Ever wonder if a parrot can make itself go deaf from its own screaming? Do parrots hear better than humans? Do parrots have particularly sensitive hearing? Read on to learn about parrot hearing!
I'm surprised to learn that some people think parrots have sensitive hearing. I have observed this mindset a few times over the years so I would like to address it in greater detail.
For example in my "Shot My Parrot Dead" trick video on youtube, there have been numerous viewers objecting to me yelling at Kili when pretending to be mad. Vicky Abramowitz commented, "Cute trick aside. Why do you two knuckleheads have to shout? Parrots have sensitive hearing. Try to keep that in mind."
At least they don't think the parrot is actually dead like a thousand other comments but they are still misinformed about avian hearing. For those still questioning if the parrot really dies or not in the video, then be sure to check this analysis video.
I had researched bird hearing years ago when I began taking my parrots flying with me in airplanes. While it is recommended that people, and even dogs, wear hearing protection while flying in small piston airplanes, there is no option for parrots. I was interested in whether or not there was a danger to my parrots. I learned that it is not. However, with little information on the subject and continued discussions, I decided to share with you what I have learned.
So how does bird hearing compare to human? Not as good. First of all, birds lack a certain organ that helps funnel in sound waves into the ear cavity. What could that be? Oh yeah, external ears! Birds do not have those floppy things sticking out of their heads. I guess so much for my idea of making bird-earrings or glasses (birds have excellent vision so I guess they won't be needing them anyway). Birds lack external ears to be more streamlined for flight so that is already one hearing advantage that they lack.
Not only do birds lack external ears, their internal ears are actually covered by feathers. You can't normally see their ears and could almost think they don't even have any. However, when the feathers are parted, we can in fact see that birds do have ears. The feathers covering the ear openings help keep wind out while flying and reduce wind noise similar to a fluffy mic muff cover. However, this adds a further reduction in sound that reaches the bird's ear.
As we travel deeper inside a bird's ear, the next difference we can find is a more primitive ear structure. Like their reptilian ancestors, birds have just one inner ear bone called the columella (analogous to the stapes bone in mammals). One of the defining features of mammals that distinguishes them from reptiles is the evolution of a 3 boned ear structure featuring the malleus, incus, and stapes ear bones. This 3 boned ear structure allows mammals to have more sensitive hearing, particularly in the higher pitch ranges.
For this reason, parrot hearing is limited to the 200 Hz-8.5 kHz range while humans can hear in the range of 31 Hz-19 kHz. That means your parrot won't hear the deep bass notes and high pitch cymbal crashes in your music. However, they can hear just fine across the human vocal range.
Ornithology 3rd Edition Frank B. Gill, Page 193
What this chart shows is that birds, with the exception of owls, need sound volume to be louder in order for them to be able to hear it in the first place than humans do.
This means that a parrot cannot hear a watch ticking, a pin drop, or leaves rustling because they simply are not loud enough for them to be able to hear. Since their hearing drops off precariously in the high pitch range, this also means that high pitch sounds have to be very loud for them to hear them at all. But don't worry, before you start speaking loudly to your parrot like it's your grandfather, parrots can hear normal human speech at 70db just fine! A quiet whisper just meets their minimum hearing threshold.
Now what about noise, how much does it bother them? Not nearly as much as it bothers us! Besides the somewhat reduced hearing ability in birds, they are better equipped to handle noise. This should be no surprise to parrot owners. Why is it that when a parrot screams in your ear, you can go temporarily deaf in that ear while a parrot can scream all day without causing hearing damage to itself or the other parrots near it? It turns out that it has to do with the inner ear hair cells.
Hair cells detect the transmission of sound vibrations and turn them into an electrical signal that gets processed by the brain. Extreme noise or prolonged exposure to loud noise in humans damages these hairs and causes hearing loss. However, in birds these hair cells regenerate and return full hearing ability! "Most NIHL [Noise Induced Hearing Loss] is caused by the damage and eventual death of these hair cells. Unlike bird and amphibian hair cells, human hair cells donít grow back. They are gone for good." (National Institute on Deafness).
And this all makes perfect sense. Humans as all mammals, evolved from small nocturnal ancestors who relied heavily on hearing for navigation and predator avoidance. This explains why birds have superior vision but mammals have the better hearing.
But what about parrots being able to hear and learn to mimic sounds so well? Just because parrots learn to mimic speech and sounds exceptionally well does not mean they have the best hearing apparatus. This is mainly coming from their brain. Parrots live in a different time scale than we do. They can see and hear quicker than we can! They can distinguish more sounds or sights per second than we can. Similar to how blind people can learn to listen and distinguish sounds better, parrots can take the lesser sound they hear and do more with it!
If loud noise bothered our parrots, they would try harder to evade that noise and also wouldn't be so noisy themselves. If my yelling act bothered Kili too much while making the Shot My Parrot Dead video, she would have simply flown off to a quieter part of the room. People don't give the animal enough credit for having the sense to be able to take care of itself. Saltyspirit made a good observation in the video, commenting "It's amazing how he doesn't mind him yelling."
But before you get the impression that I'm suggesting that you yell at your parrot, think twice! Not because I'm worried for your bird's hearing. No, it will be just fine. Because of your hearing! Giving your parrot the impression that you're into yelling too could encourage the parrot to join in. You on the other hand will experience hearing loss and unlike your parrot, your hearing won't restore itself.
In conclusion, parrots have less sensitive hearing, less hearing frequency range, better hearing perception, and innate protection against hearing damage. So use the Parrot Wizard approach to quieting your parrot down or invest in a good set of ear plugs.