How do you discipline a pet bird?
Does this sound familiar? You’ve adopted a pet bird and things were going pretty “fly.” Your bird got used to its new home and you felt like you were bonding well. Then, all of a sudden your bird starts in with some challenging behavior. Screaming, biting, aggression, or even dreaded, feather plucking.
You've tried everything that you can think of and don’t know what else to do. After all, the bird wants for nothing and you feel like you’re doing everything right. You might even be to the point where you are thinking about getting rid of your bird.
The best way to discipline your bird is to ignore the unwanted behavior and intentionally reinforce desired behaviors using positive reinforcement.
This is because discipline or punishment will cause your bird to be afraid of you. a lot of times unwanted behaviors or challenging bird behavior is a reaction to feelings of stress or fear.
Positive reinforcement for birds is easy for the layperson. When a bird is reinforced after performing a certain behavior, it'll repeat it over and over again.
"Bird training" is a term that is ”Googled” hundreds of times a day, but the sad truth is that the internet is full of misinformation regarding bird training.
It seems that everyone who's ever owned a bird has declared themselves a "bird behaviorist." But, trained and licensed bird behaviorists actually follow the science. (Which can get rather technical).
BirdSupplies.com is dedicated to offering science-backed parrot wellness products and resources.
Bird training research shows that promoting prosocial behaviors with positive reinforcement makes for a happier, more content pet. Positive reinforcement helps you teach your bird healthy replacement behaviors!
Unfortunately, it is so easy to accidentally reinforce unwanted behaviors, especially with such an intelligent pet. Why is that?
A lot of people think that they can reason with their smart little bird. Or, that the bird knows when they’re disappointed.
Every day, as the CEO of BirdSupplies.com, I get phone calls from distraught bird caretakers who are stuck. Full of good intentions, they inadvertently reinforce their bird's feather plucking or other challenging behavior even throughout our phone conversation.
They call out to the bird, “Stop that plucking!" when the bird messes with its feathers or screams.
Sometimes, they even put the phone down saying something like, "I need to go pick him up so that he doesn’t pluck.” They’re inadvertently reinforcing the very behavior that they want the bird to stop.
Birds love any form of attention and they especially love the animated responses they get when we scold or redirect them.
They're not so good at interpreting the emotion behind your spirited responses, though. So, if you jerk back your hand and yell "OUCH" with a nip, Polly gets a real charge out of it! After all, just stop and think how animated birds are.
The solution for many parrot behavior problems is to understand the problem, plan your strategy, and to be mindful of what you’re reinforcing.
Once you understand how to actually change behavior, promoting desired behaviors will come much more naturally. Read on to discover 6 Ways To Start Using Positive Reinforcement With Your Bird.
In this blog post you’ll notice that I refer to two types of behavior.
Desired behaviors that are safe, natural parrot behaviors, and healthy.
- Challenging behaviors that are unsafe, reactive, and often, emotionally challenging for you and our pet.
What can a bird behaviorist help with?
If you really want to get to the root of the problem it would be wise to develop a behavior plan. A bird behaviorist can help with that.
A behavior plan is a formal, written plan that focuses on providing reinforcement for behaviors that you want to see more of as well as the behaviors that you want to modify. With birds in particular, this is the best way to stop misbehavior.
A behavior plan will help you to understand the root cause of your pets behavior. In other words, you'll gain an understanding of why your bird needs to do the behavior and you'll learn to meet that need in a more positive way.
There are 6 steps involved in creating a behavior plan. I'll discuss each of the steps the help you understand how to create a behavior plan for your bird
1. Discover ABC Model
First things first. The ABC Model is a framework for understanding what’s behind your bird's challenging behavior.
In order to change an unwanted behavior, you’ve got to figure out 3 things:
- What triggers the behavior to occur in the first place
- How to "measure" your bird's challenging behavior
- What supports or sustains the challenging behavior.
