Among the many behaviors we are working on at the moment, we are trying to get Static, our Goffin’s Cockatoo, to reduce the number of unwanted vocalizations.
Or, as my mother would say, “Make that darn bird stop screaming!”
In Static’s defense, she’s not a constant screamer. In fact, the amount of noise she makes rarely bothers me. She hollers a couple of times day, and usually for not very long, so it’s not all that obnoxious. For others, like my mother, who isn’t a bird lover, even the small amount of racket is pretty unpleasant.
Now I’ll admit that there are some noises that Static makes that I like more than others. Our family goal is to encourage her to make more of the sounds we like and fewer of the ones we dislike.
One of the sounds I don’t like so much is the noise she makes when I’m out of the room and she wants me to come pick her up. It’s this loud screeching/hissing sound, and I think her name is very descriptive of the racket. It’s certainly not a pleasant sound at all, and it’s even less nice if she decides to make it while I am on the phone in the living room.
I view a certain amount of noise is as part of life with companion parrots, but I do agree that in this case, less is more.
So, how are we encouraging Static to make more of the nice noises and fewer of the unpleasant ones?
We are using positive reinforcement to encourage the sounds we like, and doing our best not to reinforce the sounds we don’t.
Static doesn’t have a huge repertoire of vocalizations, but she does have a few sounds and phrases I like. My favorite is, “Hi baby,” which is the vocalization I’ve selected to reinforce. Every time Static says the desired phrase, I get up, go over to her perch, and give her some attention. Depending on what I’m doing, I might pick her up and carry her around the house for a while, or let her join me on the sofa. If I’m busy with work, I’ll check in with her, and if she’s being quiet, I’ll let her sit on my shoulder and watch me type. If she’s being rowdy, I’ll give her a toy and a couple of scratches, but leave her on her tree since I can’t really concentrate on work with a cockatoo bouncing up and down on my shoulder.
When she screams, I mostly ignore her. If her hollering sounds important (she is also our watch bird and yells when someone is at the door) I’ll get up, walk into the living room and look around to make sure everything is okay. I don’t want to encourage habitual screaming, but I do want to encourage her to yell when appropriate. Static is pretty bright, and has warned us about things like oven timers going off, and strangers messing around in the street.
When she does scream, unless I deem that her yelling was for a good reason (like the aforementioned strangers or oven timer) I don’t pick her up, look at her, or interact with her. I still respond to her distress calls, because I don’t want to create a situation where she’s screaming and I don’t respond at all. I still answer her call, but she doesn’t get exactly what she wants.
Static is no dummy. She likes attention from her humans, and she’s quickly learning that saying “Hi baby!” gets her one-on-one attention.
Right now, she’s still figuring it out, so she is still occasionally forgetting herself. She’ll scream a little bit, think about it, and then she’ll say “Hi baby.” If she mixes the two, I tell her “talk nice,” and wait for her to offer up a few more of the desirable sounds. She’s definitely getting it, and just over the course of a few days, we’ve seen a lot less hollering and a lot more desirable sounds.
Now I have to admit that I am fortunate in that I work from a home office, so I have the opportunity to reinforce this all day long. Even if you aren’t home all day, you can still use these techniques when you are home evenings and weekends.
Luckily, Static doesn’t call me every second of the day. There are times where she’s content to play with her toys independently. If she did continually ask to be picked up, initially I’d respond every time she called me to encourage the desired vocalization. Over time, I’d gradually respond less frequently. I’d still make sure to reinforce the desirable sounds and ignore the undesirable ones. As long as a bird thinks a particular behavior will be reinforced, she’ll continue to demonstrate it.
For habitual screamers, this might take a bit of patience. Keep at it, and whatever you do, don’t give up. Sometimes, birds will yell more, in a last-ditch, frantic effort to get your attention. Don’t cave in, or all you will do is teach your bird that she has to scream longer before you will respond.
In my experience, most birds yell because they want something. It might be that they are bored, want to move to a different location, want attention from their humans, are distressed about something, or they are hungry. It’s our job as caretakers to try to figure out what’s causing the racket, and to address it.
In some cases, screaming can be stopped ahead of time, by being just a little bit proactive.
Luna, my blind macaw, is an unusually quiet bird, but there’s one thing that is guaranteed to make her scream. She has huge food issues, and if her bowl runs empty, the entire neighborhood will hear about it. It’s hard to believe that one little macaw can make so…much…noise, but she can! It doesn’t matter if she has just eaten and her crop is entirely full. If she perceives that there is insufficient food in her bowl, she finds it very distressing, and will scream until the food is replaced.
Preventing Luna from screaming is easy. I just have to make sure that her dish never runs out of pellets. As long as there is something in that dish, even if it’s not her favorite food, she won’t scream. If Luna feels secure about her next meal, she will be quiet.