Screaming 101

The Melodic Sounds of the Rainforest in our Living Room

I got a phone call one afternoon from my parents, who live in Florida. They excitedly told me that they were driving along one day and heard parrots screaming. They had found one of the many feral quaker colonies in south Florida... and they had found them by sound.

Every recording of the rain forest has the shrieking backdrop of parrots screaming, a most peculiar sound that travels for miles. Parrots use screaming as a method of communication, to keep in contact with their mate, flockmates, and/or children over large distances. It is an extremely natural behaviour.

It's also something that we have severe difficulties living with. We live in an environment where loud sounds are not very welcome, and many of us live in apartments. A parrot with a screaming problem is extremely irritating to those who live in the house and may end up with eviction if the neighbors are just as irritated.

So, a lot of people try very hard to fix their parrots screaming. Some parrots might scream every evening until they're fed their dinner. Others might shriek when their owner is out of the room and only fall silent when they appear again. Some might scream non-stop while a hated human or other pet is in the room, quieting when they leave. In both these situations, the parrots screaming is rewarded -- by dinner, by their owner reappearing, by the disappearance of the rival. As with almost all learned behaviour, the consequences of the actions is what either encourages us to continue repeating the behaviour or convinces us to stop.

How do you stop a screaming problem?

There's a fancy behavioral term called the 'matching law', which says, essentially, that when given a choice between two options, animals will choose the one that gives them more rewards. This is the trick to changing a screaming problem: parrots will choose to do what is most rewarding for them.

If screaming is more rewarding to them than remaining quiet, if it's more rewarding than saying Hi, then parrots are going to scream. Your job as owner is to make what you want your parrot to do more rewarding than what you don't want them to do.

It sounds simple, and it can be, but it takes some forethought. The first step is to start paying attention to what you're doing when the parrot is screaming. Do you re-enter the room when they are screaming? Do you approach and give them a treat to make them be quiet? Do you approach and cover them? All of these are likely rewarding the behaviour you don't want, rather than what you do want. If you can't figure out what the possible reward is for the screaming, try writing down every time you hear your bird scream for a while, and what happens just before and just after it. A pattern will probably soon emerge.

Step two, then, is to stop rewarding screaming by ignoring the bad behaviour. If you always enter when he's screaming, stop. No more treats, no more dinner, nothing while the bird is making horrific noises. You have to change the consequences.

Step three is to pick a sound that you do like. It doesn't have to be talking, it might be something like ringing a bell or a specific whistle, but there must be something that the bird does that you can reward. Extra bonus if it's something they physically cannot do at the same time as screaming, like whistling or talking. Be sure you pick something you can live with -- you have no idea how annoying "Pretty bird" can be until you hear a grey say nothing but that for three weeks.

Every time the parrot makes that particular sound, you reward it. Drop what you're doing and race over to the parrot and throw a party. Cheer, clap, give them their favorite treat. You want to make that noise far more rewarding than screaming is. And, trusting in the matching law, after you constantly reward the good sound, they'll lessen their screaming.

The Extinction Burst

But my parrot is getting louder after I've started ignoring his screaming! This is a really common situation, and if you think about it in a different way, it makes a lot of sense.

Let's say that every time you clap your hands, I give you a crisp $100 bill. You'd obviously clap your hands a lot, right? Now, let's say that you clap your hands, and I don't do anything. You obviously wouldn't stop immediately, would you? Clearly, I just didn't hear you! So you'd clap harder, and longer, more and more demanding. It would take you some time to eventually give up. The same thing happens with parrots. The burst of activity just before a behaviour stops completely is called an extinction burst.

Here's where the major problem comes in. Let's say that you clap for ten minutes, and then I give in and give you a $100 bill. What I've taught you is that you need to clap for 10 minutes, but eventually you'll get your money.

What happens if a parrot screams for 20 minutes, waiting for your return, and then you come in? You've just taught the parrot that they need to scream for a really long time, and then you eventually show back up. This is exactly the wrong thing to teach them.

The thing to trust in is that even if you have to re-enter the room while the bird is screaming, you're ignoring it as best as possible, and more importantly, you're rewarding the noise he does like. The more you reward the desired sound, the more likely the screaming will quiet down quickly.

It's possible to put a dent in a screaming problem in a week or so if you're very, very observant and go out of your way to reward good noises as often as possible.

My bird doesn't scream. How do I keep him from starting?

The best way to prevent a screaming problem is to pay attention to what you're doing and what you're rewarding. Understanding your behaviour is the first step to preventing or solving problems. So, if your bird is screaming, it's best not to approach but to wait for a good sound.

Another thing that can really make a difference is the general level of care. Exercise, enough sleep, a good diet, and an enriched environment can keep parrots entertained, exercised, and healthy, and thus stop screaming problems before they happen.

A bird who is joyfully attacking a toy or foraging for food likely isn't screaming for attention, after all.

In conclusion, I'll share a story to offer some hope to those who are currently dealing with screaming problems. A few months after I brought home my sun conure, High Tea, my partner had to go on vacation for several weeks. Tea was alone all day for the first time in his short life, and I felt immensely guilty. As soon as I came home, the first shriek he made, I raced over to sooth my conscience and give him attention.

t took about three days for him to begin screaming for 4 - 5 hours at a time. It took about two weeks to start making a serious dent into that behaviour. Every time he'd scream, I'd turn my back on him and walk away. Every time he made a peculiar chirp, I ran over and gave him a lot of attention. I spent a lot of time standing at the opposite end of the house ignoring him for the first few days, but parrots are smart, and he learned how to get what he wanted.

Yours can too.

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