Some birds can talk due to a developed connection between the cortex and the cerebellum.
These two parts of the brain are in charge of language, perception, and voluntary muscle movement. The connection allows talking birds to mimic sounds they hear.
The reason some animals have this connection between two important brain sections (while others don’t) remains a mystery. However, theories involve the connection avian creatures have with dinosaurs.
Why Can Parrots Talk And Not Other Animals?
Parrots have a distinct neural pathway that connects two specific parts of the brain, allowing them to process sounds and intentionally mimic them with their throat muscles.
The two important parts of the brain involved in vocal production are the cerebellum and the cortex. The cerebellum is in charge of voluntary motor functions, while the cortex handles language, memory, and perceiving information.
When these two brain sections work together, humans can perceive sounds and voluntarily control our throat muscles, mouths, and tongue to mimic them. We can also recall what we know about languages and use our memory to speak.
The cortex and cerebellum are pretty far apart, so a neural pathway needs to connect the two for them to work together. This makes it easier to transfer information between the different parts of the brain.
In mammals, this neural connector is called the pontine nuclei. Given their mimicking abilities, experts theorized that parrots have a highly developed pontine nucleus. When researchers at the University of Alberta looked into it, they didn’t find a pontine nucleus, but they found something very similar.
Instead of a pontine nucleus, researchers found a medial spiriform nucleus. This neural connector serves a similar function as the pontine nucleus. Only avian creatures have a medial spiriform nucleus, while mammals are equipped with a pontine nucleus.
Even though mammals like dogs, cats, and dolphins have the same neural connector we do, theirs is severely underdeveloped. That’s why we can learn languages and they can’t.
The brain sections in charge of mimicking are bigger and better in parrots, so they can talk, even though other birds have a medial spiriform nucleus. A bigger cortex and more brain cells covering the cerebellum means a better developed neural connector.
How Birds Evolved To Talk
Besides a bigger cortex and more brain cells, there might be another reason why parrots can talk while other animals can’t.
Experts can only theorize, as mimicry in parrots is an incredible ability that largely remains a mystery. However, they believe it has something to do with how much time birds have had to evolve compared to mammals.
As we know, avian creatures evolved from dinosaurs, specifically a group of dinosaurs called theropods. Therapods existed on earth long before even primates did, meaning that avian animals have had one of the longest periods of evolution of any existing creature on earth.
Although human evolution seems more impressive due to our achievements, parrot evolution is just as astonishing. They figured out how to use one of the most impressive forms of communication to survive: vocal mimicking.
Vocal communication is one of the greatest tools an animal can have. With it, parrots are capable of solving problems and using creative ways to survive.
Here are some of the many ways talking birds use their voice:
- Tricking predators by mimicking the sounds of other animals
- Forming specific dialects between different parrot flocks
- Using mimicry to stand out from the flock when looking for a mate
- Communicating complex feelings
- Fitting in with a new flock after being shunned by the old one
As you can see, being able to mimic and communicate vocally is a major advantage most animals would benefit from. Some experts even suggest that the reason so many parrot species live as long as humans is because their superior communication skills help them survive for so long.
Unfortunately for them, most animals have not had the time to evolve and learn to use this superior survival skill. For most, communication is limited to:
- Body language
- Pheromone information
- Basic sounds
List of Talking Birds
Parrots aren’t the only birds that can talk. Although they are considered to be the best talkers in the animal kingdom, there are many other birds capable of speech, such as:
- Hill mynahs
- Australian magpies
- Musk ducks
These birds are known to mimic human speech in some form or another. They aren’t talked about as much as parrots because they aren’t as popular as pets.
Don’t underestimate their mimicking abilities just because they aren’t part of the conversation. Like crows and starlings, some birds are comparable to parrots when it comes to mimicking human speech. Others, like hill mynahs, are even better than parrots.
Why Can Parrots Talk And Not Other Birds?
