Friday, March 18, 2011

So...How far have we come?

At the Parrots 2008 Convention I gave a presentation titled `Taking the Next Step: Perspectives on the Keeping of Parrots as Pets’. Pretty darn good presentation I thought. It was one of two presentations being given as concurrent sessions and a few punters stuck around to hear what it was all about. Either that or the other session just happened to lack the after lunch appeal of the worst timeslot of the day so they stayed put to ruminate and catch a few Z’s on the marginally better seating on offer in my room. Besides - why move when staying put means a shorter walk if you win something at the end of day raffle draws? If you ever get asked to do that post-cheap buffet lunch timeslot at a speaking convention do yourself a favour and make up some excuse as to why you can’t do it. It really is a killer. I’ve been stuck there a few times at aviculture conventions that I’ve presented at and I now feel I’ve paid my dues. I want to be upgraded to the post-jam scones and dry biscuits morning tea timeslot if I ever get asked again. At least at that time most of the delegates are looking at you with eyes like a possum caught in headlights thanks to the caffeine hit from the ubiquitous Caterer’s Blend International Roast on offer. Gives you the impression that they’re `into it’ even if they aren’t. Anyway, in that presentation I had a slide that used the question `How far have we come?’ in reference to our management of companion parrots. The slide featured a quote on parrot keeping from one of the early 20th century works on aviculture written by the Marquess of Tavistock, a British aviculturist who was undoubtedly ahead of his time. I have an original printing of his 1929 reference `Parrots and Parrot-like Birds in Aviculture’. It makes for a fascinating read when you consider that it was written almost 100 years ago – particularly when you read it in light of that simple question - `How far have we come?’ The answer, as I tried to give it during my presentation in 2008, is… probably not as far as we think we have. The following might serve as a 2011 example of how/why I think that’s still true.

About two or three times a year I find some time to check out various online parrot discussion forums to see what’s happening out there in the companion bird community – what’s topical, and what advice is being given for working on managing behaviour problems. I always assume that some quantum leaps will have been made concerning the way that both behaviour and the consequences being applied by parrot owners for their bird’s behaviour are being understood, and how the discussion community is approaching/supporting problem issues raised. There has definitely been some really uplifting integration of a lot of `positive reinforcement’ centered advice, thanks largely to the work of people such as Barbara Heidenreich. You can also come across some decent cracks at using behaviour science and operant conditioning terminology – no doubt as part of that wonderful cultural shift generated by the inspirational Dr. Susan Friedman. 

Unfortunately, there is also a lingering lack of progress in either department. That in itself doesn’t usually concern me. Usually the most offensive posts on chat boards come from the person who simply lacks the education and foundational understandings to begin with. Can’t blame them – usually. What does bother me is when posts that demonstrate a very clear lack of understanding about behaviour and how to best manage the behaviour of our parrots following a least intrusive, most positive hierarchy of strategies go unchecked by fellow forum members who are indeed reasonably well-educated and up-to-date with the latest information and teachings. I realize that for the sake of world peace, love, bed-ins etc that we’re all a little hesitant to start our own Middle Eastern conflict at `’. But sometimes ya really do shake your head at how some of the absolute crap that some people post is received and responded to. That brings me to the subject of this here Blog post. Here’s a little dialogue I came across from my most recent excursion into the land of such luminaries as `parrotluva78’, `ownedbyaparrot81’ and `IluvConures4eva’ (God I hate aliases. Just use your darn name people. Your parents thought it was a good one and besides, we all know you’ll only `luv’ conures until you become `ekkiegirl4eva’. Sheesh). For the following excerpts the bird name has been removed to protect the innocent parrot. Everything else appears as it was posted (I did fix some of the punctuation and grammar – couldn’t help it folks, teacher thing).

  • Post: `My parrot will NOT stop screaming!! He’s been doing it for the past 6 weeks!! We’ve squirted him, screamed at him, comforted him, loved him, gave him food, flicked his beak, said no, covered him up, put him outside, we've tried everything!!! He starts at 8am and doesn't stop till 8pm. I’m going to either throw him out the darn front door or sell the bastard!!!’

Reply: `Well for a start you have reinforced his bad behaviour by doing everything you said you did. When he screamed you did something. To you it was punishment, to him it was attention.

My suggestion would be to put ear plugs in for a while and make your whole family do it and maybe put him somewhere a little out of the way so everytime you come into sight it is not necessarily a reward to him. It might take a few weeks to curb this but honestly you have been reinforcing him without knowing it.

Also if you can ignore him and literally not go near him when he is screaming then when he is quiet you rush over and praise him and give him treats, really lavish him, but you must totally ignore him when he is screaming. If you can do this you will also find his screaming will probably get worse for a while, possibly a few weeks, because he is not getting the attention of you or someone coming to his cage to do something exciting to him. He will almost certainly scream more and louder because it is not working anymore. But really try hard to lavish praise and treats when he is quiet even for a few seconds to start off with. You need to start in small steps and being quiet for say 5 seconds might be your first step and then gradually lengthen the time. It can work but it is going to take some time and patience and it will take for everyone in your house to work together.

Another thing to think about... Has anything new happened, anything?? A new pet?? New furniture? New hair colour?? New nail colour?? Changed furniture around?? New toy/s in his cage?? Look back to when it started. Maybe there is a clue there as to what might have started it off.

But honestly squirting him or yelling at him, or covering his cage, or putting him outside all of these things is "someone coming to him and giving him some sort of attention". Even if to you it is punishment, to him it is attention and it is exciting and he "thinks" his screaming is working. Did that make sense at all???

Well… not to me it didn’t. Obviously the person who wrote the initial post could probably do with some quality time away in rehab if they think that screaming at, flicking, squirting, covering up and sending the bird outside are reasonable responses to an unwanted change in their bird’s behaviour – regardless of how annoying it might be. Actually, rehab’s probably a reasonable proposition for anyone who would type that initial post for everyone on the internet to get a bird’s eye view of their insanity. Sure is a weird world we live in. 

But how is this person supposed to learn just how potentially damaging those consequences for behaviour can be when the responses to such posts fail to properly explain the differences between reinforcement and punishment? Or the critical importance of the trust account between a parrot owner and their bird? Or how behaviour modification strategies with an antecedent arrangement focus are exponentially more effective than those that are too focused on consequences when it comes to our parrots? Or simply that being squirted, flicked, covered and yelled at is actually not the sort of attention a parrot is looking for at all! Can’t imagine I’d get too `excited’ about copping a flick or a squirt to the face every time I opened my mouth. Think I might actually end up pretty pissed off at the person delivering those little `punishers’. Whilst I’m sure the responder had every good intention – they really need to revisit `reinforcement vs punishment 101’. I'm kinda thinking that if I was that parrot that the `out the front door option' would be about the best one on offer. Says parrot to human... `Just make sure you shut it behind you when you crawl back inside won't ya!'

I won’t bother re-inventing the wheel here by going over all the alternative pathways that should be considered by someone dealing with an extreme noise issue with their bird. My advice on how discussion board users can better support one another in these situations was given in an older post (Feb 2010). This time around I really just want us all to reflect on how we can achieve better behaviour management outcomes with our birds when we put aside our culturally ingrained compulsion to solely consider the consequences for unwanted behaviour as our magic, quick-fix strategy and instead really empower ourselves with some reflection on careful antecedent arrangement for achieving alternative behaviour first. Hopefully if the discussion board junkies start chatting in those terms I’ll fell a little better about the answer to that question - `How far have we come?’