Parrot Vocalization

african grey in white background screaming

The ability to vocalize is arguably one of the most and least endearing traits in a pet parrot.

The popularity of some species of pet parrots, such as African Greys, is derived from their ability to speak, to mimic human speech and other noises.

However, parrots’ ability to vocalize and normal patterns of vocalization often become problematic for pet bird owners.

Naturalists have noted several features of parrot vocalizations in the wild that have relevance for the captive management of these birds.

First is the daily pattern of vocalization.

In most species of parrots, especially those commonly kept as pets, such as amazons, macaws, and cockatoos, the flock will be quiet from sunset until the next dawn.

At daybreak, the flock will vocalize and fly around the roosting area before setting out to forage for the day in a different location.

Again, as dusk approaches after the birds have returned to the roosting area, there is a period of vocalization.

This pattern can lead to problems in a household setting especially when birds vocalize at sunrise and owners or their neighbors are not ready to wake up.

Owners may also complain of birds “screaming” when they come home from work.

Vocalizations at this time of the day may be due to a combination of factors—greeting the returning “flock member” and normal, pre-sunset, vocalizations.

The first step in treating these problems is owner education.

Pet parrot owners must be aware that their birds no matter how bonded they are to people and even if bred in captivity and hand-raised, are still wild animals.

With the possible exceptions of Cockatiels and Budgies, pet parrots do not meet the basic definition of domesticated animals.

This is because pet parrots are not genetically different from wild parrots as a result of selective breeding.

As a starting point in treating any pet bird behavior problem, owners must understand that they may be able to modify the expression of their birds’ normal behaviors but won’t be able to completely eradicate these behaviors.

 In the case of morning and evening vocalizations, once owners understand that their birds will still vocalize twice daily, then they are ready to start to shape those periods of vocalization into more acceptable ones.

Most species of parrots that are kept as pets are tropical or semi-tropical.

To replicate natural conditions they should be receiving close to 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark each day.

One easy way to control vocalizations is to control the bird’s dark/light cycle.

Covering cages or having birds sleep in a dark room allows owners to set when “sunrise” occurs.

Most parrots will not vocalize in the morning until after daybreak.

Likewise, owners may be able to shift evening vocalizations by controlling when “sunset” occurs.

Owners can also redirect these natural periods of vocalization into more acceptable behaviors by giving the bird another activity to perform at these times.

For example, in the evenings the owner can take advantage of the bird’s natural proclivity to vocalize by using this time to teach the bird new phrases or sounds to say.

Alternately, owners can pre-empt and reduce some of the vocalizations by giving the bird a new toy or special food at the times that it is likely to vocalize.

The toy or treat must be given before the bird starts to vocalize.

If this is not the case then the bird may learn that by yelling it earns a reward.

Naturalists have also noted several different types of vocalizations from wild parrots.

These include alarm calls, contact calls, food begging calls, and interspecific agonistic calls.

Many of these vocalizations are learned by parrot chicks from their parents and flock mates.

Naturally cross-fostered Galahs (Cacatua roseicapilla) that were reared by Pink Cockatoos (Cacatua lead beateri) have contact calls like their foster parents, not like their own species.

Budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulates) that are reared in isolation not only exhibit abnormal vocalizations but also abnormal behaviors.

Among these abnormal behaviors is evidence of social bonding to inanimate objects exhibited by warbling as though courting selected objects.

A hand-reared pet parrot will not have the same vocalizations as its wild relatives, but it will show similar patterns of vocalizations and uses of vocalizations.

Because almost all species of psittacines are highly social, as flock dwellers parrots have developed a variety of vocalizations that serve exclusively or primarily as contact calls.

These are calls that serve to identify where other members of the flock are and help promote flock cohesion.

Unfortunately, most pet parrots are not maintained in flocks.

Even if there are other birds in the household, parrots often form inappropriate pair bonds with their owners.

When separated from the owner, these birds will vocalize.

Initially, they may give contact calls, which may progress to more distressed and anxious vocalizations if they receive no response to the calmer contact calls.

In some birds, this vocalization may only take place when the owner leaves the house.

Other birds may give contact calls every time their owners leave their sight.

One way to address this problem is by having the owner maintain auditory contact with the bird when in another part of the house.

For some birds, this can be as simple as hearing the owner whistling or talking while in another room.

The owner’s vocalizations need not be in response to the bird’s contact calls but can begin when he or she leaves the room before the bird begins to vocalize.

In more severe cases the bird should be treated for separation anxiety.

This treatment begins by reducing the bird’s dependence upon the owner while the owner is at home.

