Your Screaming Parrot and You

I posted a short survey on Facebook several weeks ago, asking readers to express interest in one of three future webinar topics. I was surprised to find that almost as many people asked for a webinar on screaming as asked for one on feather destructive behavior. I was surprised because screaming is actually one of the easiest behavior problems to solve.

Resources are Readily Available

There are a number of very good articles and webinars already in existence that outline the steps for solving a noise problem in a parrot. I published three of them myself in 2018. The formula is fairly straightforward. Remove any reinforcement for the problem noise (ignore it) and increase reinforcement for other behaviors that are more desirable – pleasant vocalizations, interacting with enrichment, etc. If you would like a refresher, read my blog post from 2018.

So…What’s the Problem?

So, why do we have so much difficulty? Could it be because a screaming parrot brings us face to face with issues we might rather not examine? Could it be that our own stinking thinking gets in our way?

I’ve given this a lot of thought recently because I live with a 42-year-old Moluccan cockatoo. Cyrano is a wild-caught parrot who arrived in the United States as a young bird. I adopted him when he was 20 years old. He’s a great parrot. He is not aggressive and, in general, isn’t very loud – unless a particular trigger is present.

I live at Cockatoo Downs, where free-flying cockatoos are a frequent sight. When they are outside flying, Cyrano loses his mind. He screams the entire time and none of the antecedent changes I have tried have been effective. No amount of enrichment can take his mind off of the fact that he can hear them clinging to my window screens.

A few days ago, he was being about as loud as a Moluccan Cockatoo can be in reaction to their proximity. I found myself for the first time actually feeling a bit frantic. I finally understood in the moment how so many of my clients have felt and just how desperate ongoing noise like that can make a person feel.

I’m a pretty even-tempered, patient person, but even I in that moment was pushed almost to the point of doing something. Only my knowledge that any action on my part could reward the behavior allowed me to remain calm and instead do something else to help myself.

As someone wrote on Facebook recently, “I just stick something in the beak to make it stop.” Yes, in the moment it can seem that we must make it stop. So, we take action. We put the parrot into another room. We cover the cage. We walk out of the room. We offer a toy. We spray water. We do whatever it takes to make it stop.

The problem with this approach is that these “solutions” that make the noise stop in the moment most often reward the behavior so that it increases in the future. By using interventions like this, we actually teach our parrots to scream. However, in our desperation for quiet, we really don’t care in that moment.

So, maybe this isn’t the easiest behavior problem to solve in a parrot. The information on how to do so is out there, readily available. So, what is getting in our way? Why can’t we simply follow directions and then live with a quiet(er) parrot? Why is this so hard?

Flaws, Delusions and Messy Bits

Actress Hattie Morahan once said, “I am fascinated by people’s flaws and delusions: all the messy bits of human nature we all try to pretend we don’t have.” I would agree. I love behavior consulting because it is such a very human endeavor, one during which these “messy bits” often come to light. And I believe it is our flaws and delusions that get in the way of achieving that goal of the quieter parrot.

I think there are five primary ways that we undermine our own best intentions and get in our own way, when it comes to solving this problem.

#1: We Believe Our Own Stories

First, we tell ourselves stories about what the parrot wants, what he intends, and how he feels. We love our parrots; it’s natural to try to interpret their communications. But, by allowing ourselves to indulge in this pastime, we often deprive ourselves of information that would point to a better solution. 

I worked with a couple who had a very loud African Grey whose favorite sound was a car alarm. We worked together for a couple of months and achieved success – the obnoxious noise was gone. Several months later, they requested a second consultation. Noise was again the issue. These folks thought they had a new problem because it was a different noise. They were telling themselves a story. The solution was actually the same as it had been the first time.

Let’s say that your parrot screams and you tell yourself, “He wants out of his cage.” That could very well be true. However, if you go let him out of his cage you will be rewarding the screaming. If you tell yourself, “He’s probably hungry – he hasn’t had dinner yet,” and you feed him, you will be rewarding the screaming.  Lots of people reward the very behavior they hate out of a misguided belief that the parrot needs something and they have to respond in that moment or they won’t be a good caregiver.

