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Excessively loud vocalizations

Expert Question

Hi, My name is Naomi. My family and I have a Fiery-shouldered Conure parrot named Mario that is about 5 years old. Currently there are 7 people living in our house. We have had him for the past year from a previous owner who could not give him the attention he needs.

For the most part Mario is a lovely bird. He used to have issues with biting but we have gotten that under control to the point where he rarely bites. Unfortunately he has always been a loud bird. While I understand that they generally make noise his noise has progressed to a behavioural problem. Since his cage is in our dining room and there are 7 people living in our house we just put up with it because it seemed impractical to train him. This means that we often enter the room when he is screaming so we can eat (or for some other activity) and he becomes quiet. Essentially we have rewarded his bad behaviour. But he also makes noise when we have deep or emotionally charged conversations or when we play music which I don’t think should be “punished”. (I should also note that there are a lot of people around all day and that he gets flying time from after supper around 6:30pm until we go to bed (10:30-11:00 pm).

While we put up with his screaming it is annoying our new housemate, my uncle (who is at home the most during the day with Mario). My uncle says he has researched how to train the bird and says we simply cover the bird up until he is quiet. I have found this method so far to be very inconsistent and so I do not think the bird understands this. Alternatively, I have read that giving him treats to find when we leave will keep him distracted. Given our family situation of a large household should we stick to the covering method or do you have a “nicer” method? If so how long of an interval should we wait to uncover him once he is quiet? I should also mention I am his favorite followed by my dad, though my dad has more authority over Mario. Please help. I love this little guy and just want to give him the best home possible without giving him away.

Thank you,

Expert Answer

Hi there Naomi, Thank you for bringing us this question. Many people who live with parrots have a problem with excessive loud vocalizations. This behavior can be one of the most difficult to replace, unless caregivers are very systematic. It is wonderful that you are willing to work with this little fellow to ensure that his quality of life is enhanced, and yours too, without using force or coercion that are often suggested on some the internet sites.  Great catch on your part realizing that covering may well not work as intended. Why might that be I wonder? Let's see if we can figure it out.

All animals including humans are impacted by what goes on in the world around us as we go about acting out our daily lives.  We all behave for a purpose either to get a particular outcome or to escape or avoid a particular outcome.  We have learned to turn on the heat when we are cold; to drink water when we are thirsty;  to put our foot on the brake to avoid hitting another car; and, to call out to our family and friends when we want to get their attention for one reason or another.  Parrots, including conures, are not all that much different.  In other words, those events that immediately follow any behavior can send a signal about whether to emit that behavior again in the future. There is a clear relationship between behavior and the consequences that follow it. Mario's case, we can posit that he gets something of value out of the making the loud noises.

A goodly number of the loud sustained vocalization behaviors that occur in the home are directly related to seeking our human attention.  That isn't to say that living in a busy home with seven people might not be a factor considering each person may well react in a different way to the vocalizations but starting with one behavior often is more than enough to reduce behaviors that occur in other circumstances so let's deal with the first point.
If it has been too long since Mario last interacted with a human, or a specific human, then loud vocalizations may well be the behavior used to gain that interaction.  Stated another way:

    WHEN there is little attention, IF Mario loudly vocalizes, THEN a family member looks at him/speaks to him.

That simple sentence gives us one possible functional assessment of Mario's behavior to start with. As soon as he gets that "look" the behavior may well have been reinforced long before the cover is added or other action taken (yelling at him, making faces at him, leaving the room, etc) .  We also know that behaviors we get something of value for doing will be repeated.  Therefore we can state with some confidence that the "loudness/screaming" will continue.  Yikes! What can we do about that?  There are a number of strategies we can use that we will be talking more about below but now we have one starting point to dig in and use.

One point that should be noted here, the intervention would work best if you can get the entire family onside -- perhaps each person working to teach Mario a different behavior.  The more reinforcement Mario can get for behaving in ways that you can live with, the faster the "loudness" will subside.

What can we do?

  • Observe and collect data on when the "loudness" is most likely to occur.  Sometimes, a simple change in the environment before the behavior occurs is all that is needed.  For example:

    - The television is too loud - we can turn it down a notch.
    - The kids are scrapping - we ask them to consider Mario and what impact their behavior is having on him.  Can they move to another room?
    - Emotionally charged conversations can be held away from Mario.
    - It has been two hours since anyone spoke to Mario directly - so we drop by the cage and say " How are you doing little fellow".

