Talking Birds

By Tawny Maya McCray

February 29, 2012 4 min read

Having a pet that can speak to you is no doubt an exciting concept for many animal lovers. There are several species of birds that have a pension for words, and with a little training, it's possible to have that talking companion animal you've always wanted.

"When you're starting to train, you want to start out with simple words, single words -- 'hello,' 'hi,' things like that," says Larry Clifford, who worked as an animal trainer for 38 years at Sea World in San Diego and also held training workshops to teach people how to train their birds to talk. "Then, as they go along, you can develop phrases like, 'Hi, how are you?'"

Clifford, who is now retired, says that it's important to use repetition when training a bird, and words should be repeated over and over again to encourage the bird to say it back. Clifford says he knew of a parrot that would greet his owner's guests when they came to the house by saying, "Come on in. Sit down. Make yourself at home."

"The bird was mimicking his owner because that's what she would say to everybody, and so the bird heard it constantly," Clifford says.

Clifford says it's vital to make training a fun thing and that includes giving your bird rewards for speaking. Find something the bird really likes, and reward it with a treat if it says something, mimics you or if it is simply trying to talk. Clifford says that for some birds, the preferred reward is affection.

"This is a lot like training a child that's growing up. You want to make everything positive for them and a lot of fun so that they go, 'Ooh, we're going to play. We're going to have a good time.'"

Species of birds that are known for their way with words include African gray parrots and Amazon parrots, such as the double yellow-headed parrot, Clifford says.

Some other species known for their verbal ways are Quaker parrots, Indian ringneck parakeets, budgies and cockatiels, according to Alyson Kalhagen of

Kalhagen writes on the site that using starter words -- such as bye-bye, night-night or even your bird's own name -- and saying them with enthusiasm seem to become more interesting to most parrots. She says that if you pay close attention, you will probably see that some words catch your bird's attention more than others. Use the word that your bird responds to the most for your first training word, she says. And always when speaking to your bird, do so in a happy, positive tone, Kalhagen writes.

Supplemental training aids such as tape recorders and CDs can also be used to help teach birds to talk but shouldn't be used as a substitute for one on one interaction, Kalhagen says.

The fastest way to encourage a bird to talk is to set up a training routine and work with it every day. Clifford says birds should be trained between two and four times a day in short sessions, about five minutes long.

"If you work them for 20 minutes a lot of animals will get bored, and then they won't pay attention," he says. "Not all are the same though. You'll find some animals that you can (work longer)."

Clifford says training requires a lot of time and a lot of patience.

"If you get frustrated with it, you're not going to get anywhere," he says. "Not everybody learns at the same pace. And you've just got to take your time and sometimes adjust your training to work with that bird."

Kalhagen writes that forming a close bond with your pet is essential to encouraging them to speak. The only birds that talk are those that are happy, healthy and well adjusted, she says. Clifford concurs.

"With any animal, you have to have a bond, a trust factor, companionship," he says. "Especially with parrots at home, you want that companionship. If they trust you, they're willing to do practically anything for you."

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