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Fact/Fiction: Can parrots really teach each other to swear?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week we looking into reports that birds at a Lincolnshire wildlife park were doing more than squawking in front of visitors

How it was told

It will come as no surprise to find that the internet was in a flap about a story about swearing parrots that hit the headlines last week.

But these feathered friends – African grey parrots Billy, Eric, Tyson, Jade and Elsie – weren’t flipping the bird, they had to be separated to stop them from encouraging the 200 other parrots at the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park to squawk profanities at the customers.

Naturally, the story soon grew wings and spread around UK news outlets, with some subtly different takes.

The Sun’s headline read: “BEAKING BAD: Five foul-mouthed parrots have to be separated at Lincolnshire zoo after teaching each other how to swear”, while Metro also emphasised the teaching aspect with: “Parrots had to be removed from zoo after teaching each other to swear”.

The Mirror also covered the story, opting for: “Parrots removed from UK wildlife park after they started swearing at customers” and The Guardian’s version of the story ran under a headline that made the birds sound like helpful tour guides: “Swearing parrots separated after telling folk where to go”.

The BBC also got in on the act with: “Lincolnshire Wildlife Park: Swearing parrots removed from view” and the hilarious news also reached the US, with CNN reporting: “Parrots in wildlife park moved after swearing at visitors”.

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The story also sparked debate on a host of television programmes and radio shows.

But is it true that the parrots taught each other to swear?

Facts. Checked

Without wanting to get too pedantic – this, after all, is a light-hearted tale – calling it teaching, as The Sun and Metro did, goes a little too far.

The bad birds were definitely split up after joining Lincolnshire Wildlife Park in August, with CEO Steve Nichols confirming that they had been separated to avoid “setting each other off”. Although Nichols did joke that he had not received a single complaint.

But this is a good excuse to dive into the fascinating world of parrot communication.

If we are to take the definition of teaching as “imparting knowledge” then the parrots aren’t quite hitting the spot.

Parrots are the best that nature has to offer when it comes to human mimicry but as for understanding what noise they are making they do not have a clue. So, in this case, it’s clear that the birds must have had a potty-mouthed previous owner or picked up a few choice words from their keepers, more than likely the former.

Parrots are able to pick up sounds because they have a ‘song system’ in their brain, with two layers as opposed to the one that hummingbirds and songbirds possess. The inner core is common to all three, with an outer shell reserved just for parrots, according to a 2016 study by Duke University neuroscientist Erich Jarvis in the journal Plos One.

But the reason they are attracted to human speech appears to be come back to parrots being particularly social creatures. This is backed up by a 2016 study published in the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin which found that pet owners with higher interest in bird communication had parrots that produced more words. So parrots are eager to please.

But the million-pound question is whether they know what they are saying?

The answer is no, according to Timothy Wright, who studies parrot vocalisation at New Mexico State University. He says that parrots are aware of context and associations, as we see in this story where birds at the park would get a reaction when they said swear words. In fact, Wright suggested that this is why parrots are particularly proficient at picking up profanity. He said: “They are very attuned to the context in which we use [words], and so I think that often fools people a little bit.”

This story raised a laugh so it’s splitting hairs – or more appropriately feathers – to criticise, but the next time a parrot swears at you at least you know not to take it personally.

Illustration: Miles Cole

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