It seems sometimes that the bulk of our days is spent trying to change the behavior of other species – spouses, co-workers, children, pets, and even pests.
We struggle to get our kids to do their homework, rather than stare at screens. We want the dog to sit rather than jump up on a guest. We search for non-toxic snail control. We stress out over parrots who scream, display aggression, or pull feathers, trying one tactic and then another to get them to stop. At the same time, we can’t get them to eat vegetables, play with toys, or accept a bath.
Consequences and Punishment
When it comes to problem behavior, our first impulse is usually to try to find a consequence to make it stop. Further, that consequence often takes the shape of punishment.
We take away screen time if the homework doesn’t get done. We lock the dog into his crate when he jumps up. When the parrot screams, we spray him with water or cover his cage. If the bird bites, we put him into his cage for a “time out.”
Why are we so focused on the use of consequences to change behavior? Perhaps because it feels so familiar.
We are all familiar with the painful consequences of failure to plan or of our own miscalculations. We learn to use a hammer correctly when we bang our fingers often enough. We fix that step after we trip. We avoid jalapenos after a sleepless night of indigestion.
For many of us, consequences in the form of punishment from others are also very familiar. If we run a red light, we pay the price of a ticket. If kids misbehave in school, they get a visit with the principal. If we break a law, we go to jail. For those of us who have taken a spin around the sun more than a few times, we can remember being spanked by our parents for wrongdoing – an accepted practice back when we were young.
We live in a society in which consequences, especially the consequence of punishment, is the first “go to” method for changing behavior. Is it any wonder then that we focus on consequences when we need to change a parrot’s behavior?
Of course not! It feels familiar and punishment, delivered skillfully, will serve to decrease the problem behavior in the future. Moreover, it often feels good to the punisher, since it can relieve frustration and anger.
However, many problems derive from the use of punishment. Results of positive punishment may include a desire to escape, with a display of either fear or aggression. Another unforeseen result is apathy, in that other behaviors may be suppressed as well. Results of negative punishment include stress and frustration.
In general, taking action to punish a behavior often results in broken trust and increased problems of another sort. (Chance, 1999) We do not want to be in the position of punishing our parrots as our primary tactic for changing behavior.
Applied Behavior Analysis
There is, thankfully, a much better way to successfully solve many behavior issues. By changing antecedents, we can both make problem behaviors less likely and cause desired behaviors to occur more often.
I have brought you through the backdoor into the house of applied behavior analysis. Applied behavior analysis (the science of behavior) gives us a systematic, scientifically-proven method for changing behavior.
Please note that most of the behavior suggestions found on Facebook and other social media sites are not science-based. Most offering advice have a bad case of not knowing what they don’t know. Anyone “researching” behavior problems must question the credentials of anyone offering advice.
In contrast, the approach provided by applied behavior analysis can be trusted to work if practiced correctly.
We need focus on only three things when we need to change a specific behavior. In addition to the behavior itself, we examine the antecedents and the consequences. We are all familiar with the consequences of course. They are the events that occur immediately after a behavior that influence the rate at which that behavior will be offered in the future. (Luescher, 2006) Punishment is a consequence that reduces a particular behavior in the future.
A far better strategy whenever possible is to deftly arrange antecedents in order to support the likelihood of a desired outcome.
According to Friedman, Martin and Brinker, “Antecedents are the stimuli, events, and conditions that immediately precede a behavior.” Antecedents set the stage for the behavior to occur; the behavior will not occur without the presence of the antecedent.
Changing antecedents in order to change behavior is a more ethical, often simpler and easier way to change behavior. So easy in fact that, when I suggest such a change, clients will look at me with a bit of skepticism. I can see them thinking that things really can’t be that easy.
Antecedent changes can be used in order to make it easy for our birds to perform the behaviors we do want and to make it hard or impossible to perform the behaviors that we don’t want to see.
Let’s review some examples of using antecedent changes both to decrease problem behaviors and to set birds up for success when performing new or unfamiliar behaviors.
Decreasing Problem Behaviors
Aggression and “Nippiness”
Antecedent changes are the “name of the game” when it comes to solving problems of aggression.
Example One: Some types of misbehavior occur when a bird is on the shoulder. Perhaps a bird, who has been sitting on your shoulder for three years without problem, suddenly begins to bite when up there. Perhaps he nips your earlobes or pulls your glasses off or rips an earring out.
Antecedent Change: In this case, the recommended antecedent change is simple – just don’t allow the bird onto your shoulder. Instead, you can teach him to station on a perch near you by offering reinforcers frequently. This will actually increase his quality of life more than sitting on your shoulder does. It both encourages independent behavior and offers him control over access to reinforcers.
