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Common Pitfalls Encountered When Modifying Avian Behavior
by Chris Davis
Some of the more common problems people have with their birds are due to the fact that they do not set clear and appropriate boundaries for them. If people do not know exactly what they expect from the bird, it is obviously impossible for the bird to understand exactly what they expect of it. In addition to the setting of nebulous boundaries most people, in general, lack clarity and consistency when altering or teaching behaviors. The act of modifying or teaching behavior is work and must be implemented as such, with the same mental attitude one would adopt when engaged in any important activity that affects the entire family.
Recognizing the Value of Timely Professional Assistance
For some mysterious reason, people are often reticent to seek assistance from a professional bird behavior consultant. Although the same people may acknowledge that they need help to repair their automobile, or their microwave oven, or to train their dog or horse, they feel they should be easily able to alter the behavior of their psittacine bird. Most people, even those that regularly work with domesticated predators such as dogs and cats, have difficulty understanding exactly how and why, psittacine birds do some of the things they do. There is no shame in seeking professional assistance and counsel regarding companion birds' needs and behavior problems. After all, most are capable of living long lifetimes and the money and effort spent setting appropriate boundaries, or eliminating negative behaviors, pay for themselves many times over.
When working specifically with problem behaviors, the most common mistake is that of waiting too long before seeking professional help. It takes relatively little time for habituation of a behavior to take place, after which it becomes more difficult to alter or eliminate. Most behavior problems are easily solved, when caught soon after their manifestation. In the majority of cases, the longer the history of the problem, the more difficult it is to alter or eliminate.
Avoid Unrealistic Expectations
A common mistake among bird owners is that of having misconceptions regarding the needs of their avian companions, as well as unrealistic expectations regarding their capabilities. Many, if not most, new bird owners expect their birds to respond to the world around them in a manner similar to that of cats and dogs. They are unaware of the fact that most current companion birds are the direct offspring of wild captured parents; also, that birds are prey animals that respond accordingly to various environmental stimuli. Accustomed to the requirements and reactions of long domesticated species, especially predators, people may find themselves mystified at the behavior of their avian companions. They will find, as well, that some of the training techniques that work well with canines and felines may have little positive effect on companion birds.
To most creatures, safety is an essential component for experiencing a comfortable life. In prey animals, this need is even greater. It is not enough that their physical environment is safe; they require their visual area to be free of perceived threats, as well. For example, an area of high traffic in the home may be an ideal place for a dog to have its crate, or bed. A bird placed in a similar area will be continuously triggered into exhibiting a 'fight or flight' response each time someone passes its cage. Although it may greatly love the people in the home, it will react to their close, repeated passage, as it would to aggression, or possible danger. Often, birds in such situations will refuse to leave their cages because the world outside their little safe environment has too many threatening activities. Not only will behavior modification have little effect on those particular birds but they may also develop negative behaviors as a direct result of their environment.
Another pitfall is the misconception that negative behaviors will disappear almost instantaneously after implementing modification techniques. Most behavior modification programs consist of a series of steps. The first is the laying of a good foundation for modification to take place. This consists of making the bird feel as safe and secure as possible. Subsequent stages, in some way or another, use rewards, often combined with the use of the techniques of successive approximation and operant conditioning to comfortably guide the bird to the desired behavioral goal. Time is required for each stage to be understood and comfortably manifested by the bird, before going to the next. Almost inevitably, as well, there will be a period of backsliding known as an 'extinction burst', seen prior to the cessation of the undesired behavior. The length of time to modify behavior varies widely; however, once habituation has taken place, successful elimination of the problem will take longer than it would in birds that have recently presented the same undesired behavior.
Accurate Assessment of Behavior is Important
Reluctance to leaving the safety of the cage is also seen in those situations where the cage is in a safe location but there are strangers visiting the home. In such instances, if people force the bird to leave its cage, it may bite in retaliation. If, however, it is allowed to remain in its cage until it feels comfortable, it will usually be eager to leave its cage to interact with its human 'flock' members, even if visitors are still present. Such situations do not mean the bird is aggressive or uncontrollable and its behavior does not require modification. It is merely exhibiting valuable survival techniques in which the environmental situation is assessed for possible danger before the bird leaves the safe confines of its cage.
