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.  

10 Terrifyingly Huge Birds You Should Know

AndreaWillmore/iStock via Getty Images
AndreaWillmore/iStock via Getty Images

They’re gigantic, they’re often defensive, and you wouldn’t want to run into them in a zoo after hours. Meet a few of the world’s biggest birds with attitude, from flightless giants to modern-day pterodactyls.

1. Ostrich

Everyone knows that the ostrich is the world’s biggest bird, weighing an average of 230 pounds and standing 7 feet tall (and some individuals can grow up to 9 feet). They can also chase you down: Ostriches are the fastest species on two legs, with a top speed of about 43 mph. They can maintain a swift 30 mph pace for 10 miles, making them the marathon champs of the avian world.

2. Southern Cassowary

Often called the most dangerous bird on Earth, in addition to being one of the planet’s biggest birds, the southern cassowary is roughly 150 pounds of mean. On each foot is a 5-inch claw that cassowaries use to defend themselves. At least two people have been kicked to death by cassowaries, the most recent being a Florida man who unwisely kept one of the birds as a pet.

3. Emu

Emu with eggs
JohnCarnemolla/iStock via Getty Images

Like a smaller, shaggier ostrich, the 5- to 6-foot emu is the second-largest bird on Earth (as well as a goofy spokesbird for insurance). During the breeding season, female emus fight enthusiastically over unattached males. But the results of this mating ritual are impressive: clutches of forest-green, oval eggs that resemble giant avocados.

4. Greater Rhea

This flightless bird is named for the Titan goddess Rhea, who gave birth to all of the Olympian gods and goddesses in Greek mythology. At up to 5 feet tall and 66 pounds, the greater rhea may not seem like as much of a terror as the ostrich. But it gathers in massive flocks of up to 100 birds during the non-breeding season, so watch out if you happen to be in its South American habitat.

5. Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian pelicans
musicinside/iStock via Getty Images

How scary can a pelican be, you ask? When it stands almost 6 feet tall, weighs 33 pounds, and has a wingspan of 9 feet—all traits of the Dalmatian pelican—it's pretty petrifying. These scruffy-feathered monsters, native to Europe and Asia, breed in colonies of up to 250 pairs and can gulp impressive mouthfuls of fish in one go.

6. Mute Swan

One of the heaviest flying birds, mute swans look harmless as they glide over ponds, lakes, and rivers. But mute swans are far from silent when defending their families and territory. Male swans warn interlopers that they’re getting too close with a hiss, then can launch a straight-up assault, bashing the intruder with their wings. They’ll even attack kayakers, canoeists, and people just minding their own business.

7. Andean Condor

Andean condor
Donyanedomam/iStock via Getty Images

This freakishly big vulture isn’t satisfied with just any carrion—it prefers large carcasses like cattle and deer for dinner. Maintaining its average weight of 25 pounds requires a lot of calories, after all. Its wingspan is slightly less than its northern cousin, the California condor, but it still reaches a dramatic 9 to 10 feet.

8. Cinereous Vulture

Another big bird with a 10-foot wingspan, this Old World vulture has excellent vision to spot carrion while it flies, and a featherless head that resists the accumulation of gore when it feeds. Though it’s intimidating to look at, the cinereous vulture plays an important role in its ecosystem by cleaning up roadkill and other dead animals.

9. Marabou Stork

Marabou stork
Sander Meertins/iStock via Getty Images

As if its red-tinged wattle, black back, and dagger-esque bill weren’t alarming enough, the marabou stork is sometimes called the “undertaker bird” thanks to its Dracula-like appearance. It also eats other birds. The largest verified wingspan on a marabou stork measured 10.5 feet, though unverified reports cited a specimen with 13.3-foot span.

10. Shoebill

Shoebill storks may not be the tallest, heaviest, or widest-winged birds, but just look at that death stare. On top of having a nutcracker for a face, the 5-foot-tall shoebill leads a fearsome lifestyle. It stands absolutely still for hours to hunt prey, watching for lungfish or baby crocodiles, then spreads its wings and collapses over it while trapping the target in its bill.

Scientists Capture Video of Deepstaria, a Rarely Seen, Shapeshifting Jellyfish

OET/NautilusLive
OET/NautilusLive

Millions of years of evolution taking place beneath the sea's surface have produced some bizarre animals. Jellyfish are among the oldest—and strangest—of the bunch. Some have "transient" anuses that only form when necessary, and others can renew their life cycles indefinitely. Little is known about Deepstaria, a jellyfish recently spotted by the crew of the Nautilus research vessel in the central Pacific Ocean, but as the video below shows, it's no less unusual than other species of jellyfish.

As Live Science reports, scientists aboard the Nautilus were scanning the seafloor about halfway between the U.S. and Australia when they spotted a spooky-looking creature hovering in front of them. It soon became clear that cosplaying a ghost wasn't all it could do. The jelly unfurled its sheet-like bell to reveal a geometric mesh membrane used to distribute nutrients throughout its body—a telltale sign of Deepstaria. It spends the rest of the video putting on a show for its guests, transforming from something resembling a crumpled plastic bag to a billowing blanket shape.

Deepstaria enigmatica was discovered by the Jacques Cousteau-designed Deepstar 4000 submersible—the vessel the species is named after—in the 1960s. It's only been spotted about a dozen times in the years since, and many details of how it lives remain a mystery to researchers.

Deepstaria's most distinctive feature is its massive, flowing bell. It lacks the tentacles most jellyfish use to wrangle prey, and scientists suspect it instead uses its bell as a net when hunting. The specimen captured in this video appears to be harboring a stowaway: a bright-red, living isopod suspended inside the bell. It isn't clear if the creature hitched a ride on purpose to evade more ferocious predators, if it's some type of parasite, or if it's the jellyfish's lunch.

With so many undiscovered and understudied species living in the sea, the Nautilus research vessel is frequently stumbling upon extraordinary examples of ocean life. In 2016 alone, it recorded footage of a googly-eyed stubby squid and a mysterious purple orb.

[h/t Live Science]

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