“Can it talk?” This phrase has been uttered more times than I can count. It is a common first question when people initially learn I own birds, or if they meet a bird for the first time. Parrots are revered for their talking ability – they have the capacity to not only mimic speech, but arrange sentences and use them in context. All parrots have the ability to talk, but not all parrots choose to talk. If anyone is interested in getting a parrot capable of speech, the only way to ensure a bird will speak is to adopt one that already does so.
Parrots will often pick up bad language as a result of hearing it at one time in their lives. It only takes a single instance for a bird to hear a word or phrase and seize on it, saying it with delight. Swear words are often chosen because of the tone of voice and infliction used. If you have a bird that emits words or sounds that you wish to be rid of, there are several ways you can modify that behavior.
The best way to stop an undesirable phrase or sound is to decrease that behavior with extinction. Or in simply terms, modify that behavior with the goal of removing that behavior entirely, by phasing it out. To start this, identify the word, phrase, or noise you wish to extinguish. When your bird utters that sound, do not react. Oftentimes, replacing that sound with something that is similar can help transition the behavior from positive to negative. As your bird makes that sound or says that word, say your replacement phrase. If your bird continues to say the unwanted phrase repeatedly, you may completely ignore that behavior. Do not reward your bird for its unwanted language – do not pet, give attention to, or feed treats to your bird immediately after it speaks. Then, repeat your desired learned phrase. If the bird says something – anything other than the unwanted noise or word, reward it.
At some point in time, your bird will start to use your replacement phrase in lieu of its previous language. Reward your bird for using the replacement noise. Ignore any other use of the unwanted language. By rewarding the positive and not encouraging and ignoring the negative, you can eventually extinguish your parrots undesired phrases or noises. This behavior modification is a slow and steady process. Once you start, you must keep up with extinguishing the unwanted noise, otherwise your parrot will continue to utter the same noise or phrase.
Parrots are extremely intelligent creatures, and old habits can be broken and new things learned. Consistent training and understanding of your parrot is a vital part of your relationship with your pet bird. If you love birds and want to learn more, a local rescue group called Phoenix Landing hosts classes right here in Asheville. They offer classes on training, behavior, and caring for your bird. Go to www.phoenixlanding.org to learn more.
Author and behaviorist Emily Trimnal is a parrot owner, member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants , a Certified Avian Specialist with the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, and a Level 2 Aviculturist with the American Federation of Aviculture. She also works with several U.S. rescue organizations. Find her online at www.emilysbirds.com