Yakkity Yak How to Get Your Parrot to Talk

A brief instructional essay on teaching your pet bird to imitate human speech.

So, you've just returned home from the pet store or breeder and can't wait to strike up a conversation with your new feathered friend. Well, first thing's first: while there is no minimum age or time requirement for a parrot to speak, it is highly unlikely that your parrot will start to speak right away, even if he/she has spoken before.

Birds are highly intelligent and curious creatures and like to observe and take in their environments. Therefore, you must give your pet time to settle in to his or her new surroundings. Depending on the animal, a bird may take up to 24 hours (or more!) just to start taking food and water and engaging in active play. Stressed birds generally do not speak, so it is essential that you allow your bird the time it needs to build up a certain level of comfort and trust.

Countless are the poor consumers who bring their birds home and sit by the cage, repeating the same phrase two or three times before declaring the bird dumb, shrugging their shoulders, and walking off. You aren't going to get your bird to repeat you by saying "Polly wanna cracker?" three or four times.

Birds are very smart and are capable of a multitude of words and sounds, but, like humans learning to talk, they need to hear those words and sounds on a consistent and ongoing basis. Every breed is different, and every individual bird is different. The vocabularies of some birds can include hundreds of words over the course of its lifetime; then again, there are some birds that never speak at all. (If you bought a bird for the sole purpose of "making it talk," then you bought a bird for the wrong reasons. There is much more to bird ownership than "making him talk," and there is always a chance that your bird may never choose to do so!)

At the risk of pointing out the blatantly obvious, the best way to get your bird to talk is to talk to him! This doesn't necessarily mean repeating the same phrase over and over, although routine does help.

Birds listen to sound and intonation and will mimic the things that they most enjoy hearing. You may spend hours upon hours attempting to get your parrot to say "Pretty bird" and, because he or she doesn't like the sound of it, the phrase will never be repeated. I have encouraged my African Red-Bellied parrot, Zackary, to say "What's up?" for months, repeating it over and over, and he has never responded.

However, one day when he seemed a bit out of sorts and I cuddled him up to my face and cooed in a high pitched voice, "What's wrooooong?" he immediately repeated the phrase back to me; and that was the first time he had ever heard it! Now he says it all the time. It is therefore wisest to speak to your bird as much as possible, giving him a variety of phrases to choose from and pick up on. I also leave the radio or the television on for Zack all day (even when I'm not home), so that he can continue to hear words and sounds which may expand his vocabulary and also help prevent boredom.

A great deal of recent avian research points to the notion that many birds can actually "speak English," contradicting the formerly widely accepted notion that birds are merely "mocking" or "parroting" what they hear. In other words, when Zack says "pizza," he isn't merely imitating a phonetic sound; he actually knows that he is about to receive a warm, breaded, saucy, cheesy treat. It is therefore important that you deliver on your promises.

Don't encourage your bird to say "peanut" if you aren't going to reward him with one when he finally says it. Of course, we can't always deliver treats when the words are spoken unprompted; (if I gave Zack pizza every time he asked for it, I would have a very sick and very fat bird on my hands.) But when the word is prompted, the reward should be promptly delivered.

Many birds start out by imitating sounds that they often hear: the dog barking, the doorbell ringing, etc. My Zackary does perfect imitations of my cell phone ring, the phone and fax machine in my office (where he spends a great deal of his time), my cough, my sneeze, and the home alarm system test beeps.

He also does a hysterical imitation of my boyfriend's laugh. Zack says, "Hello," "Hi Zack," and "I love you," among other phrases. Other times he makes a ton of chattering noises which definitely sound like human speech, but which he has not managed to formulate into words just yet.

The best idea is to encourage your bird for anything he or she says, or any attempt at human speech, as this will encourage him or her to repeat the behavior and keep trying. Like people, birds love praise. And a treat never hurts either. Just be sure that you present your feathered little buddy with the treat immediately upon producing the sound, so that he or she can associate the behavior with the reward. (Clicker training is a great way to establish this association.)

If you are a first-time bird owner, it is important to remember that your bird is not a dog; many birds will not perform anything on command. Zackary often clams up when I try to get him to perform for guests, making a total liar out of me every time.

But then, on Sunday mornings, when my boyfriend and I are trying to sleep in, our slumber is more often than not prevented by a wide array of clicks, chirps, whistles, and beeps, accompanied by a chorus of, "Hello, hello, hello, Hi Zack, What's wrooooong?" Zack will speak on command about 60% of the time; other than that, it's his way or the highway.

Birds definitely have a mind of their own. I am a firm believer that a bird doesn't get "trained" to talk any more than a human does; sound-making is a natural part of your bird's development and he or she will pick up the habit at his or her own pace. Patience and communication are the keys to encouraging your bird to talk; the more you talk to him, the more likely he is to talk back.

And remember, there are some birds who will go through life and never utter a single word. That is why it is important to remember the millions of other qualities to love about your feathered friend. The talking is just icing on the cake.