Shellie Ochsman thought her rose-breasted cockatoo, Decco, would never progress past the few phrases she learned during their first month together. Ochsman, who lives in Potomac, tried talking to her and even turned to audiotapes to expand Decco's vocabulary -- but to no avail. Two years later after a great deal of one-on-one with family members, including three dogs, Decco has found her voice . . . and it includes laughter and barking.
If your parrot is pleading the Fifth, don't get ruffled. A little patience goes far when helping your bird find his or her inner conversationalist. Here are a few tips to get that beak yakking.
1 Pick Your Breed
There are more than 320 species of parrots, but less than one-third of those typically available in pet stores are considered good talkers. One of nature's best impersonators: the African Grey, native to western and central Africa, has been known to learn hundreds of words and sounds and to mimic specific voices. The Yellow-naped Amazon of Central America is also skilled at talking, singing, whistling and laughing. By contrast, macaws, cockatoos and parakeets have been known to be less chatty.
2 Chat it Up
Repetition and emotion are the cornerstones of teaching a parrot to talk, says Rockville-based Ruth Hanessian, author of "Birds on the Couch: The Bird Shrink's Guide to Keeping Polly from Going Crackers and You Out of the Cuckoo's Nest." You can play your bird a tape, but human interaction is more effective. Hanessian recommends repeating words with the same actions or at the same time each day: For example, "Good night!" as you cover your parrot's cage each evening.
3 Location, Location
Always place your parrot in a setting where he can learn from people. Kelsie Holtje, president of the National Capitol Bird Club in McLean, has six parrots, but her cockatoo Jack is the most prolific talker. Jack grew up in the child day-care center that Holtje once ran and learned to say "Hello, come in" every time someone knocked on a door. Now, Holtje runs a group home for the elderly and Jack loves to sit in the busy social room. "With conversation, stimulation and the right environment, birds will learn to talk," she says.
4 Watch Your Mouth
Parrots pick up often-repeated words, but they'll also learn those that are said emphatically, experts warn -- including the four-letter varieties. Hanessian recalls, "We were given a Yellow-naped Amazon by a couple once who couldn't look after it anymore. When a well-dressed woman came in, the bird said: 'That's a nice piece of [expletive], Mama'!" Another danger: Sounds that owners wouldn't want repeated. "I wouldn't recommend keeping [a talkative bird] in the bedroom," says parrot owner Anne Brooks, a volunteer at Phoenix Landing, a nonprofit that places abandoned birds in foster homes. "The number one thing we always teach owners is not to give a drama reward to behavior you don't want your bird to learn."
5 Let It Go
Keep in mind that even if you do adopt a talkative breed, there's no guarantee he'll chat -- like humans, some parrots are simply shy. Liz Wilson, director of the Washington branch of Phoenix Landing, says too often people buy a parrot because they want an animal that talks, and when it fails to deliver the bird is mistreated or given up. "If all they want is a bird that can talk, then people should get a radio," says Wilson.
Paul Berger and Kate Stohr
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