To reinforce a parrot’s behavior means to respond to something they do in a way that makes it beneficial enough for your parrot that it will be repeated. We do want to reinforce behaviors that we are training and we do so by offering treats for a job well done. But it is very easy to inadvertently reinforce behaviors that we don’t want such as biting or screaming. We have all been guilty of this at some time during our journey with our parrots.
You will often hear “ignore screaming and reward quiet” when it comes to stopping screaming behaviors. But when you do this the wrong way you can easily reinforce their behavior – I know a lot of people struggle to understand what is and what isn’t reinforcing. I want to share an experience I had recently that I think will be helpful because it points out how my actions might have resulted in reinforcing screaming:
Linus is a good sleeper. He doesn’t make noise at night unless something loud wakes him up. Usually, it just takes him hearing my voice telling him to go back to sleep to quiet him. However, when Linus is hormonal, he doesn’t sleep well and I can count on at least a couple of nights a year where he wakes up and starts calling for me. Typically, it isn’t loud and I can get him back to sleep by acknowledging his calls and telling him to “go to bed”.
But this time it was different. I could hear him wandering around his cage in the dark and then he started yelling loudly and persistently. It was nearly 2am and I needed to get him quiet FAST.
I went out to his cage to try to calm him down – he was very stressed (hormones do that to him) and I calmed him down with my own calm energy and went back to bed. About 20 minutes later I could hear him wandering the cage again – a few minutes later the yelling started again. I reluctantly went back to the cage to quiet him. I have now gone running to him twice after he started yelling. Two times already he has gotten my attention by screaming for me. A third time might be all he needs for this to become a habit.
After I quieted him for the second time, I laid awake trying to figure out how to handle the next screaming bout I felt sure was going to happen. I couldn’t ignore the screaming in the middle of the night but I couldn’t run to him a third time either.
So I waited until I heard him rummaging around his cage again (knowing this preceded the screaming) and I went into his room at that point and spent time trying to get him fully calm before I returned to bed. By going to him BEFORE he screamed, I was able to keep him quiet without responding to his screaming and reinforcing that behavior.
Because Linus never got around to screaming again he was not as worked up this third time I went to him and he was much more relaxed and receptive to matching my energy level. He was finally quiet for the rest of the night following this visit.
There are many things that will reinforce a behavior for a bird. Laughing at the wrong time, or over-reaction to something on our part will do it – birds find the strangest things entertaining. That is reason enough to repeat a behavior. This is especially true of young or new birds where everything you do is being closely monitored.
If you have been careful with your own behaviors with your bird for a period of time (i.e. NOT running to them when they scream) they are less likely to be reinforced by a single misaction on your part because they already know that your response isn’t the norm.
However, even the best training can go south if you aren’t consistent. If something unusual happens once, it is an anomaly. Twice, it might be a coincidence. Three time suggests a pattern, though, and your bird is smart enough to understand this and use it to his benefit.
YOUR actions will inspire your bird’s behaviors. Think before you react.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.