The Secret Language of Parrots: What Their Screams Really Mean
One of the most common questions we get about parrots is, “Why is my parrot screaming constantly?” Parrots can be loud, and their vocalizations are a large part of their biology.
However, these vocalizations are not random. They all have very specific meanings and by understanding the reasons your parrot is producing these vocalizations, they can be addressed more reliably.
Normal vocalizations versus screaming
Let's break it down!
Many parrot owners will complain that their parrot “screams constantly.” However, most of the time these parrots are not screaming. Parrots have a baseline level of vocals that is a part of their basic communication. Parrots often instinctually call during the mornings and evenings so some amount of vocal activity is expected during those time frames and throughout the day. These are just their baseline, normal vocalizations. Budgies chatter throughout the day, macaws will squawk, and cockatiels will whistle.
In addition to these calls, many owners see their parrots calling for long periods of time and seemingly without end. What we described above, while they can be loud and persistent, are not the same as “screaming.” These calls are shaped by the environment. The bird is usually trying to communicate a consistent need in their husbandry that continuously goes unmet, causing the parrot to persist longer and harder in an effort to fill that need. These are vocalizations of a normal parrot that is trying to communicate with its environment or the owner. Once the need is properly met, these calls are dramatically reduced because the parrot has no need to express that behavior anymore.
So if these calls are not screaming…what is it?
The term “screaming” is a very specific type of vocalization used to refer to an abnormal pattern where a parrot is vocalizing repeatedly, often in a highly distressed fashion or as a self-soothing behavior. “Screaming” is more similar to self-mutilation behaviors like plucking where they have grown to become pathological, often associated with a deterioration of their mental state due to extended periods of improper husbandry and raising. These cases often are much more difficult to resolve and can persist even when husbandry needs have been met and usually require support from multiple avenues. However, these cases are much more rare. Few parrots truly have a pathological “screaming problem”. The vast majority are a combination of unmet needs and the owner accidentally teaching them to call more persistently without realizing it.
Going a bit deeper… see it from your parrot’s point of view
When a parrot is persistently calling, it is important to understand that it is not fun or comfortable to be expressing this type of distress for long periods of time. Animals always express the behavior they perceive is most advantageous to them in that moment given their past experiences. If they are choosing to persistently call in a distressed way for hours at a time, that means that is what they see as their best option at that moment. If their best-perceived option is to be stressed out and calling for something for hours, that is a sign they have a very serious unmet need and the options available to them are severely lacking.
What do we do when a parrot is screaming?
If your parrot is persistently calling, there are several things we can do to get their needs met:
Meet your parrot’s nutritional needs:
An inadequate diet can result in nutritional deficiencies, some of which have symptoms that we cannot see like muscle pain, joint pain, abdominal pain, or itchy skin that can result in constant discomfort and persistent vocalizations. Sometimes it can be physically seen as plucking feathers or being deterred from food and not eating.
The first step is to ALWAYS visit your avian vet for a routine wellness exam. Illness and disease can result in a parrot that is in constant discomfort. Routine blood work and an annual wellness exam with a board-certified avian veterinarian can help rule out or identify potential health causes of persistent vocalization.
You can always use this resource to find an avian vet near you.
Next step, look at providing healthy and abundant enrichment in their diet and environment:
Enclosure and Food:
Parrots are highly intelligent and while prized for their intelligence, this also means they have high needs for stimulation and enrichment.
Provide a large enclosure where they can move about freely and have plenty of time outside of their enclosure to access various forms of enrichment like new toys, training activities, and parrot-safe new foods.
For example, at Bird Street Bistro, we offer a variety of exciting flavors of our parrot food. You can even use our delicious parrot food in your own recipes to create your own customized, exciting meal at home by chopping up and adding healthy, safe vegetables and other foods to offer to your bird. Fresh food is much more stimulating and takes longer to consume. It is absolutely more enjoyable than an all-seed or all-pellet diet. By adjusting their food in these ways, your bird can find more excitement in their meals and experiences.
If your parrot seems to reject new foods, check out our supportive blog post on diet switching to guide you.
Relationships and Flock:
Provide adequate social relationships. Parrots are highly social animals and many parrots are at a disadvantage because they are living as single parrots in a human world where no appropriate mate is available for them. Many were also hand-raised, causing them to miss out on crucial early life socialization and over-attachment to humans, exacerbated by the lack of conspecific mates1.
In the wild, parrots spend the majority of their time with their bonded mates so being bonded to a human owner who leaves for large periods of the day alone in a cage can result in persistent calling. Adjusting the relationship so that the parrot views the human owner as a provider of resources and guidance rather than its bonded mate is important. In addition, providing the parrot with an appropriate social partner such as a compatible mate can support their demeanor.
