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!

Success Story: A Case of Feather Damaging Behavior

Abbie contacted me in early April 2018.  Scout, her Black-headed Caique, had suddenly begun destroying his feathers the previous December.  He was 13 years old at the time and had livOscarandChristieed with Abbie for 5 years.  Before that, he had one previous owner who returned him to the breeder for a biting problem.  Abbie had adopted him from that breeder after his return.

Abbie did exactly the right things once she noticed the problem. She scheduled a vet visit to rule out any medical causes. She then sought professional behavior support.  Abbie describes her feelings at the time: 

When we first noticed Scout had picked his feathers, and could see the holes in his plumage, I was heartbroken. I knew that feather picking was an unhealthy behavior. As I looked into it, I was overwhelmed and scared for Scout because there are so many differing opinions and so many suggestions. It is confusing, and the internet just makes it more impersonal. I didn’t want to spend months or years trying one thing and it not working, being frustrated, and starting over. I knew Scout couldn’t go through that either, not if I was serious about ending the feather picking. 

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Before Photo (early April 2018)

Scout is part of our family and we love him dearly. My heart was broken, but I was determined to help this get fixed. I thought I was already a good bird owner. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. We actually prayed, as a family, to be able to take care of Scout and for him to get better. 

 It was Abbie’s determination to get help quickly that ensured her success. As a specialist in feather damaging behavior (FDB), I have learned to provide prognoses to clients struggling with this problem. If you get effective help within six months of start of the problem, there is a 95% chance that your parrot will again be completely feathered. If you wait until the problem has gone on for a year, that chance of success drops to about 85%. If the problem goes on for two years or more, chances of resolution drop to about 70% or lower.

It’s always worth getting help from a professional because quality of life can be improved. However, if you are serious about having a parrot with perfect plumage again, getting help quickly is the key to success.

A Complex Problem

Feather damaging behavior (FDB) is a complex problem and finding solutions depends upon a detailed review of all aspects of the parrot’s life. There is rarely just one cause for this problem, unless it’s a medical one. Typically, there are several factors that combine to push the parrot over the edge into this extreme behavior. Thus, each case is a bit like a crime scene investigation.  You must take into account all the clues available by taking a thorough history.

Describing all of the risk factors for FDB is not within the scope of today’s blog. For a more thorough discussion of possible causes, please read my two-part article Feather Destructive Behavior in Companion Parrots.

I will tell you, though, that a lot has to be wrong in a parrot’s life for this problem to begin at all.  I was at a client’s home recently to talk about their cockatoo who had begun to bite. As we talked, she admitted that she is terrified that her parrot will start feather picking in the future.  I could immediately reassure her.  The bird has a large cage with plenty to do. He’s got great play skills. He enjoys full flight and regular training sessions. He eats a perfect diet. He gets time outdoors and bathing opportunities regularly. There is no way this bird is a candidate to develop this problem.  It just doesn’t happen “out of the blue.” There are always very clear, identifiable reasons that all relate to quality of life.

Identification of Causes

I sent Abbie an eight-page questionnaire to complete. Prior to our telephone consultation, I needed her to provide a detailed history. As I reviewed all of the information that she provided, I formulated some thoughts about the possible causes.

  1.  First, Scout had formed a pair bond with Abbie and was regularly on her shoulder for extended periods. He also took advantage of his out-of-cage time to go cavity seeking on the floor. I believe that both factors lead to an increased production of reproductive hormones, which is a risk factor for FDB.
  2. Scout also lacked “play skills.”  He didn’t interact much with enrichment, preferring instead to cruise the floor. He needed help learning to forage and we needed to find out what types of toys he might find interesting.
  3. I also thought his diet could use improvement. Abbie had never been able to get Scout to eat pellets. His main dietary staple was Lafeber Nutriberries with various fruits and vegetables added, depending upon what was in the house. I thought the diet might be a bit low in protein. The Nutriberries, while a valuable addition, only contain 12.5% protein. Since Scout also ate other foods, this brought the overall protein content of what he consumed even lower. Further, while the Nutriberries do contain some pellets, they have too much seed to be the primary dietary staple for a caique.
  4. Last, while some caiques can be fairly bullet-proof when it comes to dealing with stressful situations, I didn’t think this was the case with Scout. He had experienced a number of stressful situations within the relatively short period of five months. These included a week-long evacuation for a hurricane, a change of appearance for Abbie, an owner absence during which Scout stayed in the home alone with a caregiver coming in twice a day, and the advent of the Christmas holiday with all the changes to routine and home appearance that this brought.

