Category Archives: Behavior

What Behavior Issues Did You Notice During Thanksgiving Weekend?

How does your bird do with visitors?
How does your bird do with visitors?

How was your Thanksgiving? Holiday celebrations are probably still happening throughout the weekend. Did you see any behavior issues or concerns with your parrots over the weekend? If so, you have time to continue working on them until the next holiday.

I did get contacted over the weekend from people asking “How do I handle this tomorrow?” This short of time notice limits our options. For example, when we know our birds need to go to the veterinarian, we don’t start the crate training the morning of the vet visit. We start that crate training a month in advance. Once we have the bird trained to go into the crate, we keep that training consistent so our bird is ready for the following vet visit.

A few things to keep in mind while modifying behavior issues with your parrot for the next holiday is pay attention to the reinforcers of your bird’s behavior. By definition, a reinforcer is something that happens after a behavior that maintains or increases the rate of that behavior. Let me give you two examples. Your bird says “Hello”. Someone turns and walks near your bird’s cage and says “Hello” back to your bird. Your bird continues to say “Hello”. The reinforcer could be the person saying “Hello” and the person walking up to the cage. Reinforcers aren’t always food. In regards to behavior issues, most of the time the reinforcers aren’t food.

Let me give you another example. Your Thanksgiving gathering is in motion. Your bird is in the front room and you are in the kitchen preparing dinner. Your bird can hear you but can only catch a glimpse of you once in a while. He is saying “Hello” but you are occupied with company and dinner preparations. The “Hello’s” are no longer getting your attention so your bird begins screaming. He begins screaming once every five seconds. He has your attention now! Every minute or so he sees you pass his line of sight. If he’s screaming just to see you, you are reinforcing that scream every minute or so. He’s learning that he has to scream for a minute or more for the opportunity to see you. After about five minutes you walk in and say “It’s all right Boomer. We’ll be done in a few minutes.” Now he could very easily have been taught every five minutes he screams, you’ll come walking into the room.

Are there things you could do if you begin training on Thanksgiving day? Yes, sure there are but it is going to take so much of your time trying to be consistent and paying attention and you’ll have a lot of distractions from preparing dinner, entertaining guests and visiting with family that it can be very hard.

Before the next holiday gathering, start training your bird to say things that will get attention while extinguishing the screaming. Extinguishing meaning ignoring. Ignoring a scream alone can be hard, frustrating and extremely confusing for both you and your bird. Instead pick something you want to hear from your bird and reinforce those sounds while ignoring the scream, if it is attention that your bird wants. After your bird starts giving the desired vocalizations, then begin reinforcing every other time they give that vocalization. Then every third, fifth, eighth and so on. Then begin reinforcing every one minute, every minute and a half, every three minutes, every ten. Now you’re on your way to having a very talkative and singing bird during the Christmas gatherings.

What other behavior issues did you see happening during Thanksgiving gatherings? Let us know and we may address one of your behavior concerns for our next blog post.

Is Your Birds Ready For The Holidays?

Suki our blue-fronted amazon known to dive-bomb the heads of visitors.
Suki our blue-fronted amazon known to dive-bomb the heads of visitors.

The holidays are right around the corner. If you have behavior concerns or issues you want to change, you should be actively putting them into motion right now. If our animals can see, hear or smell us, we are training them. The key question is “What are we training them?”

So many times I see or hear people waiting until the issue is likely to occur to begin training. So much opportunity to set your bird up for success has already been missed. For example, last winter I heard of people saying they wanted to wait until warmer weather to begin teaching their dog to walk loosely on a leash? They didn’t realize they missed a whole winter of training opportunity that could have happened inside the house to set their dog up for success before the front door even opens.

We have two weeks until Thanksgiving. Identify the behavior you want to change. What is it specifically? Identify exactly what you are wanting the new behavior to be. Now put a behavior modification plan into place. Many times you have to start backwards and work your way toward the target (identified) behavior.