  • Observe and collect data on what we humans are already doing that reinforces the loud behavior, that produces something of value for Mario.  We are laughing loudly and Mario joins in -- we look at him and laugh too.  Mario is loud and we tell him to "stuff it", or words to that effect and we have again reinforced his loudness, or we move toward his cage (without or without cover).  Using that information can lead us to a greater understanding about why the behavior occurs in the first place.  Being able to understand, predict and change the behavior of interest can then lead us to some great strategies discussed more below.
  • Teach him new ways to get that attention.  Any bird can't whistle, or talk,  and be "loud" at the same time. We reinforce those sounds that we can live with. To do that, we need to teach ourselves to listen - developing a keen ear for those sounds that the family can live with and then reinforcing those pleasant sounds immediately.  Called Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behavior (DRI), it works well since Mario can't be "loud" and talk/whistle pleasantly at the same time.
  • In cage and out of cage enrichment.  Adding toys that Mario will interact with and changing them regularly will provide greater in cage interest for those times when the family is busy with life so that Mario can entertain himself.  Part of enrichment can be the addition of foraging toys/ boxes.  It is possible that Mario would need to be taught how to play with toys or shaped to use foraging devices. You can find more information on how to shape behavior at the links below.

In the wild, a large part of a bird's day is spent hunting/foraging for food. In the home we can replicate that somewhat using boxes with foot toys, treats, hidden portions of the daily diet that need to be searched for.  Not only are foraging boxes enriching, they are also reinforcing for those birds who have learned how to use them plus having the advantage that we can also reinforce this type of behavior with some attention at the beginning and then slowly fading the attention component as Mario becomes more proficient at searching for toys and foraging.  Differential Reinforcement of Alternative behavior (DRA) is another wonderful tool to have in the tool kit and that's the procedure of reinforcing alternatives like foraging!

  • Teach Mario new behaviors. Parrots are learning all the time unfortunately, what we are often teaching them in the home is to bite harder and scream louder.  If instead, we teach them behaviors such as station to a specific perch, come/approach when called, stay where you are for example; we not only have a well behaved psittacine but a bird who has increased positive reinforcement in its life. That later point is very important since those birds with the most positive reinforcement are usually the most behaviorally healthy.

Admittedly, you do have your work cut out for you but if you can get the family onside you can surely change Mario's behavior.  Each family member will have their own level of tolerance for "loudness", the trick will be coming to some consensus that you can all agree on.

There are some great resources on the World Parrot Trust website
as well as a tool you can use that will be found at the following link:

Amongst the many articles on the BehaviorWorks web site you might find the one under the "Written Works" tab and "S Files" tabs that show a similar problem with a Moluccan cockatoo very useful.

Lee McGuire and Susan Friedman

Susan Friedman, PhD & LLP Course Graduates
About Susan Friedman, PhD & LLP Course Graduates

Susan G. Friedman, Ph.D., is currently a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Utah State University. A Behaviourist for more than 25 years, her area of expertise is learning and behaviour with a special emphasis on children’s behaviour disorders. 

In the last several years, Susan has helped pioneer efforts to apply to animals the humane philosophy and scientifically sound teaching technology from the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis, which has been so effective with human learners. The guiding principle of this approach is a hierarchy of teaching interventions starting with the most positive, least intrusive, effective behaviour solutions.
Susan is a steadfast proponent of changing behaviour through facilitation rather than force. These tools of facilitation focus on animals’ extraordinary biologic capacity to learn by interacting with their environment. She teaches that by changing the environment for success, animals learn to behave successfully. Susan currently teaches Living and Learning with Parrots: The Fundamental Principles of behaviour several times a year. (See for more information and links to her recent articles.)

Susan is the first author on two recently completed chapters on learning and behaviour for two new avian veterinary texts (in press, Harrison and Lightfoot’s Clinical Avian Medicine and Luescher’s Manual Parrot behaviour) and enjoys contributing to and learning from several internet lists on parrot behaviour. She is a core member of the California Condor Recovery Team and takes every opportunity to work with companion animal caregivers, veterinarians, animal trainers and zookeepers to empower and enrich the lives of all learners. Foremost in this interdisciplinary effort is her passion for and commitment to working with companion parrots and their caregivers.