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Parrots and Noise by Shari Beaudoin

Parrot noise and screaming is one of the main behavior issues we discuss regularly with our customers. Lt. Columbo, my Double Yellow Headed Amazon, for instance is certain that when I am on the phone or talking with someone else I have forgotten he exists. Screaming must be the answer. Isn't it?

Most Amazons and parrots in general are naturally very noisy. We talk often about how we modify their wild behaviors to be acceptable in captivity. I say modify because this seems to be the key to parrot training success. In the wild screaming is a very natural way of communication. They must be heard over several miles of rain forest. This is how they call to other members of their flock, attract mates, and alert warnings of possible danger. Not only that but parrots love to hear themselves yell. Anyone watching an amazon in full vocalization can see they are truly enjoying themselves. Often times their tails are flaring and their eyes are dilating. As Sally Blanchard would put it, "They are obviously very full of themselves".

By far the most frequently asked question we hear in the store each day is "Which of these birds talk?" When choosing a parrot as a lifetime companion, keep in mind that the best talkers are also usually the best screamers. It takes patience and a lot of behavior modification to have a noise level that is acceptable to both you and your parrot.

So many times owners unintentionally offer their parrots positive rewards for negative behaviors. For example, your parrot is screaming in the next room and you are ready to go berserk. Ever been there? Often owners will run in and offer a treat thinking that if the bird is eating it can't possibly be screaming. Or they will yell back telling the bird to be quiet. These two scenarios have just taught your parrot two very important lessons:

  1. If I scream I will get a treat.
  2. If I scream my flock mate will call back.

Is this what you wanted your parrot to learn? I doubt it. Next time your parrot is screaming at an unacceptable level try to notice what is happening at the time. Is it morning, evening, noisy, bath time, etc. Also pay attention to your energy level - Are you feeling high strung? All of these factors and more feed into your parrots behavior. (Remember with these South American Guys and Gals the March through June can be an especially trying time.) This is their natural breeding time. The days are getting longer, etc. Give them and yourself a break.

Terry and I have put quite a bit of work into Lt. Columbo. I have always encouraged him to talk and my tolerance for his noise level is greater then Terry's. Now that Columbo is spending so much time in the store we had to come up with a level of noise that was acceptable to all of us. Columbo is often apt to get very loud, you know, using the noise your parrot will do that makes your skin crawl. We have worked very hard at modifying this behavior and tried several different techniques.

The first we tried was the "evil eye", a quick look, as Sally Blanchard discusses in her Companion Parrot Quarterly (fka -- Pet Bird Report). Along with the evil eye we would add a command "No Screaming" If Columbo would continue to scream he would receive a short time out. I emphasize the word short because I am talking seconds, minutes at most. We would give Columbo the no screaming command, a firm step-up command, and bring him into the office. He would then spend a short amount of time in his small carrier. Columbo would come out of his carrier and receive a lot of praise immediately after he became quiet. He was never brought back out until he was quiet. Columbo, because of his sheer love for vocalization and the circumstances we had to work with in a store situation was a tough one to train. We found that his carrier could contain no toys because he would always play and didn't much care where. It also seemed important that he could not see me, as I was usually the subject of his vocalizations. You know the story of how great your kids behave when you are not around? Derek, Troy, and Terry are always letting me know how quiet Columbo is when I am not there.

So the process that worked with Columbo went as follows:

  1. No Screaming Command
  2. Step Up Command
  3. Placed in the office in his carrier - Step Down Command (No Toys)
  4. His carrier was completely covered
  5. Immediately when he became quiet he was taken out - Step Up Command and returned to his cage. Once he was quiet in his cage a few minutes, we immediately went over and offered a lot of praise.

*Note that some of the techniques used on Lt. Columbo may be modified in a home situation. We often first try to ignore the behavior. In a retail environment we cannot ignore a birds screaming over customers or during our telephone conversations. We had to come up with other options. Also, the constant stimulation of the other birds in the store was a big hurdle to overcome. One bird starts their repertoire and they are all off. Any of you with large flocks at home understand where I am coming from here.

There was soon no doubt in Lt. Columbo's mind that screaming did not bring him anything positive. I had to learn as well how to recognize and praise Columbo in other ways. Let's call this Reverse Parrotology. I have been working on a new trick with Lt. Columbo teaching him to swing upside down by one foot. A trick he loves to perform because hanging upside down is a natural behavior for Amazons. When Lt. Columbo does his trick he gets a lot of praise, attention, clapping, etc. Over the past month it has been apparent that Lt. Columbo will swing upside down waiting for his dose of attention rather than screaming. I have to make sure that I am aware of him and take the time to stop and clap for him when he is doing his trick. With out his knowing I have changed his screaming to doing tricks for attention. Pretty clever huh?

I don't want you to think that this means Columbo no longer screams, because he does. Anyone with a true love for parrots has to understand their need to be vocal. Some screaming must be tolerated and expected. Some examples are: when the vacuum cleaner is in use, water is running, people are talking loudly, etc. But for the most part it certainly can be modified to be acceptable for both you and your parrot.

Learn that you are the one in control of the noise and your parrot will come to understand. Head the negative behaviors off at the pass. If your bird screams when you sit down for dinner check and make sure he has food also. Parrots are social eaters and will enjoy eating with you. The key to this is giving the food to the parrot BEFORE it screams for it. Does your parrot scream when you are in the shower? Give him a mist bath with purified water first and he can preen while you are showering. Mist him BEFORE the screaming begins. These are a few simple ways to make positive changes in your parrot's behavior. Most of all keep calm and ask yourself if what you are doing is adding to or distracting from the unwanted behavior.

This article was published on Tuesday 22 June, 2004.
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