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Do parrots understand when they say "I love you"?

BY Jo Coudert

12th Aug 2023 Life

Do parrots understand when they say "I love you"?
When a pet parrot learns to speak, it gives its lonely owner far more than companionship—but how much does it understand its own words?
"I'm going mad here all by myself," Pat Myers confessed to her daughter, Annie. Pat had been virtually housebound for a year while she was being treated for an inflamed artery in her temple that affected her vision and stamina.
A widow with two married children, she'd been happily running a chain of boutiques. But now that she had to give up her business, her home began to feel oppressively silent and empty. Finally she admitted to Annie how lonely she was.
"Do you think I should advertise for a companion?"
"That's such a gamble," Annie. said. "How about a pet?"
"I haven't the strength to walk a dog," Pat said, "I'm allergic to cats, and fish don't have a great deal to say."
"Birds do," said her daughter. "Why not get a parrot?" And so it began.

Language learning

Credit: Tambako The Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0, via Flickr. Casey started picking up words from Pat straight away
Pat and Annie visited a breeder of African Greys and were shown two little featherless creatures huddled together for warmth.
Pat was doubtful, but Annie persuaded her to put a deposit down on the bird with the bright eyes. When he was three months old and feathered out, he was delivered to his new owner, who called him Casey.
A few weeks later Pat told Annie, "I didn't realise I talked so much. Casey's picking up all sorts of words."
"I told you." Her daughter smiled at the sound of pleasure in Pat's voice.
"The first sentence Casey learned was 'Where are my glasses?' followed by 'Where's my bag?'"
The first sentence Casey learned was "Where are my glasses?" followed by "Where's my bag?" Whenever Pat began scanning table-tops and opening drawers, Casey chanted, "Where are my glasses? Where's my bag?"
When she returned from an errand, he'd greet her with, "Holy smoke, it's cold out there," in a perfect imitation of her voice.
Casey didn't like being caged, so Pat often let him roam around the house. "What fun it is to have him," she told Annie. "It makes the whole place feel better."
"I think you're beginning to feel better too," said Annie.
"Well, he gives me four or five laughs a day—they say laughter's good for you."

Mischief maker

Once a plumber came to repair a leak under the kitchen sink. In the study, Casey cracked seeds in his cage and eyed the plumber through the open door. Suddenly the parrot broke the silence, reciting, "One potato, two potato, three potato, four…"
"What?" asked the plumber.
"Don't poo on the carpet," Casey ordered, in Pat's voice.
The plumber pushed himself out from under the sink and marched to the living-room. "If you're going to play games, lady, you can just get yourself another plumber." Pat looked at him blankly. The plumber hesitated. "That was you, wasn't it?"
Pat smiled. "What was me?"
"One potato, two potatoand don't poo on the carpet."
"Oh, dear," said Pat. "Let me introduce you to Casey."
Casey saw them coming. "What's going on round here?" he said.
At that moment Pat sneezed. Casey immediately mimicked the sneeze, added a couple of Pat's coughs at her allergic worst and finished with Pat's version of "Wow!"
The plumber shook his head slowly and crawled back under the sink.
One morning while Pat was reading the paper, the phone rang. She picked it up and got a dialling tone. The next morning it rang again, and again she got a dialling tone. The third morning she realised what was going on: Casey had learned to mimic the phone faultlessly.

