The Nature Of Parrots
By nature, parrots are adaptive creatures. In the wild, they adapt to environments and situations as a matter of survival. This adaptability serves parrots well in captivity as an ability to cope with a human’s aggressive and forceful nature …but sometimes not without a fight. Submitting does not come easily to a parrot, certainly not as easy as it does for a dog. Domestication has eased the retaliation urge in dogs and allowed submission to protect them from repeated aggression. Parrots, on the other hand, have not experienced the benefits that domestication might have on their ability to cope with human aggression. Parrots live in a more primal state where defending themselves against aggression is the proper response. Consequently, parrots are more inclined to resist forceful handling and training techniques, which often results in a person being bitten.
Next to screaming, biting is the most frustrating behavior for companion parrot owners. Many people have tried to justify their wounds with excuses and realizations that have little or nothing to do with the true cause of the bite. A bite is simply a behavior performed by a parrot. Like all behaviors, the consequence determines if the behavior will be repeated. If the consequence of a parrot biting a person’s hand is the person leaving the room to go get a band-aid, the parrot may have just learned to perform the biting behavior in the future. A bite from a parrot may have lasting negative effects that go much deeper than superficial scaring to a person’s hand.
Biting is almost unheard of in wild parrot societies. It is only in captive environments where escape is restricted and parrots are compelled to live in unnatural situations, that this uncommon behavior is seen on regular basis. In interviews with five parrot field researchers, with over 35 years of combined experience, only two incidences of a parrot biting another parrot hard enough to cause bleeding had been observed. Biting is rare for parrots in the wild, but aggression is a daily occurrence. These aggressive encounters are usually associated with protecting resources like territory, mates, desirable perches, food items, etc. These interactions are most often limited to body language like the raising of the head feathers or a subtle look of the eye. Sometimes the aggression escalates to vocal displays such as growling or even more overt body language like thrusting the beak forward in a jousting fashion. In the wild, this body language is usually enough to deter an intruding bird and avoid negative physical contact with the resource holder.
A parrot’s natural inclination to meet the sunrise with loud vocalizations is not often found on anyone’s list of perfect pet traits. What many people feel is an annoying, obnoxious, and unnecessary behavior, parrots see as an expression of well being and important for establishing territorial boundaries and keeping in touch with neighbors and family members. The disagreement over the importance of early morning vocalizations will continue between humans and their companion parrots for many generations to come. Instinctive screaming behavior, which normally occurs in the early morning and the evening, is just as natural a behavior for captive parrots as it is for their wild counterparts. Because this hard-wired behavior is innate, it is difficult to eliminate in companion parrots. Captive parrots are also prone to learning to produce these loud vocalizations in relation to desired responses, like the attention of their owners. This learned screaming behavior is much easier to extinguish with proper behavior modification techniques.
Another common misconception for parrot owners involves a parrot’s inclination to bond to one person. Some people believe parrots should be like other house pets and accept everyone in the family equally. However, a parrot’s nature is just the opposite. In the wild, parrots are monogamous creatures that generally mate for life. This natural tendency is alive and well in captive birds just as it is in wild birds. It is natural for a parrot to bond with one individual in a household. A bonded parrot will defend a territory, which could be anything from a cage, to a room in a house, to the entire house itself. A bonded parrot may also establish a personal aggression with one individual in a house who frequently invades the territory. This personal negative history can manifest itself in the form of routine biting incidents, or even full-on attacks.
Bridging the Gap
Unfortunately, most parrot owners enter the relationship with their companion parrot with no information about its natural history and no understanding of behavior modification techniques. Therefore, they are left to their own devices to interpret the behavior they see in their bird. Even the most compassionate and well meaning person is set up to fail in this novel territory where parrot behavior seems like a foreign language. When naïve parrot owners are faced with behavioral challenges, they turn to the only resource they know. They interpret, and often attempt to modify, the bird’s behavior using the same tools that have worked for them most of their lives. They resort to physical force and aggression combined with a domineering attitude. As stated earlier, this approach is problematic and rife with faults.
A new approach
Operant Conditioning, also called instrumental learning, is the most effective and humane behavior modification technique used with animals. The word “operant” is itself worth considering as it is meant to acknowledge that the animal has the power to operate on its environment to produce desired consequences or to avoid undesired consequences.
The most fundamental principle of operant conditioning is that behavior is determined by its consequences.
Antecedents are the events and conditions that are present immediately before a behavior occurs that have influence on the performance of the behavior. They set the stage for behavior to occur. Antecedents primarily include cues but also refer to the little things that can easily go unnoticed, like the clothes a person is wearing, distractions outside an open window, the way a person holds his or her hand when they ask the bird to step up.