In many situations, people will perceive the bird as having a problem with aggression when, actually, the bird has exhibited its fear, or even its temporary irritability, in distinct and classic, avian body language. In a flock environment, the bird's warning of peevishness would be heeded and its companions would stay away from it until it signaled, also with body language, that it was ready to resume social interaction. Although there are many common signs of fear, or of warning behavior in psittacine birds, people need to be aware of those that are specific to the species of their own particular birds. Those signals should be respected in the domestic environment, as well. Behavior modification techniques will not be effective if implemented for the wrong reasons.
An understanding of avian body language is particularly important when working with young birds. African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) often begin biting when they are approximately two to six months of age. New owners, eager to stop any early signs of aggression, may decide to punish the bird for its behavior. Sometimes, they resort to striking the young and innocent bird, risking both the destruction of their relationship, and the loss of the bird's trust in them. Most of these youngsters, as well as other heavy-bodied species with small feet, are not biting because they are aggressive. They are simply frightened because they fear falling from the person's arm. When observed, the person will hold the bird on their arm, away from their body and will then attempt to pet it. Not only is their arm too large for the youngster to grip, but the flesh of the arm also slides when the bird is petted. The bird will try to convey its fear, by fluttering its wings in an attempt to get away or, by a leaning back of its body while emitting little crying sounds. Unfortunately, their body language is often ignored, or is simply not recognized as a fear response, by the owner. In desperation, the bird may pinch the person who, by all rights, should be the main reliable source of its comfort and safety. If the person reacts with anger, they may irreparably harm what should be a life long and loving relationship.
The solution to the foregoing problem is simple. Young birds should be perched in such a manner that their feet can grip the hand or arm comfortably. Some prefer standing on the open palm, so that their small toes can grip the fingers of their owner. They should be standing in such a manner that their beak rests comfortably against the person's chest or upper abdomen. This creates a tripod effect, so that the bird can be gently scratched and stroked without fear of falling. In addition, it does not violate the innate trust that a baby bird has for its human companions. It continues to see people as sources of comfort and safety. Its positioning, as well, over the area of the heart, further reinforces its feelings of comfort and trust toward the most important people in its life.
If a bird does not feel safe or if it does not trust its owner, behavior modification will be difficult, or even impossible, to implement.
Emotions and Attitudes of People Strongly Influence Avian Behavior
When implementing a behavior modification program, it is important that all essential members of the household participate. If one person corrects negative behavior and another person in the home proceeds to allow the bird to misbehave, it is usually impossible to eliminate the problem. The help of the world's best behavior consultants and veterinarians will be useless in such situations. For additional insight, it has been the experience of the author and several of her colleagues, that the conscious undermining by one person of another person's effort to modify their bird's behavior, is highly indicative of domestic conflict between the people in the home. That conflict must be recognized and dealt with, before behavior modification techniques can be successfully implemented.
The emotional tempo of the human members of the household will have a direct impact on their pet birds. Flock creatures either behave in a manner similar to other members of their flock, or they will fly away and sit in another tree until tempers have cooled. In a domestic environment, the bird is victim to whatever dramas that are being exhibited by the human components and will often reflect the stress of whatever dysfunction it is forced to endure. Until the people alter their own behavior, they will find that even the best modification techniques will fail.
Appropriate timing is essential. Even with the assistance of a professional behavior consultant, there may still be problems implementing behavior modification, if corrections and praise are not administered within the proper period. Although they may be informed of proper procedures and have all the steps available for altering their bird's behavior, many people lack the timing required to correct the bird clearly, or to show it what behaviors are acceptable. Those who possess the ability to implement corrections and praise appropriately can alter many behaviors within an inordinately short period. Conversely, many others not only miss the right moments for correction and praise, but they also often inadvertently reward negative behaviors, confusing and frustrating both themselves and their avian companions.
