Do Parrots Understand What They Are Saying?


Written by

Clinton Atkins



George Dukes

do parrots understand what they are saying

Do parrots understand what they are saying? Not really. They often don’t comprehend the meanings of the words they say but associate them with certain actions of the owners.

If you know any parrot owners or if you are one, you know how intelligent these birds are. It makes you wonder about their talking abilities and understanding.

Now, you don’t have to stay curious about this matter when you can read all the answers in this article!

Do Parrots Know What They Are Saying?

Parrots are well-loved by many because of their unique ability to talk.

Birds are the only species that can talk like humans, and parrots mimic us the best alongside ravens and crows. But the most common question for many is: “Can parrots actually communicate when they talk?”

Birds don’t have vocal cords. They produce sounds by drawing air through their syrinx, which is in the trachea at the base of their chest. This voice box allows them to vocalize and mimic all kinds of sounds they hear in their environment.

Avian vocal learners, specifically parrots, are known to be good at producing noises similar to human speech. This could be because of the extra layer in the song system of their brain.

Songbirds and parrots have a song system section dedicated to auditory learning. This system has an inner layer or core, and the extra outer layer or shell is only found in parrots.

The shell gives them the talent of excellent vocal mimicry far superior to other songbirds, even the Hill Mynah.

Mimicry vs Understanding


Why do parrots repeat what you say? Imitation plays an important role in replicating their habitat, as parrots in the wild, just like other birds, use their vocal skills to relay information, identify flock members, and exchange responsibilities.

When parrots imitate human speech, they are trying to fit in with the ‘flock’ (in this case, the owner) and their environment.

Without a flock, parrots cannot survive. When they coexist with humans as pets, mimicking human speech is their way of forming a close bond with their environment.

Parrots mimic sounds they hear often. However, it is a real challenge to figure out whether parrots understand human language because they are great at deciphering the context of what we say.

Reacting to the stimuli and understanding the concept are two different things. Parrots do more of the former than the latter.

They notice that certain words and actions can result in them getting a treat or simply associate phrases you use with different situations.

For example, a parrot that says “Wait a minute” when someone rings the doorbell likely does not understand what that sentence means. It may repeat that expression only because it has heard you say it many times.

However, training can improve parrots’ language understanding, as you will see below.

Parrots With Incredible Intelligence


What makes some parrot species so good at vocalization that they seem to understand English? Two things: an exceptional syrinx and training.  

African Gray Parrots are found to have specially positioned syringeal cartilage. The complex structure could be the reason their mimicry is superior, as they have better control of their syrinx opening.  

Several studies have proven that training can greatly improve a parrot’s ability to communicate. One of the most famous research related to this is by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, an Adjunct Research Professor at Boston University.

  • In 1977, Dr. Pepperberg bought an African Grey Parrot and named it Alex. The bird underwent meticulous training with other researchers for several years.

Alex learned how to differentiate one object from another, count up to eight, identify food textures, and use words to tell his owner he wants to go home.  

  • Another African Grey Parrot named Waldo, a pet of the band Hatebeak, displayed impressive intelligence. Waldo loves dehydrated banana chips and crackers that the band members offer as snacks.

The bird connected the dots and named the treats ‘banana crackers’ with no one telling it the phrase.

  • If we’re talking about clever African Grey Parrots, there’s another one named Cosmo. The studies with this parrot revealed that it used specific words as contact calls, depending on whether its owner was in the room or somewhere else.

Cosmos could understand the concept behind the words she was speaking and used over 270 unique communication units.

Parrots repeating words display this species’ stellar mimicry. There is always the possibility of them understanding what humans are saying, depending on the input they receive and the training one places them under.

The experiments mentioned in this section are proof of that!


Do parrots understand what they are saying? I bet you can confidently answer this question without wavering.

Parrots have such incredible imitation skills that we sometimes think they understand our language. While this is true in some unique cases, it does not happen all the time. But one thing is for sure, these talking birds can create associations with language and contextualize them.

Have you met a highly intelligent parrot that can make interesting conversations? Share your experience with us. We’d love to read them!

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