A behavior is anything the bird does that is observable. The blink of an eye, or a flinching action when startled, are both behaviors. However, they are reflexive behaviors and not learned behaviors. Learned behaviors account for many, but certainly not all, of the behaviors we see in companion parrots.
Consequences are events that occur immediately after the behavior which influence the probability of the the behavior occurring in the future. It is the consequence of a behavior that determines if a behavior will be repeated. If a positive consequence follows a behavior, it is more likely to be repeated than a behavior that is followed by a negative consequence. There are two basic categories of consequences. Reinforcement refers to those that result in an increase or strengthened behavior and punishment refers to consequences that result in a decrease or weakening of future behavior.
There are two types of reinforcers: primary and secondary. Primary reinforcers are instinctive elements that are genetically associated with survival. These include things like food, water, and reproduction. Secondary reinforcers are learned through their association with either primary reinforcers or other secondary reinforcers.
Secondary reinforcers are things like verbal praise, a scratch on the head, and the sound of someone saying “good” just before handing a bird a favorite treat.
Reinforcement is broken down into two categories: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is something the subject likes and will work to achieve. Negative reinforcement is some thing the subject does not like, or will work to avoid. Both types of reinforcement increase the likelihood a behavior will occur again. Some common positive reinforcers for companion parrots are treats, verbal praise, a scratch on the head, and the companionship of someone the parrot likes. Chasing a parrot around a cage to get it to step on the hand is an example of negative reinforcement. The parrot increases the frequency with which it steps on the hand to avoid being chased, or to stop the chasing action.
Punishment is a risky behavior modification tool, at best. Punishment is anything that decreases the frequency of the behavior it follows. Like with reinforcement, there is positive punishment and negative punishment. Positive punishment is applying something to the environment and negative punishment is taking something out of the environment. For instance, squirting a screaming parrot with a spray bottle involves positive punishment. The behavior of screaming may decrease through the application of the punishing action of spraying the bird. An example of negative punishment is putting a parrot back in its cage in response to biting. The act of taking away the companionship and freedom from its cage may reduce the incidence of biting in the future.
As with all reinforcers and punishers the value of the consequence is in the eye of the beholder. Putting a parrot back in its cage for biting may be punishing, that is, it may reduce the incidents of biting in the future, but only if the bird would rather be with the owner instead. Putting a parrot back in its cage for biting could also reinforce the biting behavior if the bird wants to go back to its cage, or get away from the owner.
Punishment is a poor training strategy for a variety of reasons. The timing of punishment is critical to its effect on behavior. Parrots are inclined to get into mischief, including the chewing of furniture. All too often a parrot owner will come into the room to find that their bird has chewed a hole in the woodwork. The innocent looking parrot is sitting on the couch minding his own business. The irate owner rushes over to the parrot, scolds him for his misdeed and puts the bird back in its cage. The punitive action is unlikely to have any effect on wood chewing behavior because the discipline was not directly associated with the behavior. Parrots, like all animals, live in the here and now. They are primarily interested in activities occurring at the present time and are less concerned about past events, unless the past events have had significant influence on their behavior.
Punishment has many other side effects that make it a poor choice for behavior modification. Punishment can cause anxiety, escape, deception, anger and aggression. Punishment is often associated with retaliation or revenge and is easily used by humans. Punishment is often reinforcing to the punisher. This aspect of punishment encourages its escalation and future use by the punisher. Because of its many negative side effects, punishment should be avoided when working with parrots or any other animal.
Solving the puzzle
All behavior is a product of instinct or experience. Many of the behaviors seen in companion parrots are hardwired, or instinctive. These behaviors include things like contact calls, preening, bathing, flight, courtship displays, and territorial displays including aggression. There is also a wealth of learned behaviors displayed by companion parrots, like vocalizing for attention, biting for desired response, stepping onto a person’s hand, or even saying “hello” when the telephone rings, etc.
In an attempt to simplify the interpretation of a behavioral situation, a person might ask themselves the following questions:
- What is the motivation?
- How does it apply to the behavior of the species in the wild?
For every action there is motivation. At a very base level the motivation is either to gain pleasure or avoid pain. Pleasure can be something as simple as a cool breeze on a hot day. Pain can be something as simple as the gentle force applied to a parrot’s foot to encourage it to step up.
By asking, “What is the motivation?” a person is encouraged to view the situation from the bird’s perspective.
As mentioned earlier, ABC’s represent:
Antecedents, Behavior, and Consequences. By taking this scientific approach to evaluating behavior people can gain valuable insights that will help them understand and modify the behavior of their companion parrots.
For this demonstration, the target behavior is taking the parrot off the top of its cage and putting it into it cage.
The ABC’s can be listed as follows:
A. Person reaches out hand to parrot on top of cage
B. Parrot avoids person’s hand by running to back of cage
C. Person stops attempting to take parrot off cage
In this case the expected future behavior of the parrot is to continue running to the back of the cage to escape the hand or the person. So, the trainer needs to change the target behavior to one that is in a logical step toward the original target behavior. In this case, it would be the action of stepping on the hand.