Keep your training sessions short but frequent. Many times my training sessions last anywhere from fifteen seconds to a minute and a half. Sometimes desired behavior happens when I’m not in a planned training session. If beginning to work on the behavior concern, I would take these opportunities to let the parrot begin the training session. This is something called “capturing”. Capturing is when the desired behavior happens at any random time and you reinforce it. Pending on the behavior, I will reinforce as I see the desired behavior happening.

It is hard to change a behavior by extinction alone. Extinction is also identified as ignoring or identifying the reinforcer and trying our best to not deliver it. Using extinction alone can be very hard, very confusing, and very frustrating for you and your bird. I suggest not using it alone.

What I do use to change many behaviors is a procedure called differential reinforcement. Differential reinforcement involves two things. Those two things are delivering a reinforcer for an alternate behavior (this is easier if it is a behavior the bird already knows how to do) while placing the undesired behavior on a schedule of extinction, ignoring it or withholding the reinforcer from the undesired behavior.

For example, screaming. I’ve identified Rocky’s

When Rocky first came to us from a shelter at the age of eight, he used to scream once every three seconds accompanied by a repetitive flip for hours at a time.
When Rocky first came to us from a shelter at the age of eight, he used to scream once every three seconds accompanied by a repetitive flip for hours at a time.

reinforcer for screaming. It is attention. I picked another behavior Rocky already knew how to do. I picked a verbal behavior so I can hear the behavior happening. If I can hear the behavior happening I can reinforce it from another room as I hear it happening. Rocky already knows how to say “Peek-A-Boo.” My immediate target behavior is to replace the screaming with the “Peek-A-Boo”. Here is where the differential reinforcement comes into play. Rocky screams and screams and screams. I don’t turn and look at him. I don’t say a word. I know he says “Peek-A-Boo” so I wait to hear it. When I hear him say it I tell him “Good” and then deliver the reinforcer. The word good can be a reinforcer to Rocky but I know close proximity and interaction is a higher valued reinforcer so after I say the word “Good” I walk to his room or closer to him and deliver the highly valued reinforcer of petting him. If I can’t pet him, I’ll stay close to his cage and talk to him.

Another important point is to make it so easy for the bird to give you the desired behavior in the first place. Waiting for the bird to stop screaming can be frustrating for both. Create situations where the desired behavior is likely to happen and deliver the reinforcer. This way when the situation happens where the undesired behavior is likely to happen, the bird will resort to what he has already learned works… the Peek-A-Boo. You have to keep your eyes and ears open at all times for the desired behavior. You have to or your bird is likely to get confused because it works once in a while. Remember me saying “Training is always happening whether you realize it or not. What are you training?”

Happy Holidays and get that behavior modification plan written out and begin implementing it now. You have two weeks to train before Thanksgiving and six weeks before Christmas. Enjoy your holidays. This can happen.

Anthropomorphism – what it is and the concerns it carries

ricoIt’s a tongue twister but deserves the time it takes to pronounce it. What is it? It is defined as placing human characteristics on animals other than ourselves. This was a hot topic at a recent event I attended. It was also a very eye-opening topic, even for me.

