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A scientific survey takes a look at 'vocal mimicry' in parrots

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

You know, Mary Louise, it turns out parrots just want to feel included in conversation, just like anyone else.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Huh. Really?

(SOUNDBITE OF COCKATOO CHIRPING)

CHANG: That is Yoko, a cockatoo that recently participated in a research survey looking at the phenomenon of vocal mimicry in parrots - what we often refer to when we say that parrots are, quote, "talking." Over 900 pet parrots were included in the survey published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

KELLY: Lauryn Benedict, professor at the University of Northern Colorado, worked on it. She says participants were asked a number of questions about their parrot companions.

LAURYN BENEDICT: How many words does your parrot use? How many phrases do they say? And then how many nonlanguage-based sounds do they mimic from their human environment?

CHANG: Researchers found the number of words the parrots learned varied widely from zero to over 500. And even though parrots don't understand the words' meaning, they have a knack for timing. That's because they can pick up on context. They know when it's right to chime in, and they even know what to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF COCKATOO CHIRPING)

CHRIS DAHLIN: I love you, too.

KELLY: Yoko again - she belongs to another researcher on the study, Chris Dahlin, who is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown.

DAHLIN: We have blinds that we put around him, which he knows, OK, we're putting him to bed. And he says, good night, Yoko bird.

KELLY: Part of the reason these birds mimic human speech is because they want to feel like they belong to a flock, Dahlin says. And when they are domesticated, that flock happens to be made up of humans.

DAHLIN: They're going to be doing mimicry of whatever is most socially relevant. So for these parrots, it's words. We are talking to each other. We are talking to them. That is what's socially important for them.

CHANG: The scope of a parrot's vocabulary varies from species to species, says Lauryn Benedict.

BENEDICT: But there's a general understanding among parrot enthusiasts out there that African grey parrots might be the best talkers. And our data support that because on average, African greys learned something like 60 words, whereas many other species learned only five to 10.

KELLY: Yvonne England runs an animal sanctuary called Ruffled Feathers, where the birds have lots of space to wander. And she says people often look to adopt parrots because they mimic human speech. But, you know, not all of them do.

YVONNE ENGLAND: There's birds that would never utter a single word, not a single human word ever. They just look at you like, yeah, no.

KELLY: Also, parrots are not domesticated animals, England and the researchers say. When taken out of captivity and placed among their own in nature, England sees the birds call out to each other and cuddle.

ENGLAND: That's the heartwarming part - to see these birds find a companion, find a friend, someone to preen, someone to sit with and enjoy their life with.

KELLY: Aw, parrot friends, we humans are right there with you on that one. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mallika Seshadri
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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