By making simple changes to the environment, you can often accomplish amazing improvements in problem behaviors. When referring to environment, social exchanges are included in the discussion, as well as the physical habitat and diet. You are part of your birds’ environment. The term includes anything and everything present in the environment that can impact the parrot’s behavior.
Environment Changes = Antecedent Changes
The natural science of learning and behavior is over a century old. By studying how behavior “works,” we have discovered very positive and humane ways in which to change it. One of the best relies upon making changes to the bird’s environment. In the science of applied behavior analysis, these types of changes are referred to as antecedent changes.
Such changes enable us to make undesirable behavior less likely and to make desirable behavior more likely. They are essential to “setting the parrot up for success,” when teaching new behaviors or strengthening existing ones. Antecedent arrangements determine which behavior the animal is most likely to perform. Essentially, they can be thought of as simply the management of behavior.
The huge value of positive reinforcement training (which includes clicker training) is now more commonly recognized and understood as one of the best ways to improve an animal’s behavior, as well as to teach new ones. However, antecedent changes are equally useful and can serve as stand-alone interventions. When you couple skillful arrangement of antecedents with the use of positive reinforcement, there are few limits to what you can achieve.
Ethics of Behavior Change
Antecedent changes are one of the most positive, least intrusive ways to change behavior. They often increase quality of life for the bird, in addition to making the owner’s life easier. They help to build a more trusting owner-parrot relationship.
This is important. When dealing with our parrots’ behavior, we must do so in an ethical manner. There is no room for forceful intervention, such as the frequently recommended advice to restrain a parrot until he stops resisting. For any who would like to delve further into the ethics of behavior change, please read the article by Susan Friedman, Ph.D. titled What’s Wrong with this Picture? Effectiveness is not Enough.
What Behaviors Can Be Managed?
The first key to using this behavior management strategy is to begin answering for yourself these questions:
- What might make it easier (or more likely) for my bird to perform the behavior I want to see?
- What might make it less likely that my bird will perform the problem behavior?
- Does my parrot react to me differently when in different locations around the house, when perching at different elevations, or when others are present?
When we choose to live with very intelligent, sentient animals like parrots, we must be problem-solvers. Making use of antecedent (environment) changes helps greatly. This type of behavior modification also makes life easier for us. We don’t have to get caught up in telling ourselves stories about how the parrot feels or what he wants. We just make simple changes, then evaluate the resulting behavior. If not effective, we try another possible change.
The following are some real life examples of how well this type of strategy can work. I’ve used common problems voiced frequently by clients, as well as those from my own life with birds. These are organized according to the suggested questions above.
What might make it easier for my bird to perform the behavior I want to see?
Example #1: A Meyer’s parrot sustained an injury, received medical treatment and pain medication and was back at home, but losing weight. His owner, when home, observed him readily climbing down lower in his cage to access his food dish. Thus, pain (causing a reluctance to move) did not at first appear to account for the weight loss.
I suggested the possibility that he might not be as motivated to climb downward in her absence (a different environment). He would not have the stimulation of her presence to energize him, nor the distraction of her presence that might allow him to disregard his discomfort.
Antecedent Change: We moved the food dishes up right by his favorite perch and he regained the weight he had lost. We have no way of knowing whether this particular change, some other factor, or all changes combined, caused him to gain weight again. However, I offer this example to make you think. Parrots often behave differently when you are not at home.
Example #2: A similar example concerns the challenge many small birds pose when we try to improve their diet from a seed mix to formulated foods. Cages sold for these species always have the food dishes located down near the bottom of the cage. This means that getting to the food requires effort for the bird.
Antecedent Change: Place the new foods into additional dishes right up by the perch the bird uses most, leaving the seed mix in the dish down low. This is an example of decreasing the response effort. We make it easier for the bird to eat the new food because doing so requires less effort than does climbing down to the bottom of the cage.
Example #3: Many parrots do not readily interact with enrichment or consume fresh vegetables or fruit. These activities can be encouraged through their skillful placement. As the photo shows, placing a chuck of fresh food in a novel place often encourages consumption more quickly than simply leaving it in the food dish. I increased my own parrots’ consumption of pellets by offering them on play stands, in addition to their cages.
When placing enrichment, stand back and evaluate how the parrot uses his cage. I see cages with toys on the floor or in the lower third of the cage (where parrots usually don’t spend much time). I see toys in spots where it would take a great deal of effort for the bird to use them. I see toys that are completely inappropriate to the bird’s size, rendering interaction impossible.
Antecedent Changes: (1) Place the toy at a spot in the cage where the bird spends most of his time. Make sure that he can access it easily from that perch. (2) Hang it from the ceiling of the cage at beak level. It takes more effort for a parrot to bend over to interact with enrichment. (3) Place it where it’s not likely to bang into any part of his body when he turns around. (4) If it’s wood to chew, make sure that it isn’t too hard or too thick for him. (5) Use the information you have from previous behavior to inform your choice about what you provide. For example, if he chews up your junk mail when you leave it around, try a first toy made out of paper.
Example #4: Many clients complain that their parrot isn’t motivated to earn treats (preferred foods) when they attempt training.
Antecedent Changes: (1) Increase the value of the food treats you are using by only offering them when training and at no other time. (2) Try training right before a meal when motivation might be higher. (3) Eliminate any distractions, like other people or animals, in the training environment that might make your parrot less likely to focus.
What might make it less likely that my bird will perform a problem behavior in a particular set of circumstances?
Example #1: I once had a quaker parakeet who was fiercely “territorial” around his cage – meaning that I had a hard time interacting with him or changing out food dishes when he was near his cage because he would bite with ferocity. Luckily, he had a good recall and would fly to my hand whenever called.
