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The good news is that you just bought a parrot and are looking forward to hours of happy chatter. The bad news is that it’s now 6 months later and your feather friend (1) has yet to utter a single peep, or (2) uses language that would make a sailor blush. It’s a disappointment—or embarrassment— to many new owners, yet one that could be avoided with recognition of a simple fact: It’s not the bird’s fault.

NEW BIRD V. PRE-OWNED
“What you hear is what you get” should be the watchword of bird purchases, especially if your heart is really set on one of the talking varieties such as budgies, cockatiels, or macaws. Suffice it to say, though, do you and your family really have the time and the patience to train a young bird from scratch to recite companionable phrases just to entertain you? Likewise, are you prepared for the possibility that, in spite of all the coaxing and fond attention, your little friend just may not have the wits or inclination to speak up?

The flip side, obviously, is to consider adopting an older bird that has already demonstrated that it’s capable of communication. “Previously owned” birds, however, come with their own set of challenges. While relocation, health, and financial considerations have forced many a pet owner’s decision to sell, just as many animals—birds included—end up in the classifieds or pet shops because of problem behavior. If your bird of choice is certifiably a talker, you might want to inquire if profanity is part of its “colorful” vocabulary before you take it home and host a luncheon for your minister.

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE SAYING
Just because Baretta’s comical cockatiel, Fred, could answer a telephone didn’t mean he could also answer questions and take a message. Although some species of birds are capable of mastering a large vocabulary, you mustn’t confuse mimicry with actual conversation; they are simply repeating (or “parroting”) what they’ve learned by rote without attaching any intellectual value to it. You can certainly, of course, invest the time in getting your pet to associate specific sounds or phrases with other actions (i.e., feeding, playing, etc.) but, again, any higher expectation would be akin to buying a Ferbie in the hope it will one day start spouting original opinions.

CONTINUITY IS THE KEY
It is important to always use the same words or phrases when trying to teach a bird to speak. To use the analogy of puppy-training, the words, “Don’t jump” and “Stay down” may mean exactly the same thing to us, but the ears for whom the message is intended will hear two completely different things and, accordingly, take twice as long to discern what’s being asked. It’s also a wise idea not to incorporate whistling in the early stages of your bird’s education. Oftentimes the bird will discover on its own that whistling is much easier to do than repeat silly words all day and will abandon the latter altogether. Whatever you attempt to teach your little friend, of course, should be something you won’t mind listening to over and over and over and—well, you get the picture.

TWO OF A KIND
If your bird is going to spend a lot of its waking hours home alone, there may be a temptation to buy it a cage-mate. While it may indeed appreciate one of its own kind with whom to pass the lonely hours, you could unwittingly sabotage your previous and current efforts to teach it to talk. “Why should I learn to speak a foreign language,” the bird may rationalize, “when I can yak away in my native tongue to this new kid?” Better that your bird have already mastered the rudiments of repetition before you introduce a companion who might literally be a bird-brain and bad influence.

Some owners have resolved the loneliness issue by leaving a radio or television playing near the cage. You can, thus, imagine their startlement when Perry the Parrot lethally declares one evening, “We have to kill Stefano” or breaks into a stream of raunchy rapper lyrics. As a responsible pet parent, you need to closely monitor your child’s listening habits, especially if he or she possesses the power to repeat everything back to you. (Dogs, cats, hamsters, and fish, of course, can continue to listen to whatever makes them happy.)

In the event your winged pal has picked up some unsavory dialogue, the best thing you can do is simply ignore it and continue to reinforce the more positive aspects of its vocal contributions to the household. Just like human children who pick up a swear word at school and then test it out at home, the intent is to get attention; if the behavior isn’t acknowledged, it will eventually cease.

FINAL NOTE
Maybe your bird will never utter a single intelligible syllable in its entire life. That doesn’t mean it should be punished, yelled at, or regarded as hopelessly stupid. In making the decision to bring a living creature into your life that will give you unconditional love, you owe it the same in return. Whether or not it rewards you with song, interminable chatter, or simply silence, it is nonetheless a pet deserving of all the affection and care you can give. If you can put the talent for talking in the category of “an added extra,” you will never be disappointed in your choice.