Understanding Your Bird's Excessive Screaming

Simon has the gentle face of an angel - soft black eyes, fluffy white feathers and a sweet disposition that is common to many cockatoos. But he also has the voice of a banshee and it can reach 110 decibels,  also common to many cockatoos. Even though he is deeply loved, his owners live in continuous fear that his screaming will awaken the ire of their neighbors. They know that the assault on their eardrums has damaged their hearing, and they need to do something to quiet him down. They tell him, "No!" which seems to silence him for a minute or two. After a few moments of peace, he makes some faint sweet sounds that quickly escalate into ear-splitting screams. 

They were told to ignore him and they tried, but he got worse and worse and worse. His screaming lasted for longer periods of time and was accompanied by a fanned tail, raised crest, spread wings and dramatic swings of his body  from right to left which is very hard to ignore; and they found themselves glancing over at him while clenching their jaws.

Mary and John are at a loss. Simon means so much to them.  He is like their child, their very loud child. 

How Birds Vocalize

Parrots can scream for long periods of time. Sometimes it seems that they do not even stop to breathe.  That is because they do not need to stop to breathe while screaming. Birds vocalize by controlling their tracheaand an organ called the syrinx that connects their trachea to their lungs. The larynx does notplaya part in avian vocalization. The larynx prevents the bird from choking on food and water.  The syrinx looks like a box with two fleshy lips like structures, each of which leads to a lung. This allows birds to vocalize through one lung and breathe through the other lung. Birds are actually capable of producing two sounds simultaneously, which is common in some song birds; but parrots are not particularly skilled at producing two sounds at once. 

 

Screaming Can Be Reduced to Baseline Normal

Screaming and biting are two major reasons that cause people to part with their birds. Biting is a comparatively easy behavior to change. Reducing screaming to a tolerable level can be much more difficult, because it can only be reduced to baseline normal vocalization. Screaming can be replaced with talking or singing, which are much more acceptable behaviors. However, if the goal is to extinguish screaming completely, then expect failure. 

Why Failure Occurs

Let's examine Mary and John's problems with Simon and why their attempts to change his behavior failed. Mary and John never gave any thought to why Simon was screaming. They made the assumption that it was for attention, which may have been correct. However, they did not notice what was going on around Simon when he began screaming. Knowing what changes take place in the environment when a behavior begins (the antecedents) is important information to have when you want to change a behavior. They also did not recognize what made the behavior stop. What was the outcome (consequence) of the behavior that fulfilled Simon's desires, so that he no longer needed to scream until the next time he wanted something?  Did they approach him and pet him, feed him, turn on the television, let the dog out, turn off the radio when he began screaming or stopped screaming?

Is it possible or feasible to change the antecedents or the consequence of the behavior?  If the antecedent or the consequence is changed, then the behavior will change too.  If changing the antecedent or the consequence is doable, then it is the easiest way to change the behavior.

"No!"

Telling Simon, "No" does not teach him a behavior. He was being asked to do nothing when he needed to be told what to do, as opposed to what not to do.  Telling him, "No!" temporarily stopped his screaming, but in the long run it increased his screaming behavior. Mary and John continued to tell him, "No!" because it interrupted his behavior, temporarily providing them momentary relief.  This gave the illusion that saying, "No!" actually worked. However, any method used to change behavior is only successful if it reduces the future rate of the behavior it immediately follows in the same or similar circumstance. Saying, "No!" only provided them with temporary relief from Simon's screaming and did not reduce the future rate of behavior.  

Extinction

The most common advice offered by people who are not trained in behavioral science is to ignore screaming, which  sounds like it should work. "Don't pay attention to the unwanted behavior and eventually your bird will learn that it will not get him what he wants, and he'll just give up." That advice is only partially correct. The technique is called extinction. However, extinction is more than ignoring a behavior. It requires that the behavior never be reinforced, and there are bootleg reinforcers in the environment that can and do reinforce unwanted behaviors. Simon's screaming may be reinforced when he hears John walking in another room and the floor squeaks, or Mary might drop a spoon in the kitchen which could reinforce his behavior. His screaming can even be reinforced if there is an echo in the room and he hears the sound of his own voice. These unintended reinforcers are called bootleg reinforcers. There can be numerous bootleg reinforcers in the environment that are often impossible to control.

