How many words does Polly know? Some parrots remember up to 60 words — and can be bilingual

PITTSBURGH — Parrots can learn to be bilingual just like people, according to new research. A team from the University of Pittsburgh says the birds mimic the speech of humans in any environment, picking up dozens of phrases. African grey parrots, which have a reputation for being the best at learning sounds, have the largest repertoires, averaging about 60 words.

Cockatoos, Amazons, and Macaws are also excellent mimics, with average repertoires of 20 to 30 words. The discovery could actually help save the colorful birds from extinction, according to conservationists.

“This research highlights just how much parrots still have to teach us,” says co-author Christine Dahlin, an associate professor of biology from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, in a media release.

The study in the journal Scientific Reports was based on a community science project entitled “What does Polly Say?”

Parrot owners answered a survey on the number of words and phrases their birds mimic, human like sounds such as whistling a tune, and their use of the noises in context. This enabled the team to collect data on almost 900 parrots from 73 species, a sample that would have been impossible in the wild.

“Approximately 30% of parrot species in the wild are declining to the point of being threatened, endangered or critically endangered, primarily from poaching and habitat loss. Without conservation of remaining populations, we risk losing the opportunity to understand the evolution of complex communication in these amazing animals,” Dahlin continues.

How are humans able to speak?

Human language is made possible by an aptitude for vocal learning. Infants hear sounds and words, form memories, and later try to produce those sounds, improving as they grow up. Most animals cannot learn to imitate sounds at all. Though non-human primates can learn how to use innate vocalizations in new ways, they don’t show a similar ability to learn new calls.

Interestingly, a small number of more distant mammal species, including dolphins and bats, do have this capacity. However, among the scattering of non-human vocal learners, birds win hands (or wings) down.

The calls and songs of parrots have even more in common with human language, such as conveying information intentionally. Prof. Dahlin and colleagues provide the largest comparative analysis to date, calculating the size of vocabulary for different species. They found many even use words in appropriate contexts, highlighting the value of crowd-sourced data.

“As it turns out, Polly’s species might have a strong impact on what she says” says co-author Lauryn Benedict, professor and associate director of UNC’s School of Biological Sciences.

Does a parrot learn more words when it gets older?

The study did find that age and sex are weak predictors. Juveniles expanded their repertoires until they reached maturity, where their sizes start to plateau. Fifty-year-old birds did not have larger repertoires than five-year-olds. Males and females of most species were equally good mimics.

Exceptions included Budgerigars, where males knew more words. Among Pacific Parrotlets, only males were able to “talk.” Among yellow-headed Amazons, females learned more sounds.

Parrots also have timing. Nearly nine in 10 (89%) used human mimicry in appropriate contexts. They learn what to say and when to say it. As vocal learners, parrots are important research subjects for understanding the physiological, neurobiological, and evolutionary underpinnings of acoustic communication in nature.

It is clear that both companion and wild parrots use vocal mimicry to navigate their complex social and cognitive worlds. The species and sex specific differences documented can spur new avenues of research and lead to increased appreciation for parrots, the researchers note.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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