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Talking birds are birds that can mimic the spoken language of humans. There is debate within the scientific community over whether some talking parrots also have some cognitive understanding of the language. Birds have varying degrees of talking ability: some, like the corvids, are able to mimic only a few words and phrases, while some budgerigars have been observed to have a vocabulary of almost 2,000 words. The hill myna, a common pet, is well known for its talking ability and its relative, the European starling, is also adept at mimicry. Wild cockatoos in Australia have been reported to have learned human speech by cultural transmission from ex-captive birds that have integrated into the flock.
The young of some birds learn to communicate vocally by social learning, imitating their parents, as well as the dominant birds of their flock. Lacking vocal cords, birds are thought to make tones and sounds using throat muscles and membranes – the syrinx in particular. There are likely to be limitations on the sounds that birds can mimic due to differences in anatomical structures, such as their lacking lips. However, it has been suggested that mimicry amongst birds is almost ubiquitous and it is likely that eventually, all species will be shown to be able to have some ability to mimic extra-specific sounds (but not necessarily human speech).
Songbirds and parrots are the two groups of birds able to learn and mimic human speech. Pet birds can be taught to speak by their owners by mimicking their voice. If then introduced to wild birds, the wild birds may also mimic the new sounds. This phenomenon has been observed in public parks in Sydney, Australia, where wild parrots utter phrases such as "Hello darling!" and "What's happening?"
Mimicking human speech is not limited to captive birds. Wild Australian magpies, lyrebirds and bowerbirds that interact with humans but remain free, can still mimic human speech.
The eclectus parrot (Eclectus roratus) is a strong talker, although these abilities depend entirely on training from an early age. The Abyssinian lovebird (Agapornis taranta) can talk if trained at an early age, however, they only rarely develop into competent talkers. 
Many species of the genus Amazona are talkers, including the yellow-headed amazon (Amazona oratrix), yellow-crowned amazon (Amazona ochrocephala), yellow-naped amazon (Amazona auropalliata), blue-fronted amazon (Amazona aestiva), white-fronted amazon (Amazona albifrons), lilac-crowned amazon (Amazona finschi), orange-winged amazon (Amazona amazonica), Panama amazon (Amazona ochrocephala panamensis) and mealy amazon (Amazona farinosa).
They tend to relate sounds to relationships more than the African grey parrots, and therefore outperform the African grey parrots in more social environments.
The African grey parrots (Psittacus) are particularly noted for their advanced cognitive abilities and their ability to talk. There are two commonly kept species of which the Timneh African grey (Psittacus timneh) tends to learn to speak at a younger age than the Congo African grey (Psittacus erithacus). Pet Congo African greys may learn to speak within their first year, but many do not say their first word until 12–18 months old. Timnehs are generally observed to start speaking earlier, some in their late first year.
The budgerigar, or common parakeet (Melopsittacus undulatus), are popular talking-bird species because of their potential for large vocabularies, ease of care and well-socialized demeanor. Between 1954 and 1962, a budgerigar named Sparkie Williams held the record for having the largest vocabulary of a talking bird; at his death, he knew 531 words and 383 sentences. In 1995, a budgerigar named Puck was credited by Guinness World Records as having the largest vocabulary of any bird, at 1,728 words.
The Australian king parrot (Alisterus scapularis) can be trained to talk if it is hand-reared.
The rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri manillensis), also known as the ring-necked or Indian ring-neck parakeet, is an accomplished talker and popular pet which can develop a large vocabulary and talk clearly in sentences.
The African ring-neck parakeet (Psittacula krameri krameri) can also talk, but some may never learn if not trained at an early age.
Hill mynahs (tropical members of the starling family of birds) are renowned for their ability to mimic the human voice. It has been claimed that the hill mynah is the best talking bird and the best mimic in the world.
European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are exceptional mimics, including human speech. Their ability at mimicry is so great that strangers have looked in vain for the human they think they have just heard speak.
In Australia, lyrebirds are great mimics of many sounds, including the human voice. Lyrebirds have three syringeal muscles whereas most other songbirds have four. This could make the syrinx of the lyrebird more flexible. In a study comparing the sonograms of lyrebirds and Australian magpies during mimicking, the author stated that the mimicry of the lyrebird was "impressionistic" while that of the magpie was "realistic".
One hand-raised Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) developed the ability to mimic human speech, including words and phrases. This individual mimicked a large number of (non-human) sounds, but a third of all mimicked sounds were of human speech. The author stated that mimicry by the magpie was far more accurate than that of the lyrebird.