Extinction is a very long process, even if it is successfully utilized. For it to work, the behavior will first have to go through extinction burst.  Extinction burst occurs soon after the behavior has been put on extinction. The unwanted behavior will go through a period when it occurs more frequently and with greater intensity than it had ever shown in the past.  If the behavior is reinforced in any manner whatsoever, a new level of behavior has been established and the behavior will be presented at the new level that occurred during extinction burst. In other words, it is now worse than it was before.  The bird has learned that the new level is what he must reach in order to obtain reinforcement.

After extinction burst, there will be many occasions when the behavior will be presented; and if it is never reinforced, in any way at all, it will disappear. However, that is not the end of the story. The behavior can spontaneously reoccur and you are back to having a bird that screams excessively.


What Does Work?

What can you actually do to reduce screaming?  Be observant; make sure that your bird is not screaming for a reason that is easy to deal with. Perhaps the neighbor's cat likes to take a stroll through your yard and stalks birds at your feeder. If that is the case, you may be able to remedy the situation by attaching a sensor to your garden hose which detects movement.  It will spray the cat with water and keep it out of your yard.  Or you may prefer to just draw the curtains.

Screaming often indicates a desirefor attention. If it is possible to predict when your bird will scream, show your bird some attention before he screams. This is not something that most people can predict, so I recommend putting the bird on a schedule.  A schedule can let the bird know that if he waits, he will be provided with the attention he craves.  Of course this is easier for people who are retired or who work from their homes. So, I will provide a outlines for people who spend a lot of time at home with their birds and for people with 9-to-5 jobs that take them away from home.

The Purpose of Training and a Schedule

The purpose of training is not merely to teach a behavior. It is to foster a better relationship with your bird, and that is why it is highly recommended that you do not use unpleasant and forceful methods when training. The purpose of a schedule is for your bird to be able to predict what events will take place during the day. You do not have to adhere to a strict schedule.  You can combine training sessions with other activities such as time outside in a flight with new toys, a bath, or a trip out of the house. Your bird should expect that there will be some activity for you both that is fun and delightful.  

A Schedule for People Who Are Home Most of the Day

Breakfast – Place a stand near the table for your bird. The stand should have a bowl with a small amount of food in it. While you eat breakfast, share some food from a special bowl just for your bird that you placed on the table.

Midmorning – First training session of the day. Review behaviors your bird already knows, and teach new behaviors. This session should not exceed 15 minutes of actual training time, if you are not used to setting time aside just for training.  You can train for 15 minutes straight. However, it is better to train for five minutes and then rest for five minutes, until you have trained a total of 15 minutes. A pattern of shorter training sessions with equal periods of rest is more effective than one long training session, especially when attempting to train a new behavior. Shorter sessions not only allow your bird to absorb what you are trying to teach, they also allow you to reflect on potential improvements for the next five-minute session.

Lunch -- Repeat what you did during breakfast, only this time all the food should be offered by hand.

Mid-Afternoon – Second training session.

Dinner—The setup is the same as it is for breakfast and lunch. However, this time make sure that your bird has plenty of food in his food bowl on the stand, so that he does not go to bed hungry.

A Schedule for Busy People Who Work Outside Their Homes

The Night Before You Go to Work – Wrap up dried foods in various different types of paper, and some edible wraps that do not need refrigeration. Also wrap pieces of wood, paper or other small toys in paper.  You can do this while watching television while your bird watches you.  Give your bird a couple of these small bundles and let him discover that they are fun to dig into.
Place some of the bundles into cardboard tubes, small safe cardboard boxes and plastic containers. Wrap them all up in an old sheet and place them near the door.

Breakfast – Take time to have breakfast with your bird every morning.  Place a stand near the table for your bird.  The stand should not contain a food bowl. However, place a bowl on the table and give your bird food by hand while you eat. 

Before You Leave for Work – Fill several little paper cups full of food and stuff them between the bars of the cage, add some extra cups that have nothing in them or small toys like pieces of wood or paper.  This allows your bird to spend time foraging. The first time you try this, you should be at home all day. Your bird may dump all the cups and not get any of the food. If this should happen, put half the food in his bowl and the rest in cups. He will learn to be careful not to dump the food and he won't go hungry.

