Ask yourself what purpose the behaviour serves for the parrot?
There may be different reasons throughout the day. Commonly there is the screaming first thing in the morning and/or in the evening. This is the normal dawn or dusk chorus which means it’s good to be alive! At other times the reason could be fear, boredom or joining in with loud household noises (running water or vacuum cleaner, children screaming, loud TV). Maybe it is separation anxiety or an overzealous contact call. Or perhaps it is being reinforced either by another animal or human.
Choose one instance of screaming. Can you pin point what sets the stage for the behaviour (the antecedent), and also what reinforces it/keeps it happening (the consequence)?
Check the environment for things that may be bothering our screaming parrot. Is his cage right in front of a window with no opportunity to hide from wildlife/people that may startle him from outside? In which case move the cage away from the window or at least make sure half his cage is sheltered from the window. (Also be careful of hot sunlight hitting the cage.) Has anything changed in the room? For example, new art work, new curtains, new furniture, etc? Is the sun glinting on something? Are there shadows bothering him? Is there a new addition to the family, eg. baby or animal?
Perhaps the bird is trying to out voice the loud TV or radio in which case, try turning them down and see what happens. Some parrots will join in with running water or a running vacuum cleaner. The louder the household, the louder the bird.
There are loads of clues in the body language which will add more information to help identify the cue/antecedent and or the reinforcer/consequence. Ollie pictured above is having a great time screaming outside at the magpies. His tail is spread and his head and body feathers are raised. If a bird is not so comfortable, the head and body feathers may be held close to the body, he might also move about in an agitated way. The tail might not be spread. Eye shape may be different.
The video below shows Ollie’s dawn chorus, coupled with excitement at what is happening outside. There is lots of different body language going on. The screaming only lasts 10 – 20 minutes each morning and is not a problem for me or my animal loving neighbours. Often if you introduce your neighbours to the bird and explain the reason for the screaming, when and how long it is likely to last, they are more tolerant.
If the bird enjoys your attention and you go to the bird to quieten the screaming/squawking (consequence), guess what you are reinforcing? Yes, more screaming. You are teaching the bird to scream every time he wants attention. If you then try to ignore the screaming it becomes worse. The bird thinks, “this worked before, I’ll just have to scream LOUDER and LONGER and eventually they will come running”. And what does the human do? The noise is unbearable so eventually the human goes running to the cage – it doesn’t matter that you are running to scold or maybe even to cover the bird cage in an attempt to punish the behaviour – you have still appeared. You have just reinforced the LOUDER and LONGER SCREAMING!
Note: Because the bird has learned to scream in certain situations, he cannot unlearn it, but if we understand the reasons behind it, we can work towards providing the same reinforcers for other more acceptable behaviours/sounds.
When DOESN’T the bird scream?
Think about what the bird is doing when he isn’t screaming. What are other household members/animals doing? Is there a way to expand on these more acceptable times so that they begin to crowd out screaming time?
As with many unwanted behaviours an effective way to deal with it is to use differential reinforcement. This is putting the unwanted behaviour on extinction (removing the reinforcement) AND even more importantly, reinforcing another behaviour.
Think of another behaviour the bird can already do that you can reinforce instead. A whistle? Talking (eg. Hello)? Ringing a bell? A whistle or talking is going to be doubly effective as the bird can’t whistle/talk at the same time as screaming. It is important the bird already knows how to do the replacement behaviour so that you can easily put it on cue when required.
Cue the whistle or other more acceptable sound BEFORE the unwanted behaviour is expected to start. And reinforce like mad!!! A HUGE amount of attention (if this is the reinforcement for the unwanted behaviour) and maybe even treats too. EVERY time the bird makes the more acceptable sound REINFORCE!! You may have to drop what you are doing to come running! Later on you can drop back on the reinforcement and start answering from afar, but when teaching a new behaviour it is vitally important that you put it on a continuous schedule of reinforcement, ie. reinforce EVERY TIME!
At the same time, you need to put the old behaviour on extinction. ie. remove the reinforcement for it. No running up to the bird to quieten him. Wait until there’s a gap in the screaming and cue the whistle or word. If the bird is screaming with you outside the room, wait for a gap in the screaming before you enter the room again. Then cue the whistle as you walk in and reinforce like mad!
Every animal will choose to do the behaviour that gains most reinforcement, which is why the more desired behaviour MUST be HEAVILY reinforced, at least to start with.
