Straight Talk about Parrot Behavior*
S.G. Friedman, Ph.D
Dept. of Psychology
Originally Presented at the StopPDD Conference, Nov 2004
Have you ever heard the expression, “It’s like herdin’ cats”?
That describes some of the best days working on our internet list, Parrot
You may be thinking, “A science of behavior? Gee, isn’t
anything left to common sense anymore?”
Unfortunately, the subject of companion parrot behavior has been left to
so-called common sense too long and it has proven to be far more common then
sensible. Common sense is often little more than a social record of folk
wisdom, clichés and homilies about behavior. Common sense maintains the status
quo so we continue to do what we know best rather than seeking out the best we
can do. Our widespread acceptance of common sense
Common sense tends to be inconsistent as a source of knowledge because, by definition, it is not grounded in scientific methods that aim for congruence of facts and theories. The scientific method is not a single set of rules; rather it is defined by three general principles, all of them essential to our quest to understand, predict and influence parrot behavior for successful companionship in our home. First, science employs methods of systematic observation of measurable phenomena. The current understanding of parrot behavior is plagued with vaguely defined labels and immeasurable concepts called hypothetical constructs, discussed further below. Second, science aims to produce publicly verifiable knowledge through replication and peer review. In the realm of parrot behavior, an “anything goes” attitude often prevails characterized by such statements as “Only you know what’s best for your parrot.” Too often disagreements about best practices are dismissed as merely political. This trivializes the urgent need for dialogue, education, and dissemination of replicable approaches. Third, science seeks explanations that are testable. Many of the assertions that characterize conventional wisdom about parrot behavior cannot be quantified and therefore cannot be tested. For example, do birds of a feather flock together or do opposites attract? Do we spare the rod and spoil the [parrot] or do we treat our parrots as we wish to be treated?
Recently, with parrot training curricula popping up like mushrooms on the internet, bad advice is just plain out of control. These ads are slick and the sellers convincing:
“TIRED OF THOSE PERNICIOUS PARROT PROBLEMS? For just $759.99 ($59.99 if you buy now) you too can learn to don a leather glove, drag your struggling parrot out of its cage, and hold on to its feet until it learns to love you! Bandages are included so you can wear your scars proudly like the real experts!”
After all, common sense tells us that to know parrots is to
be bitten by them. No? We need to snap out of it. Common sense is a myth. And myths cannot be given
the same status as scientific
Below are 5 common fallacies about behavior science and parrot behavior that we routinely discuss on the PBAS list as new people join us. In addressing these fallacies we provide people with straight talk about behavior. Our goal is to inspire parrot caregivers to look further and learn more about behavior science and living and learning with parrots. A reading list is provided at the end of this presentation to get you on your way. It’s really not a very steep climb. It’s just that for most of us, it’s braving new terrain. But, that’s what makes it exciting!
Many people think that behavior
science is solely a laboratory science or that the principles of behavior first
discovered in laboratories only apply to rats and pigeons. On the contrary, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
is the real world branch of experimental behavior analysis and over the last 60
years it has achieved a wide sphere of influence where all sorts of behavior
solutions are needed. Below is a partial
list of fields in which
§ clinical psychology
§ self-injurious behavior
§ developmental disabilities
§ infant assessment
§ organizational performance management
§ training and instructional design
§ behavioral safety
§ the experimental analysis of behavior (basic research)
§ brain injuries
§ human operant research
§ animal and pet training
§ verbal behavior
§ behavior pharmacology, drug self-administration and drug discrimination
§ behavior toxicology
§ behavioral medicine
§ computer modeling of behavior and artificially intelligent agents
§ decision support systems
§ human factors and user interface design
The relevance of behavior science to improving the lives of humans and other animals is no longer reasonably questioned. To learn more about it, see www.behavior.org. At this site there is a comprehensive tutorial, an excellent glossary, and a treasure trove of interesting articles.
The old model that pits nature against nurture is now being replaced with a new understanding best characterized as nature via nurture. In other words, nature and nurture are inextricably entwined. This new view is largely the result of recent findings that learning, defined as behavior change due to experience, involves gene activation. In reciprocal fashion, experience activates genes, which produces proteins that change the neural circuits in the brain and alter the way in which an individual behaves. At every step of the way, the environment is involved.
Innate behavior is automatic, it is behavior performed without prior experience. Innate behaviors include simple reflexes (e.g. eye blink) and flexible action patterns (e.g. bathing) common to all members of a species. There are also genetic lines within each species that increase the occurrence of very general behavioral tendencies (e.g. shyness). Still, none of these forms of innate behavior are unaffected by experience. For example, the first time someone unexpectedly drops a heavy book most of us automatically startle but by the fourth or fifth time the book is dropped, neither we, nor our parrots, bat an eye. This process is known as habituation.
Too often, people evoke the hardwired explanation as an excuse for their own lack of knowledge about behavior and lack of teaching skills. They draw sweeping conclusions about all parrots based solely on personal experience with a very limited number of birds, for example, amazons are innately afraid of the color red; cockatoos innately scream at dawn and dusk; and severe macaws are innately aggressive. Of course the implication of the supposed innateness of these behaviors is that there is something inside the bird’s brain that can’t be changed. The critical thinker asks, “If these behaviors are hardwired why is it that all companion amazons, cockatoos and severe macaws do not behave this way?” and, “In what way does the environment account for these observations and maintain these behaviors?”
