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Screaming and the Companion Parrot

By: Dr. Jenni Bass

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Screaming is one of the most common complaints by the owners of companion parrots, and the most common reason why birds are abandoned to shelters, euthanized or given away. But it is also a problem that can be addressed.

Some screaming is a normal and necessary part of parrot behavior and must be accepted. Excessive screaming, or screaming used to control people, is a deeper problem. The goal is to understand why the bird screams, and then to modify the bird's behavior. It is important to be clear about what constitutes normal and abnormal vocalization.

In the wild, birds call to their flock mates to communicate. Some birds, Amazon parrots for instance, may be more vocal when they are hormonally active. Most birds have a vocal period in the morning and toward dusk.

Companion birds also scream for no apparent reason. They may be hungry, lonely, frightened, hormonal, bored or ill. It's important to rule out physical illness or injury before tackling screaming as a behavior problem.

Solutions

There are many things you can do to deal with your screaming bird. Some of these include:

  • Try to maintain a relaxed atmosphere and attitude around the bird. Loud music or voices, shouting or having the television turned up will only increase the bird's volume.

  • Do not respond, positively or negatively, when the bird screams. Do not shout, scream back, and make eye contact. Even walking quietly to the cage to cover it, by bringing you to the bird may, in his mind, constitute a reward for the behavior. Nonetheless, covering can work well, if done properly and consistently.

    The cage should be half covered at all times, and should be located such that you can approach it from behind, unseen by the bird, and unfold the cover over the forward facing, open side of the cage. If the bird sees you approach, he will perceive this as the immediate consequence of his screaming. The behavior will thus be reinforced, in spite of the "negative" consequence of covering.

  • Cover the cage for no more than 10 minutes, and consider using a timer, which when it rings, lets the bird know that the covering has come to an end.

  • It is important not to use the cage as a place of punishment. Most birds who scream are insecure, and perceiving the cage as a place of unhappiness and isolation will only compound the problem.

  • Birds often actually prefer to have their cages partly covered, and have been known to scream until the cage is covered, and then to stop. Covering the back half, or one side of the cage at all times suits many birds.

  • Try to distract the bird with an indirect response to his screaming. While you continue to ignore the screaming, hum, sing quietly or whisper, without making eye contact.

  • Never spray with water, beak flick or otherwise threaten you bird. Punishment and violence do not work and may seriously damage the relationship between you and your bird.

  • Do make a fuss over your bird when he is playing quietly or making pleasant sounds. Make a conscious effort to reinforce desirable behaviors, by telling what a wonderful boy he is, or how beautiful and clever he is.

  • Birds may scream when their owners are eating in front of them. Foraging for food and eating together is an important social activity among parrots, and wild birds excluded from feeding with the flock are unlikely to survive. Your bird must have food when you eat. If you are eating something appropriate, give the bird a portion, or offer him a healthy treat.

  • Most birds are silent when ill and try not to be noticed. This is a defense mechanism, which has evolved to prevent the sick, weak or vulnerable bird from attracting the attention of predators. Young birds, especially if they have experienced a rushed or traumatic weaning, will often call repeatedly. This is not screaming. These birds are babies and they vocalize because they need something.

  • All birds, adults and babies alike, who scream should be examined by an avian veterinarian. Birds who are sub-clinically (not obviously) ill, who have nutritional problems or who have a physical disability will often display behavioural problems. Behavioral modification has little to no chance of succeeding until the bird is free of pain and is healthy.

  • Try to break the screaming pattern. If the bird screams at predictable times, anticipate the problem and deal with it. Covering the cage in advance may work, but otherwise, distract the bird, by taking him out of the cage, giving him an interesting toy, feeding him or playing with him.

  • Although he must be confident enough to cope with change, your parrot is a creature of routine. He needs to know when he gets up in the morning, when he goes to bed, when he eats and when he will spend time with you. Just as in any healthy relationship with someone we love, we must let our birds know that we haven't forgotten them when we are out of sight. We should naturally acknowledge them when we are in the same room, and every day we should make the effort to spend some one-on-one time with each bird. Use contact calls to communicate with the bird intermittently when you are in another room.

    When you are in the room with him, but are otherwise occupied, perhaps reading, watching television, periodically make eye contact with your bird, talk or sing to him. Tell him how particularly good and beautiful he is today, especially when he is happily and quietly amusing himself. Acknowledge him the way you would another human being. When appropriate, include the bird in what you are doing, on a perch beside you or on your knee. As much as possible, move the bird about the house with you, to your study or when doing housework. Finally, there must be time every day when the bird receives your undivided attention. This time may include training, preening, cuddling and talking. There should be lots of gentle and affectionate direct eye contact and lavish praise.

  • At least once every day, convince your bird that he is the center of your universe. Birds who know that they will receive attention are less likely to scream for it.

  • If they are to be successful companions, parrots must learn rules. Start with "up" and "down" (on and off the hand or dowel), "no" and "ok." It may be necessary to initiate or to reinforce these rules away from the cage in a neutral room, where you are the most familiar thing to the bird. Parrots will always try to be in charge, and rules establish the owner's place as benevolent leader of the flock. Rules also provide guidance, teaching a parrot how to live compatibly with human beings.

  • Keep a screaming diary. When does the bird scream? What else is happening at the time? Have you made changes in the bird's environment, in his routine or in the time you spend with him? How is your mood?

  • Parrots are extremely receptive to the moods of those around them; their sensitivity to tension, aggression or unhappiness cannot be underestimated. Don't try to deal with your parrot when you are upset or frustrated.

    Try to understand why your bird screams; he is trying to tell you something. Make sure that he is healthy and that his psychological, emotional, physical and environmental needs are met. Without rules and the security of knowing his place in the flock he will not cope well with captivity.

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