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Teaching a Bird to Talk

Teaching a bird to talk is a pleasant and rewarding experience and a terrific way to bond with him as a pet and member of the family. With repetition, it is easy to teach a bird to say a few words but with a few clever tricks, you can actually have the bird talking in context almost as if he is having a conversation with you.

Birds in the wild learn to communicate with their parents from a very young age, just like children do with their parents. Young birds mimic their parents and soon start to chatter or warble in a way that they can all understand. For us to teach a bird to talk we need to take a similar approach and by taking on the parenting role the bird will soon start to learn our language instead.

Although older birds can be taught to talk, greater success comes from starting with a young bird that is at weaning stage and still being hand fed. At this age it would be the equivalent of a toddler and teaching a language is easiest since they are far more receptive to learning.

A bird will only learn to talk if it trusts and loves its owner. The talking will be the way that it gets the attention of its family but if it doesn’t feel affection towards them or feel safe it will have nothing to say. If this connection has not yet been formed, let the bird become used to the household and sit next to him often and give him lots of attention so that he feels part of the family before teaching him to talk.

Patience and lots of time is all that is needed for training a bird to talk. The bird itself should be healthy,
happy and intelligent and must love its owner enough to want to communicate with it.

Not every bird has the capacity to talk as some species are more intelligent than others and of course the structure of their beak differs. Budgerigars are excellent talkers as are Eclectus, African Greys, Long-billed Corellas and Sulphur-crested cockatoos. Lorikeets, Ringneck parrots, Major Mitchells, Amazons, Galahs and Twenty-eights are also good talkers.

Other parrots will communicate by making sounds but will not actually form words. Intelligent cockatiels can be taught to talk though more often than not they won’t form words although they will mimic a telephone or microwave perfectly. They will communicate in other meaningful ways as well like putting their head down for a scratch or kiss and will follow commands such as “step up” or “down”.

The key to teaching a bird to talk is to remember that birds will learn the words that they hear in a heightened state of emotion. This is why they quickly learn to say ‘hello’. Every time someone walks into the room, they often enter saying ‘hello’ in a high pitched, exciting tone. And then of course, the telephone will send out a shrill and exciting ring and someone will answer by saying ‘hello’. Each time, the people are in a heightened state which the bird enjoys and so he joins in to be part of the fun.

The key to teaching a bird to talk is to remember that birds will learn the words that they hear in a heightened state of emotion. It is believed that birds learn to talk better from a high-pitched female voice but men can be successful if they remember to keep an excited, highly pitched tone when they train or speak to the bird.

Positive reinforcement really helps when training birds as food is a major driving force in their behaviour. Use food treats to reinforce words and actions that your parrot uses and that you want him to repeat. Choose his favourite treat and save it just for training so that he will work extra hard for it. Sunflower seeds are great for smaller birds (if they are not available in its normal food) and larger birds love nuts in the shell. Use these only during training and give an additional one whenever the bird repeats a word that is new to it.

Birds also love attention so always sound excited when he learns a new word so that he knows that he has done the right thing.

The thing that birds hate more than anything is to be ignored.  So, during training, if the bird misbehaves don’t say a word. Simply turn around and walk away just for a few seconds. They will soon learn that this is not the reaction that they wanted.

As with the training of all animals, it is essential to start with a bird that is very young, healthy and is attentive to you as the owner. The training must be a fun experience and undertaken every day as part of a routine and each session should be quite short so that the bird does not become bored or irritable.

Just as in the wild, birds tend to want to communicate most in the morning or late afternoon when the sun is going down so these two times are perfect for training. Make sure that the room is quiet and that all distractions, including other people and pets, have been removed. It is very difficult to train two birds at a time.

Step 1:
Show the bird that it is loved by scratching it behind the neck in the same way that its parent would when preening it in the nest. Whilst scratching, say the words “I love you” and then your bird will associate this action of love with the words that you are speaking. Continue to repeat this process and eventually kiss the bird’s beak. As you kiss the beak, say “kiss” and over time the bird will understand that this word also relates to the love that you share.

This step might need to be broken down further into stages depending on the learning skills of the bird and it will also need some time for reinforcement so be patient. It might take several weeks. The first few words are the hardest when teaching a bird to talk and the first indication that he is trying to speak is with a soft mumbling sound. He will keep practicing on his own so when you hear him doing this, repeat the word again for him.

Step 2:
The best way to teach a bird its name is to incorporate it with what it already knows. So, once the bird understands step one, start using the phrase “I love you, Polly” or whatever the name of the bird is. ‘Hello Polly’ is another easy one for him to learn if he already knows ‘hello’. Repeat his name often throughout the day and always during training.

Step 3:
Begin to introduce words or phrases in context so that the bird will begin to understand their meaning. Sometimes this will happen automatically without you even realising it such as in the telephone example earlier. The bird will begin to say ‘hello’ automatically when the phone rings and may even make the ringing noise of the phone himself to encourage you to say ‘hello’ to him.

So, to use this same learning technique, prepare some phrases that you would like the bird to understand and consider the best prompts for teaching. Use a high pitched and excited tone as you walk out every morning say “good morning” or “rise and shine”. At night, when you cover the cage or turn off the lights, say “good night” and soon the bird will begin to repeat your call to him.

Name the foods that he eats, especially the treats, and use special games for games that he likes to play. For example, if the bird enjoys playing with a key chain, say the words ‘key chain’ when you give it to him and then, when he starts to use the words himself, give him the key chain to reinforce the behaviour. When giving a treat such as a nut say ‘peanut, mmm, mmm, mmm’ and soon he will start using these words.

Try to wait until the bird has a good vocabulary before teaching it to whistle as once it knows how, it tends to ignore all the words that it has learnt in favour of whistling incessantly.

Always be consistent with the words that are used and, when training, just concentrate on one thing at a time and only move on to the next once the previous has been mastered.

Remember that once a bird has learnt to talk, he will quickly start to copy everything that is regularly repeated, especially if it is often in an excitable tone such as calling the cat for dinner or telling the kids off or even swearing! You will soon find out which phrases you use often and without thinking.

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