Avian Expert Articles

Decipher Your Pet Parrot’s Vocalizations

Editor’s note: The bird community lost Liz Wilson when she passed away on April 13, 2013. Please visit our dedication page for her full biography, photos and comments from her colleagues.

Umbrella-CockatooAs we all know, parrots can be extremely vocal critters — and this can be both good and bad. Good when they make sounds that we like and not so good much of the rest of the time, as companion parrots have a fine ability to drive us humans bonkers when they so choose. But what are “good” sounds and what are “bad” sounds?

Happy Sounds         

Happy sounds might include talking, as few parrots talk when they are anxious or feel poorly. I did a Bird Talk Magazine column years ago about parrots talking and received a perplexing e-mail in response. A lady had gotten an adult pet parrot that was initially quite a talker, but he subsequently stopped talking after being in her home a few months. Her (probably not avian) veterinarian suggested the bird was “too happy to talk” — and the owner wanted my opinion. After 40 years of living and working with companion parrots, I have yet to encounter this situation. As far as my non-veterinary opinion is concerned, there is something physically wrong with this bird.

Another happy sound is a pet parrot singing. Like with children, parrots often seem to sing to themselves when they are happy. I should add that this isn’t always pleasant for the humans in the vicinity, at least with parrot species that appear to be tone-deaf, like macaws. I have been privy to many species of pet macaws singing, but I have yet to meet one that could actually stay on key. Indeed, they all seemed to sing like my husband, which is not a good thing! (I will confess, however, that a parrot singing off-key tickles me greatly and thus brightens my day.)

Whistling is another happy sound, especially for African grey parrots. Indeed, in the years when I boarded parrots in my home, any whistling on the radio was immediately joined by the whistling responses from the several African grey parrots that shared my home at the time. Cockatiels are also inclined to whistle when happy and relaxed, and male cockatiels especially can develop elaborate whistle serenades.

I’ve also delighted in pet parrots that babbled along making happy human-talk noises, though no actual words are included. While parrots may not always understand human words, from my experience, they always understand the sentiment. So I believe that a pet parrot making happy gibberish and nonsensical conversational noises is a happy parrot.

Neutral Sounds

Laughter needs to be filed in the “neutral” category, as a pet parrot’s laughter does not automatically mean the bird thinks something is actually funny. Laughter is a human sound, not a parrot sound. Pet parrots learn to pair the sound of human laughter with certain actions if people teach it to. My own blue-and-gold macaw, Sam, for instance, is quite adept at laughing a millisecond before the canned laughter starts on a TV sitcom. In her 60-plus years in captivity, she has learned the inflections of speech that indicate that laughter will follow, and her timing is spot-on.

Living with David and me, Sam has also learned to laugh whenever she hears the intonation of sarcasm, a talent noted by the staff of the Exotic Bird Hospital when she has stayed there. Apparently, her laughter cheers up the entire hospital when she visits. This was evidenced by a vet tech’s comment after she came home, “We miss her sarcasm!” She is highly rewarded for this by lots more human laughter joining hers!

It is important to understand that a pet parrot learns to pair laughter with an action only by following the pattern set by a person. So a parrot that laughs after biting you does not think it is funny that it hurt you. It was taught to connect biting with the sound of human laughter because some misguided (twisted?) person taught the bird to — by laughing when it bit someone.

Silence is another thing that belongs in the “neutral” category. It can mean a normal early afternoon period of napping, for example, or the quietude of a dark and rainy day. Or it can mean illness, as the parrot feels too poorly to waste energy vocalizing. Or the bird is quietly and happily intent on destroying something she isn’t supposed to have, such as your wife’s designer watch or your Great-aunt Millie’s priceless antique roll-top desk.

Unhappy Sounds

The most obvious unhappy sound is the piercing alarm call a pet parrot might make when it fears for its life. Such life-threatening things might include a hawk outside a window, a large box being carried through the room, or the dreaded vacuum being dragged out of the closet.

In addition to shrill alarm calls, the grey parrots (both African grey and Timneh) have an unusual sound they make when frightened; they growl, loudly! This sound is unusual in the world of birds, often leading non-avian veterinarians to conclude that a grey has a serious respiratory issue.