Intentional Space and Training:
Provide choice and options in their daily lives using intentional space design and humane training methods. Parrots are highly intelligent and living under constant force and coercion will lead to a frustrated parrot that might not only vocalize excessively but also be more aggressive. Providing them with choice and the ability to control their own lives is integral in reducing stress and frustration.
Allow for free movement by encouraging flight rather than clipping their wings. If you find difficulty managing a flighted parrot, you can seek help from a Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant (CPBC) who can help you set up your space and your handling skills for success.
Install adequate lighting. Parrots rely heavily on their vision to navigate their world and while we generally are not able to provide them with full use of their range of vision because UV rays cannot enter our homes holistically, we can provide high-quality lighting to light their space. Most homes are dark, even when they have large windows they are much darker than even the shadiest spot on a porch. As a result, most parrots are constantly living in a dark space, limiting their access to stimulation and possibly preventing them from visualizing their environment well, driving them to use toys less, explore less space, and minimally try new foods. This light schedule can also result in a parrot that is constantly being pushed into reproduction mode, making it even more uncomfortable and stressful when its bonded owner leaves or its needs are not being met.
Try installing parrot-specific lighting for their enclosures and upgrade the bulbs around your home.
Parrots also have a higher flicker-fusion threshold than humans, meaning that they visually resolve more images per second than we do. Budgies have been clocked as high as 93Hz (93 images per second) and other songbirds come in at more than 100Hz2. However, most standard house lights flicker at about 100-120Hz, meaning that parrots could potentially be living under what appears to be constantly flickering lights. There is a substantial amount of literature documenting that whether or not a flicker can be perceived, it can still have neurological effects on the humans and animals exposed to it3.
You can visualize this flickering by setting your phone's slow-mo video to 120fps and recording your lights for a few seconds. Play it back and you will likely see it flickering. Parrot-specific lighting should be flicker-free, around 5000K in color (which produces a white light), and have a color rendering index (CRI) of greater than 95.
Look carefully at your own behavior. Most owners are inadvertently rewarding the persistent calling and without realizing it, actually shaping the bird to call more.
Set your parrot up for success with all of the things mentioned above so that they don’t feel as strong an urge to call and then use humane, positive reinforcement-based approaches to teach them new ways to get their needs met. The key is consistency!
Some Example Scenarios
Example 1: Rather than waiting for 6 pm for your scheduled training session to start, get ahead of the calling and offer a packed foraging toy. By the time they are done with the toy, you will be ready for the training session and they did not feel the need to call.
Example 2: Around mealtime, your parrots might be looking forward to their meal and begin to call while you are preparing the food. Rather than preparing the food alone, create a safe space where they can be involved. Give them a raw carrot stick or big chunky vegetable to chew and shred while you work on the rest of the ingredients, reinforcing them for a desirable behavior in a way that is acceptable and comfortable to both parties.
Example 3: Creating a two-way communication system is one of the best things you can do for your bird. Your parrots may be familiar with the concept of training where they receive treats for specific behaviors. Without a way for them to communicate to you, they can only sit and wait until you, the owner, show up ready for training. The result is a bird that is sitting and waiting in uncertainty, and potentially calling persistently to try and communicate that it wants to initiate that type of interaction. To prevent this confusion and discomfort, we can choose 1-2 of our parrot’s naturally occurring behaviors that we find desirable like raising a foot or a head bob and put them on cue with a reward for that behavior. When we start training sessions or interactions, we cue the behavior and positively reinforce that behavior. The parrots quickly catch on and learn to offer that behavior when they want to initiate an interaction. Now, rather than waiting until 5pm every day for training when they’re actually more in the mood at 4pm and have no way to tell us, they can instead try and volunteer these behaviors when it is comfortable for them. This then allows us to flow with how they feel every day and be more successful in providing what they need when they need it rather than an arbitrary schedule due to lack of communication.
If you’re looking for more support with transitioning your bird’s diet to Bird Street Bistro, never hesitate to reach out to us! We are always here for you and your feathered friend.
To learn more about parrot vocalizations versus screaming, dive deeper with us by exploring Parrot Vocalizations: Part Two.
- Miesle, J. (2020) “Hand-raised or Parent-raised: Which is Better for the Birds?”, Avian Health and Disease. Available at: https://www.ivis.org/library/avian-health-and-disease/hand-raised-or-parent-raised-which-better-for-birds (Accessed: 19 September 2022).
- Boström, J.E., Haller, N.K., Dimitrova, M. et al. The flicker fusion frequency of budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus) revisited. J Comp Physiol A 203, 15–22 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00359-016-1130-z
- Inger R, Bennie J, Davies TW, Gaston KJ. Potential biological and ecological effects of flickering artificial light. PLoS One. 2014 May 29;9(5):e98631. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0098631. PMID: 24874801; PMCID: PMC4038456.
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