Solving Parrot Chewing On Shirt Problem

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Those who know me know that we had an ordeal here several months ago when Barnaby, my Timneh African Grey, cut his foot open.  After wearing a large wrap on his foot for over 10 weeks, I’m happy to report he is doing great. He is now missing two back toes on one foot but has learned how to adapt to his new way of getting around.

In the early days when he was less stable, he reverted back to an old habit (actually I’m not even sure if he ever did it) of biting holes in my sweatshirt when wearing him on my shoulder.

solving parrot biting shirt problemI’m not sure if he initially began this time as a displacement behavior because I’d redirect him every time I’d see him move his head toward my shoulder. But I do know that in the beginning, I was helping to cause his behavior to continue by reinforcing it with a yell. (It’s hard to ignore your bird when he is putting a hole in your shirt.)

Applied Behavior Analysis 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.

With my behavior analysis hat on, this is what I saw:

A:         Sweatshirt is easily accessible to Barnaby’s beak as he is on my shoulder
B:         Barnaby begins orienting to the sweatshirt
C:         Closer proximity to my sweatshirt
A2:       Closer proximity to my sweatshirt
B:         Barnaby chews on sweatshirt
C:         Sensory reinforcement and possibly attention from me

Prediction:  Barnaby will continue to orient to the sweatshirt and then chew on my sweatshirt to receive social and sensory reinforcement.

Hmm, it really becomes clear once I look at it this way.  I wanted to act quickly so his sweatshirt biting didn’t cause too many additional holes in clothes I valued. I also didn’t want to use an aversive that could result in his loosing trust with me or his becoming fearful of my shoulder.

So, what did I do?

By analyzing the impact of the environment on Barnaby’s behavior, I then came up with a plan to modify the environment to set him and me up for success.  My goal was to interrupt that behavior change so as to not set that behavior of chewing on my sweatshirt in motion to begin with.

I took out my handy clicker. (He already knows to associate treats with a clicker.) I brought him out with me when I knew he was hungry and would be highly motivated by safflower seeds. I also wore a sweatshirt that I didn’t mind having a little more damaged.

As we stood in the kitchen with him on my shoulder, I watched him. The instant I saw his focus start to go down toward my shirt, I redirected him with a noise and the instant he turned his head to me or just up, I clicked and gave him a seed. We did this about 20 times. I wanted to teach him that *if* he looked at me or had his head up (which is an incompatible behavior to chewing on a shirt), *then* he’d get attention and seeds.

The ABC for this is:

A:         Barnaby orients to sweatshirt
B:         Lisa makes noise
C:         Barnaby looks briefly at Lisa or just up
A2:       Barnaby looks briefly at Lisa or just up
B:         Lisa clicks and then gives Barnaby a seed
C:         Barnaby receives social and sensory reinforcement

I would also just click and give him a treat when he was on my shoulder and not focused on my sweatshirt. I wanted to teach him that when he was on my shoulder, the value was in his keeping his head up and/or looking at me.

Prediction: Barnaby would keep his head up and/or look at me more often when on my sweatshirt to elicit social and sensory reinforcement.

It was working!

Then I wanted to test him so the next time he started focusing downward, I didn’t redirect BUT when his beak touched my sweatshirt, I turned my head away which removed at least any reinforcement he was getting from me. (This is where it was important that I had high value treats because just having the sweatshirt in his beak can provide a lot of sensory reinforcement.)

Scientifically speaking, I was using negative punishment meaning I was removing my attention to cause a decrease in his behavior of touching his beak to my sweatshirt.

Sure enough, he chose to NOT bite into my sweatshirt and instead turned his head toward me. Then I clicked, gave him my attention (LOTS of attention), and safflower seeds. In short – over the top positive reinforcement.

In just a few short minute sessions, I taught Barnaby that biting my sweatshirt doesn’t get him much value BUT looking at me gets him both attention and great food. Guess which decision he has been choosing to make these past few weeks?

Now that he has learned this behavior skill, I have put the reinforcement for head up and/or looking at me on intermittent reinforcement meaning I do not offer reinforcement EVERY time. Intermittent reinforcement builds strong behaviors. Well, okay, in this case the intermittent part doesn’t really always hold true. Barnaby and I like interacting with each other when he is on my shoulder. And that is okay too!


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

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