by Mattie Sue Athan
Quaker Parrots consistently rank high on every list of best talking parrots. Learn more about the Quaker’s talking ability and ways to improve the chances that your bird will talk. This article first appeared in Bird Talk magazine and is re-printed here with Mattie Sue Athan’s permission.
When naming the best talking parrots, African greys and yellow naped Amazons often head the lists. But these are pricey, long-lived species involving a large initial investment and a couple of generations of planning and commitment. For a sturdy bird with a more reasonable price and life expectancy, many who fancy a talking bird are now turning to the quaker parrot.
At first glance, the quaker or monk parrot (Myiopsytta monachus) does not appear to be particularly compelling, but it’s plain colors and unimpressive size mask a truly exciting personality. Among other things, it’s not unusual for this intelligent little bundle of energy to use human words with understanding before it’s six months old. In a recent survey of 64 quaker parrot owners, three reported that their birds spoke their first human word at six weeks. Little wonder that in the states where it’s available, the quaker parrot is rapidly overtaking the cockatiel as most frequently acquired hand-fed baby parrot.
A “GUARANTEED” TALKING BIRD
No baby parrot, including the quaker parrot, can be guaranteed to talk merely because it is of a particular species. In order to study the extent and frequency of talking and non-talking in quaker parrots, I conducted an informal survey of the birds’ owners who subscribed to two e-mail discussion groups: the Quaker Parakeet Mailing List and the Pet Bird Report List. While this survey represents a very narrow segment of the community that cannot be considered a true scientific sample, it can provide a clearer picture of the companion quaker’s potential in the hands of literate and, presumably, good-talking humans. Of 54 birds over one year old in this study, all but three were talking. Among the ten baby birds, only three were not yet talking.
While all but one of the birds in this group talked by ten months, it’s not unusual for a quaker parrot to learn to say its first human word after it is one year old.
One of the most exciting aspects of the talking capabilities of the quaker parrot is the sheer number of words these birds can acquire.
In this group, quaker parrots over one year old averaged between 50 and 60 words. Many of these birds have learned both to use words with understanding and to sing word songs. The latter use of language probably more accurately resembles bird song, and for the purpose of this study, the number of words in songs was not included in the total number of spoken words.
On the other hand, quaker parrots are not known for being especially easy to understand. On a scale of one to ten, with “one” being “absolutely not understandable to anyone” and “ten” being “absolutely understandable to most people”, humans responding to this survey said that their birds averaged somewhere between seven and eight.
Experience tells me that both the birds and the humans in this group may be especially articulate. Remember, these birds live with humans who use computers for something other than games.
USING WORDS IN CONTEXT
Of the older talking quakers in this study, all but one could use at least one word with an apparent understanding of it’s meaning. While many quaker parrot owners reported that their birds used an average of 15-16 words in ways consistent with their meanings, seven of the 58 owners of talking quaker parrots reported that their birds spoke ONLY with apparent understanding. That is, these seven birds do not merely repeat any old word at any old time, they use all words only with the apparent intent of conveying appropriate meaning at the appropriate moment. Most of the birds in this group spoke an average of about 8 words. Two birds in this group averaged a reported 150 words.
SELECTING A TALKING BIRD
While no baby parrot can be guaranteed to talk merely because it’s a baby quaker, an experienced handfeeder can usually guarantee that a particular individual baby quaker will talk. This is because baby quakers usually begin trying to mimic, often actually making understandable sounds, by the time they are fully weaned. But even if a baby quaker has not talked by the time it weans, a bright eyed, interested bird that vocalizes and seeks interaction at ten weeks will probably have at least a few words by the time it’s a year old. In this group, the average age at which a quaker parrot spoke it’s first human word was four months.
|Most Commonly-Reported First Words of 55* Talking Quaker Parrots
These words also appear to be most commonly repeated in a manner consistent with their meaning.
*Other responses were unique or unknown.
IMPROVING CHANCES THAT THE BIRD WILL TALK
Even among the more expensive “talking” parrots there are occasional individuals that do not talk. Motivation to speak can often be improved if the bird’s confidence can be improved. Especially if the bird feels unsafe, it will not wish to attract attention. Sometimes merely raising the bird’s cage and play perches and moving them to more protected locations can stimulate talking in an individual that has previously remained silent.
Allowing the bird to choose to hide might improve both the feeling of safety and the desire to communicate. Most parrots do not choose to talk when humans are looking watching. However, many birds are motivated to talk for attention when humans are out of sight. Sometimes this is only a matter of placing the cage or play pen around a corner from view of humans. Sometimes this involves putting a towel over about a third or half the cage or situating the cage behind a plant Show the bird what is expected by copying what the bird says.
This might be difficult when the bird is doing that little hiccup noise that some people call “quaker cussing”, but all baby birds make at least a few noises that humans can readily copy. It’s not that different from the bird’s point of view. There are probably only a few human sounds that a baby parrot can easily copy, the rest is practice, practice, practice.
Don’t forget that quaker parrots appear to prefer to use words appropriately. Like humans, a bird is more likely to learn to use words in context than simply by rote memorization.
