The most enduring and rewarding relationships are built on a solid foundation of positive reinforcement. When a bird does something good, it receives a reward which increases the likelihood the behaviour will occur again. Even a scratch on the head, verbal praise or a bit of attention can be enough to encourage a behaviour to be repeated in the future. Positive reinforcement is a tool that can solve even the most stubborn behavioural problems. Let me give you an example.
Many parrots jump on the door in anticipation of the owner opening the cage. Most people are frustrated with this behaviour and want it to stop. Rather than using punishment to stop the door-clinging behaviour a parrot owner should think of how to teach the bird to do a more desirable behaviour instead, like sitting on the perch when they open the door. If you reinforce the bird’s behaviour of sitting on the perch when you approach the cage, the bird will soon learn to go to the perch anytime you come near.
A parrot’s biting or screaming behaviours, or just about any other undesirable behaviour, can often be eliminated with positive reinforcement. Instead of thinking about how you can stop the behaviour, picture the behaviour you want to see in place of the undesirable behaviour and reinforce any small step toward that behaviour. For instance, if your parrot bites you when you put it back into the cage, you can reinforce the bird with a treat as you approach the cage, before he starts to think about biting you. After you give the bird the treat, back up and start again without actually putting the bird in the cage. After a few repetitions of being reinforced for sitting calmly on the hand as you approach the cage, the parrot will usually let you carry him or her into the cage to receive a treat. At this point, it is best to take the bird out of the cage and repeat the behaviour of putting the bird in the cage to earn a treat. Repetition builds confidence. Soon the bird will understand that going in the cage means getting a treat and not being locked inside. After the bird is comfortable going in and out of the cage for treats, you can give it a special treat or a large number of treats to reinforce the behaviour of you shutting the door.
Fighting the urge to use aversives when working with parrots can be challenging. Many people grew up in an environment where negative experiences played a significant role in shaping their behaviour. This cultural tendency to influence behaviour negatively is evident in a myriad of sources in our lives. Parents, teachers, siblings, schoolmates, etc. all use a variety of negative strategies to force people to comply with commands and rules. They also punish people when they do not follow the rules or live up to certain expectations. With this in mind, it is easy to see why some people are inclined to try to dominate and control parrots and other animals with negative strategies.
What most people fail to understand is how their use of force with their parrots may have a negative effect on their relationship with the bird. If the parrot’s wings are clipped it is easy to get it to step on the hand by chasing it around. What is less evident is that this chasing may cause one or more of the detrimental side effects mentioned above. The parrot might turn around and bite when it is being chased or even later, when it is sitting comfortably with the owner. It might try to avoid the person in the future or become nervous or frightened of the person or the environment. Lastly, the parrot might become less active in the person’s presence or in general. All of these side effects are likely to be the result of what many people believe, or have been told, is the proper way to handle parrots.
The relationship a person has with their companion parrot is strongly influenced by their day-to-day interactions with the bird. To create the best relationship possible with a companion parrot focus on creating positive experiences and avoid negative experiences whenever possible. The more deposits, small and large, you have in your trust account, the more your account can withstand an occasional or accidental withdrawal. This strategy will build the trust account and create a relationship that is more rewarding and fulfilling than many people thought possible.
Steve Martin, has been a professional bird trainer for over 30 years. He is President of Natural Encounters, Inc., a company of over 20 professional animal trainers who produce educational, free-flight bird shows at zoological facilities around the world. Steve has worked as a consultant to over 50 zoological facilities, providing educational programs or working on animal behaviour issues and teaching animal training workshops.
Steve is a Trustee with the World Parrot Trust, a core team member of the California Condor Recovery Program and Past-President of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators.