Talk the squawk

History of human fascination with the parrot family’s ability to talk

source: David Alderton
Guardian, Weekend April 6 2002 p107

Humans have long been fascinated by the parrot family’s ability to talk. There were mentions of this ability by ancient Persians, over 2,500 years ago, and parrots were later taken to Greece from India by the armies of Alexander the Great, in 4th C BC. Romans used precious materials like tortoiseshell and silver in making parrots’ cages, and instructed slaves to teach the parrots to talk. Henry VIII and Queen Victoria both kept African Greys, while George V was the Budgerigar Society’s first patron, and Elizabeth II has a budgie aviary.
African Greys and budgies are especially popular due to their ability to talk, though teachers’ abilities are important as well as those of the birds. Sparkie Williams was a famous budgie who learnt 583 words, and won a BBC talking bird competition in 1958. Prudie was an African Grey who won the National Exhibition of Cage and Aviary Birds award for Top Talking Bird, for 13 consecutive years until 1977.

It is unclear how far talking birds understand what they say, though research on an African Grey called Alex, in the US, carried out by Professor Pepperberg, suggests that he can take decisions and rationalize, using language. Alex can request objects, and will turn down those objects presented to him that he has not requested.