Telling ourselves stories about the parrot also allows us to take the screaming personally. I spoke to one client a few years ago who tearfully proclaimed, “He’s trying to get to me.” True, it can seem that way. However, believing this only allows us to remain stuck in a victim-like mentality that can’t even begin to grasp the details of a solution.

To solve the problem, a more dispassionate approach is required. It may feel good to us to think that we have identified and met a need our parrot has. However, this feel good moment only increases the problem in the future. The parrot isn’t going to be harmed if we don’t open that cage door or miraculously appear with dinner.

Instead, it’s necessary to examine the antecedents that set the bird up to scream and the consequences that may be maintaining the screaming, and then change those. That is the only way to solve a screaming problem. Reading the parrot’s mind doesn’t even begin to factor into the solution.

#2: Does Our Own Behavior Set the Stage for Quiet?

Second, we often don’t realize the impact of our own behavior on the parrot. It was a very amusing moment when I was talking to a couple who live with a loud Umbrella Cockatoo and they realized that their own noise levels influenced their bird. Bostonians with a tendency to become very animated when speaking to each other, they themselves were loud.  When they were loud, their bird became loud. A loud house will beget a loud parrot.

Try asking yourself if your own home supports a quiet parrot or a noisy parrot. It may be that the people living with the parrot need to quiet down and calm down themselves.

#3: An Anxious Parrot Is Often a Loud Parrot

Third, many of us have a difficult time recognizing anxiety in a parrot. We focus on the noise, oblivious to the accompanying body language. Anxious parrots can be very loud.

In using the word anxiety, I am referring to parrots whose body language indicates a lack of comfort in the environment. They do not often settle and roost. They may circle in their cages or pace back and forth along a perch for extended stretches of time. Their feathers are slicked down tightly against their bodies and they stand up tall. They move often and may vocalize shrilly in a repetitive fashion as they do so.

If you have an anxious parrot, no amount of behavior modification is going to be completely effective, because it’s necessary first to make changes that allow the parrot to relax. A careful study of the environment is necessary to determine what triggers might be responsible for this heightened state of alert in the parrot.

A more comfortable parrot will likely be a quieter parrot. Perhaps the cage needs to be moved out of a traffic pattern. Perhaps the window blinds need to be drawn. Perhaps a couple of large houseplants on either side of the cage would provide a greater feeling of security.

#4: We Live too Close to the Emotional Edge

Fourth, a screaming parrot will reveal cracks in our own equanimity and emotional stability. In my experience, there is nothing like a screaming parrot to bring otherwise sensible people to their knees. If this is the case for you, it may be time to examine your own stress levels and self-care routines.

A friend recently asked me what I do when Cyrano screams. I think she found it hard to believe when I said, “Nothing.” I just ride it out from a place of acceptance. If it gets too bad, I go into my office or go for a walk, but I rarely find the need to remove myself. Yes, it’s unpleasant but it’s really not that big a deal. If you find yourself undone by a loud parrot, perhaps it’s time to find your center, gather your wits, and just do the work.

#5: A Screaming Parrot Widens Relationship Fractures

Last, a screaming parrot can also reveal cracks in our relationships with those with whom we share a home. This is a much bigger problem than people realize. In many homes that house a screaming parrot, one person loves that bird a lot more than the others do. Often, those others are a lot more irritated by the noise.

This creates a bit of a hostage situation that always makes it impossible to solve the problem. The one who loves the parrot becomes charged with the task of keeping it quiet. This is an impossible task, so anxiety grows. Anger erupts and ultimatums follow. Already stressed relationships move just a little closer to the breaking point. Often, in these cases, the bird loses his home. Sadly, this occurred just last month with one of my clients. When explaining, she made it clear that she wasn’t going to jeopardize her marriage for the parrot’s sake.

Solving a screaming problem requires that everyone in the home is on the same page. Everyone must commit to the solution and support each other in doing the right things – following the recommended steps.