Simply put, every behavior is “sandwiched” between a trigger (called an antecedent) and a motivator (called a consequence).
Here’s an infographic to help you understand.
©Infographic by Diane Burroughs, LCSW 2021
Once you know the antecedent, or what triggers your birds' challenging behavior, then you can change up the environment or setting to eliminate the triggering event. We call this “antecedent rearrangement. It's simply the changing of the conditions or factors that influence the behavior.
Likewise, once you become aware of what consequence(s) motivate and sustain the behavior, you can create a different consequence so that the behavior is no longer so rewarding.
Save highly rewarding consequences for desirable behaviors that you want to see more of.
2. Do a time study
A Time study helps you understand what triggers your bird's behavior in the first place. A bird behaviorist can walk you through this so that you get accurate information.
Behavior is what animals (and humans) do. It is observable and measurable and it serves a purpose.
Take, for instance, a screaming parrot. To find out the purpose or function of the behavior, you would start off by observing the challenging behavior like a scientist. That is, without judgement or emotion.
You’d document individual behavior episodes over the course of 25 +/- incidents on an Excel or Google Sheet. Using these tools help you to create all kinds of graphs so that you can look for patterns.
You are looking for the antecedent - triggering event - as well as the “reinforcer.” You’ll also want to make an educated guess of what your bird got out of the behavior. We call this “the function of the behavior.”
Collecting about 25 individual incidents seems like a lot. But, this many incidents provides for “statistical significance” regarding whatever it is that you’re dealing with. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of the analysis. You can create a table or spreadsheet to quickly record each incident.
So, how do you quickly and easily gather intel on 25 behavior incidents? In a week!. You'd just jot down 3-4 incidents a day.
Here's an example of how you could document feather plucking.
My favorite times to document behavior are:
- I check for signs that the behavior has occurred when I first get up, between bedtime and morning.
- I check again right before I leave for work - because my bird is potentially experiencing anxiety before my departure.
- I check a third time I get home for work or wind up my work day. This tells me how less interaction effects the target behavior.
- And, finally, I check right before birdie bedtime - around 7:00- 8:00 PM
Devise a chart like this one below. You can download it and adapt it to your particular situation. Remember, look for facts. Take the emotion and guessing out of your observations.
3. Analyze the time-study to understand the challenging behavior
The time and energy that you’ve put into the time-study will give your bird behaviorist a goldmine of information about your bird's challenging behavior.
Here’s what you and your bird behaviorist will discover from the time-study.
- The setting in the behavior occurs
How frequently the problem happens
Understand what the intensity of the behavior
Discover the most frequent antecedents or triggers
Discover the most common consequences - In other words, what is reinforcing your bird to keep doing the behavior despite all of your efforts.
Learn what the function of your bird's behavior is - This is critical when you want to teach new behaviors.
Trying to determine what your bird is getting out of the behavior is called "the function of the behavior." Your bird behaviorist will be able to pinpoint this quickly.
Scientist's tell us that there are 4 functions of behavior. The infographic below will help you discover your individual pet's behavior function.
Don't skip this step because the function of the behavior guides the strategies you'll need to use to promote desired behaviors and to reduce undesired behavior.
©Infographic by Diane Burroughs, LCSW 2021
The "function of the behavior" is a powerful reinforcer that your bird craves.
Now that you understand the challenging behavior inside and out, you’re ready to set new behavior goals that work better for you and your bird.
Setting a few goals will inspire you to put the work in to change the behavior.
Here is an example of a SMART goal for screaming:
FOR THE NEXT 3 MONTHS, I'LL USE 3 PARROT WELLNESS STRATEGIES EACH DAY TO DECREASE SCREAMING FROM HAPPENING EVERY DAY TO 3 OR FEWER TIMES PER WEEK. I'LL USE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT, IMPROVING ENRICHMENT, AND PLANNED IGNORING.
