If you have pets or just love animals, you may have wished from time to time that you could have real conversations with them. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to talk with your dog about how your day at school went?
Possibly! Although parrots probably do not understand complex meanings of words, they are attuned to the context surrounding words and can make associations with the words. A researcher named Tim Wright explains that if your pet parrot asks "How are you?" when you enter the room, it's likely not asking about your well-being but simply imitating the words it has heard you say many times upon walking into a room. Your parrot has made an association between you entering the room and that phrase.
Repeating sounds you've heard before — often many times — is called mimicry. The "talking" we hear from parrots can consist of imitations of all sorts of sounds, from spoken words to creaking doors to barking dogs.
Though most parrots are simply mimicking with word associations, there is record of professionally-trained parrots that learned to understand what they're saying. One such bird was an African Grey Parrot called Alex. Alex was trained rigorously by researchers, and by the end of his life, he had learned to identify 50 objects, seven colors, six shapes, and quantities up to eight!
Parrots' mimicry is impressive. Did you know that parrots don't have vocal cords like humans? It's true! Instead of pushing air over vocal cords to create sound, parrots mimic sounds by using the muscles in their throat to direct airflow over the trachea (or windpipe) in an organ called the syrinx. They make different sounds by changing the depth and shape of the trachea.
Parrots, such as African Greys and Amazons, aren't the only birds that can learn to imitate sounds, including human voices. Some other birds known for their ability to "talk" include crows, ravens, Indian Ringneck Parakeets, Budgies and Cockatiels.
If you're WONDERing why some birds imitate sounds they hear, it's because they're creatures. They feel a need to be able to interact and fit in with those around them. When kept as pets, these birds see their human owners as their family and want to communicate with them.
Since a human owner usually can't learn a bird's "language," the bird instead tries to learn the language of its owner. These birds are often quite intelligent and mimicry becomes a way for them to get attention and interact with their owners.
If you want to have a bird that talks as a pet, the best thing to do is to find a bird that already knows how to imitate sounds. Even if a bird knows how to imitate a few sounds, though, you'll still need to spend lots of time training it and providing positive interactions to encourage more "talking."