Constructs: Putting Labels on Behavior by Bev Penny

Constructs or Putting Labels on Bird Behaviour by Bev Penny

Reprinted with permission from
Good Bird Magazine,
Volume 4-3, Fall 2008; Page 17

Constructs – oh how do I use thee – let me count the ways. Pre-Applied Behaviour Analysis, I was a “construct” expert. Constructs are the building blocks of nothing, nil, nada, zilch, absolutely nothing, except a shorthand language built for speed but the price is high for ease of communication. Are you getting my drift here? In psychology, a construct is a concept used to describe a class of observable behaviors which is then hypothesized to be the underlying cause or mental process that accounts for the observable behaviour. Constructs usually describe what people think a bird is, rather than what it does such as, “my bird is spoiled, is aggressive, or is confident.” The problem with attributing causal status to constructs lies in the very definition of them. How can a concept or abstraction cause behaviour? Source: September 2003. LLP Lecture 1. Mad, angry, jealous, sad, happy, hormonal are all constructs. They do not describe actual behaviour, but what we think our birds are feeling. Now the last time I checked, I did not have psychic powers but by utilizing the teaching tools from the Living and Learning with Parrots on-line course, I have learned how to observe my birds and describe their behaviour using clear, observable language. That in turn, gives me the knowledge to change or modify any unwanted behaviours that may occur or to prevent them in the first place by rewarding the behaviours I want to see more of. It’s a win-win situation for me and my birds. For example, when I say my bird is mad at me because she bit me, now that is a construct. Only my bird knows what she is thinking. Now if I say that I tried to force my bird to step up and she bit me, then it was my use of force that triggered the bite, not because she was “mad” at me. Before she resorted to the bite, she probably presented many observable behaviours that I either ignored or just did not see. We humans do that a lot when it comes to our birds, and then we say we have “aggressive, bad or hormonal” birds. Our birds deserve better than this.

Positive reinforcement with a continuous reinforcement schedule is the building block of all good behaviour. A continuous reinforcement schedule simply means every single time your bird does something you want, your bird gets a reinforcer (something your bird wants) and that can be primary (i.e. food) or secondary (i.e. praise, head scratch). The more reinforcers you have in your arsenal, the better. It all depends on what your bird finds reinforcing. Now let me explain what a construct is and how constructs are overwhelmingly used to describe our bird’s behaviour and because we use it so much, we fail our birds in a very big way. Once you put that label on your bird’s behaviour, you believe you have answered the “why” of the problem behaviour or behaviours exhibited and it lets you off the hook for solving them. What you have actually done is given the behaviour a label which is a construct. Make sense?

Before I took the on-line class, I was pretty sure my birds were out to get me. And I had proof. For example, my birds would chew up the curtains to upset me, my birds bit me because they were “bad”, my birds screamed because they are drama queens, and I was pretty sure Zazu hated me when she chewed a chunk out of my new $150 sandals. First of all, my birds chewed up the curtains because they were there. Solution: Unfortunately, I cannot move the curtains away from the cage or the cage away from the curtains (antecedent change) so cheap curtains are my solution. Recently I did come up with another solution, see Figure 1. Just kidding!! Actually, the real antecedent change was to keep both curtains to the left of Zazu’s cage. Now she can’t reach them. See how simple the solution actually is! My African Grey Sally started biting me so the question I asked myself is “when does she bite you”? There was a light bulb moment when I realized she only bit me when I asked her to step up so I could put her to bed. Solution: Spend more time with her before putting her to bed (filling up the attention tank) and a pine nut (consequence) every time my hand is presented and she steps up. This has worked beautifully and the biting has stopped except for that rare time when I am in a rush, then I get bitten for demanding a step up instead of asking. Mistakes are painful. I can either give my birds the choice of whether or not they want to step up, or they can and most likely will, bite me. As Dr. Friedman so eloquently states “past consequence is the best predictor of future behaviour”. It’s all about choices and being the intelligent human being I think I am, most of the time, I opt not to get bitten. The solution was to give myself more time to get out the door in the morning. This is another example of an antecedent change. Screaming, actually none of my birds is a screamer, but Zazu is a bit of a drama queen (huge construct but let me explain). When Gypsy first came to live with me, her wings were clipped so she could not fly. She was a very frightened (construct) little bird. Every time Zazu yelled because of a fire truck, a noise, someone outside, etc., Gypsy would hit the floor and hide (clear, observable behaviour). A couple of times she broke blood feathers so it was a very scary time for both of us. Gypsy took Zazu’s warning calls very seriously and because I was so worried about Gypsy hurting herself, there was some serious high drama going on at my place. Did I mention I like to yell? And yell I did, and since Zazu finds my yelling reinforcing (attention), she now yells at everything and everyone but I really don’t consider this a problem behaviour anymore because Gypsy can fly now so she doesn’t get hurt when Zazu yells.

My very favourite construct is hormonal. If I had 10 cents for every time I’ve heard someone explain their bird’s biting or screaming as hormonal, I could retire. Dr. Susan Friedman explained it this way, “People say the problem is the bird is hormonal. Hormonal is not a behavior problem; thus it is not a cause of behavior problems. We say, operationalize that please. (meaning describe the behaviour in clear, observable terms) They say, the bird bites, in the spring, when I change the food bowls. Now that is a behavior problem. And we can change that behavior by changing the environment, e.g., increasing caregiver’s sensitivity to warnings vs. invitation to approach behavior, teaching the bird to station away from the feed doors with positive reinforcement strategies such as shaping, etc.

Someone said, the problem is my bird is nesting, an innate drive. I said this is not a behavior problem. What is the bird doing? She said, “Chewing the baseboards.” That’s a behavior problem. And we can change that behavior by changing the environment, e.g., we can do a FA, (functional analysis) figure out what the setting events and cues are to chewing baseboards and what about the baseboards makes them more reinforcing to chew than the toy box in the bird’s cage, etc.

I didn’t say the bird has no hormones. Or that the other bird wasn’t engaging in nest building behavior. Only that those labels don’t describe behavior problems, i.e. behavior-environment relations we can do something about”!

I guess my birds don’t have hormones because my flock which consists of one female goffin, (14 years old) one female red-tailed grey (7 years old) and one female Timneh (5 years old) do not bite and they do not scream. Did I just get the behavioral lottery in my birds? No, the fact of the matter is I work with my birds on a daily basis to prevent biting and screaming. If I push my birds into doing something they do not want to do, there is the probability that at some point, they will bite. My job is to avoid those bites by using positive reinforcement. I also allow my birds to make choices in their every day life. The more positive things I can include in their daily lives, the better behaviour I get from them.

So throw away all those constructs and really pay attention to what your bird is telling you. By clearly defining unwanted behaviours in clear, observable terms, you can even change “hormonal” behaviour. You won’t need to get a blood transfusion from “putting up” with all the bites or ear plugs to drown out the screaming. You’ll be sitting back with a big silly grin on your face thinking how lucky you are to have such well behaved birds in your life. That’s what I have and you can too. You just need to learn how to use positive reinforcement to change unwanted behaviours in your birds. Now won’t that be something?


Permission given to repost by Bev Penny March 23, 2011

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