Reinforcing Unwanted Behaviour by Bev Penny

Learning Not to Reinforce Unwanted Behavior

Reprinted with permission from
Good Bird Magazine,
Volume 3-3, Fall 2007; Page 44

“These birds are defective. Sally and Gypsy have a really annoying chirp and I know they are doing it to make my life miserable”.

The above statement is without a doubt the most ridiculous statement I could have made and yet there was a time when I would have believed it and because of that, I would not have done anything to correct the problem behavior. The simple explanation is that Gypsy chirps because she has learned that in the past when she chirped, she would (1) immediately get some of my supper and (2) would be let out of her cage first . Now I have learned the skills (I am a work in progress) I need to observe things that are measurable and not rely on things that I think my bird “feels or thinks” because only the bird knows how he/she thinks or feels. You know what else; I was the one who created this problem behavior (very annoying chirp) by inadvertently reinforcing it in the first place. I’ve been looking at my bird’s unwanted behaviors (yes, LLP grads have birds with problem behaviors – imagine that) very closely these past few months and I’ve learned some very important things about those unwanted behaviors. In the beginning, Gypsy started the “chirping” when I was eating supper. She would chirp and I would stop eating and get up and give her some. Well hellooooooo, genius!! Gypsy learned that if she chirped, she would get some of my food so then Gypsy upped the ante and started chirping whenever she wanted something and lo and behold, Sally (you all know she is a genius) has started doing it too. Imagine that? Two greys doing that sharp, piercing chirp is just way too irritating for this noise sensitive human so what to do, what to do. Well, I caused the problem so it only stands to reason that now I have to “uncause” it because it is driving me to distraction. The functional analysis or FA would look something like this:

Antecedent: Bev sits down to eat
Behavior: Gypsy chirps
Consequence: Bev gets up and gives Gypsy some food

Possible Future Behavior: Gypsy will chirp more often to get food.

And you can bet your next pay check that Gypsy chirps more often. She chirps as soon as I walk in the door, she chirps when I am out of her sight, and she chirps when she wants something. If I had wanted a cricket as a pet, I would have bought one. (Canadian humor here)

You know it was only recently that I realized that the chirping that I initially thought was cute was now quite irritating and it had to stop. The difference now is in me because I realized that this was my fault. Another way I reinforced this behavior was rushing to Gypsy as soon as I entered my apartment to let her out of her cage. I had already created anxious (chirping, clinging to the cage bars) behavior in Sally. You think I would have learned from that, but hey I never said I was a rocket scientist. I think that is Rita’s job. I believe we all need to take a close look at our birds and see how we have inadvertently created the unwanted behaviors that we complain about.
I also want to let people know that we who have taken the Living and Learning with Parrots on-line behavior course run by Susan Friedman are learning just like you. We want our bird’s lives to be enriched in our care and we know you want that too or you wouldn’t be reading this magazine. The LLP course gave me the tools to be able to change unwanted behavior. My course of action is to have Gypsy give me another acceptable (to me) vocalization and I will ignore the chirping and reinforce the new acceptable sound. As a matter of fact, I started down the new path yesterday. I will keep you posted as each day unfolds as to how it goes. Well, it’s been a couple of weeks (time flies) since I started the new intervention with Gypsy. Most of the time, there is silence now when I sit down to supper so now I’m reinforcing that. Now don’t get me wrong, silence is better than chirping but it is not a good form of communication. Remember this one – “What’s wrong with you? Are you mad at me, did I do something wrong?” And your response is silence, silence, silence. So if the response to this is silence, how can one expect a resolution to the problem? See what I mean? Behavior has function. By that I mean, if I do this, I get that and depending on whether the “that” is positive or negative will predict whether or not I will do it again. Same thing with your birds. This morning Gypsy told me that “You’re so pearl”. Normally, she would say “Gypsy is a pretty girl”. I’m thinking I like her interpretation very much and that would be a very, very acceptable way to get some of my supper. The new functional analysis looks like this:

Antecedent: Bev sits down to eat
Behavior: Gypsy says “You’re so pearl”
Consequence: Bev gets up and gives Gypsy some food

Possible Future Behavior: Gypsy will say “You’re so pearl” more often to get food.

So please, pay really close attention to “your” behavior, so you don’t create these unwanted behaviors in the first place. Then everyone wins. In less than a month, I have “uncaused” an irritating behavior (Gypsy’s chirp) by implementing some very simple tools. Ignore what you don’t want and reinforce what you do want. It doesn’t get any easier than that. By the way, Sally is a work in progress too. I don’t call them Sally and Mini-Me for nothing.

Bev Penny
August 31, 2007

Permission given to repost by Bev Penny March 23, 2011

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