Just ignore that screaming bird!

Undesirable loud noises, typically referred to as “screaming” by parrot owners, is a common issue. So common that it inspired me to tailor a presentation for conferences and bird clubs called “The Accidental Trainer”. The basis of the presentation is that screaming and also biting, are so prevalent in companion parrots that they must be inherently “noisy biters.” It is not my intention to cover the ground that my presentation covers in a few hundred words of a blog, I encourage anyone interested to contact me so that I may bring the full presentation to their club. What I would like to discuss is the often advised strategy of behavior change called “extinction” as a solution to the noise issue. My point will be that extinction alone is not enough, indeed suggesting only extinction as a fix for a noisy bird may well be setting up the bird and the caretaker for failure.

First let’s take a quick look at exactly what we mean when we speak about extinction. The word itself and its common meaning sound like the right approach:

Extinction – Noun

1. The state or process of a species, family, or larger group being or becoming extinct.

2. The state or process of ceasing or causing something to cease to exist.

The first definition is obvious and is probably the one that people are most familiar with. The second definition is not surprising either and seems to be what we want with this noisy bird behavior, we want it to cease to exist, the behavior that is 😮

From a behavior science perspective we get a tighter definition, one that leads to how to apply the strategy:

1. When a behavior that has been previously reinforced no longer produces reinforcing consequences the behavior gradually stops occurring.

This also seems clear, we simply ensure that whatever consequence has been reinforcing the behavior is no longer available. Simple right? Well not so much. The first challenge in any attempt to reduce the frequency or strength of an undesired behavior is to try to discover two things. First what is the signal in the environment that informs the bird that if they vocalize loudly it will produce a desirable outcome? Second, what is that desirable outcome produced by the behavior of vocalizing loudly that is maintaining the behavior. Only once these two things are discovered and in our control do have the tools to enable an attempt to reduce the undesirable behavior.

If we are lucky we will discover and be able to control the event that is signaling the bird to begin the behavior. For example I have heard of a bird that was placed in a cage near a window and their caretaker discovered that each time a large hawk appeared on the bird table in the yard their bird would begin screaming very loudly. The caretaker would appear and talk to the bird or bring it treats to calm it. For this situation the owner chose to move the bird table into the rear garden, out of sight of the parrot … the screaming went away. The signal to the bird to scream had been removed.

More often the signal to scream is the caretaker leaving the bird alone by going to another room. In these cases not leaving the room is probably not an option. This is when many trainers advise the use of extinction, “Just DO NOT respond when the bird screams” becomes the mantra. This advice on its own is not setting up the bird or the caretaker for success. While extinction does work and has been proven to work through countless experiments it is just too hard to execute properly for most caretakers.

What the advice to use extinction is ignoring is the principle that all behavior has function. This means that the behavior of screaming is used by the bird to generate some desirable outcome. It is part of the bird’s control over its environment. A much more successful strategy asks the question, from the bird’s perspective, “What’s in it for me?” If we can figure out what the outcome the bird expects the screaming to deliver then perhaps we can work out a different, more acceptable way of the bird getting that outcome.

Many times the screaming escalated from initial much lower volume attempts by the bird to simply stay in contact with the caretaker when they left the room. If we have a bird trying to make contact then we can begin by heavily reinforcing an acceptable vocalization, while trying to ignore the loud stuff as much as possible. When the caretaker leaves the room they can reinforce the acceptable noises by responding and fulfill the function of the vocalization, assuming contact is the bird’s desired outcome.

However, there are times I hear of screaming birds that do not respond to this strategy, usually because the noise is about getting the caretaker to return to the room and not simply vocal contact. In such cases how can we replace the function of getting the caretaker to return? It may well be we cannot directly do that. Now the strategy becomes one of developing a degree of independence for the bird. This is where teaching your bird to interact with toys and also to forage for food may come to the rescue. A bird that is engaged in independent play is much less likely to “demand” the caretaker return to the room if just prior to leaving the caretaker refreshed the foraging toys or placed some other toy in the cage for their bird.

In closing I must say that this short blog is just an attempt to get caretakers to think about strategies that do not reply upon extinction alone. By just removing access to reinforcers that previously maintained a behavior we are likely setting the stage for escalating noise or other undesirable behaviors. Teaching our birds to forage and play independently will go a long way to reducing the likelihood of screaming for attention behaviors.


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