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Screaming (by fooi)

Most parrots kept in captivity as pets can be very vocal, outright noisy and very loud, depending on the species.  

Screaming, together with biting, is probably one of the most common and challenging problem behaviours faced by many pet parrot owners.  Noisy parrots have caused many problems amongst neighbours and have even caused rifts within relationships and families.

Screaming - a behaviour

e.g. if a parrot who likes human attention screams (the behaviour) and you immediately attend (the consequence), the behaviour has been reinforced (the parrot got his wish) and he has therefore learned to scream again in the future every time he wants your attention for as long as you reinforce the behaviour by attending.
On the other hand, if you were never to attend again when your parrot screams for your attention, the bird would learn that screaming for your attention has become fruitless and the behaviour will therefore decrease.

Considering the basics

The environment
All too often parrots scream incessantly simply because they are incredibly bored.  Make sure your bird's environment is set up properly, with various toys which you should rotate frequently and fresh branches for chewing.  Provides a number of play areas away from the cage.

The diet
Birds on an inadequate diet may feel physically uncomfortable or unwell and are often prone to developing problem behaviours, including screaming.  Provide your bird with a variety of suitable foods which should include fresh fruit and vegetables, some cooked pulses, some pellets, a controlled amount of nuts and a small amount of seeds as treats.

Some parrots often scream when they are lonely.  Parrots should not be kept on their own for the majority of the day.... consider getting another bird to keep your parrot company.  Even birds of different species that are housed in separate cages and never become friends can provide a valuable degree of companionship for each other.

Habitual screaming
Screaming can easily become a habit.  Many parrots love noise and drama and more often than not join in by vocalising wholeheartedly. This could be caused by the family dog barking at every passer-by, a noisy water tap, the vacuum cleaner......
The most straightforward way of breaking patterned screaming is to determine the initial trigger (the antecedent) and to eliminate it if possible... you could teach your dog to remain quiet by positively reinforcing him for being quiet when people pass the house...
... However, in order not to set the occasion for habitual screaming to develop, you can ensure that your parrot has something to do that he considers more reinforcing than screaming itself and therefore isn't inclined to start screaming along.  .... give her a nut...foot toy, such as a plastic bottle top, a wine bottle cork or a large piece of Lego.  This hopefully captures her imagination, gets her excited and she therefore shows a greater interest in playing than in screaming.

A replacement behaviour
One way of dealing with a behaviour that may become patterned, such as screaming, is to teach a replacement behaviour.  A form of vocalisation that is easier to bear, or even pleasurable to listen to, for example, could replace the screaming.  
There are two ways of teaching such a vocal sound. You either pay attention to your parrot and choose a sound that he makes that you enjoy, or you could teach a brand new should.

The more you reinforce a new behaviour the more your parrot is likely to exhibit that behaviour.  Do make sure that whatever sound you choose to teach your bird is a sound that you can happily live with for a long time and doesn't become too annoying when it is repeated over and over again.

Typical scenarios

1. Screaming for attention
It is easy to teach a parrot not to scream for attention from the outset, that is, from the moment the bird first enters the household.  However once a parrot has learned to scream for attention and his demands have been repeatedly met, it can be very difficult or time-consuming to change the behaviour.

Most parrots naturally remain reasonably quiet for the first few weeks in a new household... As time goes on the bird will become braver and gain more confidence in his surroundings.  Now he may come to demand to be let out of his cage, for example, as he might have already learned that being out of the cage is a pleasurable and therefore reinforcing experience.  He may also start to vocally demand to be played with or to be cuddled.

It goes without saying that every pet bird requires and should receive a certain amount of direct attention daily - it is unreasonable to expect a parrot to sit quietly and play patiently by himself all day, every day. If, however, you are paying your parrot plenty of attention and he comes to demand more and more by screaming, you need to set some strict guidelines for yourself, before your behaviour (the way you respond to your bird's behaviour) results in the bird developing bad habits.

If, for example, you have paid your parrot some attention and put him back on his playstand or in his cage and he immediately screams for more, I would again advise to ignore the screaming. Some parrots do give in easily, however others do have considerably more staying power - but be sure to absolutely ignore the screaming. It is natural for the screaming to intensify before your parrot eventually gives up.