Some experts believe that parrots can talk while other birds can’t because:
- Parrots have a longer lifespan
- They have to survive in harsher environments
If you take a close look at the list above and the different parrot species, you’ll notice that most of the birds capable of speech are from Australia. This is no coincidence, as longevity, ingenuity, and survival are closely related.
The Australian and African continents, the Pacific Islands, and South America are harsh places to live if you’re a bird. That’s especially true if you aren’t a bird of prey.
Parrots and other talking birds have to survive all kinds of:
- Harsh environments
- Food shortages in these parts of the world
So, it’s no surprise that birds from these areas, who also happen to live a long time, have developed the ability to use communication as an effective tool for survival.
It takes more than physical aptitude to survive in places like the Australian outback. The intelligence needed to live as long as talking birds do in such environments is what sets them apart from other birds.
Other avian creatures like chickens, turkeys, and ducks have never gotten the chance to develop superior methods to survive the brave outdoors.
Despite also evolving from therapods, humans have domesticated them for a long time. This could explain why they aren’t as cognitively proficient as talking birds. If domestic animals don’t have to survive in harsh environments, there’s never a need to develop superior survival skills.
Are Parrots The Best Birds at Mimicking?
Parrots are impressive mimickers, but there is another kind of bird out there that is considered better than they are when it comes to mimicking.
Common hill mynahs, a member of the starling family, are so great at mimicking human speech that the sounds they produce seem like recordings.
Common hill mynahs belong to the same family as the European starling, and they reside in Southeast Asia and South Asia. They’re popular in the pet trade, but the reason they aren’t as common as parrots are because they aren’t bred as easily.
Due to their high demand, they’re expensive, and not everyone can acquire these exotic birds. They don’t come in various colors and aren’t marketed as family birds, so mostly experienced avian aficionados keep these birds as pets.
To truly understand why the common hill mynah is considered the better mimicker, all you have to do is watch a video of a talking mynah. Even talented parrots have a certain squawk that’s undeniably avian when they mimic.
The common hill mynah is very good at sounding human. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America explains that hill mynahs have special muscles that make up the syrinx.
It isn’t yet known why hill mynahs are better than parrots at mimicking.
Are Parrots the Only Animals That Can Talk?
Other animals, such as orangutans, orcas, and elephants, have been taught to mimic humans by researchers. However, they don’t talk the way parrots do.
For example, Scientific Reports talks of an orangutan capable of mimicking humans. However, the orangutan doesn’t mimic words and speak.
Instead, it matches the researcher’s pitch with a grunt. This may not sound impressive compared to parrots, but it’s rare in the animal kingdom.
Avian creatures are the only ones that can mimic specific words and phrases. The few animals that have been proven to mimic humans only manage to mimic tones and pitches.
This doesn’t mean that these animals use mimicry as their primary form of communication among themselves. It is also possible that these special cases do not represent their respective species’ mimicking abilities. Still, these cases are enough to prove that other animals are capable of mimicry.
Why Can Parrots Talk but Not Monkeys?
Parrots can talk while monkeys can’t talk because parrots’ brains developed differently from primates. Parrots have a highly developed neural link between the cerebellum and the cortex, which allows them to:
- Process sounds
- Memorize sounds
- Imitate sounds
In the monkey brain, the link between the cortex and the cerebellum is underdeveloped. Also, according to Science, they have vocal tract limitations that make it impossible for them to mimic human speech.
While monkeys can’t mimic humans as well as parrots, they can understand language better. Most parrot species, especially smaller birds, don’t understand language when they speak.
They process the sounds they hear and mimic them, but they don’t understand the meaning behind the words. Only bigger parrot species, like African grey parrots, have been proven somewhat capable of understanding human language.
Many researchers believe that the only things limiting monkeys from learning human languages are their physical limitations. Studies are inconclusive, and experts can’t seem to agree on whether monkeys can understand human speech at a competent level.
So, not only do parrots mimic better than monkeys, but they understand language better too.