Why Can Parrots Talk?

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

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.  

100 Dachshunds Competed in Cincinnati’s Annual ‘Running of the Wieners’

NORRIE3699/iStock via Getty Images
NORRIE3699/iStock via Getty Images

Every year, to kick off Cincinnati’s Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, 100 dachshunds compete in heats to decide who the fastest dachshund in the Midwest is. This year marks the 43rd annual Oktoberfest—one of the biggest Oktoberfest celebrations outside of Germany (more than 500,000 people attend the three-day event).

On the afternoon of Thursday, September 19, 100 wiener dogs (and their owners and handlers) gathered in downtown Cincinnati for the 2019 "Running of the Wieners." The dogs, dressed in hot dog costumes, ran 10 heats, which lasted 75 feet or five seconds each. The winner of each heat advanced to the final round, where the top three finishers were decided.

Maple, a long-haired, one-year-old dachshund, ran his way into first place—and into our hearts.

Maple’s owner, Jake Sander, told WCPO that Maple is one of five dachshunds in the family, and that he learned to run fast by chasing his brother around. Leo and Bucky, two other doxies, placed second and third, respectively.

Besides the Running of the Wieners, Zinzinnati also hosts the World’s Largest Chicken Dance. However, the wiener dogs are more fun to watch.

Photographer Captures Polka-Dotted Zebra Foal in Kenya

Frank Liu
Frank Liu

Zebras are known for their eye-catching patterns, but this polka-dotted foal recently photographed in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve really stands out from the herd. As National Geographic reports, the zebra baby likely has pseudomelanism, a rare pigment condition that's been observed in the wild just a handful of times.

Nature photographer Frank Liu saw the zebra foal while looking for rhinos in the savannah wilderness preserve. After initially confusing the specimen for a different type of animal, he realized upon closer inspection that it was actually a plains zebra born with spots instead of stripes. The newborn foal was named Tira after the Maasai guide Antony Tira who first pointed him out.

Zebra foal with spots walking with mother.
Frank Liu

Zebra foal with spots.
Frank Liu

A typical zebra pattern is the result of pigment cells called melanocytes, which are responsible for the black base coat, and melanin, which gives the animal its white stripes. (So if you've ever wondered if zebras are white with black stripes or black with white stripes, the answer is the latter). In Tira and other zebras with pseudomelanism, the melanocytes are fully expressed, but a genetic mutation causes the melanin to appear as dots rather than unbroken stripes.


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Though rare, this isn't the only time a zebra with pseudomelanism has been documented in nature. Pseudomelanistic zebras have also been spotted in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, but Liu believes this could be the first time one was found in the Masai Mara preserve.

Zebra stripes aren't just for decoration. The distinct pattern may act as camouflage, bug repellant, and a built-in temperature regulation system. Without these evolutionary benefits, Tira has a lower chance of making it to adulthood: Pseudomelanistic zebra adults are rarely observed for this reason. But as Liu's photographs show, the foal has the protection and acceptance of his herd on his side.

[h/t National Geographic]

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