Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Calming A Noisy Bird


That's a picture of our lutino rescue bird (the one on the left) and his wee mate, our whiteface pearl.  Our lutino is the alpha male bird, and he is full of personality.  We got him from a pet store where he was being cared for by the owner, who had taken him back from his previous owner after she developed an allergy to him (in fact it is usually an allergy to the dander in feathers that causes people to become allergic to birds.  Use of an air purifier can be very effective in controlling this - we have one in our living room that eliminates almost 100% of the dander, plus other air pollutants such as the spores from aspergillum mould, which can cause serious illness in pet birds).  The pet store owner hadn't actually put him up for sale, but when we saw him, he looked so sad and unhappy that we asked the store owner if he would let us buy him, as we were experienced bird keepers, and would be willing to give him a good, loving home.  How glad we were, when the store owner agreed!
Because he was already tame, and use to being around humans, our rescue bird was very easy to settle into his new home.  After being quarantined, he quickly settled in to life with our other 4 birds.  At that time we had 2 other males, and 2 females, one of whom was also a rescue bird who was cage bound and did not interact with the other birds (she had been badly treated by previous owners, through ignorance rather than deliberate cruelty).  But our new arrival soon made friends with her!  They became a flock very quickly - with him in charge!

Now you might think that with a group of birds, life in our home must be extremely noisy.  All that squawking, screeching and cheeping, you must be thinking.  But in actual fact our birds are not very noisy at all.  They do make a noise - and when they do, we certainly know about it!  But they are usually very quiet indeed.  As I write, all I can here is the odd rustle of feathers (they make me think of the sound of Victorian ladies' dresses, the stiff silk fabric of their long skirts rustling when they move!) and the crunch of seeds, but no actual noise at all.  This is how it is most of the time.  People are often surprised when they visit with us and find out just how quiet our birds are.  They expect them to be making a great deal more noise - and indeed, some birds do.  It's a subject that often comes up on bird care forums and websites, and for some bird owners it can be a real problem.

It's true to say that if you have a pet bird (in fact especially if you have only one, and that one is a male bird) you can expect a certain amount of noise.  You only have to step outside your front door and listen carefully for a few moments, and you will be able to hear all kinds of different wild birds, calling to each other - some attractively and others, like the huge flock of black-headed gulls that have migrated to the park near our home to spend the winter - not so pretty!  Birds are vocal animals, there's no doubt about it.  But there are different types of sounds that your pet bird will make - and only some of these are a cause for concern.

The problem that most bird owners mention is that of screaming or screeching.  They will say that the bird (it is almost always one, or the male in a mixed pair) calls almost constantly, and that it is impossible to stop it.  Some people I have heard of, have been driven to passing the bird on to another person because they can't stand the noise.  Just as with our wee rescue bird, sometimes a person has to pass their beloved pet to another caregiver because it isn't healthy to keep on caring for them.  But having a screeching bird shouldn't be a reason for parting with your wee pet.  In fact, in most cases, the problem is you, not the bird.  And there are solutions.

First of all it should be remembered that the bird is only doing what is natural for it.  In the wild, birds call to each other as a way of signalling danger, or to round up the flock when they are ready to move on to another place to feed or roost.  They will also call to tell the flock that they've found something delicious to eat or because they think they are lost.  This kind of flock calling is common in most bird species.  It's the high pitched single note you often hear blackbirds making as it grows dusky, and it is the loud wheeling screech that the black-headed gulls in the park make when they discover a discarded ice cream cone, or a piece of bread someone has thrown down.  In a cockatiel it is an extremely loud, shrill, piercing shriek, which is loud enough to make your ears hurt.   Flock calling is normal behaviour.  However, it shouldn't be occurring all day.  When you have a bird kept in captivity that flock calls constantly, especially if it is a single pet, then it is almost certainly calling because it is lonely.  You are its flock, and if you are not physically visible to the bird, it will call for you because it thinks you are lost, and it wants you to return.  If you reward the bird by returning when it flock calls, it will become conditioned so that even if you only intend to be gone for a short period, it will continue to flock call.  This kind of behaviour can become very problematic, because the bird is never really relaxed.  It is tense, anxious and lonely, and the only answer is for it to have more companionship.

