Yes, they sort of can, but not in the same way as you would understand a conversation between two humans – or two parrots, for that matter. Reciprocal exchanges can take place, but they are simplistic and limited to the parrot’s vocabulary, which differs on a bird-by-bird basis.
A parrot’s voice box, or syrinx, is very different from the larynx that we humans have, allowing them far more control in how they use their vocals – hence, the gorgeous sounds and songs they can produce simultaneously – even two at the same time!
This gives them the ability to mimic just about any sound that they hear, including the speech of humans. There are thousands of videos on YouTube of people chatting away to their parrots, some of whom need to start using a swear jar!
Given parrots learn their language from us, we can’t exactly turn around and ask them questions, then expect brand new answers. If they know a word, or if you say one enough, they’ll probably repeat it back to you eventually – and then possibly lock it into their vocabulary bank.
Likewise, you can train some of the cleverer parrots around to repeat whole sentences on a regular basis, but that doesn’t really mean you’re having a conversation. Usually, you’ll say something and they’ll repeat it, or say something very similar but closely associated in response to what you said.
Again, this is all very much situational: it really depends on the individual parrot, the training they receive, and a variety of other factors. It’s certainly possible to talk to a parrot, but a full-blown two-way conversation? That hasn’t quite been done yet, no.
According to this study by The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, birds communicate with each other in much the same way as humans do, through “conversation,” as well as acquiring language in a similar way to people.
Another study from Kyoto University in Japan has also indicated that birds utilize grammar in their own communication via birdsong. After training their avian participants to peck in response to a specific sequence of song, they would then be played a variety of different sequences in a row.
From this, it was determined that budgerigars in particular respond to the structure of a birdsong, as opposed to the entire sequence of sounds as one cohesive unit. This is very suggestive of an ability to “converse” in the way people might.
It is also worth noting that research into the brains of birds – which aren’t as small as that mean popular phrase might have you believe! – indicates that the anterior nidopallium of their brain lights up when they hear birdsong that doesn’t make sense.
Interestingly enough, this is similar to the spot in a human’s brain, Broca’s area, which activates when we hear or read something that doesn’t make sense to us. This is also indicative of a linguistic understanding similar to our own.
Perhaps eventually, parrots will evolve to be able to chatter away with us in full English, but unfortunately, that day has not yet come. We can only hope that they don’t – otherwise, they may well get smart enough to take over the world!
Do parrots understand what they say?
It is believed that some parrots can understand what they are “saying”, or more accurately, repeating, yes! Whilst there isn’t that much in the way of scientific research regarding this subject, there are thousands of online videos and passed-down anecdotes that seem to indicate otherwise, and all of this together makes for a very compelling argument.
Perhaps the biggest study into this phenomenon comes from the University of Georgia, where staff conducted a great deal of research with Cosmo, an African Grey parrot, back in 2015. By age six, Cosmo had learned over 200 words!
Their previous research – and studies conducted elsewhere – was investigating whether birds would provide a contextual response to questions; this time around, they were focusing on spontaneity in speech, and whether Cosmo might simply be blindly repeating phrases, or actually understanding what she meant to communicate.
By recording her at three different times – leaving her to her own devices, speaking to her as they normally would, and trying to communicate with her using voice only, from a nearby room – they were able to determine how her vocab changed in these various scenarios.
What they found out through working with this intelligent, beautiful bird is that her “speech and nonwords…vary with social context, indicating a level of understanding that goes beyond vocal imitation and approaches functional use.”
For instance, when Cosmo was in the room by herself, she would say things like “I’m here!” and “Where are you?”, whereas when her owner and other people were around to talk, she might say things like “Wanna play?” instead.
As a result, it is also believed that her “vocal production is largely affected by the presence and responsiveness of the social partners in her environment.” Essentially: yes, parrots can understand what they are saying, according to this study at least.
The results of hours of work with Cosmo, published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, are considered the world’s first clear proof that it is “…within the abilities of a nonhuman, nonprimate, nonmammal species that has been raised with a responsive human conversational partner in a home rather than a lab to use a variety of speech and nonword sounds in a deliberate, contextually relevant fashion.”
Although this definitely indicates that socializing a bird will very much improve their conversational abilities, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can definitely understand words and phrases, or that all parrots will be able to do so in the same way.
One study regarding one bird’s ability to converse – impressive as it is – is not enough evidence to prove that parrots understand their conversations with humans or are able to speak “fluently” in English/whatever language is communicated with them.
It cannot be generalized to all parrots, especially remembering that some have better conversation skills than others, whereas certain species might only be able to pick up a handful of words and phrases in their lifetimes. It definitely suggests there’s a possibility of understanding there though – and that’s better than nothing!
If you’d like to learn more about Cosmo, you can read firsthand about her life in a book written by her owner, Betty Jean Craige. Conversations With Cosmo is a fantastic read for anyone interested in a parrot’s ability to communicate.
Which parrots can talk like humans?
There are quite a few species of parrot that can talk! Some are more articulate than others, and a few can only be trained to speak if they are hand-reared or in certain other special cases.
In some way or another, the following species of parrot have indicated an ability to successfully communicate with humans:
- African Grey
- Timneh Grey
- Congo Grey
- Australian Galahs
- Abyssinian lovebirds
- Indian Ringnecks
- Australian King
- Yellow-Headed Amazon
- Yellow-Crowned Amazon
- Yellow-Naped Amazon
- Blue-Fronted Amazon
- White-Fronted Amazon
- Lilac-Crowned Amazon
- Orange-Winged Amazon
- Panama Amazon
- Mealy Amazon
Most folks would argue that if you’re looking for an intelligent parrot that will settle into your family and quickly figure out how to communicate with you, you’d get along swimmingly with an African grey!
If you’re interested, other species of bird that can talk, or at least mimic humans, are the songbirds:
- Hill mynahs
- Corvids – like ravens
- Australian magpie
There are, of course, potentially more birds out there with the ability to mimic or “talk” that haven’t been discovered, or perhaps documented quite as widely, but these are your best bets if you’re looking for an animal that will be able to learn to swear or tell jokes or something cool like that.