All parrots learn language like human children. If they hear a word that yields interesting results, they remember.
The history of curse words goes back 900 years or so. The history of your parrot’s use of a word, goes back to the day you said it loudly with great drama. Your bird heard the value immediately.

Potty mouth parrots, where those words came from, and how to clean up your parrot’s vocabulary.

Kathy LaFollett
6 min readMar 13, 2023

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“Time to take a f***ing shower!” *fartsounds*

Parrots have potty mouths, too. Felix, our African gray, came home with us and brought three phrases with him. All containing the same swear word. His favorite being the one about taking a shower. Did he learn that from being told it was time for his shower, or by hearing someone being told it was time for their shower? We don’t know. His remaining vocabulary told us his last owner was Harry. Harry owned an answering machine, and Felix thought he was the backup answering machine. Repeating messages randomly throughout the day. Harry was a golfer and a bowler, and often late for a match, it seems.

Felix munching his pasta wheelie considering all the words he can use to get my attention.
Felix, munching his pasta wheelie, considering all the words he can use to get my attention.

Considering the fact that President Andrew Jackson had a parrot named Poll who cursed with such precision and skill, the bird ran friends out of Jackson’s house, (The good Reverend Menefee Norment being present the day Poll dressed down President Jackson’s visitors gave testimony to anyone who asked about that day.) I wasn’t too upset about Felix’s vernacular.

Parrots learn language just as a young child. Show an apple, say apple. Your bird will remember that apple and how to get to it. Words to parrots are just another toy or negotiation tool. A human can relate.

The word fart showed up in the English language in the mid-1200s. An Old English version, feortan, meant to break wind. The joke hasn’t changed much in these 823 years. Buttocks found its pronunciation fifty years later. Language reverse engineers itself. Additional personal private body part labels soon followed. You can see where the idea of ‘potty mouth’ came from.

The history of the f word is obscure. Possibly originating in Germanic languages, and related to words like focka in Swedish dialect and fokkelen in Dutch, both of which mean to strike or hit. The word gradually devolved to a sexual connotation, and by the 16th century, it was being used in English to refer to sexual intercourse.

By the 19th century, the word had taken on its modern meaning as a general-purpose swear word and expletive. Widely used in both British and American English. Still considered offensive and discouraged in polite social and work settings. In the 20th century, particularly in the US, and Felix’s cage, counter-cultural movements of the 60s and 70s celebrated free expression and rejected traditional social norms. Today, the f word is one of the most widely used and recognized swear words in the English language, and its usage is relatively common in many informal settings. Felix uses his outdoor voice everywhere and has no standards. He’s a parrot. Parrots can fly. Having a superpower like flight creates a cockishness. If we could fly, we’d understand.

The pinnacle f word is still considered vulgar and offensive in some formal and professional contexts, and its use frowned upon or even prohibited in certain situations. As I write this, I tap dance on the edge of acceptable reading for some while others are probably screaming in their heads, just type all four letters already!

“AchShit!” a parrot in Scotland. I met Hagen when his humans decided such a phrase wasn’t working at their favorite pub. They’d take him with to socialize and be the pub’s official Saturday door greeter. It wasn’t long before patron saints of jocularity took the time to pad Hagen’s vocabulary with seasoning and verve. They contacted me to help clean up Hagen’s greetings. It’s easy to change a parrot’s vocabulary. It is difficult to prove to them it’s as much fun not to say the words that get attention, though.

Most languages and cultures have their own set of words or expressions that are offensive. In English, many curse words relate to sex or bodily functions, while in other languages, they may relate to religion or certain social categories. In some cultures, certain gestures or nonverbal expressions may be insulting. A potty mouth can become a potty hand gesture. Parrots have zygodactyl feet (two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward), which limit their ability to throw a sign of malcontent or judgement. One less thing to worry about during Christmas parties for a parrot lover.

These words and expressions can change over time and can vary depending on context and audience. Some cultures are downright permissive and creative with them. In Northern European countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, swearing is relatively common and used to express humor or camaraderie. The Dutch language is famous for having a wide variety of creative and colorful swear words and insults. Had Hagen found himself in, say, Belgium, he may have not needed a speaking coach, but a bigger stage.

We find swear words throughout cultures around the world. We find companion parrots throughout the world. More so now than ever. The problem of parrots picking up extra words is a global issue. Fixing a potty mouth parrot isn’t a complicated matter. No more complicated than their learning those words. You’ll have to clean up your vocabulary first. (At least in front of your birds.)

Parrots love conversation, and they appreciate drama. Human curse word production is directly linked to drama. Whether with a humorous flavor or rage, there’s emotion packed fuel delivering those words. Parrots aren’t going to let that just slide. They’re going to sample all the drama words and use them to get your attention. A parrot who enjoys a great relationship with a human has two primary drives. Get and keep that human’s attention. Cursing works to that end. The results measure the value of any word or phrase for a parrot to that goal.

How do you stop a parrot from using curse words? With a solid game of Marco Polo.

Replace a singular word with another like sounding word. Sugar is a favorite replacement word in the south. Mirror the replacement word back with the same volume and excitement. The replacement appropriate word has to be fun to say. Parrots do not accept boredom or half-hearted attempts at conversation. Get your drama on.

Humans are the ones attaching intent to curse words. Parrots only attach that which comes back to them. Flock calling is the mirrored exercise of voice, body, and mind. Affirmations on the wind. Remove and replace the word you want to disappear. Mirror the revised phrase back with excitement and volume. Your bird isn’t looking to be offensive; your parrot is looking for your attention.

When Felix declared, “Time to take a f***ing shower!” I called back, “Yes, Felix, time to take a shower!” He saw it as a game of who could say it louder. Granted, an African gray can push a 100-decibel whistle, and I, a mere mortal, have only a 70-decibel range in the house. I could go 125 by screaming, but that’s a bit much and then we’re entering the territory of a screaming contest. Never challenge a parrot to a whistling or screaming contest. You will lose. The shower phrase game became who could say it faster. Then it was a game of who would use which word. Six weeks later, Felix dropped the f word completely.

It’s all very personal. For parrots, it’s all very much a game. What your bird wants is your undivided attention. They are smart enough to measure results. They are smart enough to listen and watch you use words for your results. Like children, they want your attention and love. Don’t be surprised by the lengths or words either will go to find you.

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