I just ran across an article from the BBC News Magazine that I think is totally cool.

Picture this. You are walking through a park in Sydney, Australia and suddenly hear, "Hello, Darling" or "What’s happening?" Nothing too out of the ordinary there, except that the sounds are coming from the tops of the park’s trees and are being uttered by wild birds that picked up human language from escaped or released pet birds.

The article goes on to explain that birds learn their natural languages (songs) in a manner similar to that of human children. They imitate parents and other respected members of the flock. They go through a "babbling" or "subsong" stage before they can actually speak/sing. Some types of birds can imitate and learn new patterns throughout their lives. This may include things humans deliberately try to teach them with much repetition (Polly want a cracker?) or random sounds that they hear just once.

As a vet, I am often told stories about the amazing things that pets do or seem to comprehend. My response to, "Can you believe my dog/cat/ferret did x/y/z?" is usually something along the lines of, "Yeah, I think animals understand a whole lot more than we typically give them credit for." The BBC article quotes Les Runce of the U.K.’s Parrot Society as saying, "Although parrots can make noises that sound like words, they’re just mimicking sounds they find appealing." Hmmm, I’m not so sure about that.

Alex, an African Grey parrot, developed a vocabulary of approximately 100 words and had some pretty advanced math skills. Granted, his was a fairly special and intense situation in which he was working with talented researchers, but it seems to me that after the umpteenth time of saying "Polly wants a cracker," and getting said cracker, Polly probably has at least a basic grasp of the meaning of that phrase.

And the wild birds? Doesn’t "Hello, Darling" and "What’s happening?" essentially mean, "Hey, I’m here, pay attention to me"? I know that if I was walking through a park in Sydney and heard a wild bird say those words, that’s exactly what I’d do.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Natali Glado / via Shutterstock