Q: My Congo African grey, Cadillac, is just over a year old. He is very quick to pick up on things and basically talks nonstop. I’m like a proud mom. When my husband comes home from work, I tell him what our 2-year-old son learned to do and what our grey learned to do.
Recently, my son thought it was funny to stand at the top of the stairs and yell. And guess who has picked up on it: Cadillac! At first it was cute. I know maybe I shouldn’t have allowed it, but my son got such a kick out of the fact the bird was responding to him and not trying to bite him. Now, Cadillac does it several times a day. I have tried the “ignore it” theory and I’ve tried distracting him. Now what? I’m sure I can’t stop him altogether, but I’d like to at least have him cut it down to under a dozen times per day. My husband has even covered his cage to have him quiet down only for Cadillac to respond, “Whatever Brent.”
— Quiet please!
Q: Our African grey, Brat, is about 10 months old. About a month ago, we installed a new smoke alarm. We tested it, and now Brat “beeps” just like the smoke alarm, only louder. He uses this sound as a way to let us know he wants something while I’m preparing food, eating, or if he wants off his cage. We have tried ignoring him and then giving attention or food after he has stopped. We have tried moving him on a play perch out of our sight while we eat. We never reward him for this behavior, but he will not stop.
This is the only “bad” behavior he has developed. I have stopped other bad behaviors (screaming and biting) with our other birds (a blue & gold) and a quaker, and these methods have worked. Do your have any suggestions on how to stop the beep?
A: I will answer both of these questions together. With parrot vocalization, there is often a flip side to wonderful talking ability. In no species is this truer than the often vocally talented African grey. We want them to learn to talk and really enjoy most of the things that they say. It can be really funny when we think the phone rings and we run over to answer it, and no one is there. Years ago, my grey, Bongo Marie, started to imitate the beeping of my alarm system when I opened the door in the morning to let the dogs out. I would be sure that I turned the alarm off first, but she had an unfair advantage in that I take awhile to wake up. It took most of a week for me to realize that she was tricking me. I could write a book about the many ways she fooled me over the 25 years that she lived with me. During that time, there were several words that she learned and noises she made that could be very annoying.
At one point, I lived next to 14-year-old twin boys who adored Bongo, but they thought it would be funny to teach her a few nasty words. They were no longer welcome in my house after she learned a particular harsh sounding word very quickly, and it became her favorite thing to say. She tacked it on to just about everything she said, and she had an enthusiastic voice that close neighbors could hear without any trouble on a summer day.
Feeding Off Our Reactions
As the first reader stated, the “ignore it” theory doesn’t always work, but at least it doesn’t reward the noise. Whether it is yelling or an irritating sound, an African grey will keep making the sound if it has an “investment” in it. Greys are so in tune with our energy that we really can’t ignore the sound if it irritates us. We can try to pretend that the sound doesn’t bother us, but you just can’t fool a grey. Even a raise in your blood pressure can be a reward for the game. Sometimes, the sound alone is enough reward to a parrot.
Ignoring Bongo Marie’s loud vulgarity made no difference at all, and it was difficult for me not to be upset about it. I decided to try substituting a sound that would hopefully replace the bad word. Every time she said the word, I turned my back to her and exclaimed “Oh no!” in a very enthusiastic voice. She picked up words very quickly and within a few days, she was saying “Oh no!” When she did, I would look at her and say, “What’s the matter?” This exchange became one her favorites with me for the rest of her life. She loved the drama reward I gave her for saying the right thing, and within about a month, the bad word was gone. (Well, it was pretty much gone; she would still say it out of nowhere but it could be weeks or even months between times.)
Teach A Distraction
The first step with a child who yells would be to work with him so that he gets praise when he makes quieter noises, although kids, as with parrots, sometimes seem to enjoy making loud sounds just to make them. Some of the same principles that work with children also work with parrots. Teach your son to interact with your African grey by being very calm and quiet. Pick a time when your son is most mellow for him to relate to the parrot. Reward him for whispering to the bird.
You state that you have tried several methods of changing the behavior. Your consistency is really important and choosing one way to work with the noise is the best idea. The most effective method of distraction is to teach your grey a positive behavior that you can use as a distraction. Once you have taught a positive behavior, you can give a cue for it when he starts to scream. It can be like changing his channel. If he associates praise for the good behavior, he is less likely to keep making the negative noise that he does not receive attention for.
I also find that whispering, whistling, humming or singing can quickly stop a bird from screaming or making an unwanted noise. My caique, Spike, goes into an occasional screaming jab and as soon I start to whistle from the other room, he starts to whistle with me. I worked with a Moluccan cockatoo years ago that could shatter the walls with his screaming when his caregivers went to work at 5 am. They lived in a duplex but luckily had neighbors who loved animals and were patient. About five minutes before they left, the cockatoo started screaming. I had the couple start to whisper their conversations in the morning and within a week or so, the cockatoo would “loudly” whisper to them as they left.
Your African Grey Is Beeping
As for the second question, African greys are famous for learning microwave beeps and smoke-alarm sounds. Inconsistent reactions from people will do little to change the grey’s beeping as long as he has an investment in it, and the investment is often the drama he gets from the people in his life.
African greys are as loud as their environment and are fascinated by sound. If they continue to hear a sound, they will most likely continue to imitate it. I’ve talked with people who have disconnected the beepers from their appliances. A smoke alarm should not be a consistent re-enforcer since it only makes noise when the battery is low or when the alarm goes off.
Deprivations and punishments, such as covering the cage or not allowing the bird to eat with you, will not teach him not to make undesirable noises. Aggressive punishments or using a distraction like banging on something might immediately stop the noise, but it won’t teach him anything about not screaming again. Ignoring the bird will not reinforce the behavior with drama, which is good but, in the long run, it might not stop the unwanted noise if the pet bird has some other investment in making it. The key is to retrain the bird to a more positive behavior that you can praise.