Appropriate Use of Praise
Praise is the most important, as well as the most underused, tool for altering or training behavior in any social creature, from children to psittacine birds. When a loved individual is praised for their simplest behaviors, they will continue to focus on those particular behaviors. In the avian companion, praise for simply sitting quietly or just eating, or playing, will reinforce those behaviors. If, during the same period, minor infractions are ignored, or the person leaves the room while the bird is misbehaving, it will begin to exhibit increased periods of positive behavior and the negative behaviors will fall by the wayside. In more serious infractions, presented during the same training period, a simple correction, like placing the bird inside its cage, or covering the cage for a few minutes, are all that is required to return its focus to the positive behaviors. Eventually, most birds seek praise as their ultimate goal, making the reinforcement of desired behaviors extremely easy. Those particular birds also tend to avoid any new behavior that does not reap praise.
Avoid Rewarding Undesired Behaviors
One pitfall that most people are guilty of, even many bird trainers and avian behavior consultants, is that of creating too much drama while correcting the negative behaviors of their avian companions. When they stomp into the room of a screaming bird and yell at it, they are also training it to repeat the undesired behavior. Birds adore drama of all kinds and will enthusiastically engage in whatever behaviors create the most of it. Save the theatrics for those times that the bird is behaving itself. The person can acknowledge positive behavior with cheerful vocal inflections and exaggerated facial expressions. There is nothing that a psittacine bird, or a three-year-old human child, enjoys more.
The Importance of Compassion
Regardless of what type of negative behavior a psittacine bird may be manifesting, it is counterproductive and childish for the person to hold a grudge against them. Abundant praise, coupled with clear boundaries and a viable behavior modification program can alter the behavior of many so-called 'hopeless cases.' If the owner cannot release anger toward a 'misbehaving' bird, they must first examine their own lives. Often, the bird is simply taking the brunt of the person's anger toward another person, or another situation, that they cannot control. The bird becomes an innocent victim of the person's inability to express themselves to the appropriate people, or in the appropriate situations. In some cases, this can be addressed; however, it must be done with great compassion and without judgment, on the part of the observing party. The author has often found that people sought much needed counseling for their own behavior after clients were compassionately and non-judgmentally presented with the observation that their own frustration was being inappropriately directed at the bird.
Some general considerations must be addressed when seeking to modify avian behavior successfully. Although it may seem simplistic to mention them, people do not think of them when they are caught up in their own feelings of frustration. A bird that is not healthy will not feel well. It will also not respond well to training, of any kind. This is true, as well, of the bird that does not receive enough sleep. Since psittacine birds are diurnal, their sleep requirements are not optional. Most need ten to twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep each night, in a dark, quiet room. If birds are worked during their 'siesta' time, which usually occurs roughly between the hours of noon and three p.m., they will be cranky and unwilling to work.
Birds that are not well nourished will not be as interactive as those that are on a healthy diet, and will not respond well to behavior training.
Training sessions should be fun and interesting, and of relatively short duration. Although some birds can work for longer periods, it is advisable to keep them to under fifteen or twenty minutes, at the most.
The companion bird is not a robot, or a highly trained and disciplined performing animal. It is a wonderful friend and the source of great pleasure and joy; and, it should be treated as such. Most are highly intelligent and reasonable creatures. Consequently, it is often the shortcomings of their people that create the greatest problems or that limit the success of behavior modification programs. When the foregoing human and avian factors are considered and corrected, most good behavior modification programs will reap life-long rewards for both the birds and the people involved.
Chris Davis (USA)
Ms. Davis pioneered the field of parrot behaviour consulting in 1974 while working at Universal Studios. When it comes to parrot psychology, few would argue that the "Bird Lady" is one of America's leading experts. Her columns and videos explain the seemingly unexplainable behaviour of our parrots and suggest reasonable plans of action to reduce problems.