One moment for me in which I am pretty sure my blue-throated macaw Blu Lu is happy is when she first goes out into her aviary every day. After she takes a few bites of her diet she starts to squeal. She seems to be expressing a joy for life in those moments. Because I tend to associate the squeal with moments of fun for her it is a sound I have tried to reinforce in the house. For example if she happens to squeal when inside I give her lots of attention or squeal back. At first I was reinforcing squealing because I thought it was cute. It turns out my decision was beneficial in other ways.
When I return to the house after errands or travel, my parrots tend to greet me with a plethora of vocalizations. Delbert my yellow-naped Amazon parrot offers every word and song he knows, which I love. Blu Lu used to let out a blood curdling scream when she was thrilled I was home. I definitely did not want to reinforce that behavior. She quickly learned the scream got her nothing. However the squeal most definitely got a response and pretty soon my welcome home from Blu Lu turned into a squeal.
My other Amazon Tarah also learned to replace screaming with a pleasant sound. Tarah now whistles when she wants attention or recognizes I am home. When you look at vocalizations, even language, as just another set of behaviors that get reinforced you begin to see how much influence we have over the sounds our parrots emit.
Many people speak of their birds learning to say the right thing at the right moment. If you look at the principles of learning it certainly makes sense that a parrot can learn to generalize a series of words for certain conditions. For example, anytime Delbert shows body language that indicates a fear response, I usually say “That was scary.” He has now associated that phrase with a fear response. He often will say “That was scary” right after he was frightened by something. Of course had I used the words “That was fun” in those moments, he would have learned a phrase that seems inappropriate to us. It is not so much the words that matter, but what they are paired with and under what conditions. Delbert will also say “That was scary” at other times when no fear response is happening. And because I might decide to put the words on cue, I could train him to say the phrase whenever I cue him. It truly is amazing the power we have to shape what and when our birds say when they vocalize.
When Blu Lu vocalizes outside in her aviary I am not in control of the reinforcer. She is! For her in those moments those vocalizations seem to be intrinsically rewarding. I am usually far from her sight, listening and smiling knowing my parrot is having a great time. Pay attention to your parrot’s vocalizations. You might find you are reinforcing some great sounds, and maybe some not so pleasant ones. Fortunately you have the power to make sure the great ones happen more frequently. To learn more about stopping your parrot from screaming for attention just fill out the form below to receive a free article about how I trained my parrot Tarah to whistle for my attention. Keep an eye out for the Fall 2011 issue of the digital publication Good Bird Magazine. It also has an article about common mistakes people make when trying to address parrot screaming problems. It is due out soon!
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