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.
As 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 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.
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.
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!