Does Your Parrot Talk?

On beautiful afternoons during this time of quarantine, I will see neighborhood children and parents walk past my house. They see me on my front porch with my bird, and will ask: Does your parrot talk?

Oh yes; she talks up a storm, but not when they ask her to say something! Like any good three-year old, you just have to wait for her to want to engage. Meet 34-year-old Toby, a Congo African Grey parrot. (And yes, I correctly wrote “34-year-old”).

African grey parrot on front porch

Congo African Grey parrots are some of the most intelligent avian creatures; research suggests their intellectual abilities are equivalent to a three- to six-year-old human child. Greys even show emotional intelligence. Two of the more “famous” greys are Alex, the companion and research subject for professor Irene Pepperberg, and Einstein, a grey who lives at the Knoxville zoo.

Like many parrots, greys can live a long time in captivity. Why? There are few, if any, predators lurking in their homes. They don’t have to worry about food sources. In short, they don’t live the harsh life of their wild cousins. It’s also why people often include their parrots in their wills to make sure the parrot will be taken care of for years to come. Living with a parrot from hatch to death is a major responsibility.

But back to Toby. She has owned us for more than ten years. Before she came to New Jersey, Toby lived with a family of five in Washington, DC. Toby and the Dad of the house (he named her) were constant companions. Her transition from one home to another was gradual– like a weaning–because the owner who still loves her wanted a placement where she would continue to thrive. Toby spent summers with us for a while and then landed here permanently. She knits together two families across many miles. It’s pretty amazing.

So what’s it like to live with a non-human who talks?

Clearly Toby was not merely a pet in her first home; rather a member of the family. I know that because she brought her family with her. She knew the name of all five people. She would often call for them, most especially her human dad, Richard. When the phone rang, Toby would say: Hello! And if she liked the conversation she would join in: Yeah, Uh-huh. Right. Okay. Bye!

She made great ray-gun sounds. She didn’t hesitate to call someone a brat if she wasn’t allowed to do what she wanted to do, like roam the floor. She would ask: Cookie. Cookie, please.

She grew up with two dogs, Bobby and Mr. B. When our dog walked by the cage, she would inevitably call out Mr. B! Sometimes Bob-bby. She clearly recognized our dachshund was canine. And, Toby could excite the dachshund by calling out: Wanna go for a walk?! And walk came out as if Toby were singing a scale and delivering a crescendo all at once.

Grey-meets-dog stories are infamous among parrot lovers. Greys have this ability to order dogs around. Our elderly dachshund died; we now have a corgi named Misha. Toby has no problem yelling at him when he barks. She starts with a sharp: Stop it. Then she raises her voice and yells: Quiet! And when neither of those two commands work, she goes right to that quintessential three-year-old response yelling: S-h-u-t up!

The two have a detente-like relationship. As long as he’s on the floor obeying her, Toby will toss him food. Poor boy. He’s the Odie to Toby’s Garfield personality.

Dog and parrot nose to beak.
Misha and Toby with Toby’s favorite: Chinese food

Toby sings. She knows exactly when to croon “oh!” in the song C is for Cookie. Sometime she sing-songs c-o-o-k-i-e, c-o-o-k-i-e. She loves Row, Row, Row Your Boat. She knows Here Comes Santa Claus. And sometimes she comes out with what we affectionately call a Toby-ism singing: Here comes Santa Claus gently down the stream.

Toby never fails to make us laugh.

When she first arrived here, we had trouble keeping her contained. After climbing off her tree to the floor one day, she came upon my husband’s flip-flops. My daughter, who was on the Toby hunt, called out: Dad! Get your flips flops! He put his foot down and accidentally connected with Toby. He apologized. She didn’t hesitate to respond. Dope!

My daughter roared with laughter. Dad, Toby just called you a dope!

She will ask to go to her cage. She asks to go to the kitchen. If she knows someone is noshing on her favorite snack food–potato chips–she will call from another room if necessary: Wanna chip?! When she is cover for bed she says: Good n-i-i-ght!

On warm Halloween nights Toby loves to watch the costumed ghosts and goblins come to the door. Of course we get the question: Does your parrot talk? One year, Toby remained silent until the last arrival, a toddler bedecked in a bright orange tutu bearing the eyes, nose and mouth of a pumpkin. Toby caught the little girl and her parents off guard and yelled: Trick or Treat!

At Christmas time she says B-a-a-a-h! As in “Bah! Humbug!” Don’t ask me how she knows the seasons and thus can utter the appropriate phrases. It’s quite amazing to me too.

Unlike Einstein who performs at the Knoxville Zoo, Toby has essentially learned to speak; she hasn’t been trained to talk. She was more like the child in a house who was talked to and allowed to pick up the language she needed and found interesting. And her signature phrase when she’s feeling generous with her words is: Birds Don’t Talk! Can You Fly?

If avian intelligence fascinates you, there are research projects to look at. Erich Jarvis (@ErichJarvis) has mapped out the avian brain and studies avian vocal mechanisms in an effort to understand the evolution of human vocalization. Nathan Emery writes about cognitive ornithology. There are people looking at whether an African grey named Nkisi can engage in telepathy (No lie!). There is research on tool use by parrots.

Toby is omnipresent in my life. One of my yoga teachers consistently closes our practices with the words: It’s not that we are all the same; we are all one. I think about that phrase while living with Toby because their are pieces of her avian being that are also pieces of human beings. Her presence constantly reinforces for me that there is a universal connection among all creatures that really deserves our attention and appreciation. Something to think about.

Parrot being carried inside a shirt.
Toby riding in the sweatshirt of the author’s daughter

And P.S. Toby says see her here: @tobythegrey

One thought on “Does Your Parrot Talk?

  1. Wonderful story. I am the Richard referred to by Sue. Toby is currently having a portrait done by a famous American artist. Toby recently came to Washington for the “sitting” and just picked up her usual life here at her home in Washington as if things hadn’t changed at all…a kind of Zen experience for Toby and all the rest of us. Toby spends most of her time with Sue and her family but we look forward to her occasional visits. Even a day or two serves as a kind of time transcendence for all of us since even though we are now older Toby hasn’t aged at all.


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