Friday, July 18, 2008

When Good Parrot Behavior Breaks Down

At a recent zoo consultation I found myself in a bit of a pickle. A department I have been working with for a number of years had experienced a great deal of turn over due to things like births of new babies, health issues, etc. This left them a bit short handed. They also moved their entire group of animals to another part of the zoo. This meant lots of work for the staff and little time.

The end result was much of the good work we had done training dozens of animals was starting to break down. Attaining a training goal doesn’t mean it will stick permanently. We still need to continue to reinforce desired behavior in order for it to be maintained. On the flip side if a behavior breaks down it also is not lost forever.

What needs to happens next is refresher course in the importance of committing to a positive reinforcement approach to every interaction with an animal. This commitment needs to happen with every person that works with the animals because one person’s poor training can affect everyone’s relationship with the animals.

For example some chickens that were very well trained to enter a kennel, were starting to choose to move away from people when they approached. This was the opposite behavior from what had been trained. What happened? It was discovered that when the chickens are a little slow to go into their nighttime holding enclosure they were being shooed inside (negative reinforcement.) by some individuals. To get back on track caregivers may need to ask for smaller approximations they can positively reinforce to get the chickens moving towards a target, kennel, enclosure or person. They may also want to try to retrain the behavior throughout the day when there is not an immediate pressure for the birds to shift. The good news is usually a behavior can get back on track in just a few sessions or less.

So how does this relate to your parrots in your home? Well, I can think of a number of times I have been in a household and watched behavior breakdown because not everyone in the house was using the same approach to influence behavior. For example I can think of a screaming cockatoo that was never reinforced for screaming by the mom in the home, but occasionally reinforced by her teenage son who would run to retrieve the bird when the parrot screamed. This intermittent schedule of reinforcement kept that behavior strong!

Or how about the cockatiel that never once was forced to step onto the hand until a new baby entered the household? An innocent grab towards the bird by the child caused the parents to occasionally push into the bird’s chest and scoop him up for his own safety. Next thing they know their sweet angel of a bird is beginning to bite at fingers to protest the coercion he had never known before.

Keep in mind that very rarely do we need to resort to coercion to get behavior. Positive reinforcement creates quick, reliable, repeatable behavior. And often behaviors trained with positive reinforcement can be learned in one or two sessions. Try to arrange situations so that your parrot can easily achieve the desired behavior and then challenge yourself to positively reinforce every time your bird does what you want. It is not just about training sessions. It is about every time you interact with your companion parrot. Practice this and you will find your parrot’s good behavior can become very strong and resistant to breaking down.
Copyright 2008 Good Bird Inc.


Anonymous said...

Such a good reminder. When Stewie the sun conure was an only-bird, it was really easy to set him up for success... or at least "not failure".

Now that there's a second bird in the house, he's been "acting up". When he flies to attack the other bird, it stresses me out and I feel the need to give him short "time outs" so I can attend to the other bird. Obviously he doesn't like that and it breaks from our "all behavior is offered voluntarily" philosophy.

I really hate the concept of "time outs" but I'm not sure what to do when he tries to do harm to the other bird, especially when I need to check on her to make sure she's okay.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Hi Melanie,

If you can I would try reinforcing Stewie periodically for being "good" before he misbehaves in the presence of the other bird.

I also have an article on training multiple birds and there is a free download on my site called the S Files: One bird chases another that can give you some more ideas : ) They are both at

See if those help.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Barbara! I do have your S files article, but I haven't pinpointed any specific triggers other than my not paying attention. I need to work on studying him harder.

He does get a treat for staying on his side of the room when I go talk to Mika, and I try to reinforce longer and longer stays (although as soon as I look at him and actually say "stay" he thinks that's a cue to recall to me. lol)

It's becoming clear that the more attention I can give him, the more he behaves, so I've been pushing his bedtime back so we can have more quality time together. It comes at the cost of sleep, but he seems *less* cranky this way, so I figure it's worth it. We'll see if it lasts.