The inconvenient truth is that it is we who create screaming problems in our birds by both providing less than optimal environmental conditions and then responding incorrectly to the behavior we witness. The even more inconvenient truth is that, in order to change our parrots’ behavior, we often must change our own first.

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. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Managing Behavior through Environmental Change

By making simple changes to the environment, you can often accomplish amazing improvements in problem behaviors. When referring to environment, social exchanges are included in the discussion, as well as the physical habitat and diet. You are part of your birds’ environment. The term includes anything and everything present in the environment that can impact the parrot’s behavior.

Environment Changes = Antecedent Changes

The natural science of learning and behavior is over a century old. By studying how behavior “works,” we have discovered very positive and humane ways in which to change it. One of the best relies upon making changes to the bird’s environment. In the science of applied behavior analysis, these types of changes are referred to as antecedent changes.animals-3618625__340

Such changes enable us to make undesirable behavior less likely and to make desirable behavior more likely. They are essential to “setting the parrot up for success,” when teaching new behaviors or strengthening existing ones. Antecedent arrangements determine which behavior the animal is most likely to perform. Essentially, they can be thought of as simply the management of behavior.

The huge value of positive reinforcement training (which includes clicker training) is now more commonly recognized and understood as one of the best ways to improve an animal’s behavior, as well as to teach new ones. However, antecedent changes are equally useful and can serve as stand-alone interventions. When you couple skillful arrangement of antecedents with the use of positive reinforcement, there are few limits to what you can achieve.

Ethics of Behavior Change

Antecedent changes are one of the most positive, least intrusive ways to change behavior. They often increase quality of life for the bird, in addition to making the owner’s life easier. They help to build a more trusting owner-parrot relationship.

This is important. When dealing with our parrots’ behavior, we must do so in an ethical manner. There is no room for forceful intervention, such as the frequently recommended advice to restrain a parrot until he stops resisting. For any who would like to delve further into the ethics of behavior change, please read the article by Susan Friedman, Ph.D. titled What’s Wrong with this Picture? Effectiveness is not Enough.

What Behaviors Can Be Managed?

The first key to using this behavior management strategy is to begin answering for yourself these questions:

  • What might make it easier (or more likely) for my bird to perform the behavior I want to see?
  • What might make it less likely that my bird will perform the problem behavior?
  • Does my parrot react to me differently when in different locations around the house, when perching at different elevations, or when others are present?

When we choose to live with very intelligent, sentient animals like parrots, we must be problem-solvers. parrot-55293__340Making use of antecedent (environment) changes helps greatly. This type of behavior modification also makes life easier for us. We don’t have to get caught up in telling ourselves stories about how the parrot feels or what he wants. We just make simple changes, then evaluate the resulting behavior. If not effective, we try another possible change.

The following are some real life examples of how well this type of strategy can work. I’ve used common problems voiced frequently by clients, as well as those from my own life with birds. These are organized according to the suggested questions above.

What might make it easier for my bird to perform the behavior I want to see?

Example #1: A Meyer’s parrot sustained an injury, received medical treatment and pain medication and was back at home, but losing weight. download (14)His owner, when home, observed him readily climbing down lower in his cage to access his food dish. Thus, pain (causing a reluctance to move) did not at first appear to account for the weight loss.

I suggested the possibility that he might not be as motivated to climb downward in her absence (a different environment). He would not have the stimulation of her presence to energize him, nor the distraction of her presence that might allow him to disregard his discomfort.

Antecedent Change: We moved the food dishes up right by his favorite perch and he regained the weight he had lost. We have no way of knowing whether this particular change, some other factor, or all changes combined, caused him to gain weight again. However, I offer this example to make you think. Parrots often behave differently when you are not at home.

Example #2: A similar example concerns the challenge many small birds pose when we try to improve their diet from a seed mix to formulated foods. Cages sold for these species always have the food dishes located down near the bottom of the cage. This means that getting to the food requires effort for the bird.

