Parrot fashion, Czech style


For thousands of years, humans and animals have been communicating in various ways but it wasn't until much more recently that interspecies communication became a focus of scientific research. The team at the Laboratory of Interspecies Communication in Prague are trying to prove that parrots don't always talk parrot fashion.

Photo: Pavla Horakova
Parrots are known to be incredibly accomplished imitators of sounds, including human speech. For centuries people believed that they simply mimic the words without attaching any meaning to them. The team at the Laboratory of Interspecies Communication of the Faculty of Humanities in Prague are now trying to prove otherwise, as part of their research into communication between the African Grey parrot and humans. Marina Vancatova is the head of the laboratory.

"The African Grey parrot is known to be a good imitator of human speech. So our students and the parrots communicate in Czech. The main objective of our research is not only to study how well the parrots can imitate but whether they are able to use individual words in appropriate situations."

Michala Ulrychova and Jarina, photo: Pavla Horakova
Research at the laboratory has proven that the parrots indeed reserve certain words for certain situations. MA student Michala Ulrychova has been working with the parrots for five years.

"At the beginning, Marketa the parrot had good results. She could recognise and name her toys. Now she seems bored with the exercise. But she is able to use greetings in appropriate situations, otherwise she doesn't use them. Other parrots greet us, too, when we come into the room. When the phone rings, Marketa always says "Hello". She never uses that word in a different context."

Michala Ulrychova and Jarina, photo: Pavla Horakova
Michala Ulrychova also told me that when Marketa the parrot gets annoyed by her parrot friend, Jarina, she shouts at her "In your cage!" which is the same expression the keepers use to send the parrots back to their cages.

"Originally, we only had Jarina. She wouldn't talk. After a year of teaching, she didn't learn a single word. Then we got Marketa, she was tame and she already had a vocabulary of about twenty words. We put them together and over one weekend, when no one was here, Jarina learnt her first word, "Cau"or "hello". She doesn't learn from us, she certainly learns from Marketa. But we don't know whether she understands the words. But the sole fact she learns from a parrot and not from us is interesting."

The team at the Laboratory of Interspecies Communication are now planning to put together the tame birds with a wild flock, hoping the talking birds will teach the wild parrots to recognise objects.

I waited for ages for any of the parrots to utter a meaningful sound, but with my luck all I recorded were shrieks and chirps.

But just as I was leaving, having packed my recording equipment - an unmistakable voice said clearly: "Bye-bye, parrot."