Solving A Parrot Biting Problem Positively

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Solving parrot biting behavior with applied behavior analysisThe other night I was watching television with my birds (Barnaby on his play gym and Dreyfuss on her window perch) and it was that time. Yep, the clock said 9:00 p.m. and that meant they needed to go back to their cages for the night. Really this wasn’t much different than many nights in our household.

The difference here was that when I walked to Dreyfuss and moved my arm toward her, I noticed her feathers puff out, she lowered her body and held her wings slightly out, and her muscles were tight. I know this body language. This is the non-aggressive body language of a bird who, in the moment, does not want a human’s arm near. It is the language that occurs to tell me, “please back up. I do not want to hurt you, but if you come closer, it may be my only option to get you to leave me alone.”

What was going on? I easily could have shrugged it off to Dreyfuss being an aggressive or dominant parrot. I could have armed myself with a stick and forced her to step onto it. Or I could have murmured under my breath and walked off in a tizzy thinking “that bird is just plain bad.”

But I know better than that. I know that all behavior occurs for a reason and that reason is to get a consequence – to either move an animal toward something positive or away from something negative. Labeling her as dominant, aggressive or stubborn would by no means help me in figuring out why the behavior was occurring and what I could do to change it. Actually by labeling her in that way, it would tend to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy where I’d probably just accept those inaccurate perceptions that would shift my focus in the wrong direction – toward using a punitive teaching strategy with many negative side effects.

What did I do instead? I put by applied behavior analysis thinking cap on. If you know me, you know I talk about ABA. It is a systematic approach to solving behavior problems by changing the environment in which the behavior occurs. It involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a bird biting or screaming) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling? And what happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)? It is how I have been trained to look at behavior, and how I teach others to look at behavior.

So, what was going on in the environment? I know that Dreyfuss does not show that group of behaviors all of the time when I offer my arm. In fact, she is one who, on most days, would be perfectly happy staying on my arm for hours on end if I’d let her.

Let’s look at what was going on in the tv room at that time. There are all kinds of things I considered – how long was Dreyfuss on her perch, what was Barnaby doing, what was I doing, what time of day was it, etc. The ultimate question was – in the past, at that specific time of day given the same situation, what was the consequence of her behavior of stepping onto my arm from her window perch?

AH, the answer unlocked the door!

In the past, at that specific time of day, when I would offer Dreyfuss from my arm to step up from her window perch, I either immediately or almost immediately (after walking to the kitchen to get something) walked her into her room, put her in her cage, turned off the light and closed the door.

Actually, it was pretty clear to me. I know that the future rate of any behavior is a reflection of the consequence of that behavior in the past. All things being equal, Dreyfuss could not reliably predict that at that particular time of day, good things would happen if she stepped up.

Let’s look at an ABC (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) for this to make it clearer.

This is how things looked before a behavior modification plan:

Background:  It is night time and Barnaby, Dreyfuss and I are in the tv room with Barnaby on his play stand and Dreyfuss on her window perch. When the sky becomes dark, that is usually a signal for me to put the birds back into their room. It is 9:00 pm.

A:         Standing close to Dreyfuss, Lisa raises her arm.

B:         Dreyfuss would step up

C:         Lisa puts Dreyfuss in her cage for the night

Can you see how Dreyfuss has come to predict that by stepping up onto my arm at that time of day her being out time with me will come to an end?

This is an ABC for what began to happen:

A:         Standing close to Dreyfuss, Lisa raises her arm.

B:         Dreyfuss would puff her feathers, lower her body, hold her wings  slightly out, have tight body muscles

C:         Lisa puts arm down and walks away.

Prediction:  Dreyfuss will show her ‘don’t bother me’ body language more to get me to move away at that time of day.

However, if I was someone who did not pay attention to my bird’s body language and did not heed her warning, this is what that same scenario could possibly look like:

A:         Dreyfuss would puff her feathers, lower her body, hold her wings slightly out, have tight body muscles

B:         Lisa forces arm into Dreyfuss’s chest to get her to step up

C:         Dreyfuss bites Lisa

(followed by)

A:         Dreyfuss bites Lisa

B:         Lisa walks away

C:         Dreyfuss stays on perch

Prediction:      When Lisa puts her arm up to Dreyfuss while on her perch at that time of day, Dreyfuss will bite Lisa more often to get Lisa to lower her arm and walk away and to stay on the perch.

Can you see here how we, as our pet caregivers, actually can teach our pet to behave in aggressive or flight response actions – whether we are talking about a bird, a dog or another animal?

So, back to the modification plan….I always try to find a solution that is the most positive and least intrusive for the animal. There are usually a number of ways to go about it. What they all have in common is that they all are about changing the environment to make the wanted choice for the animal the most valuable, easiest choice to make.

Another one of my goals in creating a plan is prevention of practice of the unwanted behavior. To do that, I brainstorm what can be done in the environment so as to not set that behavior in motion to begin with and get Dreyfuss to step on to my arm without incidence. This is called Antecedent arrangement.

Here are some ideas for this case:

  • Before walking to Dreyfuss, I can pick Barnaby up because she always wants to come along when I have Barnaby with me.
  • I could take her off of her window perch before that bewitching time.
  • I can approach her with her very favorite safflower seeds in my hand.

Once she has made the decision to not show those behaviors and to step up, I can modify the consequences to make that choice more valuable. These are some of the things I can do.

I can practice during the night asking for a step up from the perch with different outcomes such as – putting her right back onto her perch, giving her a seed, walking her to my couch, walking to the kitchen. With each of these practices, the final outcome is her being able to back into the tv room.

I can practice asking for a step up, walking her back into her room and walking right back out to the tv room.

I can practice asking her for a step up, and then offering prolonged head rubs. (She often solicits head rubs at night time.)

I can practice asking for a step up, putting her in her cage and giving her a seed, and then opening her cage door and bringing her right back out. I can practice this for longer durations of her being in her cage with her door closed without seeing any sign of stress from her before opening it. And I can practice putting her in to her cage, turning out the light, and then bringing her back out.

I will mix it up so that sometimes I will put her back into her cage and leave her there.

I am actually in the process of working through all of the above. Already, she is readily stepping up when I walk over to her now at night time. Moving forward, I know it will be a good idea to continue to practice a variety of positive outcomes with her so that she will want to choose to step up.

If “I” become lax again and go back to always putting her back into her cage at this time, I have to expect that she may revert back to her ‘don’t bother me language.’

Her behavior after all is simply a tool to get her a consequence.

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