Screaming, squawking, chirping, yelling, calling and even talking incessantly – when a parrot decides it wants to make noise, they are more than capable! Parrots can often reach decibels levels of 130 and over, which is perfect in the wild when calling to a distant flock. But can quickly become a problem indoors where sound is amplified, and human ears suffer. Incessant ‘screaming’ behaviour in parrots is one of the most common reasons we are called out as behaviour consultants. As it can spiral out of control very quickly, affect your home life, and your neighbour’s home life, and put a strain on relationships.
So why do parrots begin to scream?
There are many reasons a parrot will begin to scream, the first thing you must identify is what type of call it is. Parrots naturally make several types of calls:
Calls to the flock or mates to identify the current position in the wild, these calls are returned in answer by other parrots. Contact calls will be in the ‘dialect’ of the flock and create a feeling of safety in numbers, even when there are visual barriers (trees etc.). They may be a soft back-and-forth conversation if conspecifics are close together. Or a loud, repetitive call over larger distances, if not responded to, or the parrot is feeling exposed or anxious.
This is a rapid, loud call to signal imminent perceived danger to the flock and is designed to create a rapid flight response in the flock. Alarm calls are often performed by a ‘sentinel’ bird who is on the lookout for danger while the rest of the flock forages. Alarm calls can even be aimed directly at a perceived predator to try and scare them off.
Heard at dawn and dusk in most diurnal bird species. The specific function is unknown but is likely to signal position and presence in the flock, communicate movement and precede roosting.
Young or excessively hungry birds call to be fed by their parents.
When putting this into context with a companion parrot, the flock the parrot will contact call will be your family (including pets). Alarm calls may be made if the parrot is startled, or anxious or unknown visitors or objects appear. Chorus will happen instinctively at dawn and dusk (depending on your light regime). Begging may occur with a young, hungry bird or if the bird develops anxieties around food (often the case when parrots are purchased unweaned or their diet is too low in energy). Therefore, if your parrot is feeling lonely or in need of companionship, is mate-seeking, is anxious or scared, bored, uncomfortable, hungry, or it happens to be dawn, dusk or a low light environment – you may get any combination of these types of calls to arise.
Problem ‘screaming’ behaviours occur under two main conditions: when the parrot’s needs aren’t met. Things like; poor or imbalanced diet, poor enclosure set up, lack of exercise, lack of enrichment in the form of foraging, toys or company, excessive hormones, neophobia (fear of new things), or a bird that is fearful or in pain can create screaming behaviours. In these cases, a thorough assessment of your husbandry and your parrot’s demeanour can identify the cause behind the screaming. Addressing these issues can simultaneously fix the problem calling (and often other problem behaviours).
The next major cause is learned inappropriate contact calls for attention (separation anxieties often amplify this). For example – if your parrot is calling for flock contact (you) during your favourite TV show, and you turn around and yell ‘BE QUIET!’ or respond to the bird in any way, then the contact has been made, and the call by the bird has been successful. Guess what… successful behaviours are repeated! The issue here is that nice quiet calls and talking often get ignored as they are pleasant and become background noise to us, it is only the loud and disruptive calls that get responded to when we humans are distracted. This way, we can teach a parrot quickly that attention is given when they are loud, which is the right contact call to use. This spirals out of control very quickly as owners try all sorts of ways to change the behaviour, including covering the bird (you are giving it attention by approaching and reinforcing the call), yelling louder back at the bird or trying to discipline the bird (creates attention and possibly alarm calling), trying to ignore the bird for short periods but getting frustrated and finally breaking and giving food or attention for it to be quiet (teaching a LOUDER and LONGER contact call), and so on. Any attention given to an attention-seeking contact call will reinforce the call that was used.
So how do you fix it?
While you cannot suppress a natural behaviour and cannot change the natural calling types to have a silent parrot (and who would want that anyway!), you can influence what the calls sound like, their duration and intensity by how you respond to them, and how your parrot feels. A happy, healthy and enriched bird is much less likely to have inappropriate calling behaviour than an unhappy, unhealthy and bored bird – so address diet, environment, body language and interactions first.
The dialect of your flock (family) will shape the dialect of the bird, hence parrots talking and copying pet noises in captive environments (NB. Emotive language is picked up incredibly quickly and in context by parrots – so be careful if using swear words). As discussed above, they make noises that work for them, and are incredibly quick learners! When working through an inappropriate contact call, simply make sure you ignore the calls you don’t like and respond to the ones you do! While harder than it sounds with a very loud bird (earmuffs may be needed to save your ears in the early stages of behaviour modification), this does work if it is consistent across everyone in contact with the bird. A bird that gets attention for talking and making pleasant noises will then learn that this contact call works much better than screaming, that now gets no response. Remember you can’t just ignore all noises, you must train yourself to respond every time your bird makes ‘good’ noise – and you will see relief soon!
If you get stuck and need help identifying why your bird is making so much noise – contact us via www.parrotlife.com.au – we are happy to help!
Article was written by Rachel Riley of Parrot Life