When You Get Home From Work – Grab the sheet near the door, spread it out on the floor with the bundles, cardboard tubes, cardboard boxes and plastic containers that you prepared the night before.  Place it where you can watch your bird while you do the things that must be done as soon as you get home. Give your bird a few minutes of "bird time" and then let him forage.  Any trash that is left on the sheet can be discarded and the sheet can be tossed in the washer if it is soiled.

Make sure that you try this on a weekend. Your bird may be afraid of some of the items or the sheet.  Then you will have to do some desensitization training.

Once You're Relaxed – Spend 15 minutes training your bird as described above in the mid-morning section of "People Who Are at Home Most of the Day. "

Dinner – Handle dinner in the same way as described for people who work at home.

The Pet Tutor

In addition to these training schedules, you can purchase a Pet Tutor. They are an expensive tool. If you decide to purchase one, you must inform the manufacturer that the Pet Tutor is meant for a parrot, because the mounting bracket is different for a parrot than other animals.  Although it is called a feeding device, it is much more.  It is a programmable food dispenser that can be operated by a remote, voice or a smartphone.

You can sit comfortably in another room, wait for your bird to stop screaming or to begin talking or singing, then click the remote.  The  Pet Tutor will produce one of the many tones it is programed to make (you pick the tone) and then it will dispense a treat. You do not even have to get up to reinforce the desired behavior.

You can now shape longer and longer periods of quiet by waiting for your bird to be quiet slightly longer before reinforcing quiet behavior. You can begin by reinforcing three seconds of quiet. Then slowly increase to 10 seconds, one second at a time. Then to 20 seconds, again one second at a time, and continue lengthening the time till you reach a reasonable length of quiet time. If you decide to reinforce talking or singing, reinforce immediately after your bird produces a desired vocalization. Repeat this several times so that your bird understands that if he talks or sings he will receive reinforcement. To shape the behavior, wait until your bird adds another word or phases before reinforcing the behavior. Take it slowly, because when teaching new behaviors that is the fastest way to learn.  It is your bird that sets the pace for learning, and you must recognize that pace and adjust to it.

When you leave home, the Pet Tutor can be programed to dispense a treat at any interval that you preselect. You can also teach your bird to target a device that comes with the Pet Tutor. The Pet Tutor will produce a tone that is a cue to your bird to target the device. Once that is successfully achieved, it will produce a second sound that marks the behavior and dispenses a treat.  You must teach him to target the device and then program the Pet Tutor when you leave.

Since the Pet Tutor is expensive, I cannot recommend it for the casual user. However, I strongly recommend it in severe cases when a quick resolution is necessary. Screaming can be reduced without the use of the tool, and spending a lot of money is not required if you have the time to work on the problem.  Still, it can be fun for both the owner and the bird, especially if the owner is into gadgets or there is a desire on the part of the owner to teach the bird multiple behaviors, such as a decrease in biting or an increase in targeting. One drawback (or advantage) is that the Pet Tutor can be voice controlled, so a smart bird may figure out how to cue it to dispense treats.
   

Review

  • Be observant - What stimuli in the environment caused the behavior to start and stop?  If changing the antecedent or consequence of the behavior is possible, it is the easiest way to change behavior.
  • Screaming can only be reduced to baseline normal.
  • "No" does not teach a bird what to do.
  • Extinction is a long and arduous task and the behavior will get worse before it gets better. It may not improve at all, since the behavior may be reinforced by bootleg reinforcers. Even if it is extinguished, it may spontaneously reoccur.
  • Put screaming birds on a schedule so that they will know when to expect one-on-one attention.
  • Replace screaming with some other type of vocalization such as talking or singing.
  • Shape quiet behavior or talking.
  • Do not try to teach a behavior too fast. Your bird sets the pace for learning.
  • If it is urgent that your bird learns to be quiet longer or vocalize with a sound that people find more acceptable, the Pet Tutor is an option.

Screaming is a difficult behavior to change because it is a normal, natural behavior. However excessive screaming is not normal or natural and it can be reduced with a little patience and proper training.  Your screaming bird can go from being difficult to live with to a pleasurable companion.