Quick Guide:  Solve Your Parrot’s Screaming Problem for Good!

If the phone calls I have received during August are any indication, we could rename it National Screaming Parrot Month.  There are a lot of you out there living with some very loud parrots.  Please don’t despair!  This is actually a fairly simple problem to solve, if you do all of the right things.

Behavior Has Functiondownload (1)

The first step is to realize that your parrot screams for a reason. Behavior has function. If he didn’t get something out of it, he wouldn’t keep doing it.  So ask yourself, “What reinforcement does he get for making such a racket? What’s in it for him?”

Many birds make noise because it earns them some social attention, either from the people in the house or the other birds. Do you or anyone else respond in some way when your parrot screams?  Even if you leave the room or cover the cage or spray him with water, you are offering him attention for his unwanted behavior. You are reacting in some way.  Believe it – lots of companion parrots are just bored enough that those types of reactions don’t serve to stop the behavior, even if the parrot finds them mildly aversive. Instead, they often reward it. At best, they offer short-term relief, but no permanent solution. Face it; if covering the cage were working well for you, you wouldn’t be reading this.

Other Reasons for Screaming

Some parrots make noise to alert you to some perceived danger. Does your parrot scream more now that he can see out the window? Does he scream when he hears sounds on the sidewalk outside? Then some of his screaming could be a form of hard-wired, sentinel behavior. He’s trying to sound the alarm! Environmental modification may be part of your answer.

Some parrots scream at predictable times, such as when the garage door opens and other family members arrive home. Perhaps you have a parrot who screams when you get on the phone? If you can predict it, you can prevent it.

Others parrots react to the noise created by the family. If you have a loud family, you will likely have a loud parrot.  He’s a member of the flock just trying to chime in, after all. If you quiet down, so may he.download (5)

And, let’s face it.  Some parrot species just tend to be a tad noisier than others.  Sun conure owners unite!  Even though you have chosen to live with one of the loudest species on the planet, you too can enjoy a quiet home.

“Parrots Are What You Make of them”

The second step is to realize that you have the power. You have the power to impact your parrot’s choices through your reactions. If he is screaming in order to get your attention, then you can choose a bit more wisely the behaviors for which you do give him attention.

A long time ago, I took a series of bird care classes from Jamie McLeod  who owns the Parrot Menagerie in Summerland, California. One day she said, “Parrots are what you make of them.” ParakeetColorfulIt’s true.  If you want a loud parrot, give him attention when he’s loud. If you want a parrot who plays with toys, give him attention when he plays. If you want a parrot who talks, give him attention when he talks. If you want a parrot to eat vegetables, give him attention when he does.

Ignore the Noise…But That’s Not All

I’m sure you have all heard that, in order to solve a screaming problem, you must ignore the noise.  That is true.  If you want the noise you don’t like to disappear, you have to quit rewarding it. However, there are two facts that you must embrace for this strategy to have any affect at all.

First, realize that any reaction on your part has the potential to reward the behavior. So, don’t react in any way. Don’t leave the room. Don’t look at the parrot. Don’t spray the parrot with water. Don’t cover the cage. Don’t put the parrot in the closet. Don’t whistle. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t give your spouse a dirty look because it’s his parrot. Don’t scream back.  Those things won’t work and you will just wind up hating yourself and the parrot.

Get some hearing protection if you have to.  No…I’m not kidding. Trying is not the same as doing. You can’t expect to be successful if you react some of the time and succeed at ignoring the noise at others. Any sporting goods store will be able to sell you some hearing protection.

Second, realize that simply ignoring the behavior will never solve the problem. ScreamingCartoon.FBIf you stop reacting to the screaming, the parrot will simply come up with another behavior that will serve the same function for him, and it likely will not be a lot more enjoyable than what he has been doing.  Why not make sure that you are the one to choose which behaviors he performs next?

What would happen if you decided to react with some social attention and maybe a food treat when he talked or make other pleasant noises?  I can tell you. You would hear a lot more talking and pleasant noises.  What if you decided to reward him when he played with a toy?  He would likely play with toys more, as long as they were items that were interesting to him.

