The miracle of talking birds

Talking, or even imitating sound, is not just a simple matter of opening and closing the mouth, as some people believe. A complex system is required for this action to take place, and all parts of this system must be synchronized in perfect working order. Birds with a talent for sound mimicry enjoy all of these requirements and demonstrate their ability in extraordinary ways.

Some of these species have a talent rarely found in any other creature except man. The best example of this are parrots, which can imitate, in addition to human speech, a wide range of sounds that even humans can’t duplicate convincingly—for example, as the creaking of a door, the cap being removed from a bottle, a ringing telephone, or a tune being whistled. This talent to imitate, observable in parrots and some other bird species, is not an ability that can be acquired by coincidence. For any living creature to imitate a sound it has heard, it needs to have complex physiological structures already in place. Particularly in the case of birds that can closely imitate the human voice in terms of tone, stress and expression, these structures must be very sophisticated.

For a bird to reproduce a word or a melody it has heard, it needs to have an appropriate physical structure. Its sense of hearing must be functioning perfectly, and it must be able to memorize the information received by the senses and the ability to conceptualize meaning in its own terms. People are astonished the first time they hear a parrot say “Hello!” when the phone rings, ask “Who is it?” when the doorbell rings, or greet someone familiar by name. But even though it’s an astonishing achievement for a bird to say even one word, many don’t really give it due consideration. Over time, they may even come to see it as normal and commonplace. However, a number of very extraordinary event take place in order for a parrot to say even a single word.

Not only does the bird see and recognize the person approaching; what’s more, the bird knows how to react to a person it knows. It remembers—and reproduces—words it associates with that person. This is evident proof that the bird has an accurate memory. If we consider that some species of birds seem to understand questions they are asked and give a seemingly logical answer, the issue becomes even more complex.

The Physical Formation of Sound in Birds

You might assume that in order for a parrot to be able to imitate the human voice—to use a person’s same spoken words, stresses and pronunciation—they must possess a larynx whose structure is similar to a human’s. However, the structure of the human larynx bears no resemblance to these creatures’ physical structures. The larynx, vocal cords, tongue, lips, palate and teeth that humans use in speech are completely different in birds, and some do not exist at all. But even though all birds lack these structures, still these species can reproduce phrases spoken by humans—and in the same tones. If we consider that a person without a tongue is unable to speak or that we lose our voice if the vocal cords are damaged, it’s also worth considering that parrots, budgerigars, and mynahs, members of the crow family, have completely different physical characteristics which nevertheless enable them to talk in the same way as humans. There are other differences between the systems that humans and birds use to produce vocal sounds. We produce most sounds d by expelling air from the lungs through the larynx. Different sounds are created, according to the degree of vibration of the vocal cords. The position of the tongue and lips and the flow of air through the mouth or nasal cavity are only a few of the many other factors affecting sound production.

Birds have no larynx similar to a human’s, but do have a special vocal organ, known as the syrinx, that enables them to produce sounds. In birds, air from the lungs passes through this organ. In a sense, the bird’s syrinx is the equivalent of our human larynx.

One of the principal differences is that in humans, our vocal cords are positioned closer to the windpipe. So far, the fact that the bird’s syrinx is deep inside the body has prevented scientists from obtaining a complete answer as to how birds produce sound. Scientists have filmed birds using infra-red and x-ray cameras, and have made close studies of their song and speech by means of fiber-optic microscopes inserted in their throats. Yet we still cannot explain the physical process by which birds produce song and imitate sounds.

Furthermore, the different techniques that parrots and budgerigars employ for imitating the human voice are most effective. Like humans, parrots have thick tongues that enable them to produce sounds resembling ours. Sound is produced by blowing air through two separate places in their syrinx, and at the same time producing the independent sounds required to produce consonants. The initial sound from the syrinx is shaped with the help of the throat, and then in the mouth with the tongue. In their research studies with grey parrots, Dianne Patterson and Irene Pepperberg reached important conclusions on vowel production: Due to the radically different anatomy of this parrot’s vocal organ, even though they lack teeth and lips, they can produce sounds that closely resemble sounds produced by humans. (Lesley J. Rogers & Gisela Kaplan, Songs, Roars and Rituals, Communication In Birds, Mammals and Other Animals, USA, 2000, p.81.)  Indeed, parrots and budgerigars can quite clearly imitate sounds such as “m” and “b,” which we normally produce with the help of our lips.

No parrot can know that it must produce auxiliary sounds in order to make consonants distinct or to develop systems in its throat to enable it to do so. Also, it’s not possible for such a system to be the end product of a series of blind coincidences. All these complex systems we have seen are without doubt, the work of God, the Creator.

The Skills of Understanding and Learning in Birds

Of all the talking birds, the African grey parrot is known to be the most talented in respect to understanding and learning. Next come the Amazon parrots, especially yellow napes, the blue fronts, red loreds, and the double yellowheads.