Foul language

Casey started picking up a few bad habits off Pat, which got her into trouble
Once, as Pat opened a can of fizzy drink at the kitchen table, Casey waddled over and snatched at the can. It toppled, sending a cascade of cola on to her lap and the floor.
"*#@!" Pat said. Casey eyed her. "Forget you heard that," she ordered. "I didn't say it. I never say that. And I wouldn't have now if I hadn't just cleaned the floor." Casey kept his beak shut.
Later an estate agent arrived to go over some business. She and Pat were deep in discussion when Casey screamed from the study, "*#@!"
Both women acted as though they'd heard nothing.
Liking the sound of the word, Casey tried it again. "*#@!" he said. And again. "*#@! *#@! *#@!"
Caught between humiliation and amusement, Pat put her hand on her guest's arm. "Helen, it's sweet of you to pretend, but I know you haven't suddenly gone deaf."
"Oh, you bad bird," Pat scolded Casey after the estate agent left. "She's going to think I go round all day saying four-letter words."
"Give me a choice between a perfect, lonely house and a messy, happy one and I'll take the messy one any day"
"What a mess," Casey said.
"You're absolutely right," Pat told him.
Casey's favourite perch in the kitchen was the tap in the sink; his favourite occupation, trying to remove the washer from the end of it.
Once, to tease him, Pat sprinkled a handful of water over him. Casey ceased his attack on the washer and swivelled his head to look at her sharply. "What's the matter with you?" he demanded.
If he left the kitchen and Pat heard him say "Oh, you bad bird!" she knew to come running. Casey was either pecking at her dining-room chairs or the wallpaper in the hall.
"Is it worth it?" her son, Bill, asked, looking at the damage in the hall.
"Give me a choice between a perfect, lonely house and a messy, happy one," said Pat, "and I'll take the messy one any day."
But Pat did decide to have Casey's sharp claws clipped. To trim them without getting bitten, the vet wrapped Casey tightly in a towel, turned him on his back and handed him to an assistant to hold while he went to work. A helpless Casey looked at Pat and said piteously, "Oh, poor baby."

The meaning of words

Pat often wondered if Casey knew what he was saying. Sometimes the statements were so appropriate she couldn't be sure. Like the time a guest had lingered on and on talking in the doorway and Casey finally called out impatiently, "Night, night."
Yet, whenever Pat wanted to teach him something, Casey could be maddening. Once she carried him to the living-room and settled in an armchair as Casey sidled up her arm and nestled his head against her chest. Pat dusted the tips of her fingers over his velvety grey feathers and scarlet tail.
"I love you," she said. "Can you say, 'I love you, Pat Myers?'"
Casey cocked an eye at her. "I live at Mallard View," he said.
"I know where you live, funny bird. Tell me you love me."
"Funny bird."
"Pat often wondered if Casey knew what he was saying. Sometimes the statements were so appropriate she couldn't be sure"
Another time Pat was trying to teach Casey "Jingle Bells" before her children and grandchildren arrived for Christmas dinner. "It'll be your contribution," she told him.
"Where are my glasses?"
"Never mind that. Just listen to me sing."
But as Pat sang "Jingle bells, jingle bells," and danced around the kitchen, Casey simply looked at her. Finally Pat gave up. And all through Christmas dinner Casey was silent.
When it was time for pudding, Pat extinguished the lights and put a match to the brandy. As it blazed up, with impeccable timing Casey burst into "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!"

Can you teach a parrot to love?

Casey learnt to show his affection to Pat after some time apart
Pat's health improved so much she decided to go on a three-week holiday. "You'll be all right," she told Casey. "You can stay with Annie and the children."
The day her mother was due back, Annie returned Casey to his home so he'd be there when Pat got back from the airport.
"Hi, Casey!" Pat called as she unlocked the door. There was no answer. "Holy smoke, it's cold out there!" she said. More silence. Pat dropped her coat and hurried into the study. Casey glared at her.
"Aren't you glad to see me?" The bird moved to the far side of his cage. "Come on, don't be angry," Pat said.
She opened the door of the cage and held out her hand. Casey dropped to the bottom of the cage and huddled there.
In the morning Pat tried again. Casey refused to speak. Later that day he consented to climb on to her wrist and be carried to the living-room. When she sat down, he shifted uneasily and seemed about to fly away.
"Please, Casey," Pat pleaded, "I know I was away a long time, but you've got to forgive me."
Casey took a few tentative steps up her arm, then moved back to her knee. "Were you afraid I was never going to come back?" she said softly. "I would never do that."
Casey cocked his head and slowly moved up her arm. Pat crooked her elbow, and Casey nestled against her. Pat stroked his head, smoothing his feathers with her forefinger. Finally Casey spoke.
"I love you, Pat Myers," he said.
This article is part of our archival collection and was originally published in [December 1994]. While we strive to present historical content accurately, please note that circumstances and information may have changed since the article's original publication. Some individuals mentioned in the article may no longer be alive, and events or details may have evolved. We encourage readers to consider the context of the original publication and to verify any current information independently
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