A man entered a pet shop and asked: ‘I’m looking for a pet Parrot. Have you got a quiet one? The salesman shook his head. ‘The toy shop is three doors down, Sir.’
Incessant screaming is one of the reasons Parrots are relinquished. The care givers cannot stand the noise. Often they’re truly attached to their pet but lacking information of how to prevent screaming, they regretfully rehome the bird. If the bird’s screaming is intolerable and you don’t want to give her up there are methods of training that will almost always work.
Before you start training to stop screaming, take notes and record of several days of the screaming episodes which should help you to try and workout why the bird is calling. It will help if you note down what times and duration the Parrot screams. Can you decide what is the reason for the noise?
The Parrot has a reason for screaming. Behaviour has function. What did he get out of screaming? Was it you running into him? That is teaching him – make a lot of noise and one of them will come back. Parrots are not evolved to live alone. They are flock creatures. And in our homes if they are sole bird, we are their flock.
Two considerations before embarking on a training programme. These are environment and nutrition.
Parrots don’t want to be alone nor do they want scary sights and noises. A cage plonked in the middle of a room is scary for a nervous bird. A cage needs to be against a wall. Is the Parrot bored? Long hours alone especially for a species like a Cockatoo leads to intense boredom which encourages loud vocalisations.
Are they from fear, anxiety or simply the need for human or avian company? We cannot ever be certain. What we can be certain of is that sympathetic sensitive handling of Parrot’s anxiety will calm the situation. The Parrot’s environment needs to be one where he feels secure and above all has space to move around. Out of cage time is essential to lessen screaming behaviour. So is time in an aviary in the fresh air.
Nutrition an issue to be considered.
A diet too high in protein and fats encourages mating behaviour which in the case of a single bird calling for a mate encourages noise. Where has his or her mate gone? If you have had the bad luck to have a Parrot over bonded to you that bird may call for you incessantly when you are out of sight. Parrots will also call for find out where their flock mates are.
Food management and weight management.
Falconers and some professionals lower a bird’s weight to ensure they cooperate. This is not a technique for hobbyists. It needs a lot of experience to be used correctly.
Food management is not dangerous for a bird’s mental or physical health. To manage food in a training situation, you must know how much food the bird eats in day. Take out the favourite items and use them for rewards.
You can also provide special items the Parrot only gets through training. And if you want to train seriously take out the food bowls from the cage and train before breakfast and supper. The bird won’t starve if she hasn’t constant access to food. I weigh my birds weekly.
Training with positive reinforcement is relatively simple. The more you practice; the better it becomes. Many behaviours can be trained in one or two twenty-minute training sessions. To train a bird not to scream will take longer.
Your state of mind is important.
Birds are super sensitive to their humans’ emotions. If you are feeling cross or unhappy or out of sorts, don’t train at that time. An ideal state of mind to be in is to be focused completely on your bird and what he is trying to tell you with his body language.
Examples of changing behaviour that failed and one that worked
A wild caught Moluccan Cockatoo screamed incessantly. The owners covered the cage; he still screamed in the dark. Once he was covered for 24 hours. Rehomed with empathetic carers the screaming has diminished.
Bobo, an Umbrella Cockatoo who came here at 15 years of age, had many problems from a difficult life.
Amongst them - her incessant shrieks as soon as she saw one of us; she also liked to dance. It did not take long to show her that if she danced when she saw us while we sang happy birthday, she couldn’t shriek at the same time. The strategy worked.
I consider that my aviary isn’t noisy, and my birds relatively quiet. However, to call out first thing in the morning and also towards evening is natural behaviour for the majority of pssittacenes species. They call to greet the dawn and get ready to fly off to forage and the call at evening to reassemble the flock in their night time roost.
Those instincts have not been bred out of captive birds. Some voices are louder than other. Cockatoos can be literally deafening. They use their voices to communicate across vast distances to one another when in the wild.
