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Talking Birds
Nature Bulletin No. 301-A   April 6, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Many kinds of birds can be taught to imitate human speech. Some are able to remember 200 or more words and sing songs or utter several sentences. Birds have varying degrees of intelligence and some, like the crow, are very intelligent but they do not think as we do and cannot possibly understand what they say.

For thousands of years, birds of the Parrot Family have been kept as pets because of their gaudy colors and ability as mimics. There are hundreds of species, almost all of them native to tropical and sub- tropical regions. The true parrots have tails that are square or rounded and, although there are pigmy parrots no longer than a man's thumb, most of them are from 10 to 16 inches in length. The African Grey Parrot, with a whitish face, gray body and scarlet tail is an exceptionally good "talker" that was popular in the days of the Greek and Roman empires. More than 100 species inhabit South and Central America, Mexico and the West Indies but some, like the Green Parrot become much better talkers than others. The average life of a captive parrot is about 50 years.

The long-tailed Macaws include the largest and most gorgeously colored of the parrot-like birds. They have harsh screaming voices but some can be trained to say a few words or short sentences. The Red- and-Blue Macaw, which becomes 3 feet long, including a 2 foot tail, has been introduced into Hawaii. The Cockatoos are native in Australia and the islands of the Indian Ocean. Most of them are quite large and white, with a conspicuous colored crest, although some are brown, gray or even black. Like the macaws, they are good talkers.

In addition to such birds as the Lories, Lorikeets, Caiques and Cockatiels, there is a large group of Parakeets. Recently, it has been found that one of the best "talking birds" is the little Shell Parakeet or "Budgie" from Australia, where it is known as the Budgerigar. It is frequently called a "lovebird"' because it resembles the Lovebirds of Africa, but the latter have short square tails, whereas the budgie's tail is long and pointed. Dozens of combinations of beautiful colors have been obtained by careful breeding.

Equally remarkable are some of the Hill Mynahs of India and neighboring islands. Many of them are better mimics than any parrot because their voices are startlingly like that of a human. They can whistle tunes, cough like a man with asthma, laugh like a woman, and there was one that appeared on radio programs where it sang the Star Spangled Banner. Mynahs, which are related to the grackles, walk like starlings and somewhat resemble them.

The Crow, too, can imitate human voices and other sounds very closely but its vocabulary is usually limited to a few words and phrases. Other members of the Crow Family, including the Magpies, the Ravens -- immortalized by Edgar Allen Poe -- and the Rooki and the Jackdaws of Europe, also can be trained to talk.

Starlings, and even Bluejays, sometimes learn to do imitations and say a word or two. Nobody knows why certain kinds of birds can talk better than others, except that some have unusual memories and are natural mimics.

"What ! " said Polly, "No crackers ?" Quoth the raven, "Never more. "

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