The next ABC sequence might look like this:
A. Person offers peanut to parrot on top of cage
B. Parrot steps onto hand
C. Parrot receives peanut
The expected future behavior of the parrot in this scenario is the parrot will step onto the hand.
Then next step might look like this:
A. Parrot sits on person’s hand as hand approaches the cage
B. Parrot steps onto perch inside cage
C. Parrot receives piece of apple
The expected future behavior will be the parrot going into the cage.
The ABC’s work well for evaluating undesirable behavior as well as creating desirable behavior for parrots or their human caregivers. Consider the next example where the focus is on the human’s behavior:
A. Parrot is in one room and person in another
B. Parrot screams
C. Person comes into room providing attention to parrot
The expected future behavior is that the parrot will scream when it wants attention. The person has reinforced the screaming behavior with his or her presence.
A positive approach to eliminating a screaming behavior may include the following strategy:
A. Parrot and person are in separate rooms
B. Parrot says hello
C. Person enters room and gives parrot a attention
The expected future behavior is that the parrot will say hello when it wants attention. Keep in mind that some behaviors, like the example above, may require many repetitions of positive consequences to shape the behavior into its final form.
Analyzing the ABC’s provides great insight into behavior. When combined with other critical information like the natural history of the animal, and the reinforcement history of the animal (including the particular behavior a person is attempting to modify), the ABC’s empower a person to make dramatic positive changes to behavior.
Parrots, like all animals, seem to view the world with a “what is in it for me?” attitude. When faced with a situation, parrots consider the value the situation holds for them when deciding whether or not to perform the behavior. With this in mind, it is important that a parrot owner’s relationship with their bird be built on honest communication.
It may be advantageous to show a parrot a peanut to entice it to step off the top of its cage. However, if the parrot receives a sunflower seed, instead of a peanut for performing the behavior, the likelihood of performing the action in response to the peanut bribe in the future will be diminished. Parrot owners should always give the bird what they offer, or, always be honest in their communication with the bird. The best approach to positive reinforcement training is to avoid showing the subject the reinforcement until after the behavior has been performed. This way the trainer has more control of the situation and the bird will not be able to judge if the type or quantity of the reinforcement warrants response.
Body language is an important form of communication for parrots. The slightest tilt of the head or rising of the feathers can send important messages to other flock members. This form of communication is innate to parrots and used extensively in both wild and captive environments. However, in captivity much or even most of this body language goes unnoticed to a parrot’s human caregivers. They fail to notice the slick feathers, or quick head movements, as a nervous bird instinctively looks for an escape path, a common avoidance behavior. Often, the first signs of nervousness most parrot owners notice are the obvious escape attempts or the growls and other vocal displays of discomfort and fear. By this time, they have already missed the myriad of signals that have preceded this most obvious show of discomfort and have pushed the bird to the brink of aggression.
Learning to misbehave:
Many of the problem behaviors we see in companion parrots are the direct result of an owner inadvertently reinforcing an action. It is not uncommon for parrots to learn to scream when people are on the telephone. This very common problem behavior occurs because of its reinforcement history. The reinforcement is often something as simple as the owner approaching the cage to quiet the bird. This very subtle, almost imperceptible, action can easily encourage the bird to perform the screaming behavior in response to the antecedent of seeing the owner on the telephone.
Another common problem behavior is the small nipping on the arm that a parrot might do when it wants attention, or a bite of something a person is eating. The antecedent is the owner eating something the bird desires, the behavior is a small nip to get the owner’s attention, and the reinforcement is the presentation of a piece of the food item to distract the parrot and temporarily stop the annoying behavior. A single reinforcement in a situation like this is often enough to teach a bird to bite a person’s arm.
Parrots are beautiful, entertaining, and treasured companions for millions of people. However, their natural inclinations occasionally conflict with their owners’ impression of what a perfect pet should be. A parrot’s tendency toward things like celebrating the sunrise with loud obnoxious screams, or customizing the furniture with their powerful beaks, requires extraordinary levels of compassion and restraint in their human caregivers. Even the best behaved parrots can challenge the patience of their owners.
Modifying parrot behavior is one of the grandest challenges of all for companion parrot owners. A person’s propensity to use aggression and force significantly hinders their ability to create enduring positive behavioral change in companion parrots. The scientific community has detailed the advantages of positive reinforcement over negative approaches when modifying behavior. These concepts, although still relatively new in the companion parrot community, hold the key to decreasing the frustrations and increasing the rewards of companion bird ownership.
Originally published by Steve Martin
Presented at the Association of Avian Trainers Conference
Monterey, CA, August 2002