Humans or animals, we all have the need to communicate, whether with our own species or with one that we share our surroundings with. You have probably, at least once in your life, heard a parrot talk and wondered if they really know what they are saying, or are they simply repeating what they heard. Anyhow, the way they communicate sounds much like human talk, and that is something that intrigues scientists who are still not certain about what this talk actually is – simple mimicry or a sign of advanced cognitive ability. Another question that comes to mind is – why do they have the need to talk back to humans and what does that say about the human-parrot relationship?
Parrots, like many other animals, are social creatures and they communicate in order to interact with other animals in their surroundings. If there is only one parrot (for example, in a house environment where it is held as a pet), it will try to communicate to this other species (human) that is the closest to it at that moment. As humans will not try to learn parrot language (and even if they tried, it would be unsuccessful), parrots find a way to interact by learning the language of their human friends. This is how parrots try to become a part of a group. It is obvious that parrots are very sociable, and when living in a house with humans, they need to develop some intra-species communication skills. That way, they can feel like a part of the family.
In one experiment, parrots from a Costa Rican flock were transferred to a more southern area where a different flock communicated in a different way, or in some other sort of parrot dialect, to be more precise. Some of those transferred parrots flew back to their old territory, while those that stayed started learning to communicate with their new neighbors and mastered their dialect. This shows that parrots are able to adapt to different surroundings and learn the language of their area in order to become a part of a community and claim their status. Parrots develop fine vocalization skills by imitating others, whether these others are from their own kind, or, if in a house environment, the human kind.
Parrots become a part of a group by communicating, and they do so through vocalizing. When they are a part of a human family, their mimicry is a sign of just that – trying to communicate with their family, who somewhat replaces their native flock. However, this doesn’t have to mean that parrots understand the words they pronounce, at least not entirely. It may simply mean that a parrot uses the sounds it hears in its environment and tries to repeat them to communicate and create a social bond with, in this case, humans. So when they say something like “I love you”, it probably just means that it heard you say the same thing and it utters it as an attempt to attract your attention, let you know that it recognizes you or simply communicate with you in some way.
Irene Peppberg, a scientist who studies animal cognition, particularly in relation to parrots, made an insinuation that parrots use human speech and talk back to humans in their language merely to get the humans’ attention, as that way they will more probably be noticed and acknowledged. When a human hears a parrot say a human word, even if it is not completely clear, he/she will more probably come to the cage and try to converse with the parrot. And treats will go a long way – a parrot will be even more motivated to pronounce human words if its speech is rewarded with its favorite food.
All in all, these are only insinuations, and it is still unclear whether parrots only use mimicry without actually understanding the words they say, or they really have the cognitive ability to interpret the language of humans. In any case, the communication between parrots and humans exists, and both sides get engaged, even though the parrot may not understand the words. However, we should certainly understand the parrot’s effort to communicate and appreciate it. Oh, and give the little fellow a little treat while you’re at it.