Talking the Talk: A How-To in Mimicry

The idiom 'a little birdie told me' takes on a completely different nature when you befriend a parrot. A parrot, for example, like the Yellow Headed Amazon named Shana at Pandemonium Aviaries. Unlike stumbling into bird songs, talking to Shana is very much like being accosted by a little friend. Say what you will about our sparrows and jays, none of them have ever offered a cappuccino in the morning or told me face-to-face that they loved me. Shana does precisely that. She stretches, waves her wings, and screams a good morning. All the parrots at Pandemonium Aviaries are rescues, and so most carry phrases taken from their previous homes. This creates a delightful smorgasbord of shouting, happy parrots.

But how exactly do parrots mimic human speech?

Here is a video of Shana talking: http://youtu.be/9uZkDSwm5c

Humans, like you and I, rely on a larynx -- also known as a voicebox -- which joins the esophagus and windpipe. While birds have a larynx as well (albeit without vocal cords, and it really only works to prevent food and water from entering their lungs), they rely on a little organ called the syrinx that joins together the windpipe and lungs. With its flexible, drum-like walls, it can vibrate at various levels of tension. By adjusting the pressure of passing air, birds can adjust the volume and pitch of their songs. And, because the syrinx straddles both lungs, it can produce two sounds at once. Birds can use either chamber or both at once, allowing for duets with themselves, breathing through one chamber while continuing the song through the other, and so on. In fact, the word 'syrinx' originates from the Greek word for 'pipe,' named after the nymph in classical mythology who transformed herself into the reeds from which Pan made his famous pipe.

There are a few birds without a syrinx, such as ostriches or vultures, and so they can only grunt and hiss. However, the syrinx is similar in all birds equipped with it, so it is primarily differences in learning that direct the differences in the complexity of vocalizations. Unlike most birds that have their songs hard-wired into them, parrots listen and repeat more. Their cognitive capacity is astonishing and allows them to learn everything from their names to (occasionally and most unfortunately) car alarms. Parrots are capable of approximating human speech because they have thicker, longer tongues than their peers. In fact, their thick tongues are even capable of producing tough sounds like "l" and "g."

Mimicry in birds is both incredible and well-documented. Wild cockatoos in Australia have been reported to learn human phrases from released birds who join their flocks. A budgerigar (also known as your common household parakeet) holds the record for the largest vocabulary of any bird at a whopping 1,728 words. Alex the African Grey Parrot took the media by storm when he was shown to be capable of not only identifying colors and equations, but also understanding and vocalizing abstract concepts. And here, at Pandemonium Aviaries, a parrot might invite you in for coffee.

By Iva Petrovchich