Easiest Behavior Fixes Ever!

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.

Antecedent-based Interventions

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.

Resources:

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

Your Screaming Parrot and You

I posted a short survey on Facebook several weeks ago, asking readers to express interest in one of three future webinar topics. I was surprised to find that almost as many people asked for a webinar on screaming as asked for one on feather destructive behavior. I was surprised because screaming is actually one of the easiest behavior problems to solve.

Resources are Readily Available

There are a number of very good articles and webinars already in existence that outline the steps for solving a noise problem in a parrot. I published three of them myself in 2018. The formula is fairly straightforward. Remove any reinforcement for the problem noise (ignore it) and increase reinforcement for other behaviors that are more desirable – pleasant vocalizations, interacting with enrichment, etc. If you would like a refresher, read my blog post from 2018.

So…What’s the Problem?

So, why do we have so much difficulty? Could it be because a screaming parrot brings us face to face with issues we might rather not examine? Could it be that our own stinking thinking gets in our way?

I’ve given this a lot of thought recently because I live with a 42-year-old Moluccan cockatoo. Cyrano is a wild-caught parrot who arrived in the United States as a young bird. I adopted him when he was 20 years old. He’s a great parrot. He is not aggressive and, in general, isn’t very loud – unless a particular trigger is present.

I live at Cockatoo Downs, where free-flying cockatoos are a frequent sight. When they are outside flying, Cyrano loses his mind. He screams the entire time and none of the antecedent changes I have tried have been effective. No amount of enrichment can take his mind off of the fact that he can hear them clinging to my window screens.

A few days ago, he was being about as loud as a Moluccan Cockatoo can be in reaction to their proximity. I found myself for the first time actually feeling a bit frantic. I finally understood in the moment how so many of my clients have felt and just how desperate ongoing noise like that can make a person feel.

I’m a pretty even-tempered, patient person, but even I in that moment was pushed almost to the point of doing something. Only my knowledge that any action on my part could reward the behavior allowed me to remain calm and instead do something else to help myself.

As someone wrote on Facebook recently, “I just stick something in the beak to make it stop.” Yes, in the moment it can seem that we must make it stop. So, we take action. We put the parrot into another room. We cover the cage. We walk out of the room. We offer a toy. We spray water. We do whatever it takes to make it stop.

The problem with this approach is that these “solutions” that make the noise stop in the moment most often reward the behavior so that it increases in the future. By using interventions like this, we actually teach our parrots to scream. However, in our desperation for quiet, we really don’t care in that moment.

So, maybe this isn’t the easiest behavior problem to solve in a parrot. The information on how to do so is out there, readily available. So, what is getting in our way? Why can’t we simply follow directions and then live with a quiet(er) parrot? Why is this so hard?

Flaws, Delusions and Messy Bits

Actress Hattie Morahan once said, “I am fascinated by people’s flaws and delusions: all the messy bits of human nature we all try to pretend we don’t have.” I would agree. I love behavior consulting because it is such a very human endeavor, one during which these “messy bits” often come to light. And I believe it is our flaws and delusions that get in the way of achieving that goal of the quieter parrot.

I think there are five primary ways that we undermine our own best intentions and get in our own way, when it comes to solving this problem.

#1: We Believe Our Own Stories

First, we tell ourselves stories about what the parrot wants, what he intends, and how he feels. We love our parrots; it’s natural to try to interpret their communications. But, by allowing ourselves to indulge in this pastime, we often deprive ourselves of information that would point to a better solution. 

I worked with a couple who had a very loud African Grey whose favorite sound was a car alarm. We worked together for a couple of months and achieved success – the obnoxious noise was gone. Several months later, they requested a second consultation. Noise was again the issue. These folks thought they had a new problem because it was a different noise. They were telling themselves a story. The solution was actually the same as it had been the first time.

Let’s say that your parrot screams and you tell yourself, “He wants out of his cage.” That could very well be true. However, if you go let him out of his cage you will be rewarding the screaming. If you tell yourself, “He’s probably hungry – he hasn’t had dinner yet,” and you feed him, you will be rewarding the screaming.  Lots of people reward the very behavior they hate out of a misguided belief that the parrot needs something and they have to respond in that moment or they won’t be a good caregiver.

