can they understand what they are saying? Scientific researches on these questions have often led to bunch of answers that aren’t wholly definitive or singular.
Alex, the African Grey parrot, had been the prime subject of a thirty-year scientific experiment by animal psychologist Irene Peppenberg. In her book, she wrote that Alex’s intelligence is on par with dolphins and apes. She also stated that Alex had the intelligence of a 5 year old human. The bird is credited to have asked an existential question, on its skin color, and is said to have the ability to name the traits of the toys it is shown. Some scientists remained skeptical of Peppenberg’s findings, since it is widely believed in scientific community that a large primate brain is necessary to handle complex things like languages and reasoning. They believe that Alex’s ability to interpret was less about cognition and more about actually understanding subtle cues from the questioner (like the body language) and coming up with right answers.
However, this argument of rote learning was not proven with substantial evidence. One recurring on why parrots talk is that the birds are trying to fit in the flock. Wild parrots, which aren’t caged like the pets, also seem to develop local dialects, and some of the mated pairs in wild even sing unique duets. When the same social animals are kept in captivity they start to imitate their master’s language in order to fit in and meet their needs. Mimicking human tongue is an easy way to attract the attention than uttering a few loud squawks. Whether parrots understand what they’re saying will lead to lot of debate, but the way the birds make human-like noises immediately attracts us and impels to give them more treat or attention.
A recent study by a team of scientists & researchers from Duke University have reported that their team has uncovered vital structural differences in parrot brains that may help to explain on why these birds mimic speeches very well. Published on Public Library of Science One (PLOS One), the report notes how parrots brains are structured differently than other vocal learning birds like songbirds or hummingbirds. Apart from defining the centers in parrots’ brain that controls vocal learning, the researchers have also explored the previously unrecognized brain structures called ‘shells’ (these shells have probably developed at least 29 million years ago). The ‘shells’, known for its ability to imitate speech, is said to be relatively bigger in parrot species than other vocal learning birds. The scientists also agreed that there is still a long way to understand how parrots process auditory information & how specialized are the birds’ brains are?
Whatever the scientific answer behind the parrot’s ability to mimic, it is very entertaining & fascinating to see a creature of different species, imitating human behavior.