Liz Wilson explains how to stop your Parrot from screaming.
In the world of Parrots, there are certain species of birds that are famous for the level of racket they can produce. Generally speaking, the large Cockatoos and Macaws lead that list.
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Indeed, my own Blue and Yellow Macaw hen Sam is quite capable of cranking out a din that makes me wonder why the windows don’t shatter. I also joke about Moluccan and Umbrella Cockatoos making a long distance call to Indonesia most evenings … without a phone.
Generally speaking, Macaws tend to sound off for 5-10 minutes several times a day and Cockatoos tend to be noisiest in morning and/or evening. Also high on the list of naturally noisy Parrots, one should include Amazons and Aratingua Conures (Blue Crowned, Sun, Mitred, etc.)
Unpleasant as those sounds might be to us humans, are these sounds evidence of a “behaviour problem”? Absolutely not, Parrots are what they are, not what we want them to be. Unlike domesticated species like dogs and cats, they still carry the genetics of their wild cousins, genetics that have enabled them to survive in the wild for thousands and thousands of years.
Can you train that out of a Parrot? Absolutely not! Even if you could, should you? ABSOLUTELY NOT. As the saying goes, If you want a quiet pet, get a reptile or a fish. In other words, if you want a quiet Parrot, I would respectfully suggest you buy a lovely picture of a Parrot and hang it on the wall, or you could purchase a stuffed toy that looks like a Parrot. Otherwise, please do not get a Parrot!
So-Called “Quiet” Parrot Species
Internet Parrot lists often discuss what they call “quiet Parrots.” When considering such birds, you need to understand that these birds are not silent. They are simply quieter than the species that are famous for being REALLY LOUD!
If prolonged silence is precious to you, then it is likely that no species of companion bird will be satisfactory. After all, even minuscule Finches make tiny beeping noises most of the time, and Budgies are famous for their continuous happy chirping and chortling sounds.
I have even had people call and complain about their Greys, who are happily yammering away non-stop. They want to know how to turn off the talking! To those people, I (somewhat) politely explain that Parrots do not come with an “Off” switch, and I offer to help them rehome their bird.
Life with a Naturally Noisy Parrot
If you chose a Parrot of a noisy species, there are ways to channel that energy, but not to eliminate it. With my Macaw, I plan to have full volume screaming fests while my husband is not here. He has little tolerance for her rumpus, so it improves peace in the household if I give her a chance to blow off steam when he isn’t around. So I don’t expect her to be quiet, but I try to increase the odds that she will be quiet when he is home.
If he is out of town, Sam and I come down in the morning at full volume, shrieking happily together as we descend the stairs. The cats don’t appreciate it, I’m sure, but they don’t contribute to paying the mortgage, so they don’t have a vote.
For those who work from home, scream fests can also be lovely pressure valves prior to important phone and/or conference calls. Giving a Parrot a deep soaking shower will do the same thing, as soaked Parrots have a lot of preening to do.
After all, screaming makes no sense with a mouthful of wet feathers. A soaking bath right before the kids and husband get home from their busy day might also decrease the racket, as the family Parrot is too busy preening to join in the normal commotion.
There is also that lovely quiet period in the early afternoon when most Parrots nap. This can also be a good time to accomplish things that are unsuccessful with Psittacine vocalizing in the background.
For those with Cockatoos that choose to celebrate the end of the day with a cacophony of noise, that is often a lovely time of day for the family to go for a walk or a drive together. It needn’t be a long one, as most Cockatoos tend to quiet down after 10-15 minutes.
Prevention of Excessive Noise
To prevent your Parrot from learning to scream excessively is actually quite easy. All you need to do is not reinforce the commotion. As always with behaviour, those that are not rewarded are not repeated.
So a Parrot that never gets attention from humans when it screams is unlikely to learn to scream excessively. Why should it, if it doesn’t get anything out of it? This technique will not, however, produce a quiet Parrot. It will simply produce a Parrot that does not make more noise than what is considered ‘normal’ for its species.
