Recording Speech by Birds

Reasons for Recording

daltonThere are several reasons to record a bird’s speech. Beyond photographs, an owner can identify his parrot by the bird’s peculiar vocal inflection or by unusual words spoken by the bird. Humans are not good at discriminating avian speech, so a recording permits review of the bird’s statements 1.  Skeptical friends, who might otherwise disbelieve that a shy bird speaks as its owner claims, enjoy a program featuring a talking bird, as is evident from the number of people listening to parrot antics on the Internet.

Solving Speech Problems

My listening to bird speech was originally done through glass doors. In the past many words were either inaudible or un-decodable due to the intervening glass. Under such conditions, it is very hard to hear and properly interpret a person’s speech and even harder to decode novel statements made by a bird.

My macaw, Arielle, speaks in five different softly-spoken voices, so determining what she says is more difficult than with a bird that speaks loudly. Many people find it is hard to comprehend when she says something using a low-frequency voice that I term “purr speech.” Sometimes while listening to multiword phrases, the message will be lost if it is not immediately understood. It is challenging to listen and simultaneously transcribe words as fast as possible, especially when one is behind in writing the bird’s words. Often by the time I figured out and noted a specific syllable or word Arielle spoke rapidly, I forgot what she said previously or missed the following statements. One can become fatigued because a talking bird like Arielle can talk continuously for 12 to 20 minutes, and transcribing the rapid speech sessions are physically and mentally demanding. It is safe to say that that I might have originally resolved many additional phrases if I had recorded her speech.

I began tape recording Arielle’s vocalizing sessions nine years ago. I presently record her daily as she speaks while perched upon her play gym. The following picture shows one of two microphones located close to her outside; the amplified sound derived from the recorder much improves my ability to hear vocalizations. Using headphones for monitoring makes it easier to concentrate on her words, as the earphones help minimize household distractions. The sound considerably cleared with the effect of the glass barrier removed. I was surprised to hear phrases spoken four times faster than normal, and “new” utterances could be heard, which previously were almost inaudible or simply could not be decoded.

daltonporchRecordings capture events for which there might never again be an occasion for the bird to utter that phase. Some thoughtful statements made by talking birds are similar to those made by a child at play. Words reveal the bird’s understanding of our language and also can reveal the workings of an animal’s mind.2

A listener initially hears unfamiliar bird speech as indistinct. After reviewing a recording, one frequently finds that the words in the animal’s repertoire are more clearly comprehended. Often context provides clues to identify the meaning of unusual words, and repeated listening promotes understanding for distorted words.

Many times target words can be determined either from environmental clues or from other phrases in the sentence. One must develop listening skills and become sensitive to the bird’s talking patterns. It takes practice and experience to interpret the dialect used by your parrot, since birds do not replicate speech perfectly. Like children, parrots clip syllables, speak fast, and generally distort their facsimile of human speech. If you have a talented bird and if you are lucky, you might find yourself listening to statements expressing ideas that your bird contemplates.

During the first two months of recording, Arielle generated about two-and-a-half hours of articulations to analyze. Arielle spoke 426 variations of phrases and words as established by counting the occurrences3.  There were numerous repetitions of common parlance. Her current rate of production, which is variable, has increased to as high as 80 minutes of speech recorded over a period as short as two days. Her yearly total vocal output is more than 120,000 utterances.

Before recording her speech, there was no second opportunity to comprehend Arielle’s expressions. While listening through the glass door, I either made a transcription or lost the content forever, and, of course, there was originally no way to correct for slight variations, which might have been heard incorrectly. Anyone who has tried to transcribe continuous speech knows how difficult it is to jot down words; that is why court transcribers use special tools. I cannot write as fast as Arielle can speak; if she starts speaking rapidly, it is certain that I will miss parts of her monologue. By playing back a session, it is possible to fill in the words missed during simultaneous real-time listening and transcription. Occasionally, her speech contains startling revelations.

Recording Your Bird’s Speech

My audio experience can help readers to side-step many common difficulties in recording parrot speech. The use of digital recording devices is now common. As a general rule, buy good-quality, basic, equipment; exotic gear is unnecessary.

