Maggie Wright

Parrot Teaches Human to Drop Fear


Maggie & Merlin

FEAR is one of those all-powerful emotions that everyone shares, including animals.  The advantage to fear is that it alerts us to potential danger and triggers our fight/flight responses.  For example, birds are taught by their parents to either freeze or fly away when a predator is nearby.

A problem with fear is when it turns into anxiety.  Public speaking is one of those  times when fear can wrap you up into a big ball of nerves.  I’ve spent much of my life dealing with this fear.  But, believe it or not, my African grey parrot named Merlin has helped me work through the fear of public speaking more than any technique.

When Merlin was a baby parrot, I taught her how to imitate six animal sounds: the rooster, duck, dog, cat, horse, and pig.  She was physically introduced to each animal, practiced their sounds, and then was taught to make the sounds when I asked her “What does the ______ (rooster, duck) say?”  Merlin became a pro at it.  She learned about the power and control that she could have over a small group of children, or a small room of adults,  when she made her animal sounds.  She also learned about timing and how to make people laugh by purposely giving the wrong answers.

It is easy to teach your parrot how to talk.  I love teaching them games, too! One game that I taught Merlin and her grey sister named Sweetpea is called  “Shake Your Body!” I would say to the girls, “Shake your body,” and then, I wiggled and shook my body.  They finally learned to shake their bodies on cue to my command.  This is their favorite game.

Back to the issue of public speaking… one of my problems with public speaking is that fear
makes me freeze and sometimes forget my place or what I’m about to say.  But, Merlin taught me how to work through this fear.  Here is what she taught me:

One day Merlin and I were invited to accompany Dr. Irene Pepperberg at a large
conference of bird lovers.  Merlin was going to be the model for Dr. Pepperberg, in order to help her explain her methods for teaching the famous Alex.  Alex the grey had worked with Dr. Pepperberg for over 30 years exploring avian communication and intelligence.  He proved that African grey parrots have the intelligence level of five-year-old human children. (

First, African grey parrots are one of the best talkers in the parrot world, but they
are also very shy around strangers.  So, there are not many pet greys that will perform in front of people. Merlin had learned as a baby to talk in front of small groups, such as at dinner parties and small meetings; therefore, I thought she would perform well at the conference.

Conference day finally arrived and Merle, Dr. P. and I arrived for the big talk.  There were over 200 people in the audience, which made me quite nervous, but Merlin was fine.  That is, until all 200+ people began to applaud.  Thirty sets of hands clapping is one thing… but 400+ clapping hands sent a loud thunder through the room.  Merlin FROZE!  Her feathers went flat, her eyes bulged, and her mouth was wide open with her tongue hanging out.  I had never seen a more terrified creature in my life!!!

So, I took Merlin off to the side of the stage and started to play the “shake your
body” game.  Both of us shook and wiggled and shook for a few minutes, until Merlin was back to normal.  Then, we went back to center stage and Merle performed ALL of her animal sounds, right in front of 200+ people.

Not only that, she had the audience right in her claw. She had the audience making the animal sounds at HER command.  Yes, my Merlin is a pro.

What did this teach me?  I learned to move around, wiggle, rattle and roll, in order to shake out my nerves before giving a talk.  Thank you, Merlin!

Please share with us ways in which you are working through your fears.

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5 Responses to Parrot Teaches Human to Drop Fear

  1. Maggie says:

    Here’s the link to an article discussing that escaped pet macaws in Australia have taught some of the wild birds how to talk:

    Guess My Merle is right. She says that birds are smarter than humans!

  2. Bob Kennedy says:

    Hi Maggie. I remember visiting you in NY and meeting Wart. It was one of the best parts of our vacation I too feel a special pain hearing of his passing. I hope he wasn’t suffering too much. He was a very nice little fellow.

    Mary and I really miss Grey Play Round Table, which we looked forward to every issue.


    • merlin says:

      Hi Bob,

      I remember your visit. Wart had a big piece of my heart and he will be so missed!

      Please tell Mary hi. I’m hoping to re-introduce the Grey Play this year or next. Fingers crossed that it’ll work out.

      GREY’T to hear from you!

  3. CC says:


    I just wanted 2 say I just found u & tell u: Great Article, nice upbeat site! Also thanks 4 the link 2 the interesting article on escapees teaching wild parrots English… hard 2 believe I never thought of it before, the possibility.

  4. merlin says:

    Hi CC,
    Thanks for dropping by. Yes. The article about the macaws teaching other wild birds to talk was fascinating. But I would like to make it clear that if a pet bird is lost, it will not know how to return… and it will not know how to survive in the forest. Birds are taught living skills by their parents but pet birds are not. They have no idea how to forage. So, it is extremely important to keep a pet bird safe and never lose it outdoors.

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