To Change Your Parrot’s Behavior, You Must Change Your Own

Remember: You Have the Power. To change your parrot’s behavior, you can change your own. Stop rewarding the screaming. Instead, reward the other behaviors that your parrot offers that you enjoy more.

The way you do the rewarding (offer reinforcement) is important, however. Your timing has to be good. If you offer him a reinforcer too long after he performed the behavior you like, he won’t be able to connect the two.  Instead, as soon as he says a word, turn immediately (within just a second or two) and say, “Yes!” in a voice he can clearly hear.  Then, as quickly as possible walk over and offer something he wants – a food treat or a head scratch. Carry the treats in your pocket so you have them handy if you’re going to use food. Make sure that every time you say “Good!” you follow it with a food treat, even if you made a mistake in recognizing a sound that you really don’t like.

Realize also that you cannot reward quiet.  This does nothing, since “being quiet” is not a behavior.  Instead, look for something the bird is actually doing.

Be consistent about this.  Catch him in the act of being good and reward that.  Just pay attention while you are going about your daily routine. Think if it as practicing parrot behavior mindfulness. 

The Impact of Nutrition

There are other factors that can impact a parrot and his tendency to make noise also.  Did you know that the diet you feed can set your parrot up for louder behavior?  Carbohydrates and fats are two categories of nutrients that produce more energy for your bird.  A bird who lives indoors, especially if he doesn’t fly, does not need excessive amounts of energy. Therefore, a loud parrot who eats a seed mix, a lot of nuts, or human snack foods may need a diet overhaul if you want him to be quieter.

Activities to Use Up that Excess Energy

Speaking of excess energy, baths and time spent outdoors are wonderful experiences for your parrot that will contribute to quieter behavior. Parrots enjoy the same relaxation after spending time outdoors that we do. A day spent in a safe enclosure outside will do wonders to produce a quieter parrot.

Similarly, if you have visitors coming for lunch and you want a quieter parrot, try giving him a bath right before. (This assumes that your parrot enjoys bathing. It’s not fair to scare him into being quiet.) 105Please bathe him in the morning.  He shouldn’t go to bed wet.

A parrot can’t forage, or chew wood, and scream at the same time. Therefore, by providing more for him to do, and making sure he interacts with his enrichment, he may be quieter. If you have a parrot who doesn’t yet know how to forage, there are some great resources on-line.  Two of my favorites are Parrot Enrichment and Foraging for Parrots.

In some cases, environmental changes can help. If your parrot is louder when he can see out of a window, move his cage. If that’s not possible, keep the blinds down.

Eliminate Isolation and Evolve the Pair Bond

Isolation will create a louder parrot.  Parrots want to be with the family flock. If you have your parrots in a “bird room” make sure they have enough time out of it and that this period is predictable for them. Parrots do best when they get at least three to four hours out of the cage each day, divided into two different periods of time. Less than that and you run the risk of living with a louder bird forever. There’s just only so much isolation and confinement that they can stand.

If you find that you are following these instructions and still not making progress, think about getting your birds out of the bird room permanently.  You can’t reward behavior that you can’t see or hear. It’s a lot easier guiding them into appropriate channels of behavior if they live in your midst.

If your parrot has formed a pair bond with you (thinks you are his mate), he will likely be more demanding of your time. Cosy momentsIf he screams until he gets to be on your shoulder, you may want to encourage him to see you as more of a friend. Try doing some simple training with him so that he comes to look to you for guidance, rather than snuggles, as you gradually reduce that “shoulder time.” Teaching him to station on an interesting perch of his own can help to keep him off of your body.

Additional Strategies

Heading the screaming off before it occurs can help to break the pattern, if you can predict it. If your parrot screams when you get on the phone, talk in another room. Or, give him a good drenching bath before you make that call. If he screams to wake you up in the morning, set your alarm and wake up earlier.  I know….but you’re the one who chose to live with a parrot! They want to wake up when the day dawns.

There is one additional strategy that works to shorten screaming sessions for some parrots.  Please notice that I said “shorten” and “some.” This will not be an important part of your solution.  So, if you can’t implement this aspect of the plan, don’t worry.  images (5)However, if you have a parrot who screams non-stop for extended periods, wait until he stops, say a quick “Good!” and follow this with a treat. You cannot use this intervention with a parrot who screams in quick bursts with small spots of quiet in between.  He’ll start screaming again before you make it over to him with the treat.