In psychology, terms like dominant, aggressive, and shy are a mix of vague, ambiguous labels and hypothetical constructs. A hypothetical construct is an inferred mental process used to explain the underlying cause of behavior. By definition constructs are not tangible entities and are best understood as place holders for a time when science reveals more about the way in which our internal and external environments interact with the body’s physiological systems to produce behavior. People say parrots bite because they have an innate need to dominate us; however we know that the environment is involved in all facets of what we do. In fact, the only evidence that a dominance drive is the underlying mental process that explains biting is the observable behavior itself. There is no direct measure of dominance drive because it doesn’t exist as an entity – it’s an idea. Something that doesn’t have a tangible form can’t cause behavior. To think so is simply unscientific thinking.
From a behavior-change perspective, the most relevant cause of present behavior is past consequences. Here are some examples of how we can use that fact to better understand, predict and change behavior:
Antecedent: Grace offers her hand to Peri;
Behavior: Peri steps up;
Consequence: Grace puts Peri in his cage.
Antecedent: Grace’s offers her hand to Peri;
Behavior: Peri bites Grace;
Consequence: Grace leaves Peri on top of his cage.
Can you predict Peri’s future behavior from the first analysis? Is he likely to step up more or less in the future, given the consequence Grace provides? How about the second example: Is Peri more or less likely to bite, given the consequence Grace provides? Which explanation for behavior is more useful for changing Peri’s biting, a dominant mind or past consequences?
A final point: People who use vague
labels and hypothetical constructs to describe parrots are producing a
To the extent that we remove ourselves from describing observable, measurable behaviors, we reduce our ability to understand, predict and change behavior. So, next time you hear someone describe what their parrot is or has, ask `em what their parrot DOES.
To investigate animals’ cognitive ability, Irene Pepperberg studied the learning behavior of Alex, an African grey parrot. Of course one of the uniquely intriguing characteristics of parrots for this type of research is that many parrots talk. Over 20 years of intensive training, representing tens of thousands of instructional hours, Alex learned to discriminate 50 object labels; 5 shapes; 7 colors; 4 materials; quantities up to 6, and the concepts same/different and bigger/smaller. For people who thought these skills could only be mastered by humans, or at best great apes, it is a stunning demonstration of animal learning. As described by Pepperberg, “It is incredibly fascinating to have creatures so evolutionarily separate from humans performing simple forms of the same types of complex cognitive tasks as do young children.” (see http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge126.html).
Even for those of us who hail ourselves as having suspected as much all along, the scientific control of this demonstration allowed us to replace our own fallible common sense with facts. However, these data also bring to light another important issue for companion parrot caregivers that strikes at the heart of our greatest dilemma: Can we meet parrots’ behavioral needs in our living rooms? On the one hand, the comparison to children makes a striking point: Parrots are not like potted plants that thrive on only water, sunshine and rich soil. They are not décor to accent the subtle hues of our throw pillows. They are intelligent thinking, emoting, and doing creatures that are built to behave not to be still.
On the other hand, it is reasonable to suspect that other species of animals can learn similarly stunning discriminations given the same intensive learning opportunity. In fact, I can’t even imagine what a human would learn over 20 years of individualized daily instruction. Thus, the real message transcends the comparison of parrots to children. It is not an issue of so-called intellectual capacity, lest we replace one kind of speciesism for another. By this I mean, don’t all animals in our care deserve to live stimulating lives, rich with variation, activity, and problems to solve? Or is this standard of living for only those species that learn simple forms of the same types of complex cognitive tasks performed by young children?
another consideration, as well. In what way does the frequently exaggerated
interpretation that parrots are like 3-5 year old children actually hurt
parrots? How many parrots are
relinquished because they didn’t meet people’s expectations as feather kids, (e.g.,
did not follow directions or displayed aggression to strangers)? For your
The take-home message is that parrots are not kids and kids are not parrots. As eloquently stated by Marion Breland Bailey, "Every animal is the smartest for the ecological niche in which it lives - if it were not, it would not be there." Few of us take the time to learn about parrots’ unique characteristics which are often very different than humans and vital to understanding, predicting and influencing their behavior. Parrots hear, see, digest and even breathe differently than we do. And of course, kids can’t fly. In what ways do we fail to meet parrots’ needs because we tend to admire them most when they reflect to us our own image?
I have to admit to scratching my head upon first reading this particular fallacy in light of parrots’ obvious learning abilities. It is really a double fallacy as both clauses are demonstrably incorrect. Punishment does work with parrots, as it does with all species of learners; and, parrots do understand cause and effect as measured by the behaviors they display. There are many compelling reasons not to use punishment to reduce parrots’ problem behaviors but their lack of understanding the relationship between cause and effect is not one of them.
Perhaps this confusion stems from
a misunderstanding of the most fundamental principle of behavior, called the
Law of Effect. This law has its distant roots
in observations made by Aristotle but it was first scientifically described by
the scientist E.L. Thorndike at the turn of the century. Since that time, the
Law of Effect has been demonstrated with hundreds of different species of
animals. Simply, this law states that behavior is a function of its consequences.
In other words, the frequency of a response is changed by the consequences that
follow that response. We apply the Law
of Effect with two basic procedures – re
These are scientific terms with
precise meaning. Although people often think of re
Two of the most important characteristics of effectively delivered consequences are 1) contingency, i.e., the dependency or relationship between the behavior and the consequence, and 2) contiguