I'm a fervent believer that we should understand
our birds' wild nature, using that understanding
to help the birds and us adapt to each other.
Sometimes we must learn to think and talk
parrot to further the trust relationship between
us. Talking parrot includes the use and
understanding of one of the most important parts
of a wild parrot's life -- contact calls.
back and forth between parrot and human help
reassure the parrot that its human is within
earshot, as would be a wild flock member. They
give parrots a way to let us know when they want
our immediate attention. Contact calls also
serve to reassure our parrots that, although we
may be leaving them behind as we go off to work
or to the grocery store, we will come back to
them. Understanding and using contact calls is a
good way to avoid behavioral problems, like
screaming. Often screaming behaviors develop
from natural, instinctive contact calls that go
unanswered by the parrot's human flock members
and escalate into screams when the frustrated
parrot cannot make its needs understood with
simple contact calls.
Not long ago I
saw another good reason to initiate and return
contact calls with our parrots. My mother's
peach face lovebird, Peaches, although clipped,
can get around the house just fine. My mother
has had Peaches for almost 6 years and they are
very close. Peaches likes to go into the bedroom
and chatter to the wild birds outside. If my
mother wants to know where Peaches is, she says,
"Peaches, where are you?" Peaches always returns
this contact call with lovebird chatter
and often flies to where my mother is in the
If Peaches is
in the front room and my mother opens a door to
step outside, she always puts the lovebird in
her cage. However, the other day Peaches was in
the bedroom talking to the outside birds and my
mother thought that would preoccupy her as my
mother opened the door just enough to pick up
the paper. Not so. Peaches was apparently
waiting for just this opportunity -- a chance to
visit up close and personal with her outside
friends. She flew over my mother's head and out
the door -- straight to the top of a tree with
some other birds.
mother doesn't panic and went outside calling
"Peaches, where are you?" Although Peaches
appeared not frightened by being outside and
eager to fly with the other birds as she
traveled from tree top to tree top, she still
answered my mother's contact call -- allowing my
mother to track her movements. A few blocks and
a half-hour later, Peaches finally tired of her
adventure and flew down to my mother, who was
patiently standing under a big tree calling her.
So, everything is well and Peaches gets put in
her cage now, before any door opens -- no matter
where she is. There's no question that she would
try it again if given the chance. However,
thanks to a contact call, she is safely home and
won't have that opportunity again.
I have no doubt
that a consistently used contact call between
any parrot and owner might make the difference
between a parrot lost forever and a bird found
and returned safely home. Most parrots don't
have the wild abandonment to adventure that
Peaches had and would return quickly to their
human flock if they had a contact call to home
in on. Of course, no one likes to think of
anything like that happening, but accidents
happen -- even when we do our best to anticipate
and prevent them.
kinds of calls - ours and the parrot's natural
Do our parrots
actually understand what we say to them and what
they say to us?
do -- to some degree. Much like a young child
learning to associate words with actions,
parrots do associate some of out speech with
actions. Dr. Irene Pepperberg has certainly
shown this with her work with Alex and other
grey parrots. My own Timnah grey, Jing,
associated the word up with going
somewhere, because when I use the 'up' command I
usually take her somewhere, even if only a few
feet away. Because she associates this
sound/word with going or moving, she says "up"
when she wants me to go to her and take her
somewhere she want to go. I respond
appropriately to her call and the pattern is
set. Now, she has a cognitive speech pattern --
at least when she wants me to drop everything
and transport her somewhere. She only uses "up"
for this purpose, not even repeating it as
vocalization sometimes associated with mimicry.
However, is the
parrot who says "Bye-bye" when you leave or
"Hello" when you come home actually greeting you
with words he understands the meaning of, or
repeating your contact calls because you always
say "Bye-bye" when you leave? It is probably a
combination of both. Certainly, the parrot will
start associating "Bye-bye" with leaving.
However, if he really understands the word's
meaning he will start saying it when he wants
you to leave, not just as a reassurance contact
call that says everything's all right and you
will be back. For instance, Jing knows that when
I say "Are you ready?" we are soon going to go
somewhere together -- something she enjoys
immensely. On many occasions, when Jing wants to
go and I'm not ready, she will yell at me "Are
ya ready!!!" However, she doesn't use this
sentence with any other vocalizing.
The results of
a survey I did on the PBR Internet mailing list
were very interesting, regarding parrots'
ability to adopt our human contact calls as
writes: "My seven month old Congo African grey
Mazi, does a "yoo-hoo" whistle when I leave the
room, but only if I haven't said "See you later"
(as I go upstairs to my office) or "Bye-bye" if
I leave in the car."
Here is a bird
that apparently waits for its human to initiate
the call and uses its own call if it doesn't
hear the person's "See you later" call. Going to
the office is obviously different to the person,
who changes the contact call to "Bye-bye" when
leaving the house. The parrot recognizes the
different call and associates it with leaving
the house, so uses the same call as does her
human when the person leaves the house.
is an instance of a bird that may have
associated a contact call used between humans as
a call that it should also use with its human
to know when we are leaving to go out in the
car, or even if just one of us leaves. We always
go out the kitchen door, and if Shadow is in her
cage in the family room, she will say "Good-bye,
dear" each and every time. She never misses."
human learns to speak the bird's language,
especially if it's a parrot species that does
not imitate human language as well as other
species. Or, sometimes it's fun to simply
talk parrot talk. For instance, my good
friend Pam Clark, who breeds African Greys, when
talking about her own companion grey, Rollo.
return, Rollo calls out "Hello" as I come
through the door. Rollo is the only one who
really keeps track of my whereabouts. Throughout
the day, he will double-check his perceptions by
whistling. I answer with an imitation of his
whistle, which he then bounces back to me in a
slightly changed version. We usually keep this
up for several minutes until he is satisfied."
different people merit different contact calls,
each suited to that particular person. Barbara
Carroll writes, "We have a male friend who
visits us every weekend. The Congo grey is used
to and fairly tolerant of his presence in our
apartment and now appears to have fashioned yet
another call--a slightly fractured version of my
greeting. He uses it only when our friend John
is here. This friend -- not a bird person -- did
notice this and remarked, 'Hey, that's my
greeting that he (the grey) always gives me!"
