Eliminate Unwanted Parrot Behaviors
This article covers two methods to eliminate behaviors;”Extinction” and “Substitution”. One is based on untraining and the other is based on training. But first let’s look at exactly what an unwanted behavior is and where it comes from. The removal of an unwanted behavior must be a reasonable goal. For example, removing the behavior of “eating” is not a reasonable behavior to attempt to remove. Likewise, removing the behavior of “vocalizing” is also not a reasonable behavior to attempt to remove. Communicating is very important to birds. It is perfectly normal for birds to be vocal at dawn, dusk, and sometimes when isolated. These behaviors (eating and vocalizing) are hard-wired behaviors. Loud, screaming, squawking, and yelling behaviors can be modified and it is reasonable to want to modify these behaviors. This section will focus on excessive noise from birds but the principles in this section can also be used on other unwanted behaviors.
Before attempting to modify any behavior, you should attempt to find out what is causing the behavior. Let’s look at the case of a screaming bird. If this were a child, your first step would be to ask, “What is wrong little Johnny?” Unfortunately birds can’t understand English so it’s up to you to try to understand what they’re trying to tell you. Is there something in the bird’s environment that is scaring the bird? Was a new toy introduced to the cage or was the cage recently moved? Was new furniture put in the room? Some birds are more sensitive than others and will be spooked by adding a new Crayon drawing to the refrigerator that’s 10 feet away. So this part of the investigation may require some creativity on the your part. What do you do next after you’ve checked everything and found nothing? Another possibility to consider is a health problem. A check-up at the vet (an avian vet) is recommended at this point especially if this is a recently developed behavior. Birds respond to health problems in different ways depending on the bird, the species, and the particular health problem. It’s always a good idea to rule out health problems before they worsen. What do you do after you’ve checked the environment and had a check-up at the vet and you still can’t find anything? Now is the time to look at modifying the behavior. But first I have some “good news” and “bad news”. The “bad news” is that the behavior is/was most likely being reinforced by you, someone else, or the previous owner. And most likely, the person reinforcing the behavior doesn’t even know that they were/are reinforcing the bad behavior. However, the “good news” is that it can be fixed. So let’s look at a couple methods for eliminating unwanted behaviors. The two methods that will be discussed in this article are “Extinction” and “Substitution”.
Extinction is a method of eliminating unwanted behaviors based on untraining. There is a simple premise that most training (Clicker training in particular) is based on that says, “behaviors that are reinforced tend to increase in frequency, intensity, and duration.” The flip side of this coin is that behaviors that are not reinforced eventually decrease in frequency, intensity, and duration. Let’s look at a specific example. You’re sitting in your favorite chair, your bird is 20 feet away from you and your bird lets out a loud screeching noise. You look at him and you can see that there is nothing in his environment that changed. You next response is to say, “What’s the matter pretty bird?” (bad response) or you yell, “Shut up noisy bird!” (really bad response), or you get up to go see what his problem is (also a really bad response). Each of these responses give your bird exactly what it’s probably looking for which is attention. By screeching he can at least get your attention (you look at him) or he may get lucky and get a verbal response or if he’s really lucky he’ll hit the Jackpot and you’ll get up and go to his cage. All of these responses reward his behavior and reinforce his behavior. Both Positive attention (“What’s the matter pretty bird?”) and Negative attention (“Shut up noisy bird!”) are rewarding responses to the bird looking for attention. So the “good news” is that you are an effective trainer already, the “bad news” is that you are training an unwanted behavior. This is very easy to fix though so don’t get discouraged. Let’s look at our first method of eliminating unwanted behaviors, which is “Extinction”.
