While reading a cute (but poorly-written) human interest piece on an African Grey named Valentine, something caught my eye. The author touched upon a particular behavior that Valentine was exhibiting: babbling.
Valentine is the color of an overcast day. His tail is scarlet. He recently started mumbling, whispering to himself, which means he’ll be saying words and sentences soon.
People of all ages, from elderly women with permed hair to teens with attitudes and ripped clothes – all say the same thing: “Well, helllloooo. Aren’t you a pretty bird? Helllloooo. Hello. Say ‘hello.’ ”
Valentine turns his charcoal back and whispers. You can’t hear what he’s saying.
I’ve never seen anything specifically in the literature about this phenomenon, but it struck a chord with me as it is exactly the same behavior that Pepper exhibited when he was first learning to talk . Every day, I would talk to him as if he was a person, from the moment I brought him home as a little chick. He was completely silent for about 10 months. Then, all of a sudden he started mimicking the things I was saying, but his pronunciations and word-order was all garbled and indistinct. It sounded terrible! I thought I had gotten saddled with one weird bird. This babbling often occurred when he thought no one was around, or when the cover was over his cage. It was also very quiet. But, slowly, his pronunciation got better and better as he got continuous feedback from me. At about one year old, Pepper said his first word(s) crystal-clear: “Sup fool.” Not sure why he latched on to that particular word combo, but he’s liked it ever since.
During this whole process, I was going through grad school interviews for Neuroscience PhD programs. While in the interviews, sometimes people would ask me about Pepper (bird lovers, etc). We would get to talking about him, and how I had crude theory that he was going through some of the classical stages of language development and how I believed that receiving feedback, and practice, was crucial to Pepper being able to reproduce words and phrases. And anecdotally speaking, the more complicated the phrase or song, the longer it sits in rehearsal and practice before being “crystallized.”