If you say
something enough times in conjunction with a
specific action, it will become communication
for that action. Guess what this bird probably
heard right before being let out of its cage?
Yellow-nape Amazon says "Let Pedro out of
prison" when she wants out to play."
Our birds are
also able to learn bird-like calls that we teach
them. I didn't care much for Jing's natural,
shrill contact call, so taught her a three note
whistle that resembles some natural African grey
whistles. She learned it immediately and, just
as quickly associated it as a contact call. Now
my life and hearing is much better, as we call
back and forth with my whistle, not hers.
respondent replies, "My eight month old grey
either whistles a specific whistle I taught her
to use (which I respond with), or says 'Come
Here!' which is something she picked up from my
two year old saying 'come here, Mama'."
writes, " My two birds do two different things
that I would consider contact calls. Buffy, my
three-year -old Citron, began her adventures at
my house by screaming every time I left her
room. As she learned to talk, the screams were
replaced with 'Mommy right back After a while,
she learned to say 'Bye-bye'."
obviously a bird that quickly learned to talk
human to make its contact calls understood.
who adopted the parrot's language writes, "Floyd
(Moluccan cockatoo) absolutely does have a
contact call for leaving, and another for
arriving and never mixes the two. However, they
are mimics of his own natural whistles, chirps,
and clicks that he made as a weaning baby. I
picked up on them and started using them and
they are now ingrained into his behavior."
has learned that children respond to certain
contact calls -- their names -- when called and
uses that knowledge to attract children to play
with her. "My female Moluccan calls out for my
son, his name is Christopher and she calls out
for 'Ritopher'. When she wants attention and
would like a kid to come play with her she uses
her previous owner's child's name, (Devon) and
calls out Ritopher and then Devon. She really
likes kids, and when she wants their attention
she tries to call their names."
Telephones and Microwave Ovens
very observant and often notice what sounds
their humans respond to. In the parrot's mind if
a telephone contact calls to a person and the
person goes to (answers) the phone, the parrot
can also use the telephone sound to call its
humans. Many African Greys are adept at
imitating telephone rings -- so much so that
their people often answer the phone before
realizing it was their bird making the sound.
participant writes, " My four year old African
grey, Ivy, has two different contact calls. If I
just leave the room, but am still in the house,
she calls, 'Woo, hoo. What do?' and keeps asking
until I answer her. When I go out the front
door, as soon as the door is shut, she imitates
the ring of the telephone."
apparently expects her owner to come back into
the house to answer the phone, as she has
probably done before.
writes, "My Congo African grey, Dude, does the
phone ring then says 'John, PHONE!' in my voice.
Many times my husband would pick up the phone
only to get a dial tone!"
Yes, parrots do
have a sense of humor and this one may enjoy
sending its human to the phone, over and over.
Sometimes we try to trick our parrots, but we
must be pretty wily to put something over on
them, as evidenced by Jean Dale's African grey,
learned to imitate the ringer on the phone and
then discovered than I would come back into the
living room to answer the phone. After
several false calls, I wised up and began to
wait for the second ring before coming back.
This didn't stop Dooley. He very quickly learned
to ring then wait the proper time and
ring again. How did he figure out how to
cause me to respond to his call?"
ago I had a client whose African grey was
driving him crazy making microwave oven beeps.
This bird's cage was in the kitchen, so it
watched its owner go to the microwave every time
the oven beeped, indicating the cooking cycle
was finished. It didn't take long for the bird,
wanting more attention for itself, to start
using the microwave beep as a contact call --
intended to bring the owner over to the bird,
just like he went to the microwave. My
suggestion was first that he considers whether
or not he was actually giving his parrot enough
attention. And second that he disconnects the
doesn't stop with phones and microwaves. Here is
a grey who thinks the house alarm pad is his
owner's 'leaving the flock, but be right back'
"My Greys are
the ones who make contact calls, usually. When I
am getting ready to leave the house, my Congo
will start beeping like the beeps the alarm pad
makes when I set it."
Even watching a
pet dog come when called is often enough to make
your parrot treat you like the dog to get a
little more attention out of you.
reply reads, "Rosie, my grey whistles for me
like I'm a dog."
From Pam Clark,
" Socrates (Blue-crown pionus) calls me in the
morning when he wants to come out to the living
room. He usually says...'here, kitty, kitty,
Often, what we
may think of as mindless screaming or insecurity
is no more than the parrot being a parrot. They
live in flocks, where there is safety in
numbers. A parrot alone may soon find itself
someone's lunch, so parrots want to know where
their flocks are at all times. They want to be
reassured that everything is all right, so they
use a contact call. Parrots need attention,
because they are very social animals. They are
also very intelligent animals and quickly
perceive that we run to the telephone when it
contact calls. So, they become the telephone
contact call, hoping we will run to them. I
firmly believe that there is a reason for most
of the sounds our parrots imitate. If I cough,
Jing does her loud sneeze imitation -- because
sneezes and cough often go together and this is
her way to let me know that we are part of the
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