Note: You cannot just put the unwanted behaviour on extinction and not replace it with another behaviour. You are going to end up in big trouble. Putting a behaviour on extinction only leads to frustration for the animal. Plus it will likely go through what is called an “extinction burst” when the unwanted behaviour becomes hugely magnified. The screaming will get louder and louder and for longer. If you are able to sit it out (or if you have left the home) it will eventually die out (for that one time), but it is usually very difficult to sit this out and as soon as the human backs down and runs to the animal to scold it, bang! You have just reinforced the hugely magnified behaviour.
In quiet moments, try doing some training with the parrot to give him an opportunity to learn new behaviours and earn reinforcement for them. Target Training is a great behaviour to start with. This is teaching the parrot to touch an item (often the end of a chopstick) with a body part (usually the beak or foot) for a reinforcer/reward (a favourite treat works well). Once the parrot understands, “IF I touch the target THEN I get a treat”, you can teach him all sorts of behaviours using the same principle. This way you are expanding his repertoire of behaviours which you can choose from to cue and reinforce before he is likely to start screaming.
We might look more closely at separation anxiety or an overzealous contact call if the excessive screaming starts when you go to leave the room. Separation anxiety is common among social creatures like parrots, especially in those that are hand reared and imprinted on humans. You can still teach the bird to whistle instead of scream using differential reinforcement as previously explained, but it is important to answer the bird’s whistle with your own whistle as you leave the room and from outside the room to let him know, “it’s ok, I am here!”
Teach him to play/forage. The bird needs to learn how to keep himself occupied.
Provide irresistibly easy to destroy toys. Too often shop bought parrot toys are not designed to be destroyed – the wood/plastic is too hard. No fun, so the parrot loses interest. Maybe fill an empty food bowl with foot toys. Short willow sticks, balsawood pieces, untreated pinewood slices, woven finger traps, soft cactus kebab wood, etc.
A busy beak is less likely to scream!
Try stringing the same materials including pieces of cardboard onto untreated leather laces. If a bird is afraid of toys, make tiny budgie sized ones using plain colours and tie them to the side of the cage where they don’t move so much.
Gradually as the bird gets used to them, you can add harder, but still destroyable materials, like untreated pinewood slices, and introduce colours. Then begin to hang them from the top of the cage. If the screaming is reinforced by your attention, be sure to give loads of attention for any interest/movement towards the toy. Or hide favourite treats inside the toy.
Regularly rotate “new” toys into the cage or playing area so that there is always a sense of novelty.
Go BIG – create a whole play station above or around his cage. Large spring swings, orbs, ropes, cargo nets, even tree branches can be hung from the ceiling. It’s easy to attach favourite toys from them too. Create other play stations or perching areas around the house so that he can easily follow you around. If he has dedicated places to hang out on and things to do there, he’ll also be less likely to destroy your furniture.
Have a look at https://www.naturalbirdco.co.uk/ for toy ideas. They sell great toy parts too!
Provide foraging opportunities. You can do this by providing foraging toys. Nothing complicated to begin with. You know your bird best, but here are some starter ideas:
Try wrapping his favourite treats in pieces of coffee filter paper (let him watch you do it to begin with, and leave some of the treat sticking out so that he catches on) and putting them into his dry/seed bowl.
Or fill his dry bowl with beads (big enough so that he doesn’t swallow them) as well as seed/pellets to get him to forage for the food.
Work up to hiding wrapped treats in toys around the cage or on playstations. .
String pieces of fruit and vegetables on a birdie kebab skewer (available from most pet shops) and hang in the cage.
Weave big wet kale leaves through the bars of the cage or hang them from a clothes peg. You may have to start with smaller leaves so as not to frighten the bird.
Fill lengths of coloured paper straws with safflower seed (if bird likes safflowers).
Fill woven “finger traps” with sugar snap peas and tie them to a toy.
Remember you will have to teach him how to forage in tiny manageable steps so that he gets it. Each tiny step he makes towards foraging should be reinforced with lots of attention (since human attention is reinforcing to our bird with separation anxiety).
Dr Scott Echols’ great video called “Captive Foraging” is now free to watch via this link:
Kris Porter has written some fabulous Parrot Enrichment Activity books which can be downloaded from this link:
If the parrot is flighted let him fly and exercise to burn up energy and release feel good endorphins.
If you go out, leave the radio, or even TV, on so there isn’t a crushing silence.
Sometimes it’s ok to scream
Once in a while turn the music up and scream and dance with him – it’s ok to scream sometimes!
Screaming has worked for the bird, maybe even for years. It is going to take time for him to learn to get similar/the same reinforcers for another behaviour.
Check out these great resources:
Dr Susan Friedman’s http://www.behaviorworks.org/index.html
Lara Joseph’s https://www.theanimalbehaviorcenter.com/
Barbara Heidenreich’s http://www.goodbirdinc.com/