Some pet parrots that live in sterile, uninteresting environments appear to use vocalizing to stave off boredom. Such sounds are usually extremely loud and repetitive, what human psychologists might characterize as stereotypies. Such parrot vocalizations can be fabulous for defeating tedium, since the racket often results in great excitement as human patience snaps, and people resort to yelling and stomping around.

One last comment about alarm calls and how people react to them: while it is important that frightened parrots be reassured if something terrifies them, be aware of how intelligent these birds are. I watched helplessly as a friend repeatedly rushed over to reassure her parrot whenever the bird made an alarm call. While the behavior started as a valid response to scary things seen through large windows, the bird then learned to scream whenever she wanted attention.

A better resolution might have entailed removing the need for alarm calls by covering the window or moving the parrot’s cage away from it. That would only leave the attention-seeking calls, which the person would then ignore.

The subject of alarm calls reminds me of a favorite African grey story. A family had a very calm adult grey parrot, in addition to several more skittish and hyper-reactive birds. Once in a while, things would apparently get boring for the pet grey, as he would suddenly start shrieking out the “grey alarm call,” guaranteed to pierce the brain like an ice pick in the ear. The other parrots responded by screaming and leaping off their perches or crashing into walls. The grey would then shake out all his feathers, vigorously wag his tail with pleasure, and croon, “It’s okaaayyy …” in his sweetest voice!

6 thoughts on “Decipher Your Pet Parrot’s Vocalizations

  1. Great article, thanks! I especially liked the funny African Grey’s alarm story at the end. Too funny. We have a grey and she does exactly as you noted above as far as her behaviour. And she does love to whistle many many tunes. Reading more input from you has given me motivation to continue not ‘rewarding’ her false alarms for my attention. When she deliberately continues for a little too long we will step up without comment and give her a little spray of a water bottle which she doesn’t like a whole lot. But lately she’ll start saying, “Stop it, Stop it” just before I can reach for the bottle. She knows she’s being naughty! ha ha How can we stay mad at such a little angel!

  2. Your are so correct out of context. I got pulled over one time in Reno for speeding and forgot I had my Grey’s in the back seat. The officer didn’t even bend down to look at me when he asked for my license and vehicle registrations. As soon as he asked, the male, in my voice, dropped the F word he learned when I was in graduate school working on a frustrating project. I was immediately looking at the face of an angry cop asking me to repeat what I just said. I told him that I didn’t expect him to believe me but it was my parrot. He made me roll down the back window where their cage was and started lecturing him on respecting police officers. As he got up the male said WHAT EVERrrrrrrrrrrr at the top of his lungs and the female started laughing hysterically. He told me to roll up the window because he had seen enough. After forever, he said he wouldn’t write me a ticket because he needed a laugh and I had my hands full. Whew! My heart was in m throat!

  3. Hi Liz,

    I liked your article. Our four birds are all different. Lucy (BFA Hen) doesn’t say much. “Hi” and “bye bye,” all in context and some throaty sounds when she seems to be anxious or happy. Harley (BGM Hen) says a few words with emotion (cocked head, pinned eyes, blushing, etc.). Jazzy (BGM Hen) will make a laughing sound when she gets what she wants. Like me taking her to Bobbie for a drink of water. And since her leg laying episode a few years ago, she just talks up a storm in the evenings when we are cleaning up. These seem to be like her trying to make human sounds with a lot of body language, tilted head, blushing, and expressive eyes. Pepper (BFA Man) doesn’t make human sounds at all. But he sure makes a lot of throaty bird sounds. He’s taught me what they mean.

    Great article.

    Thanks,

    John

  4. Only one thing missing: My grey has perfect pitch. Before I start the microwave, he has made the sound, precisely on pitch. He whistles and sings, all in tune and hilariously like myself and my opera singer husband. I knew he could talk (hard as this is to believe) when, after the first three weeks of silence in his new home, he asked with perfect diction, “Are you a bird, Sue?” When I replied, “No, Cody, I’m not a bird, just a friend,” he answered, “Well, whatever.” I thought to myself, “Good grief! Not only a talking animal, but a SENTIENT talking animal!” I have had no reason to doubt his ability to understand many words and phrases, either. It sure surpasses the old idea of “instinct.”

  5. My 5 year old african grey has stopped talking. I took him to the vet’s and he thought he gad a fungal infection, which he gave him medicine for. Since then, he seems well in himself; he’s whistling and dancing, he goes to speak but seems to stop himself. I have tried all sorys to get him to speak again but he won’t.

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