"Alex" had a vocabulary of about 100 words, substantially fewer than world record holders, but he is perhaps the best known talking bird due to the publicity surrounding his potential cognitive abilities. In learning to speak, Alex showed scientist Irene Pepperberg that he understood categories like "same and different" and "bigger and smaller". He could identify objects by their shape ("Three-corner", "Four-corner", up to "Six-corner") and material: when shown a pom-pon or a wooden block, he could answer "Wool" or "Wood" correctly, about 80% of the time. Alex could identify the difference between yellow and green same-sized objects by saying "Color" or identify a larger one by naming its color. If asked what the difference was between two identical blue keys, Alex learned to reply, "None" (he pronounced it "Nuh"). Alex died on September 6, 2007.
"Prudle" held the Guinness World Record for the bird with the biggest vocabulary for many years with a documented vocabulary of 800 words.
"N'kisi" is noted for his impressive English usage skills and other abilities. As of January 2004, he had a documented vocabulary of 950 words. N'kisi is believed to be one of the most advanced users of human language in the animal world.
"Einstein" appeared on many television shows and became famous for her ability to recreate sounds as well as talking. Video clips show her making the sound of a laser beam generator and an evil-sounding laugh. She has been trained by Stephanie White.
Several theories have been proposed regarding the function of audible mimicry in general; however, these do not make a specific theory regarding why human speech is mimicked. Several of the theories will apply to only some species due to social structure, habitat and behavioural ecology.
It has been suggested that (general) mimicry of non-bird related sounds is in fact, simply a mistaken attempt to copy species-specific calls.
In the wild, flocks of parrots develop distinct local dialects. Research indicates they use these to distinguish familiar members of their flock from unfamiliar birds of other flocks. Birds respond more to vocalisations that are familiar to their own, and they ostracize individuals that vocalise in a different way. Birds raised in captivity might mimic humans, particularly their owners, to gain acceptance as a member of the family (flock). If they hear a word or phrase repeatedly, they might interpret that as a vocalisation distinct to their flock. They then attempt to make the vocalisation themselves to maintain their membership of that flock. If the parrot gets no response when it squawks a natural parrot vocalisation, but receives attention or food when it mimics human speech, it has an extra incentive to repeat human words and phrases.
The territorial song of lyrebirds is relatively simple and substantially different from that of the sounds they mimic — including human speech.
One proposed function for (general) mimicry is that mimics have evolved to have a wide repertoire of vocalisations to increase their fitness. The male lyrebird, for example, adorns his song with many different mimicked sounds, often the songs of other nearby birds, but can include car horns, chainsaws and barking dogs. As a consequence of this motivation to mimic, birds with a large repertoire are more likely to make mistakes in their learning of new vocalisations, such as mimicking human speech.
General mimicry may help a bird avoid itself or its offspring from being predated. For example, the Australian magpie mimics the call of the barking owl and the boobong owl, both predators of the magpie's young.
Some birds, such as the Australian magpie, mimic only those noises it hears whilst in its territory. It has been suggested that birds with complex social organisation may develop an auditory map of their territory, as well as visual, and that mimicking facilitates this process.
There is controversy about whether parrots are capable of using language, or merely mimic what they hear. However, some scientific studies—for example those conducted over a 30-year period by Irene Pepperberg with an African grey named Alex and other parrots, covered in stories on network television on numerous occasions—have suggested that these parrots are capable of using words meaningfully in linguistic tasks.
Some in the scientific community are skeptical of Pepperberg's findings, pointing to Alex's communications as operant conditioning. Critics point to the case of Clever Hans, a horse whose owner claimed could count, but who instead was actually understanding subtle cues from him. In another case, Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee was thought to be using language, but there is some debate over whether he simply imitated his teacher. Dr. Herbert Terrace, who worked with Nim Chimpsky, says he thinks Alex performed by rote rather than using language; he calls Alex's responses "a complex discriminating performance", adding that in every situation, "there is an external stimulus that guides his response." However, supporters of Alex mention that Alex was able to talk to and perform for anyone involved in the project as well as complete strangers who recorded findings unassisted and during first contact with the bird, making the arguments of rote learning and operant conditioning difficult to substantiate.
Scientists in France and the Czech Republic have also had some success in teaching African grey parrots to label items referentially using human language, albeit using a different teaching methodology to that of Pepperberg — which was found to be ineffective in the case of the particular birds within the study.
In Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling, an African Grey parrot lives aboard Witta's ship. "When first we entered there a loud voice cried, 'Out swords! Out swords! Kill, kill!' Seeing us start Witta laughed, and showed us it was but a great-beaked grey bird with a red tail. He sat her on his shoulder, and she called for bread and wine hoarsely, and prayed him to kiss her.'
"Captain Flint", named for a notorious deceased pirate captain, is Long John Silver's talking parrot in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island (1883). His habitual refrain: "Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!"
Science's best known parrot died on September 6th, aged 31
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