Parrots are notorious for their ability to mimic sounds and voices, and the parrot in the video below is no exception. After meeting a baby, this bird managed to perfectly imitate the sound of an infant crying! If you close your eyes, you may not even be able to tell the difference…
So why do parrots mimic human voices and sounds? It stems from their natural instinct to communicate socially; when parrots live in flocks, they use calls to identify one another. In an article for Scientific American, Michael Schindlinger, an assistant professor of biology at Lesley University, explains that parrots rely on a learning process to develop their vocalizations. Many other animals are born with their communication skills hardwired – they are born understanding a certain set of calls (i.e. there is a specific call to express hunger, a specific call to express danger, etc.). The advantage of learning to communicate lies in the ability to produce context-specific calls; parrots can identify individuals within a flock based off of a particular learned call, for example. The ability to learn calls also helps parrots determine levels of neural functioning; when sizing up a potential mate or ally, a parrot can get a better understanding of another’s hearing, muscle control, and memory just by listening to calls.
One of the most fascinating side effects of parrots learning to vocalize is the development of local dialects between flocks. Parrots from different regions use slightly different sounds – think of the difference between a thick Boston accent and a strong Southern drawl – and this helps males and females locate partners (or avoid them!) from similar areas. This can also help parrots familiarize themselves with any neighbors so that they can then distinguish an intruder passing through their territory.
In studies where birds were presented with recordings of other birds, researchers found that they will react more strongly to their native tongue. It seems that this may be the most logical reason for parrots to mimic sounds; they change their tone or dialect to better get the attention of whomever they’re speaking to! They recognize that another creature will pay more attention to familiar sounds than foreign sounds. When parrots live with humans, they most likely learn to mimic human sounds so that they can more easily grab the attention of their owners.