Most parrot owners firmly believe that their pets understand at least some of what they say. My own experience also indicates that this is true – there are just far too many examples of parrots’ utterances fitting the situation to be mere coincidence. Then, of course, there was the famous Alex, an African Grey Parrot whose amazing learning abilities shocked even seasoned animal behaviorists (please see article below). A recent study took an interesting new approach to analyzing parrot speech, and yielded some surprising findings.
A Unique Look at Parrot Speech
Most folks have utilized “question-answer” type research in order to determine if parrots actually respond with correct answers, indicating that they understand the question posed. However, researchers at the University of Georgia (USA) were interested in parrots’ spontaneous vocalizations. They wanted to see if parrots might change what they said to fit different situations, without being prompted by people.
The study’s results, published in the May, 2011 issue of The Journal of Comparative Psychology, established that the utterances of one African Gray Parrot were not random. The bird, known as Cosmo, altered what he said according to what people were present, where they were and what they were doing.
Parrot Changes Words to Fit Situation
If Cosmo’s owner was in another room, Cosmo spoke twice as many words as when the owner was in the same room as himself, or was not present in the house. Amazingly, when the owner was in another room, Cosmo’s words very frequently related to location – “I’m here”, “Where are you?” and so on. The researchers thought this might be an extension of the natural “contact calls” made by parrots in the wild. Flocks and pairs of parrots (and other birds) issue contact calls in order to “stay in touch”, remain aware of each others’ location and pass along information concerning food, safety and other matters.
When owner and Cosmo were in the same room, most of his words were designed to elicit interaction – i.e. “I want to play”, rather than to establish location.
The researchers concluded that Cosmo was choosing specific words to fit different situations, and had grasped the concepts behind the words he used. Cosmo’s behavior was more clearly understood by viewing “communication units” rather specific individual words. All told, Cosmo used 278 distinct communication units.