Stress and Feather Picking

I want to take a minute to emphasize something. I read too often that a parrot started to destroy feathers because the dog died…or the owner went on vacation…or the daughter went off to college.  Events like those can trigger the problem, but are no more than that.

Despite the prevailing “wisdom” on the Internet, I don’t find that stress plays a role very often in the development of feather damaging behavior. Parrots are flexible and adaptable and forgiving.  Most are well able to return themselves to a state of equilibrium after a stressful event. However, this does take a bit of time. If enough stressful events happen within a short enough period of time, the result can impact the parrot adversely.

Testing Hypotheses While Keeping within Limits

All of these possible causes that I identified were only hypotheses. With a case of FDB, you can’t know for sure what the causes are.  However, with enough experience, you can make some educated guesses. The process from that point onward requires making changes and measuring your progress.

In Abbie’s case, we had limits within which we needed to work.  As with so many of us, these had to do with money and time.  Not only does Abbie work full-time outside the home, her husband is often away and she has a toddler to care for. It wasn’t easy for her to accomplish the changes I recommended. As she put it:

Over the past few months, working with Pamela, there were times when I got confused, frustrated, overwhelmed and busy with life. But, when I talked to her, she helped me break things down into realistic things that I could do, in my personal situation in life, to make steady progress.

Evolving the Pair Bond

Since Scout had begun feather picking in December, just as the days were beginning to grow longer, I suspected that increased production of reproductive hormones was a significant factor.

I wanted to see what we could do to reduce hormone production and encourage Scout to pursue more “functional” behaviors. This required evolving the pair bond that he had with Abbie. I asked her to gradually reduce the amount of time that he spent on her shoulder. The end goal was to be no “shoulder time” for more than five minutes once or twice a day. She was also to confine any petting to his head only. If he started to masturbate when with her, she would cheerfully but immediately put him down and walk away. He would learn that this sort of attention was not welcome.

The Solution to Cavity Seeking is Stationing

It was important that Scout not be allowed to roam the floor.  This practice not only results in a lot of destruction to baseboards and furniture, it allows the parrot to seek out “nesty” spots. His time would be a lot better spent in foraging or flying. To solve this problem, she began stationing training with him.  He would get all the good stuff (toys, treats, and social attention) when he was on his perch. He would get nothing except a return to his perch when he tried to access the floor.

However, before she could begin this training, she had to provide some stations (perches). OscaronBasketAgain we worked within our limits and Abbie found that baskets make great perches for birds Scout’s size.  They can be moved from room to room and the base filled with items that might trigger interest.  Scout soon learned to station well. He had lots to do in his basket each time he was on it and Abbie rewarded him liberally for staying there.

We found a coiled rope perch that Abbie could hang from the ceiling. This too would help to keep Scout off the floor. His wings are not clipped, but he doesn’t choose to fly much.  Therefore, this would be a great way to keep him up high where he couldn’t get into trouble. By mid-May, Scout was no longer getting down to roam the floor.

Foraging and Enrichment

Together, we increased the amount of enrichment that Scout received daily.  This is important for any feather picking bird. If a bird is chewing on enrichment, he can’t be chewing on his feathers.  Granted, some birds must be taught to forage and enjoy toys to chew.

In my experience, you just have to find a starting point.  I gave Abbie some suggestions for specific toys to purchase and others to make at home. To increase his foraging efforts right away, we put his Nutriberries in a foraging wheel along with plenty of beads of a size that he couldn’t swallow. He had to fish out the beads to get at the Nutriberries. That was a beginning. If Abbie had the time, she would provide a new foraging project every day before she left for work.