In a situation like this the obvious solution (and the one which I would recommend anyway - never get a single bird, unless you plan to spend a great deal of time every single day with it) is to get the bird a companion.  I've talked separately about how to introduce a new bird to your flock and it is worth repeating that if you only have one bird, introducing a new one to your home is going to need to be undertaken with caution - and very slowly.  There is no way in the world that a bird who is pair-bonded to you, its owner, is going to take happily to the arrival of a stranger on the scene.  The introduction will need to be done gradually, and its possible that they may never be able to actually share a cage, but over time, they will get use to each other, and be able to be companions.  This should help cut down the flock calling considerably.

If getting a second bird is impossible, then I would try to make your bird's environment as rewarding and stimulating as possible for it.  Lots of different toys with different purposes - chewy toys, puzzle toys, noisy toys, mirrors, bells, paper, hay, sticks - whatever you can find.  I'd also try leaving the TV or radio switched on so that at least the bird has some kind of background noise to reassure it.  And I would also try instigating "time outs" - if the bird is screeching, walk away.  Stay away from it for a set period of time, then return to the room, but don't reward the bird immediately with attention.  Ignore it, and carry on with some other activity instead.  When you are done then go over and give the bird some attention.  This way it will learn not to associate its screeching with you instantly giving it attention.  This technique also works well with a stubborn bird that does not want to do what you want it to do.  I have used it with our rescue bird to encourage him to go into the cage at mealtimes.  It works far better than trying to coax him.  Once he knows I am not going to give him any attention when he tries to fly away from the cage, he goes in quite willingly - and the reward is right there in the cage - his favourite sunflower seeds!

If you have several birds it is far less likely that you will have a problem with constant flock calling.  But you may get problems with the male birds vying to be the alpha, dominant bird.  Male cockatiels have a mating song which while less piercing than the flock call is nevertheless not terribly easy on the ears!  It is quite repetitive and after the twentieth repetition, it can start to make your ears ache a bit!  They need to do this, to establish a proper "pecking order" and the bird with the best song and wing displays will be the alpha male.  Our lutino rescue bird has the most beautiful trill and is a very attractive bird, like an angel when his wings are spread out, pure white feathers.  The other 2 male birds know that he is the alpha male, but this doesn't stop them trying to show out with their own wing displays - and singing!  Our newest little guy, still only a chick, has found his voice these last few days and is really getting confidence with his singing.  He can pretty much manage the mating call all the way through now which he seems very proud of - but none of the girls take much notice!  It will be a while yet before he is ready to start pairing with a female, and when he does it will undoubtedly be with our newest little girl chick, who is a sweet, calm little bird that can already fly beautifully.  When our new guy starts singing, I give him space and time to have a proper practise, then I try to distract him so that he doesn't keep on singing too long.  It irritates the other birds if he does this, and they start getting a bit "beaky" and start nipping him and flapping at him.  It's normal behaviour, but to discourage this from happening, I'll perhaps switch the TV or radio on (they seem to prefer voices to music) or give them something interesting to eat, like some pea shoots or spinach leaves.  This is usually enough to break the repetition of the singing - at least for the time being!

A flock of birds will quite naturally communicate with each other all the time - through behaviour and vocalisation.  The different calls that our birds make are very varied.  They will chatter to each other, or repeat different whistles, some of which obviously mean quite specific things.  I've learned to imitate a couple of them that I use to call to them when I am in a different room and want to let them know I am there, or to reassure them.  If they are frightened, whistling a familiar tune can help to calm them very quickly.  Birds have an excellent memory and while cockatiels aren't brilliant at imitating songs, they will certainly recognise tunes that you whistle to them, and these can become a way for you to communicate with your birds.  Whenever we've had to take one of them to the vet, I have always made certain to keep up a constant stream of reassuring whistles and phrases that are familiar to them.  It helps them to feel safe.  And a bird that feels safe and secure is a happy bird!

Birds are meant to make a noise.  If you want a quiet pet, then a bird is perhaps not for you (though you might find a chinchilla makes a better companion - they make virtually no sound at all - except for the bangs and crashes as they jump around their cage!).  To us it is part of the pleasure and joy of sharing our home with our birds that we learn their rich and wonderful language. It's fascinating to hear them communicating with each other - and to have them talk to us, too!  If you are finding the challenge of a noisy bird difficult to deal with do remember that it is possible to treat it - and that patience, consistent handling and lots of positive  attention can go a long way to helping it.  The key is to be calm, confident and always happy to be with your bird.  Remember - you asked it to come and live with you.  We owe it to our animals to make their lives as happy and healthy as they possibly can be  - every single day.

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