I didn’t even know this bird existed until an alert reader, Gayle Ferguson, called it to my attention. It’s the tui, endemic to the islands of New Zealand:
I can’t embed the relevant video here (YouTube forbids it), but it’s worth having a look at one of the capabilities of a tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae): its remarkable ability to imitate other sounds, including the human voice. First, a video of the talent, which you can see here. It’s pretty amazing: the bird whistles popular songs, speaks in an eerily human voice, and even mentions someone’s cold and imitates a sneeze! The YouTube description:
Woof Woof is a Tui bird with a permanent wing injury, he lives at the Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre in New Zealand. He started talking at about 18 months old and now he talks to everyone. Some of his phrases are: Come up here, quick. How’s your cold? Give us a kiss, mmm. Where’s the Karkariki? (parakeet in the aviary next door. Whistles Pop Goes the Weasel. Visit http://www.whangareinativebirdrecovery.org.nz to view more photos & video.
The story of Woof Woof, and another display of his talents, is shown on a video at The Whangarei Native Bird recovery site (be sure to click on the videos to the right of the main one to hear Woof Woof’s repertoire). The interesting thing is that many talking tuis are never taught to talk; they pick it up on their own. As reader Gayle Ferguson reports, who brought this to my attention:
The bird speaks with the accent and intonation of a NZ male of advancing years. It’s incredible! That’s why I thought it was a hoax.
Here’s another talking tui:
That video claims that the mimicry of tuis is adaptive in that it helps them protect their territories from other birds, presumably by imitating the other birds’ calls and fooling them into thinking that a conspecific male is in their territory, hence giving the tui more foraging space. I had never thought of that explanation for bird mimicry. I wonder if my birder readers know of this theory, or whether it would apply to the other great mimics: parrots and mynahs. The other explanation, of course, is that the imitation is a byproduct of the tui’s ability to produce a variety of sounds to lure females.
Tuis are considered to be very intelligent, much like parrots. They also resemble parrots in their ability to clearly imitate human speech, and were trained by Māori to replicate complex speech.Tui are also known for their noisy, unusual call, different for each individual, that combine bellbird-like notes with clicks, cackles, timber-like creaks and groans, and wheezing sounds. Song birds have two voiceboxesand this is what enables them to perform such a myriad of vocalisations.
Some of the huge range of tui sounds are beyond the human register. Watching a tui sing, one can observe gaps in the sound when the beak is agape and throat tufts throbbing. However, ongoing research has so far failed to detect ultrasound within tui vocalisations. Tui will also sing at night, especially around the full moon period.
Their songs in the wild are quite complicated; here’s a wild male singing: