Let’s Work On Modifying That Morning Scream

Or any scream at anytime, for that matter. This tactic may be used to modify any scream or any unpleasant noise, but I wanted to focus this issue on the morning scream due to it being such a popular wake-up call to many of us, including me! I had this behavior modified in one of my birds once before, but this behavior was reinforced for such a long period of time in his history and I’ve noticed the behavior beginning to arise again once in a while if certain signs are ignored.
Or any scream at anytime, for that matter. This tactic may be used to modify any scream or any unpleasant noise, but I wanted to focus this issue on the morning scream due to it being such a popular wake-up call to many of us, including me! I had this behavior modified in one of my birds once before, but this behavior was reinforced for such a long period of time in his history and I’ve noticed the behavior beginning to arise again once in a while if certain signs are ignored.

I have wanted a Moluccan Cockatoo in my house for quite a while now. Well, a little over two years ago I adopted one from a local shelter and brought that peach, feathered beauty into my house. Ever since then he has been my best teacher in having me practice on modifying negative behaviors. I will leave the list of behaviors I’ve had to modify for upcoming newsletters, but for now back to modifying the morning scream.

One Saturday morning over two years ago I was resting peacefully rolled up in my blankets in my nice, comfy bed when all of a sudden I heard this most awful, ear-piercing screech that could peel paint off of the walls. I grabbed my husband’s arm and said “What is that noise?” “That is probably the peach, feathered beauty you brought home” he said as he lifted one eye brow and starred back at me.

Each morning for days after that, I tried multiple different tactics. The one I started with was the one I hear so much about…covering the cage. I covered the cage every night and each morning it bought me a few minutes, but the screech continued to rear its ugly head. I tried another common tactic I had read, turning on a fan in my room to drown out the noise. That may have worked a little for me, but now the birds that share his room were paying the price and I noticed they started screaming back at him. “Now what?” I thought.

I tried the above techniques and more but what I came to realize was that these techniques temporarily covered up the problem, but the problem was still there and it wasn’t long before the issue would arise again. So what to do from here? I first sat down and really paid attention to the bird, the surroundings, his body language, and his behavior and how this related to his environment. What this caused me to do was to pay attention to the details and find out why or for what the bird was screaming. After a little observation, I came to the conclusion that Rocky, the lovely, peach, feathered beauty was producing this ear-piercing sound for my attention or that of my husband’s. I had also realized that every morning that he screamed I was unknowingly reinforcing the scream by running to his cage and trying to settle him down. So, if it was my husband or my attention that he wanted, he got it every single morning. So why wouldn’t he continue to scream every morning? The behavior he was exhibiting was getting him what he wanted.

Another problem, concern, and question I had was, “Do I ignore him and let the other birds pay the price for it?” I tried that. One of the times I timed it and the screaming lasted for over two hours. I thought eventually he would start to learn that the screaming was not going to get him his desired result, but I couldn’t let the birds pay the price and even several rooms away and over the sound of the fan, the screech was still unbearable.

Back to the drawing board I went. The times that Rocky and I would spend together in a day, I paid close attention to the different objects in which he interacted and I paid attention to the different behaviors he would perform. He would do many other things throughout the day besides scream and those were the things I needed to use. These things included chewing through a plastic, golf ball sized waffle ball, eating, drinking, staring out the window, enjoying a pet through the cage bars, eating, chewing on a piece of sisal rope, preening, chewing through some thicker pieces of paper on a toy, and eating. Rocky didn’t interact with many things in his cage when he first came to my home, but he did interact with a few. I made a mental note of the things in which he did interact with the intent of trying to increase these opportunities for him to interact with them by making more toys that contained thinner plastic and thicker pieces of paper. The more he spends time chewing on a piece of plastic, the less time he spends screaming. I also noticed that he went over to his food dish and ate several times throughout the day. Eating was the one behavior he did consistently, so this is when the light bulb went off in my head. I’m a big believer in using foraging and enrichment to aide in modifying negative behaviors in our parrots, so it was no surprise to me on what needed to be done. Teach him to forage (the act of searching for food) and incorporate foraging into his morning activity.

