Positive Reinforcement and Your Parrot by Bev Penny

PR and Your Parrot

No, I’m not talking about a public relations person for your bird but they sure could use a few PR people. I’m talking about positive reinforcement and how it can change your relationship with your bird.

I have 4 female birds and what I want most from them is good behaviour. I need them to step up for me when I’m on my way out the door in the morning because I am usually in a rush. Most people take the step-up for granted but it does require some work. We should not expect our birds to step up just because we want them to. We can, however, set them up to succeed by using positive reinforcement. When I go to the sleeping room to get my birds in the morning, each bird knows there is a treat waiting for them. Sally, Gypsy and Nikki get pine nuts and Zazu gets a head scratch. I know people who have taught their birds to do amazing things but when it comes to training, I am not that disciplined. I first learned about positive reinforcement in 2004 and continue to learn about it to this day. Just the other day, I was thinking to myself that I have such good birds and that’s a wonderful thing especially as it is spring and we all know what happens then. I don’t put labels on my bird’s behaviour because that won’t help me if an unwanted behaviour should appear. My 14 year old goffin Zazu has been so full of energy lately that it would appear she is making her own espresso behind my back but with that energy comes loud vocalizations so when I get home from work, after my daily chores, I take a few minutes and help her burn off some of that energy. So Zazu has fun for a few minutes and I get some peace and quiet while I make supper and clean their dishes. It is a win-win situation. We eat supper together and then if I am having a bath, they all come to the bathroom with me. Zazu is on the towel rack, Sally on the floor, Nikki on her basket and Gypsy is just outside the door on a shelf. It is another way to spend time with them since they have been locked in their cages all day. At about 7:30 pm, we settle down to watch a bit of TV. Zazu is perched on my chest, Sally on the arm of the chair, Nikki on her basket and Gypsy on the Parrot Tower. Gypsy will occasionally fly over to attack the hot water bottle I have on my neck. Who knew hot water bottles were dangerous? Just kidding!!

One of the things I am finding is that people who have birds with problem behaviours are finding it difficult to let go of the old way of doing things. My answer to that is a Dr. Phil saying which is “And how is that working for you?” Another of his favourite sayings is “You can’t change, what you don’t acknowledge” and no truer words were ever spoken especially when it comes to parrots. As long as you blame problem behaviours on your birds, you will not find the answers you are looking for. Every time I approach one of my birds, I make a split second decision on how that interaction will turn out. For example, in the morning when I am rushing to get out the door, I used to have to chase Zazu around the apartment. Now when I approach her, I tell her how pretty she is and what a good bird she is and 99% of the time she will step up without hesitation. Now how complicated is that? Most unwanted behaviours can be solved with simple solutions (antecedent change) because the solutions are based on positive reinforcement. Now aren’t you thinking that positive reinforcement seems like a no-brainer!!!

Parrots live a long time. I do not want a relationship where I never know if I’m going to get bitten or not and I live in an apartment so I do not want birds that scream because their needs are not being met. I eagerly set out to learn as much as I could about Applied Behaviour Analysis to enhance my relationship with my birds. It was never about changing my birds, although I didn’t know that in the beginning. I realized it much later in the game and it was one of those life altering moments. I discovered much to my amazement and joy that it was more about changing my behaviour because my birds were just being birds. Oddly enough, some humans find this very difficult to accept. How could it possibly be them who cause their birds to scream (screaming is reinforced) or teach their birds to bite (birds bite because other subtle attempts at communication were ignored). We must be willing to put some time and effort into learning how to get the best behaviour possible from our birds. We must put all notions aside of our having a “bad bird” because there is no such thing. There is only a human who does not have the tools to eliminate/reduce unwanted behaviors.

Every time you approach your bird, you make a choice that will dictate the behaviour you get from your bird. If you use positive reinforcement only, over time (you become a powerful reinforcer to your bird) you will reap the rewards of the wonderful science of Applied Behaviour Analysis. So in essence, you will be the PR person for your bird and your behaviour towards your bird will dictate whether or not you have the most wonderful relationship possible. If you follow several simple rules, you can’t lose. The first step is to figure out what food items your bird really values and then remove them from the regular diet. Never withhold food from your bird. That is not positive reinforcement and it is not necessary. I eat regular meals but would jump through hoops for chocolate if I hadn’t had any in awhile. Your birds are no different. Some highly valued food items to my birds would be pine nuts, whole grain toast, whole grain pancake, etc. and I use very, very tiny pieces as the reward otherwise situation is a problem. Food rewards are considered primary reinforcers. Praise, scratches, game playing are considered secondary reinforcers but if paired enough times with primary reinforcers can become a primary reinforcer. It’s good to have both in your toolbox. Step two is to give that reward as soon as (contiguous) your bird offers a requested behaviour. If your bird steps up for you, do not take that for granted. Reward good behaviour which will ensure that your bird will continue to step up because he/she is getting something they value ie the little piece of a favourite food. This valued food item should only be used as the consequence for requested behaviour and not fed in your bird’s regular diet, otherwise it will have little value to your bird.

So I am going to hire you as the PR person for your parrot. The benefits of that job are amazing and if you use positive reinforcement only, it is a job that will create a relationship between you and bird that will only get better with time. My name is Bev Penny and you have my word on it!!!!!!!!!!!!!

October 2009

copied from the articles posted @ Mytoos.

Permission given to repost by Bev Penny March 23, 2011

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