There are different types of equipment including compact, hand-held, units as well as recorders for home use, which include your computer. With hand held devices the operator has to be concerned with handling noises and how to position the device near where the parrot perches. Some small units have restricted fidelity, limited recording time, and include an inexpensive built-in microphone. Such a system is better than nothing and might be adequate for some bird keepers. (There are inexpensive non-digital recorders; for example, one can purchase a new or used compact cassette recorder inexpensively.)

Hand-held machines with attached microphones have to be placed close to the bird’s cage or the perch from which the bird speaks. The operator must intrude upon the bird’s space to activate the machine. Portable machines tend to record vibrations picked up by through the adjacent environment that mask the desired sounds, especially if the bird speaks softly. A very loud parrot can overload the recorder unless it has a built-in recording limiter and care is taken to position the machine a distance from a bird that yells.

A separate directional microphone yields improved results with recorders, especially portables that have a jack for an external microphone. A general-purpose cardioid microphone (one with a heart shaped sensing pattern) will diminish undesirable sounds from positions behind or to the side of the microphone. The user should experiment with the microphone position to optimize results.

Personal computers can record speech, and I recommend using a good microphone, such as the one described above, positioned near the bird to capture the sound. When set up with an accessory microphone, the computer can be positioned away from the subject. Some recording software for computers have volume-level limiting devices and sound-level equalizers that, when judiciously used, can help you make excellent recordings. Individuals who record on their computer can transfer their recordings to compact disc for storage.

Beyond a computer, there are many modestly priced recording devices that are suitable for capturing the sound of your parrot. A separate compact disc (CD) recorder does not tie up one’s computer or computer memory for a library of relatively large sound files. I contemplated having difficulty manipulating a computer or the tiny buttons on a hand-sized recorder in a darkened room, so I purchased a home hi-fi compact disc recorder. This approach works well for me. The compact disc media are inexpensive and when “finalized” a CD cannot be accidentally re-recorded.

To employ a minimum amount of recording gear, especially when units must be moved to different locations, many recordists monitor sounds using headphones that plug into the recorder. Therefore, regardless of the type of unit you select, make sure the instrument features a headphone jack with an accompanying adjustable volume control. Concomitantly, a fatigue-free pair of stereophones is an essential item, and I cannot overemphasize the importance of owning accurate headphones for listening to recordings of your bird’s speech. Distortion results from poorly-designed transducers, which include either a deficient microphone used to make the recording and/or an inadequate headset that does not reproduce the bird’s words distinctly. The listening product you select should reproduce sounds with excellent fidelity and should be comfortable to wear for a minimum of twenty minutes.

Whatever equipment you choose, the important thing is to make recordings! You will be amazed by how much you can learn though recordings of a talking bird.

Years ago, I was a high-fidelity sound dealer and broadcast engineer. If you run into problems, contact me as I may be able to offer helpful suggestions.


daltoncageOver the last years, Arielle’s speech production has increased markedly; either that, or, perhaps, because of the electronic recording aids, I am more aware of her vocal sessions. In the future, I suspect that Arielle’s vocabulary and her ability to communicate will continue to grow, because she seems to be warming up to do something more spectacular and more astounding than what she has already done.

While Arielle is comfortable being with me and occasionally speaks both to and with me, she remains a bashful individual and she speaks only occasionally when strangers are present. She seems to enjoy speaking covertly while alone outside on her gym. Her private vocal abilities would likely not have been discovered had I failed to record her speech. Her skills using human language are detailed in my book, Another Kind of Mind: A Talking Bird Masters English. An analysis of recordings of Arielle’s spontaneous free speech is the basis for ninety-five percent of the findings in the book. If you would like to hear samples from Arielle’s vocabulary of more than 4000 phrases, visit her Internet site.

This article was contributed by Michael Dalton, E-mail address:  Author of  Another Kind of Mind: A Talking Bird Masters English

1Dalton, Michael S. Another Kind of Mind: A Talking Bird Masters English.   Clearwater, FL: Arielle Publishing, 2007.

2Griffin, Donald. Animal Minds. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992. P. 113

3Dalton, Michael S. Another Kind of Mind: A Talking Bird Masters English.   Clearwater, FL: Arielle Publishing, 2007. Griffin, Donald. Animal Minds. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992. P. 113

Listen to Arielle at Is this parrot really talking?