Many people anthropomorphize, myself included. An example of anthropomorphizing would be saying “I need to get home and take care of my boy.” Obviously parrots are not our children. I have been known to make statements like this too. Another example was one I thought about earlier today. I give kisses to them on their beaks as a form of communication of my love to them. This is a common form of communication of our feelings from human to human. In the wild, I’m not sure how common, if at all, parrots touching beaks to one another is a form of affection. Regurgitating from one parrot to another is a sign of courtship and communication. Obviously this would not be the case from human to human. I’m laughing picturing this as I type. It’s a pretty bold visual but it does make a pretty big statement. My point is that different behaviors are very powerful forms of communication within a species.
Another common form of anthropomorphizing would be letting our birds sleep with us under blankets. This is how we as humans commonly sleep. You would not see this with a parrot in the wild. Here’s my point with the concern with anthropomorphizing; dark areas and enclosed spaces for a parrot in the wild usually represents a nesting area. There could be major confusion in the communication with the signals we are giving our parrots. We may think we are showing love and affection the way we would to our child but the way a parrot may see it is totally different. Often times allowing our companion parrots to practice nesting behaviors can lead to serious behavior issues such as plucking, lunging and biting, egg laying which can lead to egg binding, and staying at the bottom of the cage with their tails up in the air. Two total different lines of communication from human to parrot. Are we the ones sending mixed signals by assuming they think the way we do? We can assume and many times I see that assumption confused based on the bird’s body language. Sleeping with our parrots can be very dangerous and fatal to them due to suffocation and rolling over on them.
Do you see my concern here? Parrots are parrots and people are humans. From my perspective, we need to see the importance in the difference between the two because we think different and the different things we do could mean something completely different.
Do I anthropomorphize? Absolutely I do. I think that began with my first parrot when I gave him the name Rico. That in itself is placing a human characteristic on a parrot. Is it hurting my communication with him? Not at all. Not that I can see. Do parrots name each other? I don’t know. I have not studied it but I bet there are certain calls they give to each other that helps them identify one another. That could be a name but it is something unique to them. I just make sure my anthropomorphizing isn’t causing confusion and adding behavior issues or unknown medical concerns to the mix.
Let us know your thoughts on this often unclear topic.

Top Behavior Concerns with Our Companion Parrots

Building or rebuilding the relationship with a parrot is very accomplishable.
Building or rebuilding the relationship with a parrot is very accomplishable.

Yesterday I gave a webinar on Taking The Aggression Out Of Living with Your Parrot. One of the attendees was a volunteer at a shelter on the east coast and she is also a parrot behavior consultant.  We were all discussing the top three behavior concerns we are contacted about. By far, the number one reason I am contacted is for aggressive behaviors such as lunging, biting, and chasing. The number two reason I am contact is for screaming. The third reason I am contacted is probably cage-bound birds. By this I mean, the owners or caretakers cannot get their bird out of the cage because it doesn’t want to come out.

I was discussing with them one behavior issues I am least contacted about is feather destructive behaviors (fdb’s). I’m not necessarily sure why this is. I’ve talked to several people who have birds with fdb’s. The first thing I will ask is if they have ruled out medical conditions. If they have, the chances are highly likely this is a behavior issue. We also talked about something called ‘the history of reinforcement’. Undesired behaviors can be easily reinforced. These undesired behaviors exist because they are being reinforced. If they weren’t being reinforced, they wouldn’t exist. They key is finding out what the reinforcer is and many times it isn’t one event in particular.

One of the first things I will suggest is getting your bird to forage. On my list of behavior approaches in changing a behavior, foraging is a must! You can teach this behavior and it is taught to wild birds by their parents. Foraging is getting them to search for their food. There is an approach to teaching this.

The second on my list is start training the bird. You can teach an old bird new tricks. Absolutely! I do it here all of the time. You are training your bird each time it can see you or hear you whether you realize it or not. The key question is “What are you training it?” Make sure you do you research on your approach to training. I am consistently approached by people who have tried training from things they’ve read or watched on the internet. Please be extremely careful with this. Search for people willing to help you using positive reinforcement. I would also find someone that studies Applied Behavior Analysis. If you are using force or taking choices away from your parrot, this may work, but not without its consequences.

Third on my list is exercise. If the bird can fly, I will begin recall training immediately. Recall training is getting the bird to fly or come to you when you ask it to. Make sure there is something in it for the bird when they give you the behavior, otherwise they may not voluntarily do it again. Remember, we only use food here about half of the time as a reinforcer for requested behavior. If the bird can’t fly, I still begin the training on getting it to run to me when I ask. The bodies’ of most parrots have evolved to fly for several miles a day. Keeping these awesome animal in our care, we need to find a way to expel some of this energy. I will encourage flight or running by their choice and making sure they are completely comfortable with what I am asking them to do.

These are the three steps I begin with every bird. Forage, train, and exercise. It is easy for behavior issues to exist where other behaviors are not present or known. So, teach these alternate behaviors.

Let us hear your feedback. Ask us questions and let us know what you would like to see in future blog posts. Thank you for following along and feel free to share this post with other parrot lover’s you know.