Jeff Sexton

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Speaking of Birds, Birds Speaking

Harlan is a Congo African Grey Parrot.

The "CAG" weighs about a pound, has a wing span of a little under 2 feet, is about 10 inches tall and is covered in grey feathers except for a short, bright red tail. One striking feature of the African grey is its rather large neck and head. A grey's neck and head look like almost half their body mass. There is good reason for this - the birds have a huge brain.

African grey parrots are the kings of talking birds. There are two especially fascinating things about their speech which make them unique, or nearly so, among speaking parrots. The first is that they do not speak in a single voice. The amazing range of sounds this animal can make allows it to mimic the voices of multiple, specific humans in its life. I have read that most speaking parrots speak in more or less their own parrot voice, or an imitation of their owner's voice.

The second amazing thing about greys is that they only start out mimicking. As they get older by a few years, they begin to know and understand the meanings of words (there is solid scientific evidence for this by the way), and they are capable of using words in new contexts, forming their own sentences. The African grey parrot may be the only animal on Earth with the potential to communicate directly with human beings using our own human spoken language.

That said...

Not all greys talk, ever. Some talk a lot, some talk very little, and some never do. While most greys speak well, many are more content to imitate the sounds of inanimate objects in their environments, such as the beeps of electronic devices, and the sounds of other animals.

As I write this, Harlan is 6 months old, and can do a very good "hello". However he only does this when he wants to get my attention, when I am not in the room. Whole days go by when I don't hear it at all. Various whistle and hoot sounds are apparently easier sounds to make, so I hear a lot of that, and a sort of mumbling sound. But when he really is trying hard, he drops into a very human voice like sound. What he "says" is usually unintelligible, but the fist time I heard it from the other room it was actually a little creepy. The sound really is very human. He also makes a variety of random clicks and beeps that I can not even imitate. The rage of sounds he is capable of is astounding.

The mumbling, grumbling sound, I have read, is practice. He does this a lot, and especially does this when climbing around on the cage. As time has past, I have realized what he is saying. I often say "careful" when he is climbing up something, or generally doing something that looks a little precarious. Over time, his mumbles while climbing around are morphing into the word "careful".

They say African greys don't get really chatty until they are a year old. They say greys don't form sentences until 2 or 3, if they do so. They also say to be careful what you teach them saying because you may end up hearing it 50 times a day.

I often precede things I ask Harlan with "wanna" or "want". This way when he says it, he will be telling me what he wants. For example, I say "Wanna walnut" and offer a walnut. Or "wanna scratch", "want shoulder", "wanna toy", etc.

I also just talk to him a lot, describing everything I am doing and each morning, what will happen during the day.

Even though Harlan does not speak much, he does communicate, and he does understand a good deal of what he hears. It doesn't take long, spending time observing a parrot, to pick up on a sophisticated array of body language.

Check out more posts about our adventures with birds here...


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