Notice that this goal features these components:
S - This means your goal specific. It is clear and focuses on one thing you want to achieve, For example, I'll make sure that my bird gets 10+ hours of complete darkness every night or I'll offer my bird a treat every time I notice it playing with toys.
M - A measurable behavior goal is a clear, specific objective that you can see and measure. It helps track progress and shows when you've achieved it. This makes it easier to manage and change behaviors effectively.
A - The goal is is attainable. In other words, with focus, you can reach it in a reasonable amount of time.
R - R stands for realistic. This means your goal should be something you can actually do and is possible to achieve.
T - I’ve specified the time you'll work on the goal
A great way to add measurement is to figure out problem severity Using a Likert scale.
Here's an example of what a Likert Scale is:
Question: How many times a week does your bird chew on its chest?
1 - Once
3 - Three - four times
5 - Five +
The better you grasp your bird's behavior issue, the more effectively you can create practical strategies to address it.
By describing the problem in a measurable way, you'll be able to accurately tell if the interventions that you’re using are helping or not.
The time-study will help you to figure out what triggers a behavior episode, when it happens, how severe it is, and even what your bird might be getting out of this behavior.
Does the behavior happen at certain times of the day? Do certain settings or situations trigger the behavior? A bird that sees hawks from the window or hears scary noises but can't get away from them may resort to anxious screaming.
Are you now beginning to see how you can create targeted interventions from the data that you've collected from the time study?
Now that you know how to measure the behavior, you can tell if the remediation strategy you've chosen is helpful.
EXTINCTION BURST -
*** In behavioral science, we know that a phenomenon called an extinction burst occurs when we try to stop a behavior.
An extinction burst occurs when the reinforcement that caused a behavior in the first place is removed. The unwanted behavior increases for a period of time until the bird learns what it needs to do to get the desired reinforcement. It needs to learn replacement behaviors.
4. Teach “replacement behaviors”
After you totally understand the challenging behavior, it's crucial to teach your bird new, desired actions that fulfill the same needs. Many people overlook this, but a bird behaviorist ensures you don't miss it. Skipping this step can worsen the situation.
If you skip this step, your bird will go back to the old, undesired behaviors with vengeance. Without intentional planning, it is easy to accidentally provide attention for challenging behavior while forgetting to teach desired behaviors.
Teach prosocial replacement behaviors. Prosocial behaviors are safe, healthy behaviors that are fun to be around. Once you get the hang of teaching a few replacement behaviors, your bird behaviorist will begin talking about graduating you and your bird.
Common prosocial behaviors that every bird should know include:
Use bird clicker training strategies to teach new behaviors. You’ll not only enjoy your bird more, but your bird will be calmer with the socialization it gets from training.
For instance, say that you're teaching your bird to come when called. You’d “shape the behavior” by teaching successive steps that you can chain together.
For instance, you’d cue the behavior, “Come, Peachy!”
- Reward your bird for looking at you when you call its name.
- Next, reward the bird for both looking at you and lifting a leg onto your hand.
- Now, reward when the bird walks a short distance to get to you.
- Repeat until your bird comes to you without a treat.
- Introduce a little more distance before rewarding.
- Reinforce longer and longer distances inside of the house.
- Move to the outside of the house on a harness.
You get the point.
Learning goes much faster when you know what reinforcers your bird finds motivating.
Bird's love any form of attention and they especially love animated responses. But, they're not so good at interpreting the emotion behind your spirited responses. So, if you jerk back your hand and yell "OUCH" when you get nipped, Polly gets a real charge out of it!
So, sit down right now and decide which behaviors you want to "reward" and which ones you want to eliminate.
TO DO: Now, make a list of a few positive behaviors that you’d like to reinforce. New, healthy behaviors that you want to teach your bird to enjoy.
5. Plan how you'll train & reinforce new behaviors
Positive reinforcement tells us that any time a behavior is reinforced, it will happen again and again.
