A man wrote to me about an annoying sound his black masked lovebird had been making recently. The sound was not “natural” to the bird and sounded almost mechanical. It was a high-pitched beeping sound. He found the sound intolerable and had tried numerous ways of stopping the behavior, but the bird only persisted in making it. He tried ignoring the bird, but usually the sound annoyed him so much he would yell at the bird. I wrote back to him, explaining that sound could possibly be something from the bird’s environment that it learned to mimic. In fact, the way he described it, the sound seemed to be something like the beep a truck makes when it backs up. My advice was to ignore the sound completely. No matter how maddening, how frustrating, he needed to act as if the bird did not exist when he made this sound. Under no circumstances was he to look at the bird, call to him, yell at him, or cover the cage. All these reactions would be considered attention and the sound would get the result the bird wanted. I also told him that when the bird was quiet, or making sounds the man enjoyed, to immediately interact with the bird and thereby encourage the positive behavior. He wrote back to me saying that he did not think he could ignore the sound because it drove him to distraction, but I encouraged him to try it for a while, that if he stuck with this strategy he had a good chance of changing the bird’s behavior.
It was about three months later that I received another e-mail from this man. He was delighted to report that the strategy worked like a charm. While the bird did still occasionally make the sound, it was rare and was not enough to drive the owner mad. He also noted a particularly nice side effect to the strategy: the bird was now talking more, mimicking human speech! This was the result I hoped he would get, and I was happy to hear it was not only successful in alleviating the stressful noise situation, but that he ended up with a bird with a new vocabulary that delighted him.
Noise is a funny thing. I always comment that people have no problem living next to a busy highway, but they’ll complain about someone’s parrot squawking in the morning. I know of a case in Florida where neighbors complained that an African Grey had a vulgar mouth. However, it seems the grey was simply mimicking them yelling up at him on his balcony perch to, “Shut the **** up!” Many urban dwellers have become so unused to natural noises, that they annoy us more than man-made ones. Because of this issue, it is important to think about the noise parrots can make before you bring one into your apartment with paper-thin walls. However, if you are already in the situation where a bird’s vocalizations are causing problems, there are some steps you can take to reduce them.
Remember, parrots are vocal by nature. They call to flock members across miles of dense jungles. They are especially vocal in the mornings and in the evening. This is a way of touching base with the flock at the beginning and at the end of the day. Just imagine all those parrots out there in the wild flying about for food. As the sun starts to set, it would make sense that they would send out loud contact calls to make sure the rest of the flock comes together for the night. If we understand the natural times for vocalizations, we can avoid overreacting to them and possibly reinforcing screaming behavior so that the parrot uses its voice to control the owner.
What is the best way to react to a true contact call? When my amazon calls out “Vera?” and I am within hearing distance, I give her a simple and quiet reply, “I’m right here.” Generally this is enough to appease her. If she continues to call over and over, I no longer respond. She knows I’m there, so her needs have been met. This has worked very well. Inca rarely screams for me persistently. She makes her contact call, gets her answer, then relaxes. Sometimes she will test me and repeat it a few times, but she has learned it really isn’t going to get her anywhere. On occasion, and I stress “on occasion,” if she sounds like she is in need of attention, I will go in and talk to her for a few minutes, stroke her head, maybe pick her up and ask her how she is. However, I measure my response in a way that does not reinforce screaming to get attention.
I must admit that when Inca first learned to call my name it was tempting to reply every time. I quickly realized this wasn’t a good idea and measured my responses thereafter. Often times people get a bit upset when you tell them they have to set boundaries and rules for interaction with their pet birds. They want to simply do whatever they please at any time. They get very upset when the bird behaves “badly” yet they don’t want to change their own behavior in order to have a better adjusted pet. I’ve seen this not only with vocalization and screaming, but with shoulder sitting. Someone will report that their bird is biting their face. When I tell them that bird should not have shoulder privileges they protest that they simply MUST walk around the house with the bird on their shoulder. My answer is, then be prepared for another bite on the face. Parrots are wild creatures, only a few generations removed from their wild ancestors. Owners who fully understand and accept this tend to have the best relationships with their birds. These owners aren’t trying to recreate their macaw in the image of their pet cat or dog. They accept that the combination of high intelligence and strong instinct means this pet is more high maintenance than the more domesticated pets such as cats and dogs.
You can never eliminate all noise and contact calls when you have pet parrots. This simply isn’t realistic. However, by understanding the nature of your pet’s vocalizations you can avoid reinforcing the more annoying sounds or screaming. One of the reasons we love parrots is because of their voices. We should not try to squelch these voices; instead, we should use keen observation to understand when and why our birds are becoming vocal and channel those energies appropriately so screaming does not become their only way to communicate.
Please note: NEVER IGNORE a bird that sounds as if it is in distress. If your bird is making a horrible screech or screaming in a panicked way that you have not heard before, check on its safety. If after a few times you realize this sound is an attention-getter, you can then react appropriately and work on re-directing the bird’s energy.