Antecedent Change: Place the new foods into additional dishes right up by the perch the bird uses most, leaving the seed mix in the dish down low. This is an example of decreasing the response effort. We make it easier for the bird to eat the new food because doing so requires less effort than does climbing down to the bottom of the cage.

Example #3: Many parrots do not readily interact with enrichment or consume fresh vegetables or fruit. bird-1941481__340These activities can be encouraged through their skillful placement. As the photo shows, placing a chuck of fresh food in a novel place often encourages consumption more quickly than simply leaving it in the food dish. I increased my own parrots’ consumption of pellets by offering them on play stands, in addition to their cages.

When placing enrichment, stand back and evaluate how the parrot uses his cage. I see cages with toys on the floor or in the lower third of the cage (where parrots usually don’t spend much time). I see toys in spots where it would take a great deal of effort for the bird to use them. I see toys that are completely inappropriate to the bird’s size, rendering interaction impossible.

Antecedent Changes: (1) Place the toy at a spot in the cage where the bird spends most of his time. Make sure that he can access it easily from that perch. (2) Hang it from the ceiling of the cage at beak level. It takes more effort for a parrot to bend over to interact with enrichment. (3) Place it where it’s not likely to bang into any part of his body when he turns around. (4) If it’s wood to chew, make sure that it isn’t too hard or too thick for him. (5) Use the information you have from previous behavior to inform your choice about what you provide. For example, if he chews up your junk mail when you leave it around, try a first toy made out of paper.

Example #4: Many clients complain that their parrot isn’t motivated to earn treats (preferred foods) when they attempt training.

Antecedent Changes: (1) Increase the value of the food treats you are using by only offering them when training and at no other time. (2) Try training right before a meal when motivation might be higher. (3) Eliminate any distractions, like other people or animals, in the training environment that might make your parrot less likely to focus.

What might make it less likely that my bird will perform a problem behavior in a particular set of circumstances?

Example #1: I once had a quaker parakeet who was fiercely “territorial” around his cagedownload (16) – meaning that I had a hard time interacting with him or changing out food dishes when he was near his cage because he would bite with ferocity. Luckily, he had a good recall and would fly to my hand whenever called.

Antecedent Change: Rather than trying to service his cage or asking him to step up when he was there, I instead would open his cage door, step back, cue him to fly to me, and put him on a play stand, which allowed me to interact with him easily or to service his cage while he was on the stand.

Example #2050One of my greys takes great pleasure in testing gravity by throwing my pots and pans down from my pot rack. She is also a genius when it comes to finding her way into my kitchen cupboards when I am not looking. A normally patient person, these behaviors turns me into a crazy woman. (I came inside recently, after taking my dog for a brief walk, to find my kitchen counter and floor covered with a mixture of baking soda, cocoa powder, ramen noodles and soy sauce.)

Antecedent Change: The most obvious and simplest change would be just to store my cook pots in a cupboard, preventing that problem entirely. However, I live in a teeny, tiny house with little storage space. So, I recently found a way to use different hooks that make it harder for her to enjoy that type of fun. To resolve the second issue, I installed child proof locks on my cupboards. Scolding her for either behavior would have only rewarded her by giving her social attention.  Often, preventing problem behavior is the very best solution.

Example #3: A frequently voiced problem is that of the parrot who bites when you try to change out food bowls. I used to live with a Blue and Gold macaw who was like a rocket, charging through his food dish openings in an attempt to get to me, when I tried to feed him from the outside of his cage.

Antecedent Change: I solved that problem by offering a large treat very near a high perch on the opposite side of the cage. Anyone can do this. Place a second bowl up higher in the cage. When you are ready to change out dishes, place a valued food (that will take a minute or two to eat) in there. This will lure the parrot up to that dish, leaving you safe to accomplish your task. By repeating this every time you feed, you will soon have a parrot who stations while you feed.

Example #4: A client complained that her parrot would snatch her stud earrings out of her ears when she was holding him.

Antecedent Change: Take off the earrings before you hold your bird.

