10 Tips to Help Teach Your Parrot to Talk

Image: African Grey Parrot

Polly want a cracker? Many people get parrots as pets because they are hoping to have a fun level of verbal interaction with these unique and intelligent creatures. Peoples’ perception of avian verbal behavior can range from appreciating their bird’s amusing mimicry of human speech to believing that they can hold conversation-level discussions with their pet. While we won’t debate the level of the interactions here, if you want a pet parrot that talks, what can you do to help this kind of behavior along?

1. Know Your Species

Theoretically all parrot species should be able to learn human language, but some are less adept at “talking” than others. African gray parrots, Amazon parrots, cockatoos and cockatiels are perhaps the best-known talkers, but even small parrots, such as budgerigars (also known as parakeets or budgies), Quaker parrots and lovebirds can be taught to speak over time. These species are so intelligent that they can learn to speak recognizable words, phrases and even sentences. If your priority is to have a parrot that talks, you’re best to stick with one of the species better known for an ability to speak. Other species commonly kept as pets, such as macaws, caiques and Pionus and Senegal parrots, also may be taught to speak some words but be aware they are typically less prolific talkers.

2. Start Simple

Regardless of what kind of bird you are training, it’s best to start with one or two simple words, such as “hello,” “bye-bye” or “bird.” Once the bird masters these words, you can add on other words to form phrases and even sentences. That’s how many parrots learn whole songs – by adding on a little at a time.

3. Repeat Yourself

Birds learn to mimic words by hearing them over and over, so be prepared to repeat a word many times before your bird picks it up. This is how many birds learn to mimic environmental sounds, such as the doorbell, microwave or telephone, without their owners teaching them. Parrots will hear and take in sounds way before they actually start to mimic them out loud. This is particularly common in African gray parrots who can be the most prolific talkers but who often don’t start speaking until after 1 year of age. So don’t be disappointed if your parrot doesn’t start repeating what you say right away when you start trying to teach him new words.

4. Speak Clearly

Parrots learn best when the words they hear are enunciated clearly each time they hear them. It’s critical that the teacher (owner) not mumble his or her words but face the parrot directly and speak the same words in the same tone each time. Using the same tone means using the same inflection for a word each time you say it and emphasizing the same syllables within a word in the same manner each time. Birds seem to learn more quickly when a word is repeated to them in a high, enthusiastic pitch. The key to mimicry in birds is clear repetition.

5. Reward Often

The best way to encourage a bird to learn a word is to apply the principles of positive reinforcement. Initially, every time you say the new word to the parrot, give a small treat that he or she only receives during training. Small food items such as an almond sliver, sunflower seed or part of a grape work well, depending on your bird’s preferences. The key is to find what your bird loves most and offer this item only during training, rewarding the bird immediately after he performs the desired task. Initially, offer the bird the treat every time you say the word. When the bird realizes that he will get the treat when you say that word, wait until the bird looks at you after you say the word before giving the reward. Eventually, wait until the bird starts to try to say the word before giving the treat, even if the sound he makes is just part of the word. Once the bird starts to attempt to say the word regularly, wait to give the treat until the attempt approximates what the word actually sounds like. Eventually, the bird will see you holding the treat and may say the word without your prompting just to get the reward.

6. Be Patient

Just like different people learn at different rates, so do different birds. Some birds are capable of mastering literally hundreds of words over just a few months, while others may only learn a few. In part, the speed with which a bird learns depends on how often you practice with him; however, some birds will just not learn certain sounds no matter how often you try to teach them. Go slow, be patient, set reasonable expectations and start early. While most parrots won’t repeat back what they hear for days to weeks after they start listening, they are still absorbing and processing what you are saying. So, the sooner you start speaking to them, the sooner they’ll likely start talking back to you.

7. Take Breaks

Birds learn through mimicry and you will need to repeat a word and follow it with a treat, over and over, to teach your parrot new vocabulary. However, it’s best not to pack too many repetitions into any one training session. Five or six word repetitions, each followed by a small unique treat, is plenty for most birds a couple of times a day. More than that can be too tiring or frustrating for a parrot, and he may lose interest in training.

8. Don’t Pressure

Just like people have good days and bad days when it comes to learning, so do birds. Some days, your bird may be too tired or distracted to focus. If your bird seems disinterested at any given time, take a break and try again on another day. Try not to get frustrated. We all have varied moods and so do our parrots. Don’t push too hard.

9.  Accept Limits

Some birds will pick up a new word in its entirety right away, while other birds will only get a part of the word at first. Some birds may never say a word as clearly as a human does. The key to training a bird to talk is to consistently reward the parrot immediately after he makes any attempt to say even part of the word initially, and then to raise the bar bit by bit to try to get the bird to say the word completely. Not all parrots can be taught to talk, though. Many will make certain sounds in response to human behaviors, such as attempting to say goodbye every time the door opens if the owner says goodbye each time he or she leaves. However, the bird’s version of “goodbye” may just be squawk or a chirp, rather than the actual word. Language and communication for every bird is different. Be appreciative of your bird’s efforts to please and interact with you even if they are not perfect.

10. Love Regardless

Speaking human words is only one of the many amazing things parrots offer as pets. Some parrots don’t speak well but can be taught to perform incredible tricks, while others aren’t performers, but prefer just to be held and cuddled. Parrots can make phenomenal pets for so many different reasons. If a talking parrot is what you want, adopt the appropriate bird species and be willing to put in the time to teach and train it. But if your parrot prodigy’s efforts end up sounding more like squawks than speech, just remember to still cherish your pet for all the other reasons parrots make great companions.

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