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Advice on a loud parrot

 
Expert Question

My Timneh Grey Bobby makes such a painfully piercing loud whistle. I’ve tried covering him up, ignoring him and talking gently to him; all to no avail. Bobby is not tame so  I cannot handle him. Other than that, he is an absolute delight because he’s such a great talker. Please help. Any advice would be gratefully received. Thanks, Joanna




Expert Answer

Hi Joanna, a vocalization that hurts our ears is surely one of the most annoying situations that we, as parrot caregivers, have to deal with. Add in the fact that each of is us different when it comes to what we can tolerate before we decide we just can’t take it any more and it can make for an interesting behavioral puzzle for the caregiver to overcome.  Once we’ve decided to take action, we enter into the foggy realm of which advice to take.  Do we, as you did, speak softly? Cover up the bird? Ignore the behavior? Spray the bird with water every time opens it’s beak?  Run to the cage when the birds whistles? Or, re-home it?

We’ve all read each of those suggestions many times espoused as general wisdom for altering parrot behavior. Which way should we turn and what would be the best strategy to use that would reduce the irritating whistle?  That’s what the rest of this response will be about.

Let’s think about this for a moment. With our cars,  would we change the battery when we have a flat tire?  Not likely since we deduce that the reason for the car’s “thumping and bumping along”  behavior is due to the flat tire not the battery. In other words, the car is still running so we almost immediately rule out battery problems.  In the blink of an eye, we’ve rapidly collected some data based on the way the car is behaving,  at that period of time,  that tells us the reason for the rough ride is related to the tires not the battery.  If we approach a bird’s behavior in the same systematic way, collecting data, it’s more likely that we can come up with a strategy that will impact the particular bird’s behavior.

None of us vocalize without some reason - parrots included. Finding out the reason for the behavior will provide us with a clue as to the function that behavior serves for the individual bird. Once we understand what function any behavior serves, then we have a better chance of customizing an intervention that will work specifically for that bird.

The first thing to do is look at the surrounding environment with a critical eye. You will soon see that there are times when Bobby whistles loudly and repetitively and times when he doesn’t.  For instance, does he whistle when you’ve been gone for a period of time?  If you have other birds, does he whistle when they are vocalizing? Does he whistle when he hears a specific sound?  Does he whistle if you have ignored him for some period of time?  Does he whistle when he is engaged in other activities?

Answering those types of questions will provide a clue as to the purpose that the whistling behavior serves for Bobby.  It could be a contact whistle to greet you after absence; a reply to another bird; a response to a specific sound or a tactic to get your attention. With that information in hand, we can design a strategy that will reduce the whistling behavior in favor of those vocalizations you find more acceptable while still meeting the same function for Bobby.

As an example, we might say that when Joanne ignores Bobby, IF Bobby whistles, THEN eventually Joanne provides some social interaction time.  From that data we could predict that Bobby will continue to, or increase, the amount he whistles to gain social interaction time with Joanne. In other words, he’s whistling to get your attention.  It doesn’t matter if you only tell him to be quiet, speak softly, yell at him, spray him with water, etc. The function of his behavior served the purpose of getting your attention for however brief a period of time that might be.

Does that mean we have to live with any form of excessive vocalization? NO! There are any number of approaches to reducing excessive vocalizations but the intent of all of them is the make the excessive whistling irrelevant, inefficient and immaterial. Once you have a clear idea of the purpose Bobby’s whistling serves, you can still fulfill the function the whistling behaviour serves,  just in a different way, thereby reducing the behavior you find problematic and increasing acceptable behaviors.

More often than not, in the home situation excessive vocalizations serve the purpose of getting the caregivers attention. Should it happen to be that Bobby’s whistling serves that purpose,  there are several things you can do.  One of the easiest strategies to implement is training the ear to listen to the acceptable pleasant sounds Bobbie makes and immediately reinforcing those. You could also teach Bobby to ring a bell, bang a certain toy, make a specific noise, go to a given area, or any other creative solution you can come up with any time he wants your attention.  Speaking from experience, a caregiver can reduce annoying vocalizations quite rapidly provided we rapidly reinforce alternative behaviors consistently.

All the best,
Lee


Lee McGuire
About Lee McGuire

Lee McGuire has partnered with parrots in an ongoing quest to effectively understand and communicate with them for over 30 years now. Initially her interest in behaviour modification stemmed from the arrival of a biting, screaming Mitred Conure with stereotypic repetitive behaviours. That event led to an ongoing search for behaviour modification strategies that she felt comfortable employing, and to the discovery of applied behaviour analysis (ABA).

ABA strategies and techniques were not only species respectful, but also humane; they could be used to modify existing behaviours and could enrich the lives of parrots. Philosophically, she had found a soulmate.

Lee has a special interest in good psittizenship behaviours in the home, in the husbandry and medical applications of ABA—especially in shaping physiotherapy-related behaviours. Since 2004, Lee has had the good fortune to be able to act as teaching partner to Susan Friedman, PhD, three times per year for her online course, Living and Learning with Parrots (http://www.behaviorworks.org/).
 
Lee lives in Canada with her 25-year-old Mitred Conure, a cockatiel, an African Grey Parrot and a Moluccan Cockatoo, plus a couple of dogs and a cat.