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Can Birds Understand Humans?

Bird Image

Parrot fashion is a rather derogatory term, at least when used to describe a person’s speech. It implies that the speaker has merely learnt to repeat specific words and does not understand what they mean. When it comes to parrots, most of us are sufficiently impressed that they can learn to repeat human language. But is it fair to suggest that they don’t understand what they are saying? Many owners of exotic birds think not.

Can Birds Understand Human Language?

There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to support the idea that parrots can contextualise the words that they have learnt. There hasn’t been much research into the subject but what little there has been suggests that birds do have some notion of what they are saying.

In a 2011 study, Researchers at the University of Georgia worked with an African grey parrot called Cosmo. Whereas previous studies had focussed on asking birds questions to see if they could provide appropriate responses, this study looked at spontaneous speech. Would Cosmo just repeat random words and phrases or was there more to his speech than that?

Contextualised Speech

The researchers found that Cosmo did, indeed, alter what he was saying according to whether there were people in the room or not and what they happened to be doing. When there was nobody in the room Cosmo would say things like "where are you?" and "I’m here". When he had company he would use phrases such "I want to play". It was clear that the bird did have some concept of that he was saying and could change his remarks to suit the situation.

Understanding Grammar

Now, new research has revealed that some birds use grammar in their songs and calls. It is, therefore, likely that they use structure to work out what an unfamiliar call might mean. Studies at Kyoto University in Japan and Leiden University in the Netherlands have both reached similar conclusions.

In both cases the researchers monitored the birds’ reactions to recorded sequences of bird song. They were trained to peck in response to certain sequences. They were then played recordings of different sequences and it became clear that budgerigars responded strongly to structure and not just the specific calls within the sequence.

Interestingly it has been shown that birds do not possess an innate ability to detect grammar. Birds which had not been exposed to birdsong before did not react to the sequential changes in the recordings. They learn the rules of their own language just as we do.

Bird Brains

Examinations of birds’ brains have demonstrated that when they hear birdsong, it is the anterior nidopallium portion of their brains which reacts to faulty grammar. This is equivalent to the region called the Broca’s area in the human brain which is activated when we hear ungrammatical sentences.

So it looks like birds can understand what they are saying. They may not fully comprehend individual words but they can certainly learn to associate certain phrases with the reactions they illicit from people.


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