Your Stop-the-Screaming Checklist

If you want a quiet(er) parrot, here is your checklist:

  • Ignore the screaming (and any other noise or behavior you don’t like) – 100%.
  • Reward talking and other pleasant sounds.
    • Immediately say “Yes!” and quickly deliver a food treat.
  • Provide new enrichment every day or two, especially right before you would like him to be quiet. Give him things that he can destroy quickly – that’s what he wants.
  • Reduce fats and carbohydrates in the diet, if excessive. Please consult with your veterinarian regarding any potential diet changes.
  • Bathe your parrot to use up some energy.
  • Give your parrot the gift of an outdoor aviary.
  • Make sure he gets enough time with you out of his cage twice a day.
  • Teach new behaviors like targeting and stationing.
  • Prevent the screaming if you can predict it. Get creative.
  • Modify the environment to protect his visual experience if needed.

Remember: To change your parrot’s behavior, you must change your own. In reality, you have to change both your thinking and your behavior. Each time you and your parrot have an interaction, he is learning. You are the one who will decide what he is learning.

Complications

People have two problems with this “program.”  First, they forget to keep rewarding the alternate behaviors, the ones the parrot does instead of screaming.  Once they get a little relief, they think the problem is solved.  However, your parrot can always decide to scream again.  It’s still an arrow in his quiver of possible behaviors that he might offer.

So, remember to stay consistent.  Train yourself to look for those behaviors that you would like to reward. They may or may not change over time. As long as they are behaviors that you enjoy, that’s all that matters.  You will wind up giving him attention anyway.  It might as well be for behavior you like.

If you do, you can avoid the second problem that people have. I’ve had more than one client come back to me later with a “second” screaming problem. It wasn’t a second problem. It was merely a different noise.  They had stopped rewarding all of the desirable behaviors the parrot was doing because the noise problem had resolved. They got lazy. So, the parrot came up with a different problem noise. The solution to the problem was the same, of course, even though it was a different noise.

Summary

You must guide your animals’ behavior. By consciously reinforcing the behaviors you do like and ignoring the ones you don’t, you will enjoy your animals a lot more and have far fewer problems. By training new behaviors, you purchase an insurance policy against problem behaviors manifesting in the future. Parrots need learning opportunities, or they will create their own!

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Published by

Pamela Clark, CPBC

IAABC Certified parrot behavior consultant offering services to parrot owners who need advice regarding parrot behavior and parrot training.

3 thoughts on “Quick Guide:  Solve Your Parrot’s Screaming Problem for Good!”

  1. I have seen parrots in the wild in both Central and South America as well as locally as I live in Florida where they can usually be heard before they are seen. I have several issues with this article stemming from the fact that the basis for the behavior that is given as well as the solutions conflict with current understanding of the innate needs of a wild animals as they pertain to captive welfare. I’d like to first state that screaming is not the parrot’s “problem” but the human’s.

    Screaming should not be looked at as a way for the bird to “get” something, a type of frivolous (spoiled brat) reward, but as a way to remove or alleviate something. Screaming is a reaction to an emotional distress, an innate need (as necessary as food and water) for emotional well-being is not being met. Parrots are social animals and as such their need for social attachment is hard-wired.

    As new parents, me and my wife get parenting e-mails and today my wife got one on why it’s wrong to let baby’s “cry it out,” in other words, to ignore cries for attention so that the behavior extinguishes. The reasoning for why it’s wrong to do this with human children also applies to other animals, such as birds (Gifts of the Crow covers the avain aspect of this for those interested). It’ll sound familiar……

    Parent: “He’s got to learn that we don’t come to him every time he cries. Janet totally indulged him those first few months.” Keith continues, “But we are in charge. We are the parents. He’s got to learn his place.”

    Relative: “You mean, you purposefully let him cry…”

    Tyler’s little body, covered in sweat and tears, soon exhausts itself from relentlessly crying out in panic, anger, and despair. Due to the mechanism of self-preservation, his body shuts down his conscious self and falls into a forced sleep.

