Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Vomit Sounds of Silence

I mentioned yesterday that I would talk about Rocky's screaming and his vomit sounds. I can't believe I haven't talked about this already!

When Rocky first came to live with us, he was 19 years old and had not lived a particularly happy life. For at least the previous 6 years, he was cagebound and we suspect locked in a back room. He had learned to communicate by screaming. He was so starved for attention that even getting yelled at to quiet down was better than being ignored.

That is not acceptable in our house! While parrots are noisy and you can't expect to have a bird that never screams (especially a macaw!), neither should you have to live with a parrot that screams constantly. We needed to teach him a new way to communicate.

In much parrot literature, people living with screamers are advised to ignore the screaming. While that is a component of what we did, that wouldn't solve the problem. He was trying to tell us something by his screams. We needed to give him a different, more acceptable way, to communicate with us.

The first thing we did was try to figure out what was making him scream. Could we arrange the environment to make him less likely to scream? One thing that made him scream is that he felt like he should be fed dinner within about 5 minutes of when I arrived home from work. Realizing this, I'd give him an almond when I got home, which bought me enough time to change out of my work clothes and get everyone's dinner ready.

He also liked to keep order in our house. If any of the parrots were in a place he didn't consider acceptable, he'd scream. For example, if Max went on Calypso's cage, or if any of the parrots (except him) went on the floor. We'd softly say, "it's OK, Max can be on his cage" and he slowly learned the rules.

The other, main, reason why he screamed was for attention. He is one of the most social parrots I've ever met. We can only imagine how starved for attention he was after his previous home! This required a two-pronged approach: teaching him personal responsibility (which will be a topic for a different post) and giving him an appropriate way to call us to him, which is what I'll talk about now.

We realized that when he was about to scream, he'd make a short, almost vomit-like sound. It's like he was gathering his breath to launch his assault on our ears. Seizing on that, we'd run to him when we heard the vomit sound. (You can hear his vomit sound in the background of the video of Max eating a wrapped pellet in yesterday's post). We dropped everything and ran to his side. Then, we'd sing and dance with him or talk to him in this funny voice he likes. We'd give him the best kind of attention. If he started screaming before we got to him, we'd turn around and walk out of the room. We completely ignored the screaming.

Soon, he'd make his vomit sound for a longer duration before he'd scream. This was working! We kept at it, running to him at every vomit sound. We did this for perhaps a month or so? We knew that we could not live our lives running to him at every occasion, so we started acknowledging him vocally and suggesting that he come near us (encouraging personal responsibility). We'd still run to him on occasion, but started moving more and more towards vocal rewards.

It took a lot of patience on our part, but it worked. He will still scream occasionally -- after all that's what worked for 19 years and he's only been with us for about 2 years -- but it's tolerable and he usually remembers quickly that's not what he's supposed to do.

Actually, the more I think about it, he now usually screams just when he's angry and he wants us to know it. For example, if we've already given him some of what we're eating but he wants more. In that case, he looks right at us, and gives off the loudest scream he possibly can. Usually, he lifts off of his perch with the force of his scream. He doesn't do this too often and we find it a quirkily endearing part of his personality.

Here he is last night. He climbed up on the table and perched on the stick that I always keep near me if I need to move him. I'm glad he likes his stick so much!

I hope this video will work! I posted it on youtube a few months ago for people to see how loud a severe macaw can scream. He was competing with the blender and stopped about 6 seconds in after he realized I was paying attention to him. It's hard to catch him screaming since he stops when he sees the camera!


Sonja said...

Rocky is so beautiful and deserves the great home you are so obviously giving him. You seem to have a gift for parrot psychology!

My caique Gizmo finally stopped sitting on her infertile eggs - thank goodness she stopped screaming too!

Mary said...

Hi Sonja,

Thanks for the nice compliment! We try to do our best with these guys and we're constantly learning how to give them better lives.

Glad to hear Gizmo's off her eggs and stopped the screaming. From the video on your blog, it was pretty unpleasant to listen to!

Beloved Parrot said...

I really like your philosophy of personal responsibility. I've never heard it put quite like that.

Excellent work!

Mary said...


Thanks! It's certainly not scientific; just what we've cobbled together with trial-and-error. But it seems to work for us and our birds!