In one of his early books, Samuel R. Delany uses the phrase “as expressionless as a macaw.” Delany is a talented writer and critic, but, I’ve never quite trusted him after reading that unobservant phrase. Having lived for years with nanday conures, a kind of small South American parrot, I can tell you that the last thing any sort of parrot can be described as is expressionless.
Here’s a list (in no particular order) of the most common noises I’ve heard from the nandays who are slowly chewing our living room to pieces:
- Drinking: A trill that sounds like falling water, and shows deep appreciation.
- Thank you: A single chirp ending on an upbeat, used when a bird has just been given something.
- Greeting: A noise similar to a thank-you, but longer and more drawn out. Used when seeing another friendly bird or human, and when stepping up on a human’s hand or arm.
- Mutual preening: A sound halfway been been a chirp and a trill.
- Mild annoyance: A chirp mixed with a trill.
- Extreme annoyance: An outraged squawk, higher-pitched than usual. Unfortunately, it says a lot about the state of human-parrot relations that this is the sound that many people most often associate with parrots of any species.
- About to regurgitate (a sign of affection): A husky cough made in the throat.
- Content: A cooing noise, usually accompanied by fluffed feathers and a bonelessly limp attitude.
- Content and sheltered: A purr that sounds like a cat, or maybe a noisy refrigerator.
- Pleased excitement: A chuckling noise. Often, I’m afraid, a sign that a bird is doing something that we humans would object to, like chewing the wooden furniture.
- Looking for flock: A moderate scream consisting of one or two notes endless repeated until answered. Even birds that don’t like each other will make this noise if they don’t see each other.
- Alarm: A steady scream that continues until either the danger is gone or all birds are convinced that no danger exists.
- Curious: A single chirp, rising at the end, almost like a question mark.
- Curious and Fearful: Like the curious chirp except shorter and abruptly cut off.
- Bathing: A loud noise halfway between a coo and squawk, made not only by the bird that’s bathing, but all the birds in the flock.
- Sex: A noise that sounds like a rusty water pump being cranked, getting gradually faster. Interestingly, mated pairs often twist so that they can look directly at each other during sex, a behavior that some people have claimed is unique to humans.
- Brief Outrage: A sound halfway between a squawk and a cough. May be followed by an attempt to bite, depending on the bird. For others, making the sound is enough.
- Prolonged Outrage: An extremely energetic, high-pitched scream with few pauses. All Nandays have a strong sense of self and entitlement, so this sound can be triggered by putting them in their cages or giving one bird something and forgetting to give the equivalent to another.
- Fear and alarm: A high-pitched, full-volume scream that goes on and on with pauses for breaths. Most often used when a strange bird or human comes within a few meters. Often accompanied by much puffing up and stalking up and down, especially by the cocks.
- Eating: An excited single chirp, often repeated.
- Panting: A noise made only when they are too hot. A sign that they need to be moved from where they are, and given water or even a bowl to bathe in so that they can cool off.
This list is nowhere near complete. For instance, I have left out a kissing noise which several of our birds make because it is a sign of affection that they’ve learned from humans. Nor am I entirely sure about whether some of these sounds are unique to the birds that I’ve known.
Also, most birds, I’ve observed, have one or two vocalizations unique to them. For example, our parrot Jabberwock, who spent some time in the wild, must have sheltered among pigeons, since he would make the same sound as pigeons make whenever he took to the air. Similarly, Ning, our eldest male has a combination trill and chuckle that he only makes when he is playfully stalking bare toes in a series of small leaps and bounds. And Beaudin, our newest bird, makes cockatiel sounds because he once hung out with one.
But, for all these limitations, these examples are enough to show the range of vocalizations that birds can make. And I haven’t even gone fully into the body language and behaviors that extend this range of communications.
No wonder, though, that the larger parrots are some of the best talkers outside of humanity. Many are social species, and they’re used to vocallizing at length and in great detail.
“As expressionless as a macaw.” Sure, Delany. What were you thinking?