    CIO, also known as “controlled crying,” is an “extinction method” of ending – “extinguishing” –the cuing for attention, help, nourishment, hydration, support, and loving, physical comfort that is programmed into the biology of young mammals. (neurochemically it works the same in birds so maybe it should read young vertebrates)

    While popularized by Dr. Richard Ferber in his 1985 book, “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problem,” advocates of CIO date back to pre-Ferber days. In his 1946 classic entitled “Baby and Child Care,” Dr. Benjamin Spock advised parents to “say good night affectionately but firmly, walk out of the room, and don’t go back.”

    This “don’t go back” approach perfectly describes CIO in its “unmodified” or “total extinction” form. Some pediatricians who subscribe to this method of CIO advise parents to shut the door to their baby or toddler’s room and not open it again for a full twelve-hour period. The only caveat to this involves assuming nighttime parenting duties if the child is physically ill. Yet, throwing up due to the stress of nocturnal abandonment doesn’t constitute a sign of physical illness and parents are advised by proponents of “total extinction” CIO to clean up the vomit promptly without touching the child or displaying emotion.

    In its “modified extinction” form, CIO advocates argue that parents should leave a baby or toddler alone to cry to sleep. But this stressful experience is best practiced when punctuated with intermittent, and increasingly less frequent, check-ins from the caregiver. The intention of such visits is to persuade the little one verbally, or with minimal physical touch, that their nighttime expression of distress, thirst, and/or panic will not lead to the comfort being sought.

    In both methods of CIO described above, babies and/or toddlers are repeatedly left alone to fall into cycles of sleep. Over time, they learn not to signal to their caregivers as the bonds of attachment fray.

    Recent research conducted at the University of North Texas clearly reveals that the (stress hormone) cortisol levels of babies left alone to CIO remain at unnaturally high levels even days after they learn to stop crying/cuing for help. However, the cortisol levels of mothers –which register as abnormally high when their babies cry — return to normal levels in the silence. At this point, mothers and babies are no longer biologically in sync. The mothers assume all is well; they interpret their babies’ silence as proof that their little ones have learned to self-soothe. Yet, physiologically babies can’t self-soothe. Rather, CIO teaches them to panic silently and detach from those whom nature intends for them to trust.

    Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a psychotherapist, doula, and UK-based author of the soon-to-be published book, “The Gentle Sleep Book: A Guide for Calm Babies, Toddlers and Pre-Schoolers” argues that the erroneous pursuit of a baby that self-soothes profoundly misleads parents. She writes: “You are categorically not leaving your baby to ‘soothe,’ you are leaving him to cry, even if it is only for periods of two minutes at a time… Is it possible to train a baby or a toddler to not call out for their parents when they are in need? Yes, it is, but this is categorically not indicative of an infant who is happy, calm and soothed.”

    http://www.phillyvoice.com/screaming-sleep/
    “Recent research conducted at the University of North Texas clearly reveals that the (stress hormone) cortisol levels of babies left alone to CIO remain at unnaturally high levels even days after they learn to stop crying/cuing for help. However, the cortisol levels of mothers –which register as abnormally high when their babies cry — return to normal levels in the silence. At this point, mothers and babies are no longer biologically in sync.”

    I want to compare this quote from the above linked article on human children to what is said in relation to birds by scientists…..

    From “The Bird of Prey Management Series: Healthcare” found at Mike’sFalconry.com:

    Why is stress bad for birds?

    “When birds are stressed they release a hormone called cortisol which depresses the immune system leaving the bird open to infections which under normal circumstances would probably be harmless. In the wild, stressful events are normally sporadic, and so cortisol is released only briefly. However in captivity the stressful events are normally prolonged resulting in cortisol being released continually and the birds immune function being depressed for long periods.”

    On the effects of social isolation, from “Gifts of the Crow,” by John Marzluff and Tony Angell:

    “Like food, companionship is rewarding to a social animal.”

    “Social isoloation is a powerful motivator. Alone, a young animal gives distress calls and seeks companionship, even if it is risky. When a social partner is found, typically a parent or sibling, is found, the cries dissipate and calm returns. Acquiring a social partner after isolation causes endorphins to be released that then bind to neurons of the septum, striatum, preoptic area, thalamus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. This opioid reward replaces emotional distress with comfort and pleasure. Endorphins are important to the organization of reward seeking behaviors like affiliation just as they are to other reward-seeking behaviors like foraging, sex, and play. A young lone crow or raven would be highly motivated to alleviate its stress by finding a buddy.”

