Some birds have an exceptional gift for imitating human speech. The African grey parrot is one such species. The mynah certainly qualifies, as does the cockatoo. These few are generally considered the Ciceros and Churchills of birds. Arguably, there are a few others in the corvid and the parrot families: parakeets, for instance. The New Yorker once reported that “after weeks of silence, the first words uttered by a Westchester parakeet were, ‘Talk, damn you, talk!’”
Imitating human sounds is a lot to ask of a bird. We form vowels and consonants with our lips and our tongue, among the strongest muscles per inch in the human body. For birds, with no lips and with tongues that generally aren’t used for making sounds, it’s a tall order to take on the nuances of human speech. This may explain why only a handful of species have accomplished the skill. Parrots are unusual in that they use their tongues while calling and can manipulate them to articulate vowel sounds, talents that probably underlie their ability to mimic speech.
The African grey parrot is the parliamentarian of the bird world. Irene Pepperberg made African greys and their speech abilities famous through her work with Alex, perhaps the world’s most renowned talking bird. Pepperberg would intermingle different sorts of questions about objects and Alex could answer with near perfect specificity. For example, if she showed him a green wooden square, he could say what color it was, what shape, and, after touching it, what it was made of. He also cottoned to phrases he heard around the lab, like “Pay attention”; “Calm down”; and “’Bye, I’m gonna go eat dinner, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Alex was not alone in his badinage. One African grey I know, Throckmorton, pronounces his name with Shakespearean precision. Named for the man who served as an intermediary for Mary, Queen of Scots (and was hanged in 1584 for conspiring against Queen Elizabeth I), Throckmorton has a wide repertoire of household sounds, including the voices of his family members, Karin and Bob, which he uses to his advantage. He calls out Karin’s name in a “Bob voice” that Karin describes as spot-on; she can’t tell the difference. He also mimics the different rings of Karin’s and Bob’s cell phones. One of his favorite ploys is to summon Bob from the garage by imitating his cell phone ring. When Bob comes running, Throckmorton “answers” the call in Bob’s voice:
“Hello! Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.”
Then he finishes with the flat ring tone of hanging up. Throckmorton imitates the glug, glug sound of Karin drinking water and the slurping sound of Bob trying to cool his hot coffee while he sips it, as well as the bark of the family’s former dog, a Jack Russell terrier dead nine years. He has also nailed the bark of the current family pet, a miniature schnauzer, and will join him in a chorus of barking, “making my house sound like a kennel,” says Karin. “Again, he’s pitch perfect; no one can tell it’s a parrot barking and not a dog.” Once, when Bob had a cold, Throckmorton added to his corpus the sounds of nose blowing, coughing, and sneezing. And another time, when Bob came home from a business trip with a terrible stomach bug, Throckmorton made sick-to-my-stomach sounds for the next six months.
For one long stretch, his preferred “Bob” word was “Shhhhhhhhiiiit.”
Parrots have been known to teach other parrots to talk smack. Not long ago, a naturalist working at the Australian Museum’s Search and Discover desk reportedly took a number of calls from people who had heard wild cockatoos swearing in the outback. The ornithologist at the museum speculated that the wild birds had learned from once-domesticated cockatoos and other parrots that had escaped and survived long enough to join a flock and share words they had picked up in captivity—if true, a fine example of cultural transmission.