This is accomplished by limiting interactions with the bird, making the interactions more structured through positive reinforcement-based training, and providing the parrot with alternatives to interacting with the owner.

These alternates can be toys, especially food-dispensing toys or toys that can be chewed up or shredded, or special food treats, especially challenging foods like nuts that must be cracked or whole fruits.

Other visual and auditory stimuli, like television or radio, can help give the parrot another focus for its attention.

The other part of a separation anxiety treatment plan is using a series of very short departures to desensitize the bird to being left alone.

These departures must be brief enough that the bird does not experience any anxiety whatsoever.

During these practice departures, the parrot is provided with special food treats and toys to give it opportunities for other more rewarding behaviors than calling out to its owner.

Vocalizations that serve as alarm calls have also been identified in several parrot species.

In some species, such as Cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus) and the Red-rumped Parrot (Psephotus haematonotus), several different types of alarm calls indicate varying levels of distress have been identified.

In a pet situation, owners may hear these calls in response to actual or perceived threats to the birds.

Many owners can identify the function of these particular vocalizations and realize that their birds are distressed and not “just screaming.”

This knowledge may allow the owner to respond to the screaming by removing the stimulus that is causing the alarm.

For example, my Indian Ringneck Parakeets would only give an alarm call if a dog was near his cage.

The owner learned to call the dog whenever she heard the bird’s alarm call.

Once the dog moved away from the bird’s cage the bird would stop calling and relax.

Alarm calls can become problematic.

By nature, these calls tend to be loud and of a frequency that carries well to warn the entire flock and possibly drive away threats.

A pet parrot that alarm calls frequently can be quite disturbing to the people who must live with or near the bird.

Furthermore, a pet parrot that is alarm calling frequently is a welfare issue.

These vocalizations are given when the bird is in distress.

The presence of frequent alarm calls can indicate a poor husbandry situation in which a bird is being kept in a distressing environment.

The first and most important step in treating a parrot with excessive alarm calls is to identify and remove the stimuli that are provoking the vocalizations.

These stimuli may be inanimate objects in the bird’s immediate environment (e.g., toys, cage furniture) or anywhere within the bird’s line of sight.

Other possible stimuli are people or other animals.

Remembering that pet parrots are wild animals that are prey species in the wild can help to identify the source of the bird’s alarm.

Alarm calls may be elicited by seeing potential predators, dogs, cats, birds of prey, snakes, and so forth in the house, through a window, or in pictures or on television.

Often parrots will give alarm calls directed at unfamiliar or familiar but less-favored people.

Provided the bird is not showing other signs of more significant fear or distress, such as attempting to escape from the area, this behavior is best treated by ignoring it.

If the alarming person approaches the bird, the bird may panic or act aggressively.

If the owner or another favored person approaches and attempts to calm or reassure the bird, then the bird is being rewarded for screaming out alarm calls.

This will teach the bird that making alarm calls works to get the owner’s attention and may result in a bird that alarm calls simply as an attention-seeking behavior and not out of distress.

Instead, the owner and the other people should wait until the bird has stopped screaming and then reward the bird with a delicious treat or an object to play with or attention and affection.

Pet parrots may alarm call in response to being in a new location or to changes in a familiar environment, such as new furniture or furniture that was moved.

In this case “introducing” the bird to its environment is often sufficient to relieve the bird’s distress.

The owner should walk around the area with the bird, talking to the bird in an upbeat voice, as though this tour is the most fun thing ever to happen.

The owner can touch things and gently show them to the bird.

The key is for the owner to be relaxed and engaged with the environment and let the bird see that it is not threatening.

The parrot will then relax and choose the level of interaction with the environment that it is comfortable with.

The bird must not be pushed into interactions for which it is not ready.

If the bird is panicked by the fear-provoking stimulus or is unresponsive to the previously described approaches, then systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning should be used to treat the bird’s underlying fear and anxiety and thereby reduce the problem of vocalizations.

After the fear-provoking stimulus has been identified and removed from the bird’s environment, it is slowly reintroduced while the bird is rewarded for remaining calm and non-reactive.

The stimulus is first introduced in a manner that does not cause any reaction.

Gradually the level of stimulation is increased. This can be done by altering the form of the stimulus.

For example, a bird that was panicked by tie-dyed t-shirts was first introduced to plain t-shirts, then t-shirts with a small area of tie-dye, then t-shirts that were tie-dyed all over.

Distance from the stimulus should also be used to decrease the intensity of the stimulus.