Should you weaken and give in because you feel the screaming has become too loud and return and attend to your parrot at this point, you will have taught your bird that screaming louder is what is required to get your attention.  From now on your parrot will remember to always scream loudly.  Be persistent - don't' give in !

However, you do want to teach your bird that being quiet and playing by himself is a positive thing.  As soon as your bird has settled down and is quiet, approach him, give him a little stroke on the head, or even treat him and tell him what a good bird he is. You have now reinforced his being quiet.  Your feathered friend has learned  that screaming got him nowhere, yet being quiet got him something nice.

A parrot should be allowed to request some attention he hasn't recently been attended to.  And again, I would suggest that you teach your bird a mutually agreeable sound as described earlier - that is a sound he can easily reproduce and you find easy to bear.  My Blue and Gold macaw, for example, made a little, subtle grunting noise when I first got her.  It was clear that she wanted my attention and I wasn't going to let the opportunity slip to teach her to request my attention in this manner in the future.  I immediately attended to and praised her and did every time she made this noise.  Since then she has not once screamed for my attention.

But what if your parrot has already been taught to scream for human attention?

In this case you will need to take two steps.  Firstly, teach your bird the call sign of your choice - whistle, a word, a grunt etc.  (over time, I have taught many parrots to vocalise in different ways.  Not all of them wanted to, chose to, or were able to whistle or speak. Settle for sounds that are easy for your bird to reproduce.  Don't put too much emphasis on a particular type of sound.) Again, remember to respond to the call sign when you bird first makes it and reinforce every attempt.

Secondly, ignore the screaming and from now on only respond to the call sign (or attempts of the call sign) you are teaching.  I cannot emphasise enough that you must not, under any circumstances, give in and return and respond to the screaming, even if your bird is capable of screaming for long periods - you will reap the rewards in the end.

While you are teaching your bird not to scream for attention, an effective responses to decrease the screaming is the withdrawal of your presence.  Most parrots love nothing more than being in company and if you leave the room and return as soon as he is quiet to praise him (in the case of really persistent screamers this may only be a few seconds), he will quickly learn that being quiet is considerably more rewarding than being noisy.

2. Contact calls
We are unable to spend all day every day with our pet birds. Although parrots can learn to spend a considerable amount of time on their own, entertaining themselves during these periods should not last too long and ideally should be of varying intervals. During these periods parrots often sound a call to make audible contact with their flock (the family) or their chosen mate. These types of calls are important as the response to this call will put the parrot at ease, telling him that he is not on his own and that you are nearby.  
You can simply respond by calling "I'm here" from wherever you are or, again, you could whistle.  

Be careful to differentiate between a simple contact call, meaning "where are you?", and screaming for your attention.  If your parrot is not content having heard you reply and carries on screaming, he more likely than not is screaming for your attention. In this case wait until he is quiet before you attend to him.

3. Fear
Fear screaming is often more easily dealt with than a form of habitual screaming, because fear screaming is usually instantly eliminated by removing the cause.  It is essential to find what caused the parrot to scream out of fear.  This could be a new object in the environment, an environment that continually changes, or a person that may have caused the bird harm.
Parrot toys can be introduced by leaving the toy several yards in visual distance from the cage and gradually moving it closer and closer over a period of days.

(to be continued)

4. Early morning / evening calls
Most birds vocalise in the morning and again in the late afternoon. Morning and early evening call sessions are usually reasonably short lived and many parrots that have learned to speak a few words often feverishly repeat those words over and over again in place of screaming.  If, however, your parrot is of a species able to produce a lost of noise, such as macaws or cockatoos, an early morning screaming session may well unsettle your neighbours.  In such cases it might be best to divert the parrot's attention away from the through of screaming altogether.  

A friend once told me that she creates little treasure boxes (small cardboard boxes will do) filled with toys and little titbits which are placed in the bottom of the cage for her birds to investigate… By placing interesting little foot toys and very importantly some food items in these boxes, the parrot's interest can be maintained for considerable periods of time.  It is of course necessary to change the contents of these little treasure boxes every morning in order for them to keep their appeal.

