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The language of birds: 5.1 "Talking" birds

As we said earlier, feathered "talkers" are outstanding examples of avian learning. The most famous British budgerigar was Sparkie Williams, trained by Mrs. Mattie Williams of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He could utter about 550 words and recite several four-line nursery rhymes. Much of his vocabulary is preserved for posterity in the BBC's Sound Archive.

Listen
Sparkie Williams Melopsittacus undulatus
talking, recorded in England.

Sparkie was born in October 1954 and after a six-year working life as a character actor (two accents: "Geordie" and "refined") retired to a small bungalow in Bournemouth. He died at the age of eight, having returned to his native north-east. Sparkie had come to fame by winning in July 1958 a Cage Word contest run by the BBC radio programme

Sparkie Williams disc label (34K)
A commercial Parlophone 78rpm release from 1958 of Sparkie Williams performing with
instrumental accompaniment
(Sound Archive call number 1CS0076110)
"Home for the Day". In 1958 a 78rpm gramophone record - with Sparkie as a soloist, was issued by Parlophone (no.4475). He also appeared on a television commercial advertising Caperns, a make of bird seed. In 1962 the company produced over 20,000 copies of a disc with Sparkie's voice on. It was called "Pretty Talk".

A Russian speaking budgie, called Gosha, trained by its owner Ms. R. A. Olevskaya, was featured on a gramophone record produced in Moscow in 1980. The bird can produce complex sentences up to 15 words long, recite verses by Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky, the Russian poet, and sing songs. On the record it Sings:

Let there always be the sun!
Let there always be the sky!
Let there always be mummy!
Let there always be me!

Gosha was hand reared by Ms. Olevskaya from 23 days old (budgerigars are normally fed by their parents till about 30 or 35 days of age) and she started teaching him from the first day. By the time the disc was issued in 1980 Gosha was four years old, and in the space of half an hour would produce 150 different words.

Another Russian lady, Madame I. G. Dvuzhilnaya of Leningrad, trained, surprisingly, a canary Serinus canaria to give a very passable imitation of herself saying "what a little bird, what a little bird, dear little bird, Peenchi, Peenchi, Peenchi". Talking canaries are not unknown, but are decidedly rare.

Besides the African grey parrot Psittacus erithacus, Australian parrots such as the sulphur-crested cockatoo Cacatua galerita, and South American parrots like the various more or less green species of the genus Amazona are today well-known copyists of the human voice. During his early nineteenth century explorations of South America, Alexander von Humboldt heard a parrot speak a "dead language" - all the people of the tribe in which it had been reared having been exterminated!

The Indian hill mynah was first imported to Britain at least 300 years ago, for in 1664 Samuel Pepys commented on the species' ability to reproduce human speech with great accuracy. The mynah was then called the East India nightingale, and Pepys heard one in the Duke of York's rooms in St James's: "There is a bird comes from the East Indies. ..talks many things and neighs like a horse and other things, the best almost I ever heard in my life".

In even earlier times in Europe, it was the 'crow family that were well-known as talkers - the jackdaw Corvus monedula, magpie Pica pica, jay and raven Corvus corax, plus the closely related starling. Talking birds were well-known in Roman times. The Emperor Augustus, when he returned to Rome after the defeat of Mark Anthony in 29 B.C. bought a parrot - probably a ring-necked parakeet Psittacula krameri, that had been taught to greet him. He purchased also a raven which had been made to say "Ave, Caesar Victor Imperator". In case the campaign in Egypt had gone the other way, the trainer had ready another raven that would recite "Ave, Victor Imperator Antoni"!

Geoffrey Chaucer, in the Maunciple's Tale, written about 1390, refers to a crow which was taught to speak ''as men teach a jay", but maybe by "crow" Chaucer meant jackdaw or raven. There was an early superstition that if the bird's tongue were split at the tip with a silver sixpence ground to a knife edge, then it would talk better. Some talkers are so convincing, it is difficult to believe that the words mean nothing to them. But to most talkers the "words" are just so many sounds - "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" (Macbeth). The birds learn the material by rote, "parrot fashion" - hence the phrase. But with one known marked exception.

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