Recombining Words In Parrot Speech

Blue and gold macaw

In my opinion, one of the things that most strongly speaks to the intellect of a parrot is the use and reworking of the words in its vocabulary. Taking two unrelated words and placing them together to form another word or phrase with an entirely different meaning is the “recombining” of words.

Many birds have the ability to put labels to the things around them  Some words are the names of objects, such as a bell. Other words are adjectives such as colors, big or small, hard or soft. Birds have repeatedly shown a remarkable ability to correctly apply an appropriate descriptive label to a given noun.

In her work with the famous african grey, Alex, Dr Irene Pepperberg taught Alex to identify the substance of which an item composed. To simplify this question, she would ask “What matter?”  Alex would respond with: “paper” or “wood”, for example. In one test, one such substance was cork, a bottle stopper.

Alex was smart, and he was also a bird and so was familiar with a variety of nuts. He, by his own choosing, renamed the unshelled almond “cork-nut” and would call it only that. He also referred to an apple as a ban-erry. Dr. Pepperberg makes the assumption that this combination comes from “ban”ana, perhaps because of the similar color inside the fruit, and ch”erry” as both fruits share a similar shape and color on the outside.

This is the ultimate example of the recombination of words. Think, for a moment, about the brain power and creativity that goes into making that connection.

I have a friend whose african grey strung together this sentence on his own: “Wanna go big, red chair”. This was a request for a ride in the car, which is red, big, and actually does contain “chairs”. Someone else told me that their blue and gold macaw referred to meowing as “kitty song”. Pretty adorable, and smart.

Has your bird ever made the connection to put the name of an object together with an adjective, such as “ball” and “blue”, or “water” and “cold”?

Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987. 

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