Extinction can be used to eliminate this screaming behavior by simply ignoring the behavior. It is that simple. When you hear the screech, don’t look at the bird, don’t speak to the bird, and don’t get up to go to the bird. Your response should be absolutely no response at all. So what will the bird do as soon as it realizes that you are not going to respond? It will most likely repeat the behavior. You must be disciplined and stick with it because it will get worse before it gets better. You can expect an “Extinction Burst” which is where the behavior is repeated over and over. Your bird thinks that maybe you didn’t hear it so it will do it again. Then it thinks that maybe it wasn’t loud enough so it will do it louder. Eventually your bird will learn that it isn’t going to get a reward and it will stop the behavior assuming that you stick with it and focus on not reacting to the screeching. This is the most difficult part. You may find that you are reacting before you even think about it as a learned behavior on your part. So it may require some unlearning on your part too. You must ignore the behavior all the time. Don’t give in occasionally just to “shut him up”. And just in case you were thinking about it, if you say “I’m ignoring you” to your bird then it doesn’t count as ignoring the behavior. The worse thing that you can do is reward the behavior some of the time and ignore it other times. This is referred to as “Variable Ratio Partial Reinforcement” which is a very effective reward method used by professional animal trainers. One other point before moving on to the next section is that you may also experience a “Spontaneous Recovery”. This is when the behavior goes away for a period of time then just seems to pop back up out of thin air. This happens occasionally but if you continue to ignore the behavior it will become extinct much quicker this time.
Extinction Bursts happen to people too and maybe even you’ve experienced it. Here’s a ‘People Related Example’. You’re waiting on the elevator and it seems to take forever. Someone always seems to go to the button and push it over and over. This is an example of an “Extinction Burst”. After pushing the button once the reward of the opening elevator doesn’t happen. So the person pushes it over and over. We all know that pushing it over and over won’t help but someone always does it “just in case”.
Substitution is another method used to eliminate unwanted behaviors. Technically it is referred to as (DRA) or Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors. That seems like a mouthful so I’ll use the term “Substitution”. Besides, we don’t want to make this method sound more difficult than it really is. Substitution is a method that substitutes acceptable behaviors for unwanted behaviors. The acceptable behaviors are rewarded and the unwanted behaviors are ignored. This is very similar to Extinction with the addition of a reward on the other end of the equation. Some behaviors can not be eliminated using Extinction because the bird gets it’s own reward from doing the behavior. So eliminating the behavior by ignoring it is not always an option. This is called a Self-Rewarding or a Self-Reinforcing behavior. An example of this is a bird that throws its food out of the cage or in the bottom of the cage instead of eating it. The reward might be the noise that the food makes as it hits the floor or cage. This should not be confused with the bird accidentally dropping food, which is a natural behavior for birds. In this case we’re talking about intentionally throwing food around. Since this is a self-rewarding behavior, “Extinction” and ignoring the behavior won’t work. However, Substitution will work. You substitute the behavior of “eating the food” for the behavior of “throwing the food”. The perfect behavior to substitute is one that makes the unwanted behavior impossible to do. In this case, your bird can’t throw the food and eat it at the same time. Rewarding the bird when it eats its food with Clicking & Treating (Clicker Training) while ignoring it if it throws the food is an application of Substitution. Also note that birds also use this method of throwing food to attract attention. If this is the case then the method of “Extinction” CAN be used to eliminate this behavior.
A common use of Substitution is substituting one unpleasant “noise” for another more pleasant “noise”. If you notice that your bird screams when you leave the room, this is a common behavior for birds. This is called a Contact Call and it’s how birds communicate. To be more specific, the calling to you (Contact Call) is common but the screaming is not common. This is how a bird communicates with the rest of its flock. This Contact Call is an effort to determine where you are and if everything is ok. This is an excellent opportunity for Substitution. When you leave the room and the bird screams, you simply don’t respond in any manner. As soon as the bird makes an acceptable noise then you reward the bird by echoing the acceptable noise or by using another acceptable noise. You may also Click & Treat (Clicker Training) this acceptable noise that the bird offers or your response may be reward enough. Your bird will quickly realize that you will only respond if it uses the proper (pleasant) Contact Call. Your life and the bird’s life will be much easier if a kissing noise is used as a Contact Call instead of a screaming noise. You’ll also notice that once a Contact Call and return Contact Call are established, your bird will do it a couple times when you leave the room and will often stop once it recognizes where you are and that everything is ok.
Hopefully these two techniques will help you eliminate any unwanted behaviors that you pet bird or parrot develops.
The Author is the creator of the InfoSuperFlyway.com. It’s a webpage dedicated to Kibibi a Congo African Grey Parrot with parrot recordings, funny parrot videos, top ten lists, parrot jokes, clicker training info and a large database of parrot articles.
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Last Updated (Thursday, 06 January 2011 21:10)