Aggression Serves Its Purpose

Learn to read the body language. Learn what it looks like when it is alert, afraid, nervous, or not sure and begin interacting with positive reinforcers for calm behavior and requested behaviors.
Learn to read the body language. Learn what your bird looks like when it is alert, afraid, nervous, or not sure and begin interacting with positive reinforcers for calm behavior and requested behaviors.

All behavior serves a purpose for the animal, even aggression. All behavior happens for a reason. If you can identify that reason, then you have identified the reinforcer for that behavior. Once you have identified the reinforcer, you can then begin to change the behavior.

A reinforcer is something delivered after a behavior that causes the future rate of that behavior to maintain or increase. Many people think reinforcers are treats or rewards. This is not the case. Reinforcers can be treats or rewards but they can also mean it serves a purpose for the bird and that undesired behavior therefore will maintain or increase. Let me give two examples.

You ask your bird to step up onto your hand. It steps up and then you deliver a head scratch, a treat, or the opportunity to cuddle. If the future rate of that behavior increases, then the head scratch, the treat, or the opportunity to cuddle is a reinforcer for your bird. Reinforcers are not only food or treats. Around here, attention and the opportunity to get petted is a highly valued reinforcer of many of the birds. Your bird is always the one that decides the reinforcer; it’s never us. This is a key point I see very commonly misused.

So commonly I see aggression being reinforced in the companion animal world. My second example: If I ask a bird to step up onto my hand and it leans away from me, that is a pretty clear indicator that the bird does not want to step up. If I push my hand further, the bird may growl. If I persist, the bird may lunge. I have reinforced all of this undesired behavior because the undesired behavior maintained or increased. In this instance, it increased. When I pull my hand away from the open beak, the bird has learned the lunge or open beak gets it what it wants and it will resort to that behavior quicker with the next encounter because the lean and the growl didn’t work. We have reinforced all of these undesired behaviors.

I don’t want to get bit and try my hardest to never put myself in a situation where I will get bit. These forms of body language and communication serve a purpose for the bird. The first thing I will do is work at the bird’s pace and comfort level. I will not push the bird past its comfort level or I could easily reinforce the aggressive behaviors. I first identify the bird’s favored treats, foods, interaction (if any) and I will deliver them for the bird allowing me to get closer and closer.

Aggressive behaviors such as lunging, open beak, biting, flying at your head and hitting you, chasing you across the floor are all learned behaviors and that bird has learned these forms of communication work and serve a purpose for them. These forms of communication can be changed and you can teach an old bird new tricks. I do it all the time.

Identify the desired reinforcers and deliver them for close proximity or calm behavior. Consistently pair yourself with the delivery of these reinforcers while never pushing the bird past its comfort level. This is a very important point. If you do this in short amounts of time and frequently, you will begin to see the behavior change. Look for the really small steps of behavior change. Within these small steps you will see the change. When first trying to change behavior often I will have to use favored treats. If I am consistently pairing myself with the bird’s favored treats or other reinforcers, soon I see the reinforcers begin to change from food to the opportunity to spend time with me. This is reinforcing to me and this is the relationship I want with a bird that I will spend the rest of my life with.

 

 

Empowering Our Birds with Training & Enrichment

Rocky, our 17 year old shelter bird
Rocky, our 17 year old shelter bird

Rocky is my seventeen year old Moluccan Cockatoo that came to live with us about eight years ago from a shelter. When I first brought Rocky home, and several weeks after that, he showed so many signs of not being comfortable with the change in environment, our home, and his proximity to people in general. By this I mean each time I walked near his cage he would hiss and hit the side of the cage with his beak very hard. If I continued to move closer he would quickly run to the part of the cage I was closest and lunge. I couldn’t get him out of his cage for over three weeks. So the training began inside of his cage. Rocky would interact with nothing inside his cage except his food and water bowl and the side of his cage where he repetitively did flips. Through observation, I believe I clearly identified his abnormal repetitive behaviors (such as cage bar flipping, screaming, and methodical movements) were due to lack of enrichment and from being housed in a cage too long. Through consistent training and introduction to individualized enrichment, I was able to start changing these behaviors.

Enrichment is individualized. What one bird prefers, the other may have no interest or simply not understand. So many times I see intended enrichment in cages that the birds pay no attention to. If your bird is not interacting with a specific toys, it doesn’t like it, it’s afraid of it, or it doesn’t understand it.

It took me a few months to get Rocky actively interacting with toys. By ‘actively’ I mean spending at least 25% of his day interacting with toys or a specific toy. I would watch and observe what parts of the toy he preferred. Those were the parts I needed to focus on while introducing small consistencies of other toys parts.

Sometimes I forget how far we have come with him. My videos and notes remind me. He now actively forages for his food and prefers to forage for his food than eat it from his bowl. This is a term called ‘contra-freeloading’. Contra-freeloading is when an animal prefers to work for its food vs. taking identical free food requiring less effort. Contra-freeloading helps keep parrots mentally enriched and involved in their environment. I see this behavior making a difference in the confidence levels of parrots and so many other animals I train. If I observe a parrot that is unsure of its environment, the first thing I do is add choice and reinforce behaviors I want to see increase. This is also why I train using the methods I do. I want to see birds and other animals empowered through choice, control and learning.

Here is a photo I snapped this morning of Rocky foraging through a toy that he would have not interacted with eight years ago when I first brought him home. How long it takes a bird to learn depends on your fluency in training, the history of the bird, the frequency of training throughout the day and more. I see Rocky’s confidence levels rise through interacting with puzzle feeders that he can accomplish. Mastermind Heart Forager.

Continuing to reinforce Rocky with praise for raising the moving part of the foraging toy where it needs to be to dispense treats.
Continuing to reinforce Rocky with praise for raising the moving part of the foraging toy where it needs to be to dispense treats.
Reinforcing Rocky with praise for touching the part of the foraging toy that needs to move.
Reinforcing Rocky with praise for touching the part of the foraging toy that needs to move.