At the same time, owners need to reinforce the sounds the Parrot makes that they do not mind. So when their Parrot talks, or makes noise that isn’t objectionable, humans need to reward those sounds with praise and attention. It isn’t just a matter of teaching a bird what NOT to do. It also needs to learn what to do INSTEAD!
The fastest way to teach a Parrot to become excessively noisy is to try to keep it quiet. After all, rushing over to hush a Parrot that is just starting to make noise will only teach it that noise gets it attention. This was precisely what happened with the couple who purchased a large Cockatoo when they lived in an apartment complex that had a strict “No Pets” rule. For obvious reasons, that didn’t work out.
I’ll never forget my phone conversation years ago with a woman who was complaining about her Blue and Yellow Macaw screaming for hours at a time.
“What do you do when the bird screams?” I asked her.
“Well,” she said, “My husband says, ‘MYRTLE, YOU GOTTA SHUT THAT BIRD UP!!!’, so I give him a piece of cheese.”
Gee. Can anyone guess why this bird screams for hours at a time?
“Fixing” the Excessively Noisy Parrot
The first thing to understand about a Parrot that screams excessively is that the behaviour exists because it was rewarded. Period. Humans often didn’t consider their actions as reinforcement, but they were. Entering the room to reprimand a Parrot is a blatant reinforcement, as the bird made you appear, poof!
Ineffective “Time Outs
Coming in to cover the cage has the same effect. Drama adds spice to the encounter if the person is angry enough to yell. Perhaps, as Sally Blanchard suggests, the “cover the cage technique” occasionally works as the bird eventually quiets due to sensory deprivation.
However, the bird has still not learned what to do instead of screaming, so no long term ‘fix’ has been achieved. From my experience, putting the bird in a so-called “time out cage” also doesn’t work because the immediate result of the racket was you picking the bird up. Ending up alone in a cage a couple of minutes later is likely not associated with the noise at all, as too much has happened in between.
Effective “Time Out
If the racket continues and you are in the same room, give the bird a second’s dirty look, and turn your back – therefore briefly removing your attention from the bird. Then if the noise ceases, instantly turn back to the bird and reward it.
If the noise continues, exit the room and leave the bird alone – but while training, wait just out of sight. The second the bird quiets, immediately re-enter the room and reward the bird for that second of silence.
DO NOT expect a Parrot to wait in silence for several minutes! How are they to know you are timing them, and for how long? As you train, shape the quieter behaviour by expecting the bird to be quiet for two seconds, then three, before receiving its prize.
If you are not in the same room when a screaming episode begins, you should do nothing until the bird quiets briefly and/or makes an acceptable sound (like talking or whistling). You should then instantly reenter the room and reward the bird, or call to it from another room.
It is important to understand that everyone in the environment has to do the same thing. If anyone in the household is rewarding the screaming, then the bird’s behaviour will not change. So if a Parrot lets out a blood-curdling shriek, everyone needs to ignore it, and when the sound is acceptable, everyone needs to reinforce it.
Extinguishing an Unwanted Behaviour
To withhold a reward from a previously reinforced behaviour is said to extinguish the behaviour. The process of extinction is well documented as being extremely effective – but unfortunately it takes time to work.
This isn’t helpful to a lot of people, since (for reasons I cannot fathom) they often wait until they CAN’T STAND IT ANYMORE before they seek professional help. And how much time does that leave them to turn things around? After all, it takes time to teach behaviour and it also takes time to change that behaviour.
A couple of things can speed the process, however, such as keeping a diary to prevent the behaviour from starting, and teaching incompatible behaviours to redirect the behaviour once it’s begun.
Keeping a Diary
By keeping a diary, you can identify the times when your Parrot is most likely to have a vocal tantrum. Once identified, you can implement changes to the patterns that lead up to the behaviour – therefore changing the behaviour itself. For instance, you might find your Parrot screams whenever you have company.