Dr. Irene Pepperberg has demonstrated in her studies involving Alex, the African grey, that the process of learning words can be improved by providing a rival for the attentions of the favorite human. Indeed, most African greys, which are known as exceptionally adept mimics, are said to speak in the voice of the rival (African greys usually also learn words in the favorite person’s voice). Although quakers are seldom understandable enough to verify who’s voice they are speaking in, the presence of a human rival often stimulates the quaker parrot to learn human words.
General care requirements for quakers are similar to those of other parrots. These birds need a nutritious diet; a clean, safe environment; exciting toys; opportunities for independence; and opportunities for interaction. Quakers need access to clean, fresh water for drinking and bathing. Like human children, a quaker parrot might be so interested in anything and everything that it will refuse sleep if it is not provided with a cover or a roost cage in a quiet area away from human activity.
Quaker parrots are especially prone to accidents in the home, including flying away. Wing feathers must be trimmed at least a couple of times yearly to prevent drowning in the toilet, burning up in the skillet, or crashing into the ceiling fan. Tame quakers that fly away in urban areas are usually easily recovered.
SPECIAL BEHAVIORAL NEEDS
Because they are famously territorial, quakers have special behavioral needs. Like humans, if quakers do not learn cooperative habits and limits of acceptable behavior by they time they reach sexual maturity, they may be completely out of control. It’s best for quaker parrots to learn cooperative behavior just after weaning in order to prevent the development of early aggressive behaviors during the developmental period called the “Terrible Twos” (which usually appears sometime between 9 and 18 months in quakers).
Most behavior is comprised of a series of habits that are routinely reenacted. A bird that learns to habitually cooperate will be less likely to try to dominate humans in the environment. In order to create good habits and to establish a pattern of cooperation in the bird’s behavior, we practice a couple of interactive exercises — step-ups and the towel game — most days in neutral territory.
STEP UPS: In order to expect the bird to respond dependably from the cage or other established territory, the bird must first be patterned with regular and diverse step-up practice to cooperate in neutral territory. A bird that will not cooperate in neutral territory will probably usually refuse to cooperate in its own territory.
From the bird’s first days in the home, daily step up practice should include:
- Stepping the bird up from an unfamiliar stationary perch to a hand.
- Stepping the bird up from hand to hand.
- Stepping the bird onto and off of hand-held perches.
Later when the bird is expressing it’s normal quaker tendency to protect the cage or when it’s feeling feisty for any other reason, the habit of cooperation can be maintained, without fear of nipping, by handling the bird with hand held perches. Hand held perches may be occasionally necessary or necessary for some people in the bird’s established territory, as a typical quaker parrot may behave like a total brat toward most people at the cage and a little green angel away from it.
THE TOWEL GAME: A new baby quaker parrot can easily be carried around in a towel like a human baby. Continuing and maintaining this behavior in a playful way will help to ensure the bird’s disposition for a lifetime. A bird that routinely plays peek-a-boo in the towel and is unafraid of the towel will have a much easier time when it goes to the veterinarian or groomer.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Because of the quaker parrots’ instinct for territorial aggression, it’s important not to service the cage with the bird in it. Just open the door, let the bird come out to the top of the door, then step the well-practiced bird up to a hand or hand-held perch and put it on a play pen. Then food, water, toys, or perches can be safely changed, and the bird will not learn how much fun it is to chase hands and other human parts.
A well-adjusted quaker parrot is too busy to be noisy. If the bird is making lots of unpleasant sounds, it may be unhappy. Try to find out why. Much chronic noise making is a habit, like any other. First assess and improve the environment, then guide the bird to replace habitual noise-making behaviors with more-appropriate behaviors. These little green feathered dragons are never spayed or neutered for behavioral reasons, and therefore, they may be expected to demonstrate several diverse forms of sexually-related behaviors. In this group, approximately half of the birds over one year old masturbated. While a little more than half of those birds seemed to prefer the pleasure of a toy, a little less than half seemed to prefer their favorite person’s hand. One of the birds in this study was reported to pleasure itself frequently “with anything handy … while saying `peek-a-boo’ the whole time”.
THE QUAKER CONTROVERSY
In times past it was feared that escaped quaker parrots could represent a threat as potential agricultural pests. Several states reacted by banning or otherwise regulating the ownership of quaker parrots. Because so many modern quaker parrots are hand feds that could probably not survive outdoors, it would not be surprising to see a little easing of these regulations.
Actually quaker parrots might be the first birds we see with permanent ID requirements such as microchips. And, because a quaker that could not reproduce would not threaten the local environment, quaker parrots might be the first parrots spayed. While this may seem hard on the bird and not at all ideal, if spaying could help a quaker parrot remain with its long-time family, it just might be worthwhile.
Mattie Sue Athan has been a companion parrot behavior consultant since 1978. During that time she has averaged two to three new Quaker clients per week. Her first book, Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot, is an industry standard. Her second book, Guide to the Quaker Parrot, sold out the first printing in 5 months. She also wrote Guide to the Senegal Parrot and Its Family and Guide to Companion Parrot Behavior.