Maverick the Senegal says his name for the camera…
Wee parrotlet Ptak is the chattiest of all our flock; Mishka, the cockatiel, doesn’t talk much – save for a rather evil impression of my laugh and an iPhone camera shutter noise. Mavi does say a few things, currently, but his forte is in mimicking various household beeps, clicks, bangs, and human whistles. And also a car alarm. He loves that one.
Recently, my parrotlet seems to be demonstrating – not merely an understanding of (most of) the words he’s saying – but also something close to a grasp of human syntax and grammar. Like many birds, he mutters adorably as he falls to sleep, but also when he’s hungry or wanting attention. This results in some interesting ‘conversations’ that I never manage to capture on film. He clearly reserves his best speech for when he’s either hiding, or doesn’t want me to peek. Should I dare try, he shuts up, stat. So unfortunately, you’ll just have to take my word for it until I can actually film him at it!
The main thing I’ve noticed is that Ptak will replace or add words of the function into a sentence he knows. For instance (him earlier):
‘Ptak. How are you, pretty bird? You silly, pretty bird! What’re you doing, beep beep?’
Specifically, we’ve taught him, ‘How are you?’ ‘Pretty bird,’ ‘You silly bird,’ ‘Beep beep,’ and ‘What’re you doing?’ all as individual phrases. Beep beep also happens to be one of his nicknames for himself. I think it’s the closest he can get to saying ‘baby,’ at the moment. He’ll happily peep away for hours, ‘Beep beep! Ptak!’ Or, if you say one to him, he’ll immediately say the other.
Another instance of my parrotlet making up his own, semi-functional sentences:
‘O-LI! Scritch-scritch-ee? EXCUSE ME, let’s open the door, bird.’
I’ve noticed (and this is a bit unrelated) that he has whispers for a lot of his favourite words. Some of these include ‘Beep beep beep,’ ‘kiss kiss,’ and ‘peeka-peeka-peeka-peekaboo.’ I guess I whisper these things a lot?
Anyway, after making the realisation that Ptak seems to understand certain word functions, if not always the meanings, I hopped online to see what I could turn up on other birds.
Of course Dr Irene Pepperberg and Alex’s successor, Griffin, popped up – you can watch a short clip of them here on YouTube:
She – in case you don’t know – is the scientist who, with Alex the African Grey, studied parrots’ abilities to understand what they say. She doesn’t use cues; instead, all of the experiments are designed with specific controls to avoid that danger. Dr Pepperberg uses ‘Motherese,’ to communicate with the birds, who are estimated to have the cognitive ability of a five year old, and emotional level of a two year old. Griffin can identify shapes, colours, numbers, and matter.
Then, there’s the YouTube evidence of other small birds doing what Ptak does sometimes, such as Disco, the adorably talkative Budgerigar:
Disco first says, ‘Nobody puts baby bird in the corner,’ which, I gather, is what he was first taught. He then says to himself, ‘Disco’s a baby bird in the corner.’ At some other point, possibly in another video, he says, ‘Never shake a baby bird in the corner!’ It’s very similar to what Ptak does.
I think it’s important to note that birds are thought to have their own grammar and syntax, and that – for example – if you record a series of chirps that the birds are familiar with, they will react to certain ‘remixes’ with surprise, indicating that the meaning has changed.
Whether or not Ptak actually knows what he’s saying, or whether he simply has lucky guesses and/or good timing, is not something I can ever answer with certainty. It does seem like he knows… I mean, parrots often speak in context and in just the right moment. How much of that is our own training – laughing at the right moments to encourage them to do it again? To me, though, I’m inclined to think that they have some inkling, although probably not a complete understanding.
What do you think? Do your birds speak in context, or do you believe it’s just instinctive training on our parts?