Mika Live!

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Mika, the Congo African Grey, and her foil Biki, the Tres Marias Amazon

A new audio sensation for your listening enjoyment! Mika Cotton extemporizes on life, the universe, and everything else of importance (i.e., either edible or audible).

Click here to download the 4 megabyte mp3: Mika Live!.

Every sound you'll hear is straight from the mouth of Mika Treemonisha Cotton, whether it's the gurgle of poured water, a human burping, coughing, or whistling, a cage door squeaking, a baby bird imploring in an outdoor nest, a security alarm siren panicking, or a mad pirate alternately raving, rambling, or chuckling.

And not to leave anyone out, click here to download the 0.3 megabyte mp3: Biki Live!.

I'm afraid that's about all Tabiki has to say these days. He pines away for his one true love (my ex) who flew the nest many years ago. If I play this where he can hear it he goes berserk. It takes hours to calm him down again. I think he feels that at last he's found someone that truly understands, so he flies all around looking for a hidden bird. But if I play the Mika file for her she just chimes in and riffs along. ;)

(See also my music page for more by Mika and Tabiki.)

Technical details

I recorded the above using an Olympus DS-40 voice recorder set to voice activation and hidden under a laundry basket in the room in which the birds live. Voice activation simply means that silences are ignored. I then opened the resulting digital files in the freeware program, Audacity, and edited down the much longer originals to remove a great deal of repetition and near repetition.

Mika is an 11-year-old African Grey Congo female, born and raised here in southern Ontario. I've had her since she was a year old. The pirate's voice she uses is her attempt to reproduce my voice, but like any male human voice it's too deep for even her great talent to reproduce. Mika is a happy-go-lucky spirit, almost entirely unflappable, who is currently infatuated with my electric guitar toting teen-aged son, and who spends hours each day entertaining herself by perfecting her rendition of her currently favourite mix of entertaining and eclectic sound bytes.

Tabiki is a 10-year-old Tres Marias Amazon – a rare and endangered species native to the Tres Marias islands off Baja California, basically just a slight variant on the more familiar Double Yellow-Headed Amazon. Biki was also born and raised in Southern Ontario, but with the difference that his egg was incubated. He and his nest mates never met their parents, causing them to entirely imprint on homo sap. sap. An interesting idea, but ultimately problematic – Biki will never have a normal love life, since his hormonal urges are triggered by the human female voice, not by any avian input. He also is doomed to love the sound of (human) whistling more than life itself, but has finally given up trying to whistle himself (it comes out like a squeak). Unfortunately, he can only make two sorts of vocalizations: human speech sounds, including (off-beat) singing, and a few innate Amazon calls, chiefly the complaint of the ever-hungry baby bird but (much more rarely) the trill of utter avian contentment.

FWIW, I've raised this pair on rather unorthodox principles. I strongly believe that birds are flock animals and so suffer strong anxiety when left in solitary confinement. While the two of them – being different in sex and in species, have almost nothing else in common – the fact that they share the same room along with a muted radio gives them the bare minimum of a flock during the many hours of the day they are left alone. Both have their cage doors open from dawn to dark and fly from cage top to cage top for exercise and variety throughout the day. Both come out of the bird room for at least an hour each day to join the human half of the family.

Parrot FAQs

Do all (pet) parrots talk? The vast majority of pet parrots who spent their first two or three years in human households will pick up at least a few words. But some parrot species are more prone to imitating speech than others, and there are further differences between individuals of the same species. Time spent by a human in "training" a pet parrot, is helpful to the degree that the human has a high-pitched voice (usually meaning female), is liked by the parrot, and speaks with exaggerated enthusiasm.

How can a parrot imitate something like an ambulance siren so exactly? Birds do not have vocal chords but instead have a more flexible tone generator called a syrinx.

How large a vocabulary can a parrot have? The Guinness Book of Records reports a budgie with a vocabulary of over 1,000 different words. (So, apparently brain size is not a determining factor.) Mika's "vocabulary" may actually match that – I simply don't know. Her "vocabulary" is actually a collection of sound clips, usually just a few seconds in length. At any given time she has maybe two dozen clips that she is infatuated with and frequently repeats. There's no indication she ever forgets a clip, and from time to time she'll revive a clip from years past. In all, it's very much like a Top 40 radio station that endlessly repeats the latest hit songs but occasionally slips in an previous favourite for the sake of variety. What's fascinating is that one can actually see when a parrot goes into "record mode" – the pupils of their eyes contract then dilate again (called pinning) when parrots hear a sound they want to add to her collection.

Do parrots understand what they say? The brightest parrots, like the brightest dogs, are about equal in intelligence to a human at two-and-a-half years of age. With exceptional training they can learn to associate specific speech sounds to specific concepts. In the normal case they take profound delight in anticipating the appropriate sound for a specific circumstance. For example, most parrots will answer a door bell or ringing phone with "Hello!" and if the phone goes unanswered many will continue with one side of a typical phone conversation: "Hello!" ... "Yes?" ... "OK." ... "Yeah." ... "Bye!" Presumably, the parrot has no idea what "OK" or "Yes" actually means.

Another example: Mika delights in making her water gurgle sound and/or saying "Water!" each night when I take her water bowl out of the cage to get her fresh water. She doesn't "know" that "Water!" is the name of the substance in the bowl, she just knows that over the years she's heard me say "Water!" with great enthusiasm each time I take out her water bowl. In contrast, when I change the pellets in her pellet bowl, she doesn't say "Pellets!", in spite the equally long duration over which I've repeated that word when changing pellets. Instead she insists on saying "Poop!" multiple times with great delight whenever I change her pellets. This may be her assessment of how much she likes their taste; or it may be a really profound observation on the biology of pellets in, poop out, for all I know...

Would a parrot be a good pet for me? Very, very unlikely! The number of problems that need to be overcome are legion. For one thing, keeping a single parrot in a cage in an empty house all day long while all humans are at work or at school is torture for the bird (yes: I know there are some exceptions), and the bird will reciprocate by finding multiple ways to retaliate. At last resort it will pluck every single feather off its torso. Essentially, having a parrot is like having a permanent toddler in the house.