Antecedent Change: Rather than trying to service his cage or asking him to step up when he was there, I instead would open his cage door, step back, cue him to fly to me, and put him on a play stand, which allowed me to interact with him easily or to service his cage while he was on the stand.
Example #2: One of my greys takes great pleasure in testing gravity by throwing my pots and pans down from my pot rack. She is also a genius when it comes to finding her way into my kitchen cupboards when I am not looking. A normally patient person, these behaviors turns me into a crazy woman. (I came inside recently, after taking my dog for a brief walk, to find my kitchen counter and floor covered with a mixture of baking soda, cocoa powder, ramen noodles and soy sauce.)
Antecedent Change: The most obvious and simplest change would be just to store my cook pots in a cupboard, preventing that problem entirely. However, I live in a teeny, tiny house with little storage space. So, I recently found a way to use different hooks that make it harder for her to enjoy that type of fun. To resolve the second issue, I installed child proof locks on my cupboards. Scolding her for either behavior would have only rewarded her by giving her social attention. Often, preventing problem behavior is the very best solution.
Example #3: A frequently voiced problem is that of the parrot who bites when you try to change out food bowls. I used to live with a Blue and Gold macaw who was like a rocket, charging through his food dish openings in an attempt to get to me, when I tried to feed him from the outside of his cage.
Antecedent Change: I solved that problem by offering a large treat very near a high perch on the opposite side of the cage. Anyone can do this. Place a second bowl up higher in the cage. When you are ready to change out dishes, place a valued food (that will take a minute or two to eat) in there. This will lure the parrot up to that dish, leaving you safe to accomplish your task. By repeating this every time you feed, you will soon have a parrot who stations while you feed.
Example #4: A client complained that her parrot would snatch her stud earrings out of her ears when she was holding him.
Antecedent Change: Take off the earrings before you hold your bird.
Does my parrot react to me differently when in different locations around the house, when perching at different elevations, or when others are present?
Example #1: Many parrots step up readily when perched at chest height, but are more reluctant when perched over the owner’s head. One cause can be that parrots, by nature, are much more comfortable stepping upward and forward, rather than downward.
Antecedent Change: Slowly get up on a step stool in a manner that doesn’t frighten the parrot and then ask him to step upward onto your hand. He will be much more likely to do so.
Example #2: Another of my greys occasionally chooses to perch around the house at spots down a bit lower, like the top of my step stool or the door to the dog crate. He often solicits head scratches from me while there, but I have learned he is a lot more likely to deliver the “Congo Grey Sucker Bite” when I am taken in by this “false” invitation. He never does that when he is perched up higher. Note: I don’t have to figure out why he displays this odd difference in behavior in certain spots in order to solve the problem.
Antecedent Change: I ignore his solicitations to pet his head when he is perched lower on one of these spots. (I don’t want him there anyway so should not reward that behavior.) Instead, I readily provide head pets when he is on his cage or a play stand and more likely to be a gentleman.
Example #3: A client complained recently that her parrot would vocalize obnoxiously non-stop when she worked in the kitchen, even though he could easily see her from his cage.
Antecedent Change: Put a table top perch in the kitchen and bring him in to supervise. They can socialize a bit and she can take that opportunity also to offer fresh vegetables as a snack. This simple change caused her to pronounce me “a genius.” We can all be geniuses if we learn to think in this manner.
Example #4: A cockatoo, pair-bonded to the woman in the home, bites anyone who tries to sit on the couch with her when he is near.
Antecedent Change: Keep the bird in his cage or on a nearby perch when you are sitting on the sofa.
Managing behavior by making antecedent changes is really just a matter of using common sense and brainstorming. First, identify and describe in detail the behavior you want to change (increase or decrease). Then, brainstorm as many environmental modifications (antecedent changes) as you can think of that might create the change you desire, even if some seem pretty silly or unlikely to work.
Next, try first using the one you think most likely to work. After a few days, step back and evaluate. Have you solved the problem? If not, go on to try the next most likely.
Some solutions are so effective and simple, they might appear suspect. For example, if a parrot bites or chews on your clothes when on your shoulder, simply deny him this privilege. One small change solves the problem with little effort.
In other situations, finding a solution can take many attempts. I have a client in Jordan with a mechanically inclined cockatoo who delights in leaving his cage to take the top panel off of the radiator. We have worked hard to teach stationing, but the radiator fun apparently is very reinforcing to him and resistant to change. Obviously, that training needs to be continued, but due to the possible danger, we also tried some antecedent changes.
We put a blanket over it when not in use. He moved the blanket. We tried putting an object on top that he hadn’t seen before, thinking that might make him less likely to go over to that side of the room. He didn’t care. We are left with the only option possible – to use additional hardware to screw the top in place and prevent the behavior completely.
Parrots are a joy and a challenge. Managing their behavior can press us to our limits. However, doing so can be a lot easier than you imagine. You can learn to do this!
Make first and frequent use of antecedent changes. Once you have the knack of arranging the environment to get the behavior you want, go on and learn how to use positive reinforcement to maintain desirable behaviors and teach new ones.
Don’t blame your parrots for being “difficult!” Instead, have some fun trying to create behavior changes. When you do, always remember to be kind. You can use what you learn on partners and children too!
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!
Resource and Suggested Reading List (these are not parrot-specific because the same rules for behavior change are the same for all species):
Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor (revised edition, 2006)
Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavioral Problems in Companion Parrots by Barbara Heidenreich (2012)
How Parrots Learn to Behave by Susan Friedman, Ph.D. and Phoebe Greene Linden (2003)
10 Things Your Parrot Wants You to Know about Behavior by Susan Friedman, Ph.D.
Blog post by Eileen Anderson on her site eileenanddogs – What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? .