Example Two: Your bird lunges at you when you are changing out food dishes.
Antecedent Change: Teach him to station up on a perch in the cage located furthest from the food dishes. When you show up with the food dishes, have with you a good-sized favorite treat that will take him a minute to eat. By moving your hand on the outside of the cage, lure him up to the designated perch and then give him the treat through the cage bars. Quickly switch out the dishes. Continue to do this every time you feed him. He will begin to scramble up to the preferred perch as soon as he sees you arrive with his food.
Example Three: Your flighted bird attacks your hands when you hold a book or tablet.
Antecedent Change: Either put him into his cage or outdoor aviary while you read or read in another room.
Example Four: Your bird bites when you ask him to step up.
Antecedent Change: You begin to reinforce stepping up by first showing and then immediately delivering a preferred food treat. At the same time, you read your bird’s body language and honor that by making use of a start button.
Screaming or Other Problem Noise
Example One: Your parrot enjoys perching where he can look out the window, but screams frequently when he sees neighborhood action taking place outside.
Antecedent Change: Purchase some sheer curtains and keep those closed when the noise will be inconvenient. You can still have the light without the noise.
Example Two: Your parrot is too loud when you have company. You might have learned to live with this, but it may upset your visitors and make it hard to enjoy yourselves.
Antecedent Change: If you have a sleep cage, turn it into a “siesta cage.” Add a hanging perch above and a playstand beside, then place toys and foraging projects there. This way, your parrot can be relocated before your visitors arrive.
Example Three: Your parrot screams when you get on the phone.
Antecedent Change: Go into another room or outside to talk, if the call cannot be predicted. You might also try using the speaker phone function, since it is often holding the phone to your ear that acts as the stimulus for the noise.
Example Four: Your parrot screams when you and your spouse have a conversation in another room. This often results when a pair bond exists between the parrot and one of the partners. Additional measures will be necessary to resolve this social dynamic.
Antecedent Change: A simple antecedent change for the short term is to have the parrot present for the conversation. In this case, isolation is a problem.
Increasing Desirable Behaviors
Improving the Diet of Small Birds
It’s common for small parrots like budgerigars, cockatiels and lovebirds to eat a seed mix as the dietary staple. After all, that’s what the breeder or pet store sent you home with, along with that too-small cage, the cuttlebone, and the plastic toy with a bell inside.
If you have a bird like this and have learned about the dangers of such a diet, you may have struggled to get your bird converted to pellets and other foods.
Antecedent Change: Offer new foods in dishes that are right near to the bird’s favorite perches. They are more likely to accept these new foods sooner when they are right under that beak. This means that eating the new foods is easier, in terms of energy use.
Teaching Larger Parrots to Eat Vegetables
Many parrots who have been eating a seed mix typically resist the consumption of both vegetables and pellets. In part, this is due to their neophobic nature. The other problem is their tendency to be naturally drawn to high-fat, carbohydrate-rich foods.
Antecedent Change: Measure out the amount of seed that your parrot eats in a day. This is important. You can’t decrease it if you don’t know what quantity you are offering to begin with. Before feeding, mix the seed into an equal measure of finely chopped vegetables or Chop Mix. Gradually begin to incrementally decrease the amount of seed offered daily as your parrot begins to eat the vegetable mix. By the time that you have stopped offering the seed mix at all, your parrot will have begun to eat both the pellets (if offering those also) and the vegetables.
Antecedent Change #2: Offer the pellets or vegetables in a different location, such as on top of the cage or on a play stand. This will often encourage consumption and I have no idea why. When I was working full time, my parrots ignored pellets in their cages. When I put them on play stands, they began eating them eagerly.
Playing with Toys
I hear many owners complain that their parrot doesn’t play with toys. There are certainly parrots who do not interact with any enrichment. These birds can be taught to interact with toys and foraging opportunities, but this requires consistent and focused training.
Still other birds might interact with toys, but do not do so because it is too difficult or inconvenient. For example, many wooden toys sold for certain species are actually too difficult for them to chew. Either the wood itself is too hard or the pieces are too big. Toy manufacturers have caught onto the fact that you won’t be happy if your parrot destroys in 15 minutes a toy that cost you $15.00. The problem with this is that the sorts of things that interest parrots are those that they can destroy quickly.
Antecedent Change: Make toys at home, using designs from my pamphlet Parrot Enrichment Made Easy. This includes suggestions for making quick, easy-to-chew wooden toys, in addition to those made of paper, cardboard, and fabric.
