Is Your Bird Talking or Squawking?
Mattie Sue Athan
Much of a parrot's wild language is intended to give information to the flock or family. "Wake-up" calls, "come-to-dinner" calls, "where-are-you?" calls and "everybody-get-to-sleep" calls must be loud enough for all to hear. Wild language or not, it's the talking that inspires most of us to take a parrot home.
While most parrots develop at least a few words, many parrots learn more. Budgies, the most common parrot species, develop the ability to say the greatest number of words. But studies suggest that budgies use human words like calls and are less likely to use words with understanding like the African greys - the only species that has been studied extensively in a laboratory setting. Many Amazons, macaws, Quakers and ringnecks are good talkers. Many individuals of other species are also good talkers.
Vocal behaviors can develop any time before or after weaning. This might occur in the form of begging, babbling, talking or screaming. Actually, begging calls can be heard even before a parrot hatches from the egg. A parrot first vocalizes to have his physical needs (food, housing, environment) and emotional needs (society, independence, confidence, reproductive urges) met.
Most Common First Word Is 'Hello'
In a 1998 online survey of 65 Quaker parakeet owners, the most common first word was "hello" (16 birds), followed by "step-up" (eight birds), then "peek-a-boo" (six birds), "what" (five birds) and "hi" (three birds). All of the other first words spoken by this group were either unique or unknown. All of these birds used the words with apparent understanding of their meaning. Only six of the 65 birds didn't use human words and two of those Quakers were under one year old and may have been learning to speak.
Companion parrots often improvise their own meanings for words. Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler tells the story of Cosmo, a Mexican redhead who improvised meanings for words. Like most companion parrots, Cosmo assigned meanings that were approximate, simple, creative and understandable. For example, the word cracker wasn't used just for cracker but rather for crackers and almost any other yummy nut- or seed-like food.
Being an Amazon, of course, Cosmo knew and used the word water. The meaning here, traditionally Amazonian, was wow, wonderful wet stuff!
The first time Cosmo was given a grape, her beak broke through the fleshy skin, and she was squirted in the face. Eyeballing the unfamiliar goody - which had both hard and wet properties - she christened it crack-water. From then on, Cosmo used crack-water for grapes - based on their dual characteristics - and crackers for other foods.
A parrot's experiences influence the vocal behaviors the bird learns. From the moment a parrot is aware of his surroundings, interesting tools (toys) must be provided to stimulate self-rewarding (play) behaviors. If a parrot doesn't learn to amuse himself, ignoring his screaming won't improve the bird's behavior.
Dealing With Screaming
Screaming must be dealt with patiently, compassionately and sympathetically because it does have a purpose. If your bird is screaming excessively, then something's wrong. It's a good idea to seek immediate professional help because parrot volume can be easily turned down if annoying new vocalizations are addressed quickly. Behavioral programs are usually designed to replace the unwanted vocalizations with different behaviors, such as other vocalizations or behaviors like chewing, playing, bathing or napping.