About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Can All Birds Learn to Talk Like Humans?

I have two budgies that have become surprisingly proficient talkers. They love to watch the birds outside on the window feeder and I was wondering, if the wild birds wanted, could they speak English.

http://abbyvanburen.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/2birds.jpgWhat a wonderfully scary question. Can you imagine coexisting with birds that speak the same language? Some people don’t have to imagine. Dr. Irene Pepperberg worked with an African Grey Parrot for 30 years and found that her bird could communicate to her as well as a five-year-old human.

Cover of
Pepperberg was interviewed on NPR after she wrote a book, Alex & Me, in which she explores the world of animal cognition and describes her unique relationship with her parrot. The full NPR interview is attached below.

We know that some birds are more likely to imitate human speech than others but not why. Parrots have a thicker more muscular tongue than most birds adapted for manipulating food in the bill. This may make them more articulate.

To talk, humans use their lips, tongue and vocal cords. Birds have a sound-making organ that other animals, including humans, do not, called the syrinx, Greek for pan pipes. When a bird breaths in air it flows in through the trachea which forks as it passes to the two lungs. Where the trachea forks is where the bird's syrinx is located.

For birds to speak words they would use their tongue and syrinx which has a pair of structures called medial tympaniform membranes, which produce a flow of air in the throat that results in sounds. So to answer your question, in theory I guess it’s possible for birds communicate using human speech if they wanted. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112405883


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