Good training can and does reverse behaviour that we don’t want in our companion birds. A young bird that has been well handled as a chick is eager to learn. But even a second hand bird that has developed problems like biting and screaming, plucking, refusing step up, can be redirected into pleasanter behaviours.
The following pointers deal with abating screaming but the training applies to all other behaviours that make life with our bird uncomfortable at best and painful at worst. Training is simply another word for teaching.
Any animal trained with positive reinforcement learns what behaviour it can offer the handler to earn the reward they want. Positive reinforcement (PR) is sometimes called reward training. The reverse is negative reinforcement (NR) or punishment. Positive reinforcement with the minimum of negative reinforcement provides the most successful technique in training Parrots. Here are some short definitions?
A primary reinforcer is usually a food reward. You don’t need to teach a bird what the reward is. (Needing food is an instinct that doesn’t have to be learned)
Sometimes a Parrot reacts better to a secondary reinforcer – that’s something the bird has learned to value. It could be a toy or a head rub.
How to train using positive reinforcement
Professional trainers use a log book or record book. I’m not a professional but it is just as necessary for hobby owners. A lot of good training is observation. In this case we want to eliminate screaming .
A milder version of NR training is this. If you have ascertained that the Parrot is screaming for your attention. As soon as he screams you leave the room. You return during at the moment the bird is quiet and show how pleased you are.
If the bird screams again you withdraw. Ask yourself if you have not inadvertently taught the bird to scream. That is by rushing into the room where the cage is and shouting back ‘Stop it’ or swearing. For Parrots who love drama your presence and loud voice is a reward. For more timid birds you are teaching fear responses.
Unfortunately, when living in our sitting rooms their voices are simply too loud for comfort. Barbara Heidenreich, the noted American trainer, described how she taught Tara, her first Amazon to substitute a whistle for his screams when she went out of sight. And this training (two weeks of solid effort) has held for almost 20 years. The key is positive reinforcement training.
Ten tips to help with noisy Parrots:
Ignore the screaming ALL THE TIME
Reward talking and other pleasant sounds. Give the reward as instantaneously as possible
Teach behaviours like targeting, wave, fly to me, stay on perch. Activities to keep their minds and bodies active.
Ensue the food you give is not too high is stimulating items.
Out of cage time should be as much as possible. Four hours a day is a minimum
Daily bath or shower. Parrot cannot scream when wet or preening
Provide enough enrichment. Wood to chew, etc; (Parrot can’t scream when beak is busy).
Fresh air. Can you make an aviary or take Parrot out on a harness?
Check the Parrot feels safe and secure in his environment
The good news about training is that it is not that hard to do. Understanding a few simple concepts can get you training. Training to eliminate screaming means plenty of contact and this will help with other behaviours.
Not only can training with positive reinforcement teach the Parrot amusing tricks but it also produces birds that are well behaved, not stressed out. Positive reinforcement training is proven to reduce aggression and help enormously with problems like plucking and screaming.
The bond between myself and my four (now five) pet birds has become stronger. It makes me happier; I hope that it does them as well.
A warning: Use the internet with caution; there are some false prophets out there.
The essential book to understand the principles of the method of PR training is Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog. (2006 edition) This will give you a basic knowledge of the principles behind the science.
Rebecca K. O’Connor’s Perfectly Trained Parrot 2013 clear explanations of training techniques.
Steve Martin and Dr. Susan Freidman and Barbara Heidenreich, all extraordinary trainers provide many free articles on their websites. Excellent free advice from Pamela Clark in USA and Stephanie Edlund in Sweden available on the web.
Some of these trainers also offer on line courses for reasonable cost.
Steve Martin http://naturalencounters.com/
Dr Susan Friedman www.behaviorworks.org/
Barbara Heidenreich www.goodbirdinc.com/
Barbara Heidenreich has made excellent DVD's showing different aspects of training. She is also offering webinars on different aspects of training.
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