    The book makes comparisons to parrots as similar in intelligence throughout, for example: “In fact, parrots’ forebrains outsize even the biggest brained corvids.”

    As vertebrates (and related) we have homologous similarities with regards to our needs as social animals – among other emotions. The highly social nature of parrots indicates that the advice given by parrot “behaviorists” (to ignore unwanted calls for attention so that they “extinguish”) is actually advice that is contradictory to captive avian welfare.

    I also recommend Temple Grandin PhD’s, and Jonathan Balcombe PhD’s books as they cover similar subject matter.

    Like

    1. Dear David,
      Thank you for taking the time to provide such a thorough, articulate response to my blog post. It seems that we agree on many points. Behavior has function. Babies cry to get their needs met. Parrots scream to get their needs met. An ethical approach to parenting and parrot keeping requires us to make sure that those in our care get those needs met. Causing stress for any in our care should be avoided at all costs, due to the many adverse physiological and behavioral issues that result. And, I too love Temple Grandin’s books.

      However, human babies are not adult captive parrots. The crying that a human baby does has a different function than the screaming that an adult companion parrot offers. The contexts within which the two occur are completely different. The two cannot even be compared.

      The crying that a human baby does is a hard-wired behavior. It was not learned. It is the infant’s only option for getting the attention of his parents so that his basic human needs can be met. He is pre-verbal. He is restricted, in terms of movement. His only option is to cry.

      The extended screaming that companion parrots do is learned – not hard-wired. Despite what you may have observed, parrots in the wild do not scream for extended periods. Their energy needs and expenditures would never support that. They vocalize for very specific reasons – to alert the flock to the presence of danger, to indicate foraging opportunities, to locate flock members.

      Captive parrots, however, have their basic needs met. They find their food in a dish. Their flock members are usually close by when home. Predators are absent. When a companion parrot begins to scream for extended periods, it is most often for social attention.

      If you had read the entire blog post, you would have realized that I did not advocate extinction as the sole behavior change strategy. That would not be an ethical approach, for all the reasons you gave. Instead, I educated owners on ways to teach the bird an alternate, more acceptable, sound that would serve the same function for the parrot as the screaming did previously. This is easily done by removing the reinforcers for the screaming and providing reinforcers for the alternate behavior.

      The parrot’s quality of life remains the same. He gets what he needs, just by making a different vocalization. If the extended nuisance screaming were a hard-wired behavior, like the baby’s crying, this approach would not work. Further, such an approach would never work with an infant, since crying is about the only behavior they can perform that gets immediate attention…or should get immediate attention. Again, the two are not the same.

      The behavior change strategy I outlined is rooted in the science of behavior analysis. If you are interested, you can learn more by going to http://www.behaviorworks.org. Once there, click on “Written Works” and then “Learning and Behavior.” Read the article titled “The ABCs of Behavior.” This information is applicable to all animals, including human children.

      My approach is also consistent with the LIMA guidelines, which advocate that behavior change options adhere to “Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive” methods. This is the code to which all IAABC certified consultants must follow.

      I also agree with you that the screaming is the human’s problem, in that the owner created the problem in the first place and must work to resolve it. Sadly, good information is lacking about appropriate environmental, social, and nutritional provisions. On top of that, most owners do not understand how to guide their parrot’s behavior into acceptable channels. Thus, this is a very common problem for companion parrots that does not resolve on its own, as a baby’s crying does once he can talk.

      However, it is also the parrot’s problem. Do you have any idea how many companion parrots are surrendered each year for screaming? A lot. They get released outdoors without warning, encouraged to fly away to an uncertain future. They are placed on Craig’s List, to be adopted by the first taker. They wind up on waiting lists for rescue and adoption organizations, no longer wanted in their home. Such a fate would never befall your human baby.

      I wonder how many parrots I might have kept in their homes by helping their owners with this problem? The number of people reading this post since it was published is staggering.

      Best regards,
      Pamela Clark, CPBC, CVT

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s