5. Noise stimulation / drama rewards
Many parrots are stimulated to vocalise when sufficient amounts of noise are audible in their environments.  This can be any type of household apparatus, a TV set or radio….or people chatting loudly and laughing.

If you enjoy listening to loud music but are unable to do so because of your parrot's participation, I would suggest that you engage your parrot in an activity that he considers more fun than screaming along to music. A behaviour that is incompatible with screaming would be ideal, such as chewing.  A whole nut, for example, can keep a parrot busy for quite some time.  Chewable toys that include wood and latex are also useful.  The key as always is to find an activity that your parrot enjoys, not one that we think they should enjoy.

It is important to be realistic in what we can expect of our birds. If your parrot delights in joining in with the music you're playing it is unlikely that he will keep quiet for the entire duration of Beethoven's 9th, even if he has been given a favourite toy to play with.  If you keep 'noise sessions' to a reasonable limit and greatly praise and reward your bird for having played quietly while you played music or use the vacuum cleaner, it is possible that he will learn to remain quiet for longer periods.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to yell and scream at their bird whenever the bird misbehaves or is being vocal. Screaming and shouting is reinforcing to many parrots.  The moment you begin to be noisy your parrot is more than likely going to delight in joining in. Screaming sessions will therefore be on the increase rather than subside.

By Susan Friedman, PhD, of Utah state University
Source: Parrots, Issue 84

More on calming a screaming parrot

With parrots, eye contact denotes approval.  Looking away while the bird is screaming is a simple way of showing disapproval.  If the cage is in a bird room, approach without looking at the bird, purposefully turn your head away and silently close the door.  No eye contact, no excitement - just disapproval.  When the bird quietens down, open the door and praise him: "Good bird, quiet bird."

If the cage is in the middle of the living area, consider temporarily moving the cage into a room that has a door to close.  Explain to your bird why he is being relocated.  As the parrot recognises his screaming will not bring the desired response, he will stop.  Parrots were recently recognised as being the most intelligent animals on the planet - even more intelligent than dolphins, chimpanzees and Koko the gorilla, who talks using American sign language.  Your bird will understand what you are saying.

As his behaviour improves, promise him that he will be returned to his former location.  By then the household will have made a huge adjustment in how to handle your parrot.

For bouts of extreme screaming give the bird a "time out".  Approach the cage and open the door, then without making eye contact say: "Step up", then quickly and quietly put the bird in his carrier.  Place the carrier in the bathroom, cover it with a sheet and leave, closing the door. Set a timer for 10 minutes.  Most birds respond to this quick change of environment by being silenced into astonishment.  When the timer rings, return the bird to the cage and lavish praise on him.  If the bird continues screaming during the time out, wait until he stops and then return him to the cage.  Also offer praise and treats throughout the day when your bird is behaving well.

The only object that should ever be lifted and pointed at a parrot's cage is a spray bottle containing water.  Many times this act can quieten the most raucous outbursts, especially if you've just picked up the telephone.  Often, the threat of being sprayed is more effective than actually spraying him.  If you are using the misting method to administer the homeopathic remedy, I suggest getting a special atomizer for the remedy. You want the mister containing the remedy to look different than the spray bottle used for discipline.  Apothecaries, herb stores or homeopathic pharmacies often stock small glass atomizers.

Consider using Chamomilla if you are working with an unpredictable, bad tempered Amazon. Although Amazons tend be known as having an erratic personality, having a sweet disposition one moment and then seconds later latching onto your ear, using a low potency of this remedy could help smooth out the rough edges.

If you have applied some of these suggestions in conjunction with using Chamomilla, perhaps your former screaming parrot has become a happier member of your family.  At this stage you can bargain with your bird.

For example I often bring my Macaws out during dinner. Occasionally one of them will begin his loud screech. In a calm voice I respond: "Please be quiet while I'm eating. I need to finish my dinner first before I can hold you." Once this has been explained he usually begins preening while waiting for me to finish my meal and make good on my word.

By Leslie Moran
Source: Parrots, Issue 86