By: Cheryl Van Voorhies, M.Ed
Anyone who has ever owned a bird knows fairly early on that if you spend a lot of time holding you acquired bird that it will become spoiled and scream for your attention. I was warned about this early on, but for anybody who has ever held a Cockatoo you know darn well that you can easily become a sucker. You see, a Cockatoo, once in your arms will lay their head on your shoulder as if they are hugging you, yes, you got it, the sucker punch, deal closer, the aha moment where the bird knows they got you. When buying my bird, it was the deal clincher. A word to the wise, if you aren’t serious about buying a Cockatoo, don’t ask to hold it. Once I was home with Chenille I did exactly what I was warned not to do and now I have an ear piercing, screaming bird every time I enter the house or room where her cage is located.
Initially, I attempted to record Chenille in her boisterous screaming mode but every time I would come into the room with my iPhone on record, she was quiet. I thought to myself, this is easy, I’ll just put a mock iPhone in the room, aim it at her and she’ll be quiet. Chenille quickly became used to seeing me with the iPhone and started her usual screaming. I had to find a way to keep her quiet.
The next step was to decide what behavior I wanted to trade-off for the screaming. I knew that one of the toys in her cage had a bell on it that she rang quite frequently. This bell ringing was nowhere near as annoying as the screaming. I decided to substitute the bell ringing for the screaming.
Day one of training started with a clicker in hand. I parked myself on the couch located in the same room about 10 feet from Chenille in her cage. I knew I had to be a short distance away from the cage in order for her to perform her usual activity of screaming. Of course, she reacted as I expected and started screaming. I ignored her. Every time she accidentally rang the bell, I clicked my clicker, moved over to the cage and reached in to pet her. If you don’t want to use a clicker, you can use a word such as “yes”, to mark the bell ringing and allow yourself time to get to the cage to pet you bird and give it attention. We practiced for about 15 minutes and I could see her trying to figure out the connection between the bell and the attention. I then removed the bell and placed it on my dining room table where I could easily access it during the times I wanted to practice with Chenille. It also acted as a visual reminder for me to practice.
Day two was set up exactly as day one. I will admit that the hardest part was to sit in the room with Chenille screaming ear piercing screams, hoping for the ringing of the bell where I could jump up and reach in and pet her. Chenille would touch the bell, but it was not hard enough to make the bell ring, so I moved it closer to her hoping that she would ring it. She moved away from the bell at first, but then she deliberately walked over to the bell, grabbed the bell with her beak and rang it. I immediately clicked, and moved in to pet her. Then she started screaming again! Darn! I was so hopeful. I decided at this point to wait her out. That means that I was going to wait until she simply stopped screaming instead of waiting for breaks in the screaming when she rang the bell. Oh boy, it was a good 45 minutes of her screaming on and off, approaching the bell, but not ringing it. I was, at times, lying on my couch, thinking, please let her ring that bell. Please let her ring that bell!! At one point I thought, could you please, please just bump into the bell by accident so it would ring! It was torture for sure.
What I can say now is that my patience turned out to be so worth it. After about 45 minutes filled with screaming and very sporadic bell ringing, my patience ready to break, Chenille started ringing the bell. Each time, I clicked, got up and petted her. She continued to do this 9 times in a row. Yes, I was counting. I know in training behaviors that once you have success at that particular level it’s time to move to the next step. I decided at that point to end this training session on a positive note and removed the bell from the cage and ended session 2. I was amazed that in just 2 sessions, my bird had figured out the importance of the bell ringing and how it was linked to clicking and petting.
I wondered how much Chenille had really processed from that last session. I was so encouraged from the last part session 2 that I did another session with her that same day. There was probably about 4 hours in between the two sessions. I placed the bell in the cage and within seconds Chenille walked over and rang it. I immediately clicked my clicker, opened the cage and petted her. This pattern repeated 6 times in a row. I was so excited, thinking, “Was it really that easy?” After spoiling my bird and dealing with a screaming mimi, was it really that easy to decrease her screaming? My thought process was disrupted by Chenille screaming. I thought, “Oh please do not let me have another 45 minute session of her screaming!” I waited her out and in just a few short minutes, she stopped, walked over to the bell and rang it. Wow! At this point, I am thinking she’s really getting the idea that she has to ring the bell for attention instead of screaming. She continued to walk over and ring the bell for my attention. I ended the session after 8 successful repetitions of ringing of the bell. I continued this training everyday for two weeks.
Chenille has not stopped screaming totally, BUT we are on our way to success. When I enter my house from work I now hear a ringing bell instead of ear piercing screams. If I don’t go to her cage fairly quickly, yes, she will revert to screaming but as I continue to work with her, this will improve.
I know what you’re thinking, I don’t have time in my already busy schedule to do this training, it’s time consuming. I always like to tell people to fit training into their individual schedule. Five minutes here, five minutes there. What I can tell you is that with consistency it works. My ears are thanking me everyday.