“Mmmmmm…Mmmmmm…Good” was one of the phrases learned by a Green-winged macaw at my father’s store back in the 1970s, when a commercial of a well-known soup company used this slogan in its ads. Every time an employee gave the macaw a treat, it would say this phrase. Little did we know at the time that we were putting into practice the three most important factors in training a bird how to talk: repetition with a live subject, positive reinforcement and association.
All parrots and some non-parrot birds, such as mynahs, have the ability to learn to speak words, but some species are certainly more apt to learn than others. The willingness and ability for any parrot to learn to speak is also dependent upon species, age, personality, and even, sex.
Typically, the larger the parrot, the more likely it is to talk, so Amazon parrots are generally more willing to learn to speak than those in lovebirds. African grey parrots are considered the best talkers in terms of not only learning, but also being able to mimic someone’s speech. If the owner has an English accent, the grey will speak with one as well.
Parrots that are larger than African greys, including macaws and cockatoos, can learn to speak, but they are generally not as good as the greys or the next best talkers, the Amazon parrots—especially the yellow-naped, blue-fronted and double yellow-headed Amazon species, even though most of the commonly kept macaws and cockatoos are larger.
Although smaller parrot species are not considered the best talkers, there are some exceptions, including those in the Psittacula family, including the ring-necked parakeet. Even the commonly kept Australian parakeet, the budgerigar, can learn many words and phrases.
Besides size, other factors that can contribute to a bird’s willingness and ability to talk include personality, sex and age. An outgoing young bird will typically learn faster and more readily than a shy, older parrot would, and males are often better talkers than females. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules, and so an outgoing, young African grey may never speak, while a shy, older female parakeet may end up learning some words.
A customer who really wants a talking parrot needs to buy one that already says some words, as there can never be any guarantee that any parrot, no matter the species, sex or personality, will learn to talk.
How a parrot is trained to talk can be almost as important as any other factor that determines a bird’s ability or willingness to speak. Playing a recording of a word or phrase repeatedly for short periods every day can be a good reinforcement for teaching a parrot to talk, but it will never work if the owner does not interact and train their bird every day. Repeating a word or short phrase to a pet for a few minutes three to four times a day can help a young parrot learn to speak.
The way the owner says the word or phrase can also make a huge difference. If the person says the word “hello” in an enthusiastic tone, the bird is much more likely pay attention to the owner and learn to speak the word. Note, however, that giving any attention, even if it’s negative, to a bird that curses or yells will cause it to do those vocalizations more. An owner who scolds a bird for yelling is actually rewarding the bird. As far as the bird is concerned, the owner is yelling with them and not at them.
Positive reinforcement is the best way to train a pet. Paying attention to birds is positive reinforcement, as they are social creatures that don’t like to be alone. Thus, leaving the room can be used as a negative reinforcement, if a bird is yelling or saying a bad word or phrase. But tell owners to never hit the bird or cage, as that might make a pet fearful or aggressive toward the owner—and parrots have a long memory.
Owners can also reward a bird with a treat. When a bird begins to say a word or phrase, even if it is not said clearly at first, the owner should praise the pet, give it a treat, and then repeat the word or phrase to the bird until it says it correctly.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.