Several people have written to ask if I would share the techniques I used for teaching our yellow-headed Amazon parrot to talk. I don’t feel I can take the credit for our parrot’s astonishing vocabulary, because although I did teach him his first words and phrases, his present-day “conversation” includes many, many words that I did not specifically teach him. He is continually expanding his vocabulary in the same way that a very young child picks up new words… just by interacting with us, listening to the words we use, and then trying out and using those words himself.
One thing I have learned, though, is that teaching a bird to talk requires repetition, repetition, and repetition… and even more patience. Despite what some people believe, either a male or female bird can be taught to speak, but before any bird will talk, it must feel completely at ease with the person teaching it. During a training session, all distractions or noises should be eliminated. Actual training sessions should be short, no more than fifteen minutes, and they should be repeated at least twice each day. The same word or short phrase should be repeated over and over again until the bird learns to say that word or phrase clearly. Only then should you try to teach the bird something else.
Audio tapes can be purchased that are especially made for this type of training, but before you try this method, be certain that the phrases on the tape are something you wouldn’t mind hearing over and over and over again. One of our parakeets learned an incredibly irritating laugh, followed by “That’s funny!” in an equally irritating raspy voice by imitating the voice and laugh on just this kind of tape… and it became his favorite thing to say.
Enjoying a spoonful of yogurt
Supposedly birds learn to talk more easily from women and children because their voices are higher pitched and easier for the bird to imitate. If a man is to be the trainer, he should speak at a higher pitch than he normally does, because when a bird tries to talk at a low pitch, the words are often not very clear.
I have read that some baby birds don’t like to say the sounds of the letters m, n, and i… that even adult birds often will not say the letter s… and that words starting with the letters p, k, and t are the easiest for birds to repeat. I have not noticed any of these limitations with our Amazon or the other birds I have taught to talk.
Some parrots love loud noise and are more apt to learn to talk if the trainer talks in a louder than normal, exaggeratedly enthusiastic voice. I have found that emphasizing the rhythm of the words and raising and lowering the volume of my voice at intervals works especially well when I am teaching a bird to recite the alphabet or how to count. Our parrot especially loves it when I sing with him, and he learns the words to new songs very quickly when we sing together.
Most larger parrots don’t talk until they are well over a year old, and smaller parrots, like parakeets, probably won’t talk until they are around three months old. The first words learned are the most difficult, and this initial learning process may take weeks or even months, but after about fifteen or twenty words have been learned, most birds will pick up new words or phrases very quickly. One thing to remember with phrases is that if the bird has difficulty with some part of the phrase, don’t try to correct just the part it does wrong, or the bird will get confused. Instead repeat the entire phrase.
It’s wonderful to have a talking bird, but I don’t want to give the impression that every parrot will learn to speak as well as ours does. I know we are exceptionally fortunate in having this particular bird because he is an incredibly gifted talker. We have had other talking birds, but they had much more limited vocabularies. Some learned only a few phrases, and some didn’t talk at all but could whistle entire songs and imitate every sound around them. One little parakeet loved to mimic the ringing telephone… a perfect imitation in every way except the volume. He could also make the sound of the dog barking, someone knocking on the door, roosters crowing, and different wild bird calls… this bird never said actual words, but he sure did “talk.”