Keep in mind that, in bird training, your goal is to build your pet's trust and self-esteem.
Patiently wait for the desired , new behavior and immediately reward your bird.
When your bird voluntarily exhibits behavior, it fosters independent thinking. This approach, known as "force-free" training, not only encourages learning but also builds trust.
Imagine trust with your pet as a "bank account." Positive reinforcers act as deposits, growing over time. Rewarding desired behavior makes a substantial deposit, while anything perceived as negative or aversive serves as a withdrawal.
Negativity and force makes your pet want to escape. It leaves your bird confused and frustrated. You can tell if you've somehow frustrated your parrot by observing its body language. Whenever your pet is disengaging from a training session or moving its body away from you, ask yourself, "What did I do to invite that behavior.
©Infographic by Diane Burroughs, LCSW 2021
6. Plan how you’ll cope with unwanted behaviors
Finally, if you deem that the function of the challenging behavior is attention, you may want to figure out how you'll refrain from reinforcing it with attention going forward.
This technique is called “planned ignoring” and it is, admittedly, kind of hard to do. Plus, it is critical that you reinforce 2-3 desired behaviors with attention when you remove attention for challenging behaviors. You'll want your bird behaviorist to help you with this one.
To use this step correctly, you’ll have to refer back to the time-study and determine, for sure, that the function of the challenging behavior is to get attention. Rather than providing reinforcing attention for unwanted behavior, practice ignoring it.
So what is planned ignoring in the first place? This is when you pay absolutely no attention to your bird while it is misbehaving. That means not looking at her and not talking to her during problem behavior.
The caveat is that as soon as the bird stops the undesired behavior, you provide a ton of attention.
For example, you hop on a phone call and immediately your bird starts plucking or screaming. You could walk away and continue your conversation in another room and then as soon as the behavior stops return and offer your bird praise and a treat.
The key is to reward your bird with a lot of attention for desired behavior but don't give her any attention for unwanted behavior.
Think back in time. How many times have you inadvertantly rewarded your bird for misbehavior? It's probably in the hundreds. Likewise, How many times have you inadvertently forgotten to reward positive behavior with attention? Again, it's probably in the hundreds. I’m definitely guilty of this.
It's likely that the challenging behavior you’re trying to get rid of has been well reinforced over a long period of time. The longer the bird has been seeking attention with annoying behavior, the longer it takes to turn it around. Plan to diligently change your response for several weeks.
At the same time, generously reinforce prosocial behaviors that were presented in step 4.
Planned ignoring tips:
Completely ignore. It is essential that you completely ignore your bird when it's misbehaving. Don't look at it. No reactive facial expressions. No noise whatsoever. In the case of screaming, you may need to purchase some earplugs to use for a few weeks to keep your sanity.
Start ignoring immediately when the behavior begins. Once you start ignoring, count slowly for 20 seconds. You may have to quietly leave the room if you can't contain yourself. However, you must make it a point to generously offer the desired attention as soon as the misbehavior stops.
Figure out how you'll distract yourself. You know that it's going to be hard to ignore certain behaviors such as screaming and plucking. Try putting some headphones on and listening to your favorite music. Do some breathing exercises to keep yourself calm. The key is to stay calm. Don't let your bird ruffle your feathers!
- Most importantly, pay attention to natural, safe parrot behavior. While it will take effort on your part, your social pet needs attention. Providing attention for desired behaviors makes planned ignoring work better and faster.
Does planned ignoring always work?
There are certain cases when planned ignoring is not the best option.
Ask yourself these questions:
1. Is the behavior rewarded by something else?
2. Is the behavior dangerous?
Sometimes, other family members or even pets reward the parrot with attention for misbehavior. For instance, I'd love to ignore Timmy when he's dropping his pellets on the floor, but I can't compete with the attention that he gets from the dogs. They love it when he feeds them.
