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Look Who's Talking

Even tiny budgies can speak our language."Look what you've done!" "Hello, what's your name?" "To be or not to be, that is the question." "Well, talk to me!" All these are quotes from some of the talkative birds featured on the NATURE show PARROTS: LOOK WHO'S TALKING. These birds are living, breathing "recordings" of the phrases people say to them. From Flo the Yellow-naped Amazon, who sings opera, to Candy the budgie, who wants to cuddle, parrots are flamboyant both inside and out. With about 340 species to choose from, parrots make up more than 16 percent of the 50 million pet birds worldwide. Parrots, along with lorikeets, cockatoos and parakeets, fall under the class Aves and the order psittaciformes. Their habitat ranges worldwide, but most species prefer the warm, tropical climates of Australia, South America, and southeast Asia. In general, wild parrots mate for life, nesting in large cavities either underground or in hollow trees. Some species, such as macaws, lay two eggs from which only one youngster will survive.

Parrot clip 

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People love parrots for their musical songs and masterful ability to mimic the human voice, like Harry and Jake in this video clip.

But they are not the only birds that can "talk." For example, mockingbirds can imitate house cats and human sounds, as well as the songs of other birds. And while some of the bigger parrots have voices that are closer to human ranges, the world record holder for the most human phrases is a tiny budgie. Among parrots, the most human-sounding are African Greys and Yellow-headed Amazons.

But what is more interesting than parrots' speaking ability is the fact that they develop different "languages" in the wild. Harvard biologist Michael Schindlinger has studied Yellow-headed Amazons in the forests of northern Mexico since 1994. Not only can he recognize meaning behind the birds' song, but he can pinpoint their "accent" to within a few miles of their home range -- a regular Professor Higgins of aviculture.

"Their communication is more complex than we originally guessed," Schindlinger says, explaining that very little was known about these wild birds when he began his field work. "They have a large number of vocalizations that seem to have functions, but the really complex stuff in their vocalization have more of a musical quality." Schindlinger speculates that the parrots sing elaborately to gain status in their social hierarchy.

But no matter how flowery their song is among the trees, he notes that the parrots still rely on a deep-rooted oral tradition of a few important phrases that signify basic communication between the parrots.

Michael Schindlinger 

Michael Schindlinger.

By recording songs from different Yellow-headed Amazon populations and analyzing their musical scores by computer, Schindlinger found his study group to have a dialect different from that of another population about 60 miles away. Meanwhile, a third group located 100 miles away had a completely different song. "It was like a whole different language," he says. This difference in song helps birds recognize each other, but it can also help law enforcement officers recognize where birds, confiscated from poachers, may have been caught in the wild.

While parrots are social animals, this does not guarantee that they will become chatty pets. According to Dr. Irene Pepperberg, whose African Grey parrot, Alex, demonstrates his knowledge of shapes and colors on NATURE, "some parrots simply will not learn human speech, and owners need to accept that possibility."

Pepperberg has not had that problem with Alex, however. Since 1977, she has successfully taught Alex to verbally identify a number of objects. Alex can identify shapes and colors.While some cynics claim that Alex could simply have been taught a script, Pepperberg contends that the controls and tests she uses make it impossible for him simply to recite words when she asks questions. He must understand labels and objects to answer her questions, she explains. Since PARROTS: LOOK WHO'S TALKING was produced, Alex has become tutor to another parrot named Griffin, teaching him to identify colors and objects. Another of Dr. Pepperberg's parrots, Kyaaro, has learned numbers.

Dr. Pepperberg says that the birds constantly boss around the lab staff by asking for different treats and toys, and asking to be tickled. "Alex requests showers," she adds. To help support her research at the University of Arizona, Dr. Pepperberg has established The Alex Foundation.

Photo: bottom left, Michael Schindlinger.

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