Wild Australian Parrots Learn to Squawk in English

Walking around a park in Australia these days, you might be forgiven for thinking that you’ve stumbled into a Disney movie, as wild birds fly down and greet you with a perfectly intelligible “Hello.”

Don’t worry…you haven’t fallen down the rabbit hole! There’s actually a perfectly reasonable explanation. It seems that escaped pet parrots have been teaching their wild cousins scraps of English they picked up while in captivity. As ornithologist Jaynia Sladek, from the Australian Museum, explained to Australian Geographic,

“The birds will mimic each other. There’s no reason why, if one comes into the flock with words, [then] another member of the flock wouldn’t pick it up as well.”

Like human infants, who will often repeat whatever words they happen to hear, whether you want them to or not, many species of birds learn to communicate by imitating the sounds that other birds make. In fact, when it comes to learning sounds through imitation, birds and humans are a lot alike, according to behavioural biologist Johan J Bolhuis. As he explained to BBC News,

“I have studied budgerigars – small parrots – that can teach each other to speak Japanese words. In this and other research we found that the brains of these birds are organised in a similar way to human brains with regard to vocal learning. Also, the same genes are involved in song and speech.”

“Hello cockie” is the most commonly spoken phrase among Australian wild parrot flocks. However, also much like young children, the birds have taken to teaching each other curse words that they learned in captivity. Since young parrots learn sounds from their parents, that means that Australia’s wild cockatoos could be swearing at unwary humans for years to come!

2 replies
  1. Michael Dalton
    Michael Dalton says:

    What is NOT generally appreciated is that some birds have language in the wild; if it isn’t a full-blow language, it is a protolanguage. Birds are one of the animals that regularly communicate using sound. Consequently for parrots learning English, it is their second language. Whether an owner intends to teach a bird or not, many parrots learn language without specific instruction, just as a child would.

    The main problem with communication is in the limits of humans to listen to what birds are saying on their own. The problem is that humans are not very good at listening, so words spoken by many birds go un-noted by their keepers. I have a macaw that speaks thousands of different words, phrases, and statements–contrary to popular statements that macaws can learn only a few words. The macaw has learned English language and can form her own sentences.

    The problem is with limitations, both physiological and psychological, of humans. The result is that the communication chain breaks. Many people believe birds just repeat what they hear; those people are unlikely to discover a bird’s words.

    For more information or help understanding difficult speech by a bird, contact me. Look at my bird’s web site for a start. There is a contact page there.


    Florida USA

    • Alison Kroulek
      Alison Kroulek says:

      That’s fascinating, Mike! I knew African Grays had some incredible language capabilities; I didn’t know about macaws.


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