Entire flocks of wild galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos and corellas are learning to talk. The wild birds are being taught by pet birds that have escaped or been released by their owners and joined the flocks. “We have had people call us thinking they are going mad or had something put into their drink because they’ve gone out to look at the flock of birds in their backyard and all the birds have been saying something like ‘Who’s a pretty boy then?’,” Martyn Robinson, the Australian Museum’s naturalist, said yesterday.

Mr Robinson said the city was now home to large numbers of galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos and corellas that had fled the state’s far west during the decade-long drought. “They’ve decided to stay and even begun to breed in the city, and if a pet bird of their species escapes their cage or is released because their owner’s moving or whatever, they naturally join the wild flocks,” he said. “These birds are very smart birds and very social and communication and contact is important between them. “So the pet bird begins to say things it’s been taught by its owner and the rest of the flock learns and starts speaking too, to mimic the pet bird,” Mr Robinson said. “I just hope a pet that’s been taught dirty words doesn’t join a flock.”

Pet parrots, such as cockatoos, that are let loose in the wild are teaching native birds to talk.
by Hannah Price / September 15 2011

If you hear mysterious voices from the trees – it’s likely just a curious cockatoo wanting a chat. Native parrots, especially cockatoos, seem to be learning the art of conversation from their previously domesticated friends. The Australian Museum’s Search and Discover desk, which offers a free service to identify species, has received numerous reports of encounters with talkative birds in the wild from mystified citizens who thought they were hearing voices. Martyn Robinson, a naturalist who works at the desk, explains that occasionally a pet cockatoo escapes or is let loose, and “if it manages to survive long enough to join a wild flock, [other birds] will learn from it.”

Birds mimic each other
As well as learning from humans directly, “the birds will mimic each other,” says Jaynia Sladek, from the Museum’s ornithology department. “There’s no reason why, if one comes into the flock with words, [then] another member of the flock wouldn’t pick it up as well.” ‘Hello cockie’ is the most common phrase, though there have been a few cases of foul-mouthed feathered friends using expletives which we can’t repeat here. The evolution of language could well be passed on through the generations, says Martyn. “If the parents are talkers and they produce chicks, their chicks are likely to pick up some of that,” he says. This phenomenon is not unique; some lyrebirds in southern Australia still reproduce the sounds of axes and old shutter-box cameras their ancestors once learnt.

In rural areas talking parrots will probably begin to lose their language abilities, says Martyn, with some words “likely to just disintegrate a bit and become part of that particular flock’s repertoire.” However, in Australia’s big cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, cockatoos will probably maintain and improve their vocabulary due to regular contact with humans. “That’s certainly the case in the Botanic Gardens [in Sydney],” says Martyn. “If you say ‘hello’ or ‘hello cockie’ to the cockatoos, and if they’re interested in you and not just picking around for food, you may well trigger a response.”

How can birds teach each other to talk?
by Megan Lane / 16 September 2011

Wild parrots in Australia are apparently picking up phrases from escapee pet cockatoos who join their flocks. Why – and how – can some birds talk? Those strolling in Sydney’s parks are being startled by squawks of “Hello darling!” and “What’s happening?” from the trees.

Wild birds such as galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos and corellas are repeating phrases passed on by domesticated counterparts that escaped or were released, says naturalist Martyn Robinson, of Sydney’s Australian Museum. The museum has received numerous reports of talkative wild birds from startled members of the public. Birds are social creatures, and chicks learn to communicate by imitating the sounds made by their parents and those at the top of the flock’s pecking order. Unlike humans, birds do not have vocal cords. Instead, they are thought to use the muscles and membranes in their throats – specifically the syrinx – to direct airflow to make tones and sounds.

Not all birds can learn to make entirely new sounds. To date, only three groups of distantly related birds have been found to have this ability: songbirds; parrots such as cockatoos and parakeets; and hummingbirds. “These birds are very smart birds and very social, and communication and contact is important between them,” Robinson told Australia’s Daily Telegraph. “So the pet bird begins to say things it’s been taught by its owner and the rest of the flock learns and starts speaking too, to mimic the pet bird.” Although parrots can make noises that sound like words, they’re just mimicking sounds they find appealing, says Les Runce of the UK’s Parrot Society. “It may be a nursery rhyme, a football chant, a microwave pinging or a phone ringing.”

Young birds, like human babies, learn to speak or sing through imitation, says behavioural biologist Johan J Bolhuis, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. In research published in August in Neuroscience Research, he describes “a transitional period of early vocalisation, which is called ‘babbling’ in humans and ‘subsong’ in birds.” And, he tells the BBC News website, parrots and some songbird species can learn throughout their lives, such as the Sydney example. “I have studied budgerigars – small parrots – that can teach each other to speak Japanese words.

“In this and other research we found that the brains of these birds are organised in a similar way to human brains with regard to vocal learning. Also, the same genes are involved in song and speech.” He adds that birdsong has a “primitive grammar” that is quite different from the complex grammar of human language. “Bird research can teach us a lot about the development of human speech and the problems that may occur – stuttering, for instance. So, parrots and songbirds may hold important clues as to how we humans can learn to speak and acquire languages.”

Parrot fanciers keen to teach their own pretty polly to talk may have to repeat their chosen phrase over and over. But the bird may pick it up after a single listen. “Parrots have good memories and only need to hear a sound once to reproduce it,” says Runce. “A friend’s daughter had an ingrown toenail, banged it and let out an almighty shriek. Their bird has still got that one, and that was 30 years ago.”

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