While it may seem fairly inconsequential, I also asked Abbie to change the perching in Scout’s cage.  If you want a parrot to do something, you must set him up for success. The way that the perches were placed, it wasn’t as easy as it could be for Scout to access his toys.  By placing these in more convenient (for him) locations, we encouraged him to interact with enrichment more often for longer periods.

Making Changes to Diet

We changed Scout’s diet and began to provide a lot of it in foraging toys. If a parrot isn’t on an optimal diet, you won’t get optimal behavior. Abbie introduced pellets into the daily ration. She also began to include more variety, in terms of fresh foods.

I suggested that she feed supplemental foods twice a day – first thing in the morning and again when she got home from work. She was to focus on vegetables and limited low-sugar fruits. She would put the veggies into an acrylic foraging ball when she was short of time. When her schedule was freer, she would make a chop mix and feed that.

I asked Abbie to stop giving Scout cashews as treats and instead reserve these solely for training and foraging. We would gradually reduce the number of Nutriberries he ate each day as he began to sample the new foods. By mid-May Scout was eating the new foods, although his consumption of the pellets was a bit slower.

Teaching New Behaviors and Strengthening Existing Ones

I recommended that Abbie engage in some active training with Scout to teach new behaviors. When a parrot has formed a pair bond with you, beginning to train new behaviors can help. Over time, the parrot learns to look to you for guidance rather than physical affection. It gives everyone a more functional way to relate and serves to round out the social experience.

Thus, Abbie began target training with Scout.  Scout, however, met this effort by exhibiting such excitable behavior that training wasn’t possible. Once we saw this, we backed off a little and just reinforced him for calm behavior in the presence of the target. ChristieTargeting Once he could remain calm when a training session started, Abbie could proceed with the process of teaching him to touch the chopstick with his beak.

In addition, I asked Abbie to work on the step-up cue with Scout. He did step up, but wasn’t consistent. I saw this as another way to evolve her relationship with him. She was to reinforce him every time he stepped up quickly when cued to do so. Once they had achieved better compliance, she would begin to work on recall with him, which would increase the amount of exercise he gets.

Stress

We did not make any specific changes to reduce stress.  There were no vacations or other potentially stressful events planned and I knew that just increasing enrichment and training would have a beneficial impact on any stress that might still linger.

Results

By mid-June, it was obvious that Scout had stopped his feather destruction.

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After Photo (mid-June 2018)

Remember the “before” photo above?  The photo to the right shows how Scout looked in mid-June, only two and a half months after we began our consultation.

Granted, this was a very fast resolution of the problem.  However, it proves what can be accomplished when an owner seeks help as soon as the problem starts and then implements religiously the right recommendations.

It also reflects the fact that Scout was just starting a molt.  In cases where the parrot bites feathers off, you won’t necessarily see progress until those feather ends molt out and new feathers take their places. It can mean months of waiting to find out if your efforts have been effective.  In the meantime it helps to keep a photo diary by taking pictures at the start of each month.  That way, you can assure yourself that at least the feather loss isn’t still continuing.

Abbie’s reflection on the experience: Some of my biggest takeaways are that it is ME that needs the behavior training; after I am trained, I can train Scout. The emphasis must be on being a Zookeeper first. And, the emphasis on being a parental [guiding] role in your parrot’s life, not a mate.

Lessons to Be Learned

  • If you have a parrot who starts to damage his feathers, get help quickly. If you have a parrot who has been chewing off feathers for some time, get help anyway. You will at least improve his quality of life and your knowledge.
  • Limits won’t limit your success. We all have limited time, energy, and money. That doesn’t have to stop you from taking action today.
  • Feather damaging behavior can absolutely be resolved with the right interventions.
  • Keeping parrots in a way that prevents problems is not necessarily easy. Since reliable information is hard to find, even the sharpest owners can still have problems.  Success isn’t measured by a lack of problems. It gets measured in how quickly you address them. Way to go, Abbie!

Have you found success in stopping feather destruction?  If so, please share what helped the most by leaving a comment.

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!