For many companion bird enthusiasts, one of the extreme thrills they experience is the fact that small groups of birds talk (or mimic). It doesn’t take long for some species to pick up on a word, sound, or phrase. After it has learned, well…it is something you are likely to hear often. It’s quite fun to not only amuse yourself with their innate ability to mimic words with amazing precision, but it’s more likely enjoyable to show off what your pet bird can say. In today’s world, that often translates to the myriad of YouTube videos seen across the popular platform. But exactly, how does the able bird talk? What’s the science of it?
No Lips, No Problem
Birds do not possess lips to help them form words properly. They depend on a different ability to produce proper formation, the use of vibrating independent membranes. While birds have a larynx, its use is different in a bird than a human. We use our larynx as tool that allow for the pitch and volume of words being formed. Birds, however, do not have their vocal folds in their larynx. Instead, the vocal folds used to vocalize are found in what is known as the syrinx. The syrinx is located below the larynx, at the lower end of the trachea (wind pipe). With this internal part, birds can produce a range of sounds much as we do. They produce pitch and volume by changing the pressure of the forced air from lungs into the syrinx, and exercising the muscles of the syrinx.
While all birds use the syrinx to create wide varieties of bird songs, the parrots, including parakeets (budgies) ravens, mynah birds, and crows are able to produce exact sounds – like phrases and words. In fact, birds can vibrate the outer membranes of their syrinx to produce more than one sound at the same time. Why? Because the two sides of the syrinx in a bird can be controlled independently.
The lyrebird is so good at recreating source sounds that it can mimic the motorized sound of a camera shutter. People with birds that “talk” often observe their own birds to change some things up when repeating learned words and phrases. Not long ago, a parrot was able to recreate the exchanges between a victim and perpetrator at a domestic murder scene that helped to implicate the responsible individual. Amazingly, dialect and enunciations of words can be flawlessly mimicked by a bird able to do the trick.
According to Irene Pepperberg, a prominent and well-respected avian expert, the reasoning behind parrots willingly learning to vocalize words and phrases is the need to become a part of the “flock,” or, in a more proper sense, a part of the family that is forming around it. People become an integral part of the bird’s “flock.” The mimicked speech is an important form of interaction between the bird and the human elements of its flock. However, birds likely have zero idea of any of what they’re mimicking actually means. They’re just simply doing what nature has equipped them to do, and that is to stay focused and alert. To do that, they need to become a strong member of the flock, whatever that is to them.
This ability to mimic speech makes us feel close to a pet parrot as it feels like they have complete understanding, and are, therefore, communicating with us. And while the differences are night and day between the human and the parrot (or other mimicking-able bird) as to what is going on, the shared experiences are quite endearing. As a result, bird owners have a unique bond with their birds. All in all, it’s a beautiful part of the experience.