Does my parrot react to me differently when in different locations around the house, when perching at different elevations, or when others are present?

Example #1: Many parrots step up readily when perched at chest height, but are more reluctant when perched over the owner’s head. imagesCAUSHIDZOne cause can be that parrots, by nature, are much more comfortable stepping upward and forward, rather than downward.

Antecedent Change: Slowly get up on a step stool in a manner that doesn’t frighten the parrot and then ask him to step upward onto your hand. He will be much more likely to do so.

Example #2: Another of my greys occasionally chooses to perch around the house at spots down a bit lower, like the top of my step stool or the door to the dog crate. He often solicits head scratches from me while there, but I have learned he is a lot more likely to deliver the  “Congo Grey Sucker Bite” when I am taken in by this “false” invitation. He never does that when he is perched up higher. Note: I don’t have to figure out why he displays this odd difference in behavior in certain spots in order to solve the problem.

Antecedent Change: I ignore his solicitations to pet his head when he is perched lower on one of these spots. (I don’t want him there anyway so should not reward that behavior.) Instead, I readily provide head pets when he is on his cage or a play stand and more likely to be a gentleman.

Example #3: A client complained recently that her parrot would vocalize obnoxiously non-stop when she worked in the kitchen, even though he could easily see her from his cage.

Antecedent Change: Put a table top perch in the kitchen and bring him in to supervise. They can socialize a bit and she can take that opportunity also to offer fresh vegetables as a snack. This simple change caused her to pronounce me “a genius.” We can all be geniuses if we learn to think in this manner.

Example #4: A cockatoo, pair-bonded to the woman in the home, bites anyone who tries to sit on the couch with her when he is near.

Antecedent Change:  Keep the bird in his cage or on a nearby perch when you are sitting on the sofa.

The Process

Managing behavior by making antecedent changes is really just a matter of using common sense and brainstorming. First, identify and describe in detail the behavior you want to change (increase or decrease). Then, brainstorm as many environmental modifications (antecedent changes) as you can think of that might create the change you desire, even if some seem pretty silly or unlikely to work.

Next, try first using the one you think most likely to work. After a few days, step back and evaluate. Have you solved the problem? If not, go on to try the next most likely.

Some solutions are so effective and simple, they might appear suspect. For example, if a parrot bites or chews on your clothes when on your shoulder, simply deny him this privilege. One small change solves the problem with little effort.

In other situations, finding a solution can take many attempts.  I have a client in Jordan with a mechanically inclined cockatoo who delights in leaving his cage to take the top panel off of the radiator. We have worked hard to teach stationing, but the radiator fun apparently is very reinforcing to him and resistant to change. Obviously, that training needs to be continued, but due to the possible danger, we also tried some antecedent changes.

We put a blanket over it when not in use. He moved the blanket. We tried putting an object on top that he hadn’t seen before, thinking that might make him less likely to go over to that side of the room. He didn’t care. We are left with the only option possible – to use additional hardware to screw the top in place and prevent the behavior completely.

Summary

Parrots are a joy and a challenge. Managing their behavior can press us to our limits. However, doing so can be a lot easier than you imagine. digital-art-95075__340You can learn to do this!

Make first and frequent use of antecedent changes. Once you have the knack of arranging the environment to get the behavior you want, go on and learn how to use positive reinforcement to  maintain desirable behaviors and teach new ones.

Don’t blame your parrots for being “difficult!” Instead, have some fun trying to create behavior changes. When you do, always remember to be kind. You can use what you learn on partners and children too!

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. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Resource and Suggested Reading List (these are not parrot-specific because the same rules for behavior change are the same for all species):

Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor (revised edition, 2006)

Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavioral Problems in Companion Parrots by Barbara Heidenreich (2012)

How Parrots Learn to Behave by Susan Friedman, Ph.D. and Phoebe Greene Linden (2003)

10 Things Your Parrot Wants You to Know about Behavior by Susan Friedman, Ph.D.

Blog post by Eileen Anderson on her site eileenanddogs  – What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? .