Antecedent Change #2: In addition, make sure that toys and foraging options are placed very near perches on which your bird chooses to spend time. I have seen toys attached to the inside back of the cage with no perch in sight. I have seen toys placed near perches that are so close to the back of the cage that the parrot can’t comfortably turn around on the perch and can only sit on it facing backwards. Pretend you are your parrot and ask yourself if you can easily interact with the enrichment you have in the cage. Make sure that your parrot can perch easily in a spot where he can easily reach his enrichment items and won’t bang his tail if he turns around.
Encouraging a Bath
Another common complaint concerns the larger parrot who won’t accept a bath. This bird might bathe in the water dish occasionally, but doesn’t get wet enough.
Antecedent Change: Many owners have noticed that their parrot displays bathing behavior, usually in the water dish, when the vacuum cleaner is running. In addition to marveling at this strange phenomenon, you might also choose this as a time to offer a few spritzes from a spray bottle, especially if the parrot isn’t scared by the sight of the bottle. And if he is, perhaps you can conceal the bottle with a kitchen towel or piece of cardboard so that just the nozzle is visible.
Fun with Antecedents
I’ve provided examples of very simple antecedent changes for very simple problems so that you could get the idea. The whole process can be, and usually is, more complicated, and this is where the fun comes in.
In most cases, there are several possible antecedent changes that might work. So, when you identify that you have a problem, sit down with a piece of paper and brainstorm as many as you possibly can, even if a few seem unlikely or even silly.(You may also need to teach other, new behaviors using positive reinforcement, but you can at least get a head start on a solution in this way.)
Remember not to get caught up in trying to figure out what the parrot is feeling or thinking. Instead, just focus on the behavior itself. Then, implement for a week or so the one that you think is most likely to work. Measure the results by observing closely what happens. If that tactic seems to not be working, go on to the next most likely.
I’ll give you an example from my own case files. I know a particular parrot who pulls pin feathers during the night. These are observed on the floor of the cage or the cage cover in the morning. This is a perfectly well-adjusted, flighted parrot on a good diet with an excellent environment that encourages movement and provides lots of enrichment.
Possible antecedent changes include the following: (1) Encouraging more food consumption before bed; (2) Encouraging more exercise before bed; (3) Partially, rather than completely, covering her cage; (4) Giving her some enrichment in her cage to chew on during the night; and (5) Allowing her to stay up a bit later.
This case remains a work in progress. Since the feather damage is occurring only at night, it may well be related to a disease process. However, since veterinary treatment has been completed, it still makes sense to examine antecedents.
A Last Word
Antecedent changes provide us with science-based, ethical, and effective tactics for behavior change. Many simple problems can be resolved through these alone. Using antecedent changes, we can set our birds up for success by encouraging behaviors we would like to see.
All behavior principles that are scientifically proven, like the use of positive reinforcement and antecedent changes, work for humans too. They work across all species lines.
Perhaps we reach so readily for punishment when dealing with parrots is because we as a society use punishment almost exclusively to deal with our children and others.
It’s been a long time since my own kids were young. I was lucky enough back then to discover the book “How to Discipline with Love: From Crib to College” by Dr. Fitzhugh Dodson, which was published in 1992. As Fitzhugh points out, parents all across America are teaching their children to behave badly.
They ignore them when they are behaving well, usually desperately trying to get something else done, and instead provide attention (reinforcement) when they behave badly – throwing a tantrum in the grocery store, fighting with siblings, or refusing to go to bed.
He provides clear instructions for how we can turn that dynamic around. As we all struggle now with staying in place, physical or emotional isolation, and the anxieties related to contracting COVID-19, there is no better time than the present to begin practicing both antecedent changes and the use of positive reinforcement with our parrots, our children, and other family members. “They” say that things won’t be the same once this is all over. This is one change I would like to see that would benefit us all.
Chance, Paul. Learning and Behavior. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1999
Friedman, S. G. (2009). “Behavior fundamentals: Filling the behavior-change toolbox.” Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior, 3(1), 36–40. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/journals/Behavior%20Fundamentals%20JACAB.pdf
Friedman, S.G. (2008) “10 Things Your Parrot Wants You to Know About Behavior.” Psittacine Magazine, May 2008. Pgs 14-16. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/10%20Things%20Your%20Parrots%20Want%20You%20to%20Know.pdf
Friedman, S. G. (2001) “The ABCs of Behavior.” Original Flying Machine, Issue 9: Nov-Dec, 2001. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/ABCs%20of%20Behavior%202004.pdf
Luescher, Andrew. The Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ames: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Chapter 14: Friedman, S.G., Martin, Steve, Brinker, Bobbie. “Behavior Analysis and Parrot Learning.” Pg. 147-163.
McGuire, L. (2015) “The Parrot That Screams.” Psittacine Magazine. Pgs 10-11. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/offshoots/Parrot%20that%20Screams%20-%20WPT%20PS%20Summer%202015.pdf