Let's Talk About Talking Birds
The best part of parrot ownership is the fact that parrots can talk. Talking is often the reason why someone decides to own a parrot - there's nothing more charming than your pet being able to tell you that he loves you and call you by name!
The best large-bird talking species are African greys and Yellow-naped Amazons. These two birds can amass astounding vocabularies, and are very popular as a result. Macaws, Eclectus, some other Amazons, and cockatoos also talk, but to a lesser extent than those mentioned above.
The best popular medium-sized talking birds are Indian ringnecks, Quaker parakeets, male cockatiels, blue-crowned conures, and chattering lories, and the best small talking bird is by far and away the common budgie. Budgies, otherwise known as parakeets, have been reported as saying hundreds of words and phrases. Males are more likely to talk than the females, and one bird is more likely to talk than a pair.
Most parrot-type birds will talk, though some may only learn a few words. Mynah birds are outstanding talkers, though they need a lot of room and are messy - not the greatest indoor bird. The birds least likely to talk are lovebirds, caiques, and toucans, though there are exceptions with lovebirds and caiques.
Teaching Your Bird to Talk
Younger birds are more likely to learn to talk. Birds in pairs may never learn to talk because they are content talking their own bird language to each other. If you have a talking species and you want your bird to learn to speak, you must be diligent about repeating yourself. Talk to your bird every chance you get, repeating the same word or phrase over and over. My blue and gold macaw's first words were, "Hi, Comet" because that's what I often said to him - a greeting and his name. Every time I gave Comet a treat, I said, "Mmmm," and he now says it when he wants a treat.
There are tapes and CDs available on the market that have repetitive words and phrases recorded on them. You play the tape for your bird when you leave the house, and hopefully, after a short time, your bird will learn what's on the tape. Be careful, however, of what your bird learns. I played a tape like this for a week and spent the next few years with at least ten birds that said "hey, baby" and whistled "charge!" all day long!
You can make a tape of your own if you have a couple of hours to spare - that way you will teach your bird what you want him to learn. Beware of teaching profanity, however; your bird may have to be rehomed one day, and he might not be welcome if he has a foul mouth! The easiest first words for a bird to learn are one or two syllables long with a strong sound, like "cracker" or "pretty bird". If you teach your bird to whistle before he learns to talk, he is less likely to talk at all - this might be because whistling is easier than talking. Be realistic about what your bird can learn - do some research on your species and talk to other people that have a similar bird that talks and ask them their method of teaching.
Does My Bird Understand What He's Saying?
Yes and no. There's a difference between talking and mimicking. Most of what your bird says will be mimicking unless you teach him what the words mean. Birds have excellent cognitive capabilities, and have the learning capacity similar to that of a three year old human. Alex, an African grey studied by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, has learned to count and to recognize and ask for objects. Alex indeed "talks" to researchers, and there is no doubt that he knows what he's saying. The same can be true for your bird. Many people claim that their birds say the appropriate words at the appropriate times - anyone that lives with a bird knows how intelligent they are. When you repeat a word or phrase, show your bird what they mean - he will learn to connect the phrase with the object - he may even begin to ask for what he wants! As if a parrot isn't demanding enough!