What are our birds really trying to tell us?

As a veterinarian who works only with birds and other exotic pets, I see birds for specific behavior problems, such as biting, chewing on inappropriate items, feather picking, and most commonly screaming. Owners often complain that their birds scream for no reason. Birds vocalize as a means of communication to other flock members (humans included).  Whether they are asking for attention, to be fed, to be let out for exercise, or to express unhappiness about something, they communicate in their most natural way – by vocalizing. Most caretakers are able to clearly pinpoint instances when screaming may be an indicator of some sort of need on the animal’s part. And the more that family members respond to their demands, the more the birds will continue to scream. Remember, people and animals continue to perform behaviors for 2 reasons, generally – to get something good or to avoid something bad. They continue performing behaviors that accomplish these things for them. So let’s take Delta for example. She is a 12-year-old African Grey parrot that has a small vocabulary of actual words, but she resorts to other sounds (screaming) to get her owners’ attention when she realizes they are leaving or walking away from her. When she sees her caretakers getting ready for work in the morning, she is extra vocal, because she knows if she continues to scream, her owners will find it annoying enough to come over and give her some sort of goodie (a food item or toy) to make her stop screaming. So, the first thing to do in this case would be to stop reinforcing the screaming; ignore it. If it doesn’t accomplish what she wants (usually some form of attention), Delta will have no reason to continue to do it. And if her caretakers find it annoying that she continues to scream, then they should stop offering toys or food. Delta will learn that if her caretakers don’t race over when she puts on her show, eventually she will stops and divert her own attention to something else in the cage. Case in point.

In veterinary medicine, we routinely apply the principles of applied behavior analysis – based on positive reinforcement of good, acceptable behaviors – to make behavior changes. We use the “ABC” method: “A” is for antecedent (what’s going on before the behavior occurs), “B” is for behavior (in this case, screaming), and “C” is for consequences (what occurs after the behavior). With Delta’s example, she sees her owner heading towards the doorway (the ”A” for antecedent – what occurs before the screaming behavior), so she screams (the “B” for behavior), and as a result, the owner  comes over to Delta to give her food or a toy to distract her (the “C” for consequences, thereby giving Delta the attention she was seeking and reinforcing the screaming behavior). Thus, as a result, Delta will likely continue to scream, because it achieves what she wants – attention from her caretakers.

The goal with changing animal behavior is not to punish what we humans perceive as bad, unacceptable behavior (screaming), which may actually be appropriate bird behavior (she’s doing what birds do when they want to communicate over distances with members of their flock). Rather, we want to reinforce, or encourage good (more socially acceptable in terms of human standards) behavior. Punishment, such spraying a pet with water when he screams, just leads to fear on the part of the pet, and destroys the human-animal bond. So in the case of Delta, maybe there is some other less unacceptable behavior that she does naturally now besides screaming (such as saying hello) that her caretakers can encourage her to do instead of screaming, so that she can still express herself through vocalization but in a less annoying way. Perhaps while they are busy getting ready for work, they can vocalize back to Delta in actual words or phrases (“Bye-bye,’ “See you later,” etc.) to encourage talking rather than screaming.

Animals have opinions, too, and they should be allowed to express them. Otherwise, they, like we, feel they have no control over their world. We just need to work with them so that their often natural behavior fits into our world.

Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)

Melissa Ortiz, LVT

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About Veterinary Centers for Birds and Exotics

If you have been looking for specialized care for your bird or exotic pet, look no further! We have you covered. At our unique animal hospital, we provide care to birds and exotics ONLY—no cats and dogs! We are the only bird and exotic veterinary hospital with a full-time, board certified bird specialist, Dr. Laurie Hess. Dr. Hess, who, with her two associates, Dr. Amanda Marino and Dr. Amanda Dewey, are the only full-time veterinarians in Westchester County who are residency-trained in bird and exotic medicine and surgery. Call to schedule an appointment for your pet!