If so, then move the Parrot to another room (in its cage or into another cage) BEFORE the guests arrive. Give it some luscious food treats and a fabulous new toy you have saved for this exact circumstance.
Give it a few foraging things to work on. Then turn on a radio and/or a white noise machine and close the door. In this way, you have already removed him from a situation in which you know it will get into trouble, before the trouble starts.
If the bird enjoys company, you can bring it out to meet everyone, perhaps do a couple of cute tricks (thereby earning you both positive reinforcement), then return it to the separate room with more stuff to do. If you wait until it has started screaming, then you have rewarded the behaviour when you pick it up, so it will happen again.
An incompatible behaviour is a behaviour that makes another behaviour impossible to do. For example, a Parrot can’t whistle or whisper and scream at the same time. So if you teach your Parrot to make quiet noises using positive reinforcement, then you will likely be able to redirect a screaming episode into something quite acceptable – and then you can lavishly reward that substituted behaviour.
Another example of an incompatible behaviour is the bathing-induced preening I mentioned earlier.
Many owners have discovered to their delight that tricks can also interrupt unwanted noises. For instance, teaching a Parrot to raise its wings, turn around, do a little dance, or wave on cue can disrupt a racket, enabling the owner to reward the cued behaviour. The enables the bird to learn that the cued behaviour will always get the Parrot the attention it craves, whereas the racket no longer does.
When Noise Requires a Response
There are two exceptions to the rule of ignoring unwanted sounds. When the human “flock” reunites, Parrots tend to celebrate this occasion with raucous noise. This appears to be a natural response, and you should not ignore the bird in this situation.
Instead, you should greet your birds and spend a couple of minutes interacting with them. You should then ignore any noise that happens after Parrots are suitably greeted.
The second exception is the “contact call.” In the wild, a Parrot’s flock represents the safety and protection of numbers and once separated from the flock, a bird is more likely to become a predator’s meal.
Consequently, a prime function of that powerful voice is to enable Parrots to communicate with each other when other flock members are not visible. In this circumstance, they use a contact call, and its function is to identify the location of other flock members. Companion Parrots also do this to see if they are alone. Contact calls vary widely with domestic-bred Parrots, so caretakers need to pay attention and identify the sound their Parrots use in this manner.
If contact calls are not answered, they will escalate to a scream – which usually gets a response. In this way, humans teach a Parrot that the only contact call that gains a response is one that involves excessive noise. Therefore, people need to answer a contact call from anywhere in the house.
African Greys in the companion home frequently learn to replicate the ringing of phones and beeping of microwaves. Greys have doubtless learned that these sounds always get a response, so they mimic them when seeking contact with their humans. In other words, according to my late colleague Jane Hallender, they appear to have learned that a ringing telephone and beeping microwave are human contact calls.
When working to change a behaviour like excessive screaming, it is important to recognize a phenomenon called the extinction burst. An extinction burst is a reappearance of a behaviour that has begun to be extinguished, generally in the beginning of the extinction process.
In other words, you and your family has been working very hard together to extinguish your Parrot’s excessive noisemaking. You are delighted because your hard work is definitely paying off. The racket has decreased tremendously and you are really proud of the progress you have made.
Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, the bird is making more noise than it did before you started trying to improve things. This is an extinction burst, and it is a normal stage of the extinction process. Unfortunately, many people don’t realise this, so they simply give up. They’d had their hopes dashed so they throw in the towel.
However, it is crucial to understand that an extinction burst is proof that your hard work is paying off! Also, when encountering an extinction burst it is critical that you DON’T REWARD IT. If you do, you’ll set yourself back to the beginning.
If ignored, the extinction burst will end on its own, and (relative) quiet will return. Sometimes there are several of these bursts, but each will be further apart and shorter in duration until the behaviour is fully extinguished.
By following the precepts of behaviour modification, owners can avoid teaching their Psittacine birds to use noise or screaming to get attention. As always, IGNORE the behaviours you don’t want and REWARD the ones you do, and you and your Parrot will enjoy each other’s company for years to come.
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