Ignoring him in this instance will do no good because the dogs are so reinforcing. In this case, it would be better for me to switch up the antecedents such as removing the dogs from the area when I feed Timmy.
You can't eliminate dangerous behaviors with planned ignoring.
Timmy is hormonal and he’s bonded with the new puppy. He kept crawling off of his play stand and walking around on the floor. I don’t want to risk a dangerous puppy bite.
Climbing down from the play stand was not a behavior that I wished to ignore. So, I simply made it impossible for him to climb off. I put the seed guards back on the play stand. Guess what? Now he can’t feed the dogs either!
Behavior tends to get worse before it gets better. Can you handle it?
Plan for the extinction burst. When you suddenly start ignoring behavior that you've consistently rewarded in the past your bird will perform the behavior over and over again, sometimes with greater intensity in an effort to get your attention.
It's a very disheartening time during the bird behavior change process, but your bird behaviorist will help you stay on track.
How will you handle this, because giving in one time will only teach your bird to misbehave more intensely in the future? If you don't think you can handle the problem getting worse for a short period of time, don't choose to use planned ignoring as your first line of defense.
Can you ignore the behavior every time it happens?
If you choose to use planned ignoring, it is crucial that you use it consistently. If you use it sometimes, but not at other times, like say when company is over, planned ignoring simply won't work. In fact, it will make the problem worse.
You'll have to figure out ways to cope during the planned ignoring process or else you run the risk of making the behavior worse. We often see this with screaming.
People try “planned ignoring” for a while and give up because the process isn't working fast enough. This just taught the bird that persistence pays off.
Slow & Steady: Tracking Your Progress
Bird training is not the easiest thing in the world, however, it does not have to be the hardest either. Know that anytime you're trying to change unwanted behavior two types of training are taking place.
First, your bird has to learn that it won't get attention with its old ways. Second, your bird must learn to perform a whole new set of behaviors in order to get attention.
Finally, both you and your bird have to develop new habits. Training takes time and impatience.
One way to help yourself stay on track is to chart your birds' progress. Check out this article on how to collect baseline data.
In wrapping up our exploration into the world of changing challenging bird behavior, remember that seeking support is a sign of strength, not weakness. A bird behaviorist is here to guide you through the journey of understanding and transforming your feathered companion's actions. From learning the ABC Model to conducting time studies and teaching replacement behaviors, these are steps toward building a healthier bond. As we conclude, consider taking the next step in your bird's well-being journey. Schedule an appointment with a compassionate bird behaviorist who can provide tailored insights and strategies, ensuring both you and your beloved pet thrive in a harmonious and joyful relationship. Your feathered friend deserves the best care, and together, we can pave the way for positive changes. Take that step today, and let's embark on this transformative journey together!
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Chance, P. (2013). Learning and Behavior, 7th Edition.
Florida Atlantic University. Fact Sheet - Reinforcement. https://www.fau.edu/education/centersandprograms/card/documents/reinforcement.pdf
O'Neill, R. E., Horner, R. H., Albin, R. W., Sprague, J. R., Storey, K., & Newton, J. S. (2015). Functional Assessment and Program Development for Problem Behavior: A Practical Handbook (3rd ed.). Cengage Learning. Stamford, CT.
Johnson, M.(2004). Getting Started: Clicker Training for Birds. Karen Pryor Clicker Training.
Diane Burroughs, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist trained in ABA therapy techniques. She specializes in avian anxiety disorders and is certified in Nutrition For Mental Health. Diane has written a number of bird behavior books and she offers behavior consultations. She's developed a range of UnRuffledRx Science-backed Parrot Wellness Supplies.
Diane's products have been featured in the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery and at Exoticscon, a conference for exotic pet veterinarians. Her bird collars & supplements are stocked in avian vet clinics and bird stores throughout the US. With over 30 years in the field of behavior, Diane has created thousands of successful individualized behavior plans that help pets thrive.
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