Accidentally Reinforcing a Behavior

As fun as it is to have a bird that talks, it’s never been high on the list of priorities where mine are concerned.   I am greeted when I get home with an array of “Hi”s and “How Ya Doing”s just enough to make me know I’ve been missed and that’s good enough for me.

However, it seems important to Libby, my adventuresome quaker, that she speak to me in my language, so I encourage it.  She is my breakfast making companion lately.  She sits on my shoulder while I am chopping up their morning meal and chats non-stop in between bites of carrot (which I get to pick out of my hair before I leave for work.)  She mimics everything: the sound of the chopping, the sound of the water running, and is unnervingly accurate at the sound of me swallowing my morning coffee.  She also imitates every vocalization made by the other birds, including the cockatiels’ demanding call that it’s their turn to come out and play, and the cockatoo’s charming sun-down show-down.

My daughter had taught Libby to say “Hello, Little Baby” some time ago.  So when I come home, I will say “Hi, Libby Lu!” and she will respond with: “Hello, Little Baby!” (that’s me).  It makes my heart flutter. It’s become something of a ritual.

I came home from work one day last week and said “Hi, Libby Lu!” as usual, and Libby came back with:  “Hello, Bagel!”  Surprised, I walked up to the cage and said:  “Hello BAGEL??!  Who you callin’ BAGEL??  Oh, I don’t think so…I am NOT answering to BAGEL!”

That’s all it took.  I made the word BAGEL so fun that night that I am now known as Bagel, and it doesn’t give me that same fluffy feeling.  It doesn’t take a genius to see where I blew it.  Many of the mistakes we make with our birds are unintentional, but that doesn’t lessen the results.  I know that over a period of time I can extinguish the word “bagel” simply by not responding to it, since birds don’t hang onto behaviors that have no benefit, but I may have to re-teach the use of “Little Baby”.

In this circumstance, the mistake I made is not a big deal, life will go on even without our cute greeting.  But consider if the wrong message had been sent in a situation where biting was an issue.  If your bird has the habit of lunging at you and you respond in such a way that the bird saw his actions as effective, or even just fun, it is a much longer road home to the cure.

It takes only ONE TIME to throw everything you have worked towards with your bird out of whack.  That first time, your bird is thinking about his future actions:  “Well, that worked.  This biting thing may have possibilities.”  The second mistake will etch it in stone:  “Okay, it has worked twice now.  This is how I will handle things from here on on out.”

I think it’s important that we share the mistakes we make in handling our birds, as innocent as they might be, so that we can all learn from them.

Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.

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