Did you know that birds are the only animals other than humans who can produce human language? Some species (SPEE-shees) or kinds of birds can copy sounds they hear in their environment, and even imitate a few words. Crows, mynah birds, ravens, and hummingbirds can all copy some of the sounds they hear. But the birds that are best at imitating human speech are parrots. They can learn to say hundreds of words, and they understand what some of the words mean. One amazing African Grey parrot named Einstein, who lives at the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee, can say about 200 words.
About half of the bird species sing. They learn these songs from other birds. They can do this because of a part of their brain called the "song system." Inside this song system is a part called the “inner core.” The inner core is essential (ee-SENT-chall) or really important to helping these birds learn how to make sounds. Parrots also have an extra part of the song system called an “outer shell.” Scientists think the outer shell helps parrots be really good at copying sounds. But they're not sure exactly how it works.
Parrots are social animals, which means they want to fit in with the rest of their friends. In the wild, parrots usually make bird sounds because they are surrounded by other birds. But around humans, parrots often imitate human words because they see their owners as part of their new family, or “flock.” They copy human sounds to fit in with their human flock. But parrots are also really smart. African Grey parrots like Einstein are as smart as a 5-year-old human! With training, some parrots can learn the meanings of words, the names of their favorite foods, and even count up to eight.
To see and hear Einstein talk to her trainer and sing "Happy Birthday," watch this TED talk.