The rewards that the bird receives in the presence of the stimulus should be anything that the particular bird values highly.

This can be food, toys, things to manipulate with its beak, petting, or being spoken to.

Clicker training can also be a useful adjunct to desensitization and counter-conditioning protocol.

In more extreme or refractory cases adjunct drug therapy may be useful.

Problems can also arise from learned vocalizations—words, phrases, and sounds that parrots learn to mimic.

Parrots may accidentally or purposely be taught words or phrases that their owners would prefer they do not say.

These may be as innocuous as an old flame’s name or as embarrassing as obscenities.

Birds that are inadvertently exposed to expletives may likely repeat these words because they heard them said at a high volume and/or with a high level of emotion.

Parrots are often attracted to dramatic vocal displays from people and therefore may find these phrases memorable.

Many parrots are especially adept at mimicking electronic noises, such as the beeps from microwaves, cell phones, and computers.

Often these sounds can become quite wearing on people who have to hear them all day long.

In addition, birds often learn that making these sounds causes people to do things, like get up to check the microwave or look for the ringing phone.

The people’s behavior becomes rewarding for the birds and encourages them to repeat these sounds more often.

To reduce these problematic learned vocalizations owners must be prepared to be very patient.

As is the case with many learned, rewarded behaviors, these vocalizations can be “unlearned” by ignoring them via the process of extinction.

Since parrots are so responsive to subtle body language and facial expressions from people, owners must be prepared to be poker-faced in the light of whatever their birds may be saying.

Owners should be taught about the phenomenon of extinction bursts, whereby the bird may repeat the undesirable vocalization at a greater frequency or louder volume in response to the lack of reaction from the owner.

Owners should also be aware that the slightest encouragement will result in a resumption of the undesired behavior.

This often becomes important when there are visitors at the house or other people caring for the bird.

People who do not have to live with the parrot may accidentally or purposely encourage the very vocalizations the owners have been actively working to extinguish.

If the bird is not responding to the attempts at extinction, a mild punishment may be added to the treatment plan.

The punishment to be used, a form of social isolation, takes advantage of parrots’ natural gregariousness.

The instant the bird begins the unwanted vocalization, all people present should turn away from the bird or even leave the room, thereby “isolating” the bird for a brief (30 seconds) period.

The idea is to teach the bird that the word or sound in question no longer gets a positive response; instead, it drives people away.

Another situation of learned vocalizations creating problems for pet parrot owners occurs after a person in the household has had a cold.

The parrot begins to mimic the person’s coughs and sneezes.

Often owners will present these birds to a veterinarian fearing that the bird has contracted the person’s cold.

These birds show no other signs of upper respiratory tract disease and their coughs and sneezes sound like human coughs and sneezes, not avian ones.

If these vocalizations are worrisome for the owners, ignoring them is the best treatment.

The presenting complaint for problem vocalizations is often simply that the bird is “screaming.”

Although careful history taking may reveal that this is a problem that involves primarily contact calls (e.g., separation anxiety) or alarm calls (e.g., when there are visitors in the house), sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint such a cause for the problem vocalizations.

In many such cases, the problem is primarily one of the learned vocalizations.

The parrot has learned that people pay attention to a screaming bird.

Often the owners believe that the attention they are providing is negative and should stop the screaming.

This often consists of owners yelling at their birds or returning to the room to “scold” the bird.

Some owners will attempt other forms of punishment that are inappropriate and clearly ineffective if the problem continues.

In cases of attention-seeking screaming, the treatment is the same as for the bird that is saying unwanted words.

So, attempt to extinguish the unwanted behavior by ignoring it.

Some owners can successfully interrupt a screaming parrot by covering the bird’s cage.

The cage should be uncovered immediately after the bird quiets down and the bird should be given other things like toys or food to occupy its time.

Another way of reducing the volume of a parrot’s vocalizations, whether attention-seeking “screaming” or normal morning and evening vocalizations, is by teaching the bird to whisper.

Reward the bird with attention, food, or toys for speaking softly.

This approach allows the bird to engage in a normal behavior but modifies that behavior into a form that is more acceptable for life in captivity.

In rare cases, parrots’ screaming becomes a stereotypic behavior.

Like all stereotypic behaviors, this can be thought of as an indication of inadequate husbandry and a welfare problem.

The bird’s husbandry situation, including but not limited to feeding, water source, caging, cage location, availability of toys, perch variety, light cycle, and contact with other birds/people, should be addressed.

Some of these birds might benefit from treatment with psychotropic medication.

Drug choices would be similar to those used to treat psychogenic feather picking.

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