Telling ourselves stories about the parrot also allows us to take the screaming personally. I spoke to one client a few years ago who tearfully proclaimed, “He’s trying to get to me.” True, it can seem that way. However, believing this only allows us to remain stuck in a victim-like mentality that can’t even begin to grasp the details of a solution.

To solve the problem, a more dispassionate approach is required. It may feel good to us to think that we have identified and met a need our parrot has. However, this feel good moment only increases the problem in the future. The parrot isn’t going to be harmed if we don’t open that cage door or miraculously appear with dinner.

Instead, it’s necessary to examine the antecedents that set the bird up to scream and the consequences that may be maintaining the screaming, and then change those. That is the only way to solve a screaming problem. Reading the parrot’s mind doesn’t even begin to factor into the solution.

#2: Does Our Own Behavior Set the Stage for Quiet?

Second, we often don’t realize the impact of our own behavior on the parrot. It was a very amusing moment when I was talking to a couple who live with a loud Umbrella Cockatoo and they realized that their own noise levels influenced their bird. Bostonians with a tendency to become very animated when speaking to each other, they themselves were loud.  When they were loud, their bird became loud. A loud house will beget a loud parrot.

Try asking yourself if your own home supports a quiet parrot or a noisy parrot. It may be that the people living with the parrot need to quiet down and calm down themselves.

#3: An Anxious Parrot Is Often a Loud Parrot

Third, many of us have a difficult time recognizing anxiety in a parrot. We focus on the noise, oblivious to the accompanying body language. Anxious parrots can be very loud.

In using the word anxiety, I am referring to parrots whose body language indicates a lack of comfort in the environment. They do not often settle and roost. They may circle in their cages or pace back and forth along a perch for extended stretches of time. Their feathers are slicked down tightly against their bodies and they stand up tall. They move often and may vocalize shrilly in a repetitive fashion as they do so.

If you have an anxious parrot, no amount of behavior modification is going to be completely effective, because it’s necessary first to make changes that allow the parrot to relax. A careful study of the environment is necessary to determine what triggers might be responsible for this heightened state of alert in the parrot.

A more comfortable parrot will likely be a quieter parrot. Perhaps the cage needs to be moved out of a traffic pattern. Perhaps the window blinds need to be drawn. Perhaps a couple of large houseplants on either side of the cage would provide a greater feeling of security.

#4: We Live too Close to the Emotional Edge

Fourth, a screaming parrot will reveal cracks in our own equanimity and emotional stability. In my experience, there is nothing like a screaming parrot to bring otherwise sensible people to their knees. If this is the case for you, it may be time to examine your own stress levels and self-care routines.

A friend recently asked me what I do when Cyrano screams. I think she found it hard to believe when I said, “Nothing.” I just ride it out from a place of acceptance. If it gets too bad, I go into my office or go for a walk, but I rarely find the need to remove myself. Yes, it’s unpleasant but it’s really not that big a deal. If you find yourself undone by a loud parrot, perhaps it’s time to find your center, gather your wits, and just do the work.

#5: A Screaming Parrot Widens Relationship Fractures

Last, a screaming parrot can also reveal cracks in our relationships with those with whom we share a home. This is a much bigger problem than people realize. In many homes that house a screaming parrot, one person loves that bird a lot more than the others do. Often, those others are a lot more irritated by the noise.

This creates a bit of a hostage situation that always makes it impossible to solve the problem. The one who loves the parrot becomes charged with the task of keeping it quiet. This is an impossible task, so anxiety grows. Anger erupts and ultimatums follow. Already stressed relationships move just a little closer to the breaking point. Often, in these cases, the bird loses his home. Sadly, this occurred just last month with one of my clients. When explaining, she made it clear that she wasn’t going to jeopardize her marriage for the parrot’s sake.

Solving a screaming problem requires that everyone in the home is on the same page. Everyone must commit to the solution and support each other in doing the right things – following the recommended steps.

The inconvenient truth is that it is we who create screaming problems in our birds by both providing less than optimal environmental conditions and then responding incorrectly to the behavior we witness. The even more inconvenient truth is that, in order to change our parrots’ behavior, we often must change our own first.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!