Wild parrots in Australia have been heard speaking English! They have apparently picked up words and phrases from pet birds which have escaped into the wild. Those walking in Sydney's parks have been startled by squawks of "Hello darling!" and "What's happening?" from the trees around them. Some of the words heard have been a little less than polite!
How Do Birds Talk?
Wild birds including galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos and corellas have been heard repeating phrases which have clearly been passed on by domesticated birds which have either escaped or been released into the wild. Birds are highly social creatures and their chicks learn to communicate by imitating the sounds made by their parents. They are also attentive to the birds at the top of the flock's pecking order. Birds do not have vocal cords. They are thought to use the muscles and membranes in their throats to direct airflow in order to make the required tones and sounds.
Which Birds Are Able to Talk?
Not all birds can learn to make new sounds. Thus far, only three groups of distantly related birds have been found to possess this ability. These are songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds which are all sociable species and intelligent. Communication is important to these birds and they can be truly amazing mimics. The birds have been heard accurately mimicking phones, car alarms and even the sound of chainsaws in the forests.
When pet birds find their way into the wild, other birds may find their vocabulary appealing and so start to mimic it. The birds make noises which sound like words but they won't understand what they are saying. When they repeat expletives, they have no idea that they are being offensive!
The Implications for Human Speech
Research has shown that the brains of talking birds are organised in a similar way to those of humans when it comes to vocal learning. Birdsong even possesses grammar, although this is more primitive than the grammar of human speech. It is possible that further study of bird vocalisations could help us to better understand issues with our own speech such as stuttering.
Talking and the Pecking Order
In many species of bird, vocal skill is one of the factors which dictates an individual's rank in the pecking order. This could explain why wild birds have proved keen to mimic the sounds made by the escaped pets. The words would be interesting and new to the other birds who would be anxious to demonstrate that they can make them too. New sounds give the birds more impressive vocal displays. In the avian world talk certainly isn't cheap!