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Screaming: Some Causes and Cures

By Jane Hallander

One of the biggest problems facing bird owners is to have a parrot that screams. It may scream when you're at home, when you leave the room or when you leave the house. African Greys, while usually quiet when compared to some other species, can sound as obnoxious as any when they shriek and scream.

Let's take a look at why a bird screams. So-called quick-fix remedies usually say the bird does it for attention, so you should ignore it. This couldn't be further from the truth.

Parrots are PREY animals. Prey animals often find protection from predators within their own herds, bands or flocks. Parrots are also WILD animals. Although your Grey may have been domestically bred and hand fed by a human, it retains many instinctive behaviors. This is often referred to as genetic hard wiring by behaviorists. In the wild, parrots are, by nature, programmed genetically to respond as prey animals to danger. The reason for this is obvious----parrots are a food source for other animals, the predators. Then parent training adds to this so-called hard wiring by teaching or reinforcing for the bird what is and what isn't a predator, as well as how to respond to a predator's threat.

Prey animals need to stay within the confines of their own groups, because their groups provide protection, if any through sheer numbers. If a prey animal, parrot in this instance, finds itself away from the group, it calls to locate the flock. Its mate or another bird in the flock calls back to the outsider to assure it. If you are its flock and start to leave it behind, as you leave the room or house, it will probably contact call to you, asking where you're going and why you're leaving it behind. If you don't answer, it calls louder, until out of desperation, its calls becomes what we call screams.

So, what do many people do? They scream back, something like "Shut up!!!" It doesn't take the bird long to figure out that the only way to get a "contact call" back from you is to scream as loud as it can-----because that's the only decibel that gets answered.

Now, one to one of the favorite cures.....ignoring the screaming.

If you ignore the parrot who screams, you are doing nothing to solve its insecurities about where the flock is, in relation to itself. It will probably only scream louder. Those parrots who finally tire of screaming at their humans who ignore them, end up with the same insecurities and often go to other insecurity behaviors, such as feather picking.

Screaming can often be stopped before it starts by simply acknowledging the parrot when it "contact calls" you. Tell it you'll be right back, or something to that effect. Tell it this when you leave the room or house. When you return, greet it immediately with something like, "I'm back." Focus on your Grey when you tell it you'll be back----- and when you return. Parrots know when their people are not focusing on them, just as small children know when their parents are merely paying lip service to their requests. Your "return contact call" will reassure your Grey that all is well and the flock is not deserting it.

If your bird is already into screaming behavior, do the same as you would for a simple "contact call." Tell it you'll be back, and when you return, let it know you're thinking of it first. Then, don't reward the screaming behavior by yelling at it, running up to the cage or anything that tells the bird that you heard it scream. However, don't walk out of the room either because that only feeds its insecurities. Instead, wait patiently until it stops yelling and does something else, like talk or play with a toy. Then reward THAT behavior by going up to the bird and telling it what a good bird it is. Be consistent at rewarding the acceptable behavior and doing nothing for the screaming behavior, and the bird will soon start doing acceptable behavior for its attention/reward.

When your bird stops screaming, in favor of other rewarded behaviors, don't forget that you still have to play the flock role and reassure the bird when you leave the room or house and when you return. If you are not consistent with this, the parrot will go right back into its "contact call" that later becomes a screaming pattern.

Reprinted with kind permission of Jane Hallander and her parrot Jing.
1995 Jane Hallander. Taken with permission from The Grey Play Round Table

The Complete Pet Bird Owner's Handbook (Revised Ed    Read BEFORE You Buy or Adopt a Bird!    Avian Medicine: Principles and Application (Abridg 


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Last modified: November, 2007