Do parrots know what they are saying or are they just repeating sounds?

by Michael Goble

I have owned parrots for almost 20 years and dogs for almost 30 years.

One of my parrots, a green-cheeked conure, has the largest vocabulary I’ve ever seen.

However, I’ve always wondered if he really knows what he is saying, or merely repeating sounds…

I will give you some examples and then maybe you can tell me what you think:

When I come downstairs in the morning, he chants, “Good morning, good morning.”

When he can see me come round the corner, he switches to “Hello daddy, hello daddy.”

He then reverts to “Good morning, good morning” when he hears my wife coming and then switches to “Hello mummy, hello mummy” when she appears.

He also says “hello bird” and “good bird” and “hello good bird” but he will never mix up the word order.

When I head for the front door, he will say “Goodbye daddy.”

When I tell our dog to go outside to do her business, he says “Good dog, good Brandy, outside, outside.”

He sits on my shoulder when we watch TV in the evening.

When he needs to relieve himself, he says “Go potty” so I take him to the bathroom and hold him over the toilet.

He always performs appropriately, never ever messes on my shirt.

In the evening, as soon as I switch off the TV or put down the book I was reading, he starts saying “Goodnight.”

Now you tell me, does he know what he is saying or is he just imitating sounds?

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4 Comments on “Do parrots know what they are saying or are they just repeating sounds?”

  1. My African Grey has startled me so many times that I now assume he knows what he’s saying, even if he doesn’t always choose to communicate on that level with me.

    This is a severely plucked 38-year-old bird that we rescued from a shelter when he was 32.

    That means he came to us with a vocabulary, much of which was sort of nasty at the beginning.

    We adopted him because he so clearly chose me by repeatedly flying to my shoulder while others were working with him.

    He is like several other intelligent birds I've read about in that he will tell us when he wants to get out of his cage, a treat or to go to bed.

    But he also creates sentences to convey more complicated ideas.

    The most startling was during the first few months we had him home.

    He was initially very compliant and stuck near me but, as he got more comfortable in his new surroundings, he started challenging me.

    At one point he was on the kitchen floor and refused to step up.

    He simply put his beak to the floor and would not move. We had a standoff (argument) for a couple of minutes (a VERY long time for a bird) and I realized that I had to win this one if he was going to live with us, even if it meant getting bitten.

    So I simply put my hands around him to pick him up. He was surprised, sort of lost his balance for a bit, but then stepped up on my hand without nipping or biting me.

    I placed him in his cage without a treat, said nothing and turned away.

    He started asking “Can I come out?”, something he had done before.

    I ignored him. He asked a couple more times. I continued to ignore him.

    Then I walked by his cage and he said, “Can I come out? I’ll be good.”

    I almost fell over.

    He has never said it again.

    Another good example of his more direct communication happened a couple of years later.

    He sometimes refers to me as “Mom”, a word and association he learned in his previous life.

    Usually he only says this when I come home. As soon as he hears my car drive up, he’ll say “Mom’s home!”

    So, one morning I uncovered his cage as usual, but got tied up with something and didn’t immediately follow through on the rest of our morning routine.

    From two rooms away, I heard him ask, “Where’s Mom?”

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