One of parrots’ striking abilities is that they can relate their speech to subjects or movements. For example, a parrot greeted with “Good morning” every time the cover is taken off the cage can, one morning when the cover is removed, say the phrase of its own accord. You have probably heard from several owners that their birds can say, “Hello” when the phone rings or “Who is it?” when some one rings the doorbell. What’s more, most birds can do this without being taught, since they can make connections between events and what is said at the time.

For a long time, it was believed that parrots and other talking birds simply imitate what they hear, but recent research has shown that these creatures have surprising cognitive abilities. Only recently have scientists begun to understand the complexity of the bird’s communication system. Studies conducted since 1977 by Professor Irene Pepperberg on the subject of animal behavior and animal-human communications give detailed information about birds’ skills in speaking and comprehension. In one of her most important works, the study was conducted with four African Grey Parrots. The oldest of them, “Alex,” could communicate with the researchers, use specific words, express his wishes, knew the concepts of “same” and “different,” could count and identify objects, colors, shapes and materials. (http://www.alexfoundation. org)  According to scientists, these skills were not automatic, but the results of learning, which in turn is a sign of a high level of consciousness. (Lesley J. Rogers & Gisela Kaplan, Songs, Roars and Rituals, Communication In Birds, Mammals and Other Animals, USA, 2000, p. 72.) Naturally this is the inspiration of God. It is ridiculous to imagine that a small piece of flesh composed of insentient atoms can exhibit such complex talents of its own accord. Allah shows us His incomparable creative art in the talents He has inspired in living creatures.

Miraclous Skills of “Alex” the Parrot

If we generalize about his skills, not only can he produce and comprehend sentences, but he also understands concepts of category, “same/different,” absence, quantity, color and size. He can tell whether one object is different from another, and whether there is such an object in the room. (Irene Maxine Pepperberg, The Alex Studies, Harvard University Press, England, 1999; http://

- Alex has learned the names of more than 40 objects: paper, key, nut, wood, wheat, truck…

- He has functional use of “no,” phrases such as “Come here,” “I want—,” and “Wanna go—” using appropriate names for objects or locations.

- He has also acquired attributes. He can identify seven colors, “rose” (red), blue, green, yellow, orange, grey, and purple.

- He uses “two,” “three,” “four,” “five,” and “sih” (six) to distinguish quantities, including groups of unfamiliar items. He can name five different shapes as two-, three-, four, five -, or six-cornered objects.

- Alex has a limited comprehension of “category.”  He categorizes such objects with respect to either attribute based on our vocal query of “What color?” or “What shape?” Because the same object can be the subject of either a shape or a color question at different times, Alex must be able to change his basis for classification. Such an ability to reclassify is thought to indicate the presence of “abstract aptitude.”

- He can request or refuse more than 100 objects, categorize and count them, and combine adjectives with the names. In tests evaluating this skill, he has a success rate of 80%.

- Alex has also learned to answer questions concerning abstract concepts, such as “same” and “different.” For example, when shown two objects of the same color, shape or material, he knows which category the objects have in common, or in which category they are different. Or if the objects have no category in common, he is able to answer “none.”

- To study the parrot’s conceptualization ability, Alex was asked, “What color is object X?” Out of 100 objects of different shapes, colors, and materials, he has a success rate of 81.3% in answering correctly. His correct answers show that he understands all the elements of the question and chooses the right answer by obtaining the required information from objects he is shown.

- After a short training, he started expressing wishes such as “Tickle me” or “I want popcorn.” When offered something other than the food he asked for, he would refuse it and repeat his request. He would ask to be taken to different places—for example, “Wanna go chair.” If taken to the wrong place, he would stay on the person’s arm and repeat what he wanted.

- In another test, Alex was shown a tray of seven objects like a purple key, yellow wood, green leather, blue paper, an orange peg, gray box, and a red truck; and asked which one was gray, Alex would look carefully at all seven objects and answer, “Box.” A red paper triangle and a blue wooden triangle were put on the tray. When asked what was the same, he answered, “Shape.”

As Alex’s example shows, parrots given the necessary training can memorize fairly long sentences, use them appropriately, and use them to reply to various questions. In addition, they can recognize various words and combine them appropriately. Nowadays, parrots are rated along with dolphins and whales as possessing a high level of intelligence. About the intelligence and talents of parrots, The Augusta Chronicle has this to say: New research suggests that parrots, like chimps and dolphins, are capable of mastering complex intellectual concepts that children cannot handle until age. ("Parrots may be smart as chimps and dolphins", The Augusta Chronicle;

A bird possessing such talents is a great wonder of creation, for birds and other animals do not have free will and reason, and do not share the human characteristics of thought, the ability to make conscious decisions and the determination to carry them out. The ability to talk and imitate sounds is taught by Allah to certain species of birds. These creatures do not talk because of their own rational thought, will or consciousness, but through Allah’s inspiration. In a verse of the Qur’an, Allah reveals that He is supreme over all living creatures: “… There is no creature He does not hold by the forelock…” (Surah Hud, 56) All the wondrous characteristics of birds that can imitate sounds are just part of the evidence Allah shows to man so we may witness the magnificence of His creation.


2010-10-08 12:13:04

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