Saturday, November 1, 2014

Talking Birds: Fact vs. Fiction

There are a number of tales involving talking animals, but these tales require our suspension of belief.  Even while we accept talking animals in the context of a story, we know that, in real life, animals don’t talk.  Or do they?

Buddy, a Double Yellow-headed Amazon Parrot

If you’ve ever walked into the World Bird Sanctuary Nature Center, you’ve probably been greeted by a cheery “Hello!” from one of our resident parrots.  Perhaps you’ve been surprised with a “Hi!” from one of our ravens as you walk past our birds on the display line.

Some birds do have the ability to learn to mimic certain words of the human language.  In fact, some birds, if worked with regularly, have even been known to learn word associations and string together sentences.  There are some surprisingly intelligent species of bird out there.
Aesop one of our resident birds....and, no, you don't have to split his tongue to make him talk.

There is a popular myth that in order to get a crow to learn to talk, you first have to split its tongue.  There are two things wrong with this myth: 1) it’s cruel, and 2) it’s just that – a myth.  Birds that talk don’t do so in the same way we do.  Humans use their lips, tongue, and teeth to help form sound, and in case you haven’t noticed, birds don’t have lips or teeth.  They do have beaks and tongues, but neither of these are used by a bird to produce sound.  Birds use their syrinx to produce sound.  The syrinx is the avian version of our larynx, or voicebox.  All of those fantastically different sounds that birds make are produced by varying the amount and velocity of air moving across the syrinx.

One stunning example of this variety of sound is found in the Lyrebird, an Australian species.  This performer will mimic as many different bird calls and sounds as he can in order to attract a mate. 
Superb Lyrebirds have an amazing vocal range

A popular video featuring David Attenborough captures this array of vocal gymnastics…and more.  The Lyrebird caught on camera in that trending video also mimics the sounds of camera shutters, car alarms, and even chainsaws.  Yes, birds can mimic sounds produced by machinery; however, most birds that can do so have been raised in captivity.  The Lyrebird in Attenborough’s video did, in fact, belong to a zoo.  Not that this makes the Lyrebird any less impressive.  Along with the chirps and whistles of other birds, Lyrebirds can also mimic the whooping chatter of a Laughing Kookaburra with startling skill.

Since learning human speech, or any other sound, requires lots of repetition, you are unlikely to encounter a wild crow or raven that will greet you in the same manner as the birds at the Sanctuary.  Unless you’re willing to spend every morning repeating the same thing to that noisy crow in your front yard, you’ll have to stop by the World Bird Sanctuary for your fix of talking birds; however, leave the crows’ tongues alone please.

Submitted by JoHanna Burton, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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