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Birds can communicate with each other in lots of ways, but some types of birds can learn human words! But just because they learn human words, does that mean that they can understand them?

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Squeaks, do you know a word for a really smart bird?

A parrot! You’re right!

I just love words. And some birds do too! Just like us, birds can use sounds and body language to communicate with each other.

When we make sounds to communicate, we usually use language. Language is made of words, like “I” and “store” and “bananas”, put together into sentences, like “I’m going to the store to buy some bananas.” But almost all other animals don’t use language to put words into sentences like we do. Except for some birds!

When birds like parakeets, or hill mynas, or African grey parrots, spend time with humans, they start to repeat our human sounds back to us! You can even train them to say things you want them to repeat. Great question, Squeaks: do they really understand what they’re saying, or are they just copying the sounds we make?

Well, it might be a little of both. Birds can be very impressive imitation, which is another word for copying. When chicks are born, they hear sounds made by the other birds in their flock, or their family.

And they practice imitating those sounds, until they sound just like the rest of their flock! There are lots of reasons that birds might need to know the sounds that other animals make. For one thing, birds in the wild are very social.

They help out other members of their flock. The calls of different flocks of birds, even two different flocks of the same kind of bird, are all different from each other! It helps to know who your family is by the familiar sounds they make!

Plus, it’s helpful to learn animal calls that might scare away predators, so that the birds don’t get eaten! And being good at imitating shows that a bird is smart, and has a good memory and strong muscles, which makes it more appealing to other birds in its flock. The birds that can copy human speech are especially talented imitators.

Birds that learn to imitate humans come from two groups: parrots, like African greys, cockatoos, and parakeets … and songbirds, like mynahs, starlings, and even crows! They’re such good imitators that sometimes people are fooled! Some pet birds have escaped into the wild, and taught the calls they learned from humans, to the other birds in their new flock.

So sometimes people have gone for a nature walk, and heard someone calling out. They looked around for a person … only to realize that the birds were the ones talking. When pet birds copy the way we talk, that might be because they think of the humans they live with as their flock.

And a bird wants to sound as much like its own flock as it can. Plus, if a parrot gets a treat every time she says something that sounds like the human members of her flock … she’ll want to keep practicing her human sounds! These birds can learn hundreds of words, especially if they’re trained from an early age by a human.

Alex, a very famous grey parrot, learned the words for over 100 different things. His trainer even taught him to ask for these objects when he wanted them! And learning to say “I want a banana” when you want a banana … sure sounds like language, doesn’t it?

Well, it can be a form of communicating sometimes. Alex knew that making certain noises would make something happen. Like, if he made the sounds for “I want a banana,” he might get one.

But it’s not exactly the same as language. What’s special about human language is not just that we use words to communicate. We can say “I want a banana,” and so can some birds, if they’ve been trained by humans!

But human language can take a bunch of ideas and use them together in one thought. So not just saying “I want a banana,” but, “Before you can have a banana, first you need to wash your hands and set the table.” Animals can have complicated ways of communicating, but they don’t use what we think of as language to do it. Even if they’re repeating human words.

Thanks for joining us! If you want to keep learning and having fun with Squeaks and me, hit the subscribe button, and don’t forget to check us out on the YouTube Kids app. We’ll see you next time, here at the Fort!