I began teaching Rocky to forage throughout the day and he was catching on. While teaching him to forage, I also noted that he was enjoying the attention he would receive from me when he would accomplish a foraging task. In the March ’08 newsletter, I explained how to introduce your bird to foraging. This time with Rocky, I would wrap almonds in paper cone cups. This was a step by step process for him to learn that the almond was within the paper cone cup. First I would offer him the open cup with the almond clearly visible within it and I would hand it to him. He loved this because it was interaction time between the two of us. He was also getting an almond out of it. If reached out and grabbed the paper cone cup from me I would say “Good Boy!” and give him a head scratch. Next time, if he looked inside at the almond I would say “Good Boy!” and gave him a head scratch. The next time if he reached down and touched the almond with his beak, I would then say “Good Boy” and give him a head scratch. The next step was to fold in one section of the paper cone cup with the almond still in sight. Before long I had the top of the cup twisted tight and sometimes I would give him a head scratch and sometimes I wouldn’t. He was continuing to perform the behavior for the exchange of the attention from me but, soon his attention was on the challenge and anticipation of chewing through the paper cone cup to get to the almond. I noticed that he was requiring less and less attention from me because he had a goal in mind to accomplish and that goal was attainable and was held in his foot. This goal also contained a highly valued reward, the almond which was now only being given to him during these training sessions. To make sure the almond remained a highly valued reward or reinforcer, I only gave them to him in the mornings while I was working on the behavior that I wanted to modify.

Each night before Rocky would go to bed, I would wrap a few almonds in paper cone cups. I would place one in his food dish and the other three in areas really obvious and in close proximity to his food bowl. I did this so he could easily see the cups, but not all of them were in his food dish. Now he had to reach here and reach there to get the others. Then the screaming would start, but…..they key thing here is that he would eat the almonds first and then start screaming. The negative behavior still existed, but now there was something new involved…..the learning of a new behavior. He would have to un-wrap each cup, eat the almond, reach for the other one here, and reach for the other one there before the screaming would start. Progress is being made here and I noticed it.

The next evening I would do the same thing with the placement of the paper cone cup wrapped almonds except, the one that was placed over there, was placed a little further over there. The next evening I would place that one over there even further over there, and the one that was placed over here was now placed a little further up there. All of this while the one was always still placed in his food dish, because the behavior that happened in his food dish was very familiar to him and hopefully when he saw the one in his food dish, it would remind him “Oh yeah! Look up, there might be one up there.”

So, over time Rocky was climbing all over his cage in the morning in search of these paper cone cups. The more places there were to stuff them, the more time it took Rocky to find each paper cup wrapped almond. If the cups weren’t being ripped open, I may have been putting them in too tough of places for him to reach or he had not yet learned that they were there, so I would back up a step and place them in areas that were a little easier seen.

A bird can’t live on almonds and almonds alone. In the morning while I was trying to modify his behavior of screaming, this was the only time throughout the day that I would give him the almonds while I made sure his bird food was always readily available to him if he wanted. Slowly over time, I began replacing a few of the almonds with his bird food. So now, the surprise wasn’t only where the paper cone cup was, but what was in it. The variety in food also increased his behavior in the search for the food while I continued to increase the strategy he needed to use in finding the cup.

Through the whole strategy of teaching him how to forage, I paid close attention each morning to how long the act of foraging would last. In the beginning it may have been three minutes. Over a period of weeks, I saw this time increase to ten minutes, 20 minutes, a half hour. I was absolutely thrilled because it was working. The one aspect I paid close attention to was that when the foraging was done, the screaming would start. I realized something else needed to be incorporated into my plan because I didn’t want the screaming to happen at all, so on to the next step. I needed to show him that it wasn’t the screaming that would bring me into the room for the interaction with him. This still needed to be taught.

Standing outside the closed bird room door each morning, I could hear Rocky in there foraging around. I could hear the talons on the cage bars. I could hear the almonds cracking. I could hear the shells hitting the cage grate. After I started getting the timing right on when I knew he was about done foraging AND before the screaming would start, I would open the bird room door and walk in and tell him what a good boy he was. What I was doing was delivering the reward to him, which was me and my attention and I delivered this reward to him for the act of foraging AND for not yet screaming. I would pretend to do other things around the bird room and continue to walk in and out of the room for short periods of time while he finished foraging. During these short periods of time of walking in and out of the bird room, I would also deliver to him the reward of my attention for him interacting with other toys in his cage or for making other acceptable noises instead of screaming. The more acceptable behaviors I had to reward him for while ignoring the scream each time, the faster he was learning. He began learning that the scream was not working anymore, while foraging, playing, and whistling was.

Over time his foraging increased while his screaming was subdued by the act of eating. The screams became less and less as I rewarded the other acceptable behaviors with my attention. When the scream would happen, I would continue to ignore it and it wasn’t long before he would throw out an alternate behavior to get my attention and when he did, you bet I would drop what I was doing and tell him immediately “Good Boy!” as I walked in to deliver the reward. Over time, the “Good Boy!” was still there, but I slowly phased out the amount of times I would go in and deliver my attention. What I realized is that he would start working to hear the “Good Boy!” I kept the variety of delivering the reward by going in once in a while to give a head scratch.

I had mentioned in the beginning of this newsletter that this behavior had reared its ugly head again. It did. I once had this behavior extinguished. All the signs of it reoccurring were there but I didn’t pay attention to them. A couple of things that had happened were the time had changed so the sun was coming up earlier in the morning, my daily schedule had gotten busier and busier and I wasn’t walking in and out of the bird room in the morning at all. I was too busy out in the kitchen chopping veggies, putting away dishes, and talking on the phone. His behavior of screaming didn’t start immediately. The signs and signals of him wanting to scream came on slowly just as they did when I was modifying them. He would whistle for me…..nothing. The next day he may have shouted out something like “Peek A Boo?”…..nothing. He may have then moved to something he does that usually gets me to laugh…..nothing. Over time he threw out a scream. One scream, no big deal. A couple of days later there were two screams, yea it is an inconvenience, but still no big deal. Three weeks later I noticed his morning screaming starting to interfere with my morning phone conversations. That was three weeks worth of him trying to ask me for a little attention in which I was giving to him before. I was too busy to walk in and interact. I even tried just shutting the door, a temporary mask to a permanent problem and as you may have guessed, this did not work and probably contributed in making the scream even worse.

This time I started in a different position in which I had originally because Rocky already knows how to forage. Rocky is already familiar with the paper cone cups. This time Rocky wasn’t getting almonds in the morning anymore. I could also start at an increased level of foraging for Rocky. I still wrapped the almonds in the paper cone cups, but this time I put them in objects that were harder for Rocky to get them out. I put them in the acrylic treasure chest in which some people may be familiar. I put them in this treasure chest because it would take longer for Rocky to retrieve the almond AND because I could hear his beak on the acrylic while he was foraging for the almond. The reward was the same…..my attention and the retrieval of the almond. I started with listening for his beak on the acrylic.

The behavior of him attaining the almond grew stronger each time I walked in the room and rewarded him with my attention. This is what I wanted in the beginning. I wanted his reward or reinforcer to be strong and consistent, so I would wait until I heard his beak on the acrylic again. When I did, I walked right back in and delivered his reinforcer yet again. In this second video clip I can almost ‘see’ him putting two and two together. “Each time I go for the almond she comes in.”

By the third time I walk in, I have consistently delivered the strong reinforcer each time the behavior was performed. (He’s staying still each time I walk in because he doesn’t like the camera; one hurdle at a time) With this round of modifying the behavior again, you can see how quick the behavior was re-learned. With this round of modifying the behavior you can also see that the reinforcer (my attention) wasn’t delivered for very long. I then began spacing out the amount of time in which I walked back into the room. I then began making sure these almonds were in this acrylic chest every night before I went to bed.

So here I am over two years later modifying the same behavior that I had once had under control. Here I am two years later still learning and I am learning through my mistakes. The neat thing is, this time the behavior was quicker for me to modify. I nipped this thing in the bud almost immediately compared to the first time. I learned and I watched Rocky learn too. I learned that in order to take one step forward sometimes we need to take two steps back and observe. The next time I get busy, you bet I’m going to try and pay attention to that warning whistle or “Peek A Boo” that Rocky throws my way. Besides, I’m tired of painting the walls.

Lara Joseph lives in Ohio where she shares her home with four birds; two cockatoos, a large macaw, and an eclectus hen. She dedicates her time to the work and study of parrot behavior and their welfare in their captive and native environments. She writes articles on different aspects of companion parrot welfare, including behavior, enrichment and foraging and its effects on behavior, her life with her own birds, and approaches on increasing the human/parrot bond. In her free time she enjoys consulting issues of parrot behavior, working with her avian board certified veterinarian, training raptors using positive reinforcement techniques, designing her own line of foraging and enrichment toys, and traveling to further increase her education in the world of these amazing, intelligent, and extraordinary creatures.

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