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Training Your Bird To Talk PDF Print E-mail
Written by 1996/97 issue of Birds USA . Author(s): Athan, Mattie Sue   

Training Your Bird to Talk

alexBirds can be taught to talk rather than simply mimic sounds.

In the past, it was thought that one-on-one interaction, including much out-of-context repetition, was the best way to teach parrots to talk. Many birds throughout the ages have acquired human words this way, but I believe these birds are more likely to merely mimic the sounds of the words. Modern parrot behavior consultants are more excited about the prospect of talking rather than mimicking birds, and so our ways have changed.

The work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a Harvard-educated cognitive ethologist (one who studies the evolution of thought), astounded the world and the avicultural community by opening our eyes to possibilities that were often previously ignored or disbelieved. Noting that there were scientific studies underway to demonstrate talking abilities in apes and dolphins, Dr. Pepperberg began her research 19 years ago with a presumed-to-be average African grey parrot purchased from a pet store.

Amazingly, Dr. Pepperberg's research not only taught us about avian speech capacity, but it also evaluated techniques for speech training. Her studies demonstrated, for example, that attempts to train her African grey parrots with audio- and videotapes were useless. In another study by a different scientist, the birds learned only the sounds of human staff coming in to start the tapes, and not what was on the tapes themselves.

In Dr. Pepperberg's lab, Alex, the African grey, learned to identify and describe objects, even learning to use some nouns as adjectives, hence "rock corn" for dry, hard corn kernels and "cork nut" for almonds. Alex developed his ability to speak with understanding through use of the model/rival method wherein one bird interacts with two humans who demonstrate the behaviors (words and identification) that are being trained. One "trainer" questions the other human about colors, shapes and objects. This person is the model for the parrot's behavior and the parrot's rival for the attention of the trainer. The model answers the question and receives a reward, then roles of model/rival and trainer are reversed.

This technique probably resembles the way young parrots learn to communicate with their flock--by listening to older birds "duet" or talk back and forth. Although it is best to include humans or other talking birds in this process, if the bird is young and not too distracted or if the baby parrot is properly conditioned, the "rival" might even be one of those stuffed, talking parrot plush toys.

A baby parrot needs a tremendously stimulating environment. For the first two years, the parrot's environment should look a little like a nursery school, with lots of toys and interesting things that the bird can use to learn to entertain itself. Repetition is important, but speak to the baby parrot just as you would speak to a human infant expected to learn the words it hears most. Use words in context, just as you would use them with a human baby. The bird doesn't have to be held during speech training; much of its first communication efforts will probably be used to induce you to pick it up.

Use lots of single-syllable words at first like what, this, ciao, bye and night-night.

It doesn't hurt to talk a little baby talk, for your first step to success might be in baby parrot language. If you can make a sound the bird is known to make, and the bird repeats the sound, you then reward the bird with praise and affection, and you have established the pattern by which the bird will acquire words. Use soothing, cooing sounds if the bird is a little shy. Avoid hissing or shh sounds since these are made by the bird's natural enemies, and they might make the baby nervous.

Use lots of single-syllable words at first like what, this, ciao, bye and night-night. Use the words in context, just as you would use them with a human infant. While the baby parrot will not usually be able to repeat a word immediately, early signs of progress include the bird sitting around muttering or babbling in incoherent sounds. It will pick up the cadence of human language first, with understandable words and phrases following after much practice. Early phrases that are easily acquired include "Wha'cha doin?"' and anything with "itty" sounds such as "pretty bird" and "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty." Once you start combining words into phrases, mix them up, like "pretty kitty" and "What's kitty doin'?"

Many young parrots, especially Amazons, will learn to talk in the sweetest, most feminine voice. It is not unusual for African greys to acquire deeper male voices. Often the voice the bird mimics can tell us which human the bird is most bonded to, for I believe the greys, especially, tend to mimic the voice of the perceived human "rival" for the affections of their favorite person.

Singing loudly, almost directly into the bird's head, is an excellent way to get its undivided attention. Many birds will stop dead still and sit there, flashing their eyes, as long as you will sing to them, perhaps joining in or practicing later what they have heard.

Modeling whistling is probably not a good idea for most good talking types of parrots. Since birds have no vocal cords, the mechanism by which they "speak" more accurately resembles whistling. Therefore, whistling is probably easier to accomplish than "speech" and the bird might choose to whistle only rather than use words.

Whistling might be a good transition for teaching a type of bird not known for talking ability. Cockatiels and conures, for example, that might not acquire more than a few words, can often become accomplished whistlers. Try "Colonel Bogie March" or the theme from "Mayberry."

Be sure to include the baby in daily activities: eating, sleeping, showering and expressing affection to other humans and animals. These activities replicate the feeling of being part of the flock and should stimulate its natural instinct to communicate with other members of the "flock." If there is no problem with aggression, it might be helpful to allow the baby parrot to sit higher than anybody else during speech training.

A baby of a good-talking species of bird will learn the "most exciting" words it hears--words that are spoken with the most gusto and enthusiasm. Therefore, profanity and angry words might be learned with only one repetition if the bird is really "tuned in" to humans in the household. There's a old Spanish saying, "Live as though you could sell the family parrot," for second and subsequent owners will hear from the bird the words it heard in its first home.


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