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Squawk Talk: How to teach your pet bird to talk

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Teaching your bird to talk. Eager to impart the gift of gab unto a fine-feathered friend but not sure how? Word is that teaching a speech-conducive bird breed to talk can be challenging, but not impossible -- so long as you speak the beak's language and remain patiently persistent, say the experts.

Birds that talk the talk

According to Dr. Greg Harrison, DVM, of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, many bird species -- including myna birds, Amazon parrots, cockatiels, macaws and budgerigar parakeets -- can learn to talk, depending on your definition of "talking.''

"Technically, there are birds that use human words to 'talk,''' Harrison said. "Often, this is mimicking, which is merely repeating a sound, and it is assumed the meaning is not understood by the bird. Given this, birds often use repeated mimicking to get attention or rewards, so it becomes a form of communication. And often, humans are not aware that the bird has its own meaning for mimicking.''

Harrison said, however, that some scientific studies have demonstrated that birds have cognition, "which means they have learned the meaning of their sound and use it appropriately. The famous African grey parrot, Alex, for example, was able to count items and identify them by shape and color.''

Dr. Kristen L. Nelson, DVM, Veterinary Creative, Scottsdale, Ariz., said that in her experience, African grey parrots are the best talkers, followed by double yellow-headed and yellow-naped Amazon parrots.

"While other species may talk, it's just not as common,'' she said. "I once treated a parakeet that rattled off its name, address and phone number in the exam room. It also wished me 'Happy New Year' when I finished its beak trim.''

Speech communications 101

When you're ready to talk turkey with your bird, Harrison and Nelson suggest these tips for best results:

  • Choose a bird whose ancestors were known talkers -- apparently speech aptitude may have a genetic component.
  • The younger the bird, the better your chance of teaching it to talk.
  • Start with short words or sounds.
  • Repeat the word for a few minutes several times a day.
  • Pay attention to how your bird best makes sounds and "shape'' the word more to the way the bird is best able to mimic it; for instance, instead of saying "Hi,'' say "aiee,'' which is easier to pronounce.
  • Stress "P'' and "B'' words that are easier for the birds to say, such as "Pretty bird.''
  • Learn to read the bird's body language; if it starts making mouth movements after you've repeated a word, that's a good sign that it's trying.
  • When the bird masters a word, reinforce it for several days before adding another.
  • Avoid whistling to the bird or trying to get it to imitate other non-speech sounds.
  • Use praise and positive reinforcement, such as lightly scratching its head, instead of excessive treats as rewards.

Also, "it's important to build up a trust and rapport with your bird before trying to get it to do things you want it to do,'' Harrison said. "Give the bird plenty of emotional feedback and work on establishing a deep interpersonal relationship. Birds don't have to get a sunflower seed from you to realize that you love them.''

Be careful what you wish for

Once you teach your bird to start talking, be prepared for some unintentional and outright ironic consequences. For instance, it's not unusual for pet birds to pick up unwanted words and sounds from their environment -- noises such as a nearby motorcycle, a ringing phone or doorbell, or even an oft-repeated bit of profanity it hears you shouting in the next room.

"Hospital staff taught my parrot to mimic the sound of a bomb falling through the air and exploding,'' Nelson said. "This can be discomforting to those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.''

Birds don't understand what "don't do that again'' means, Harrison said. So if you hear it repeating an undesirable sound, practice good reverse psychology and simply walk away and ignore your caged companion.

If a vocal bird suddenly stops talking altogether, however, "bring them into a veterinarian right away,'' Nelson said. "Birds are masters of hiding health problems. A change in vocalization is often the first sign of disease.''

When you've laid an egg

If your talk-teaching efforts have not yielded verbal results, don't despair. Having realistic expectations is important, Harrison said.

"Don't expect your bird to talk. If it does, it's a benefit,'' he said.

If it doesn't learn to talk, ask yourself why you're trying so hard to make it learn. Is it to show off your bird to others? Instead of that goal, work on improving your relationship with your pet, Harrison said.

"The biggest mistake people make is expecting too much too soon,'' Nelson said. "A bird must be happy and healthy before it will mimic the sounds it hears. Give new birds time to adjust before launching into a formal training program.''

Lastly, "Realize that every bird communicates with you whether you understand it or not,'' Harrison said. "Don't be frustrated by the fact that 80 percent of pet birds don't actually regurgitate words, but all regurgitate emotion and attention. That's a form of communication, too.''

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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