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Discovery Magazine 4/1/2002

Why do parrots talk, but no other animals talk?

by  Digger Doug

Dear Phoebe,

Parrots are really cool creatures. Some can easily fit in the palm of your hand. Others, like the South Pacific parrot, can grow taller than three feet. Parrots also vary greatly in color. Some are green with yellow heads, whereas others are red with blue tail feathers.

Parrots are probably most famous for their ability to imitate different sounds they hear. If you were in the room with your eyes closed, you might find it difficult to tell the difference between a parrot’s “hello” and the “hello” of a human. Unlike humans, parrots do not have vocal cords. Instead, they learn to control the movement of the muscles in the throat to direct the airflow in such a way as to reproduce certain tones and sounds—sometimes even human sounds.

There is no question that some parrots show signs of intelligence. Yet, it is important to understand that these mimicking birds do not really understand what they are saying. Parrots just repeat sounds that they have been taught. Talking to a parrot is basically like talking to a tape player or a Furby doll. (And even then, you never know if a parrot will talk back.) The fact is, even though some birds can be “trained” to do certain things, they cannot reason or have real, human-like conversations.

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