Do Parrots Understand What They’re Saying?

Parrots do not understand what they’re saying when repeating certain phrases. Yet, they can learn to associate certain words with praise. It’s also how they socialize in the wild.

Jul 16, 2023By Colt Dodd
do parrots understand what they are saying

The short answer is no. The long answer is that parrots understand the general context surrounding phrases. For instance, imagine that a parrot’s owner holds up a cracker. A trained parrot may say: “Polly want a cracker.” Wow, amazing! A bird that can make requests!

Not quite. The bird knows that if it parrots that phrase, it will get a treat. It associates that string of words with a reward, and being experts at mimicry, knows that the phrase will yield something positive. Even if parrots can’t understand what they’re saying, they’re still one of the world’s most intelligent animals.

Parrots Mimic Sounds to Socialize with Their Flock

two green parrots sitting together
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The San Diego Zoo reports that parrots can live in large flocks, comprising anywhere from 20 to 1,000 members! While this may seem like a full house to humans, for the social parrot, this is just perfect. However, it’s important to fit in, which is why parrots mimic each other’s sounds; it’s part of socializing.

Pet parrots don’t have large flocks. Still, they consider their human owners to be part of their family. And, as a means of socializing, they may repeat certain phrases or sounds for attention. The attention doesn’t have to be necessarily good, either––which is why some parrots have… colorful vocabularies.

There’s a Difference Between Mimicry and Understanding Language

close up of a rainbow colored macaw
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Parrots are expert mimics. They can memorize and repeat thousands of sounds, from a child’s laughter to a police siren. There’s really no rhyme or reason why parrots choose to mimic certain sounds over others, but in general, if others in the flock are repeating it, they will, too. They don’t understand what the sounds are, other than that they’re delightful to repeat.

Understanding human language is different. Going back to the previous example, a parrot may say “hello!” upon seeing its owner, but it doesn’t know that this is a greeting. However, it knows that this phrase may get attention or, even best of all, a treat. This reinforces the behavior and encourages the parrot to keep parroting words.

Parrots Aren’t the Only Mimics

There are many animals in nature that have perfected the art of repeating things humans say. Recent research shows that orca whales can not only repeat human phrases, but they comprehend certain statements much better than their aviary counterparts.

Animals that are known to emulate human speech include:

  • Ducks
  • Elephants
  • Some species of ape (including the Orangutan)
  • Beluga whales
  • Ravens, crows, and other corvids

How Do People Train Parrots to Say Things?

man training a parrot to talk
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Parrots are natural mimics, meaning that they will start repeating things within days of being in a new home. This helps them bond with their owner and feel “included” in social activities. However, some parrot owners want their pets to learn certain phrases, either for training purposes or sheer novelty.

Here’s a general outline of how people train their parrots to repeat words:

  • They form close bonds. Parrots thrive on interaction. They’re more likely to repeat words said by people they’re comfortable with and enjoy spending time with. Avian Enrichment notes that socializing with a parrot for 30 minutes a day is a great way to build a long-lasting friendship.
  • Owners figure out what motivates their birds. Most birds will do just about anything for a tasty treat. Some parrot owners find great success motivating their pets with small pieces of fruit or seeds.
  • Repetition. As with teaching a pet any trick, repetition is key to cementing a phrase in a bird’s mind. Owners should first focus on simple phrases, then repeat these words to the parrot over the course of a few days. When the parrot repeats the phrase, offer a treat. This reinforces the behavior and encourages the parrot to associate speaking with rewards.
2 parrots gazing

It's important to note that some parrots are easier to train than others. Take the African grey parrot, for example. These are some of the smartest birds in the animal kingdom, with some smarter than three- or four-year-olds. Here, one can expect their bird to pick up on phrases within a few hours of practice. Matters change for smaller birds, like green parrots. While also intelligent, they may require more practice before they can mimic human speech.

Is Teaching a Parrot to Talk Inhumane?

close up of African grey parrot
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Some organizations, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), have reservations about humans teaching their parrots to talk. They claim that not only is keeping a bird caged inhumane but teaching them how to talk goes against their natural tendencies––bordering on cruelty.

Yet, other organizations claim that as long as the behavior doesn’t threaten the animal’s safety or cause stress, this is an ideal way for owners to bond with their pets. Parrots enjoy the attention, and they love the rewards that come with repeating simple words.

Some researchers have even taught their parrots to video chat with their feathery friends. Sure, they can’t have a conversation like people do, but they sure enjoy looking and squawking at each other.

What if a Parrot Starts Repeating Off-Color Phrases?

two red macaws together sitting
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Because parrots can’t understand what they’re saying, they have no problem saying, well, anything. If a parrot starts repeating off-color phrases, here are some things to know:

  • It’s not personal. While parrots bond closely with their owners, they don’t generally harbor resentment toward others. It may shout obscenities, hoping to get a reaction (and, of course, a treat).
  • Repetition is key. A parrot won’t wake up one morning and start swearing up a storm. Chances are, if a bird swears, someone took the time to repeat phrases and ensure the bird “understood.”
  • A talking bird is a happy bird. It’s hard to get angry when a parrot starts name-calling everyone in sight. That’s because it generally means that the parrot is comfortable and excited to share its mimicking skills with everyone.

Parrots are amazing creatures. Still, as with any pet, potential owners should do their diligence beforehand. To learn more about bringing a parrot home, check out this article from the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Colt Dodd
By Colt Dodd

Colt Dodd is a sighthound enthusiast with three years of freelance writing experience. He has an Italian greyhound/Shetland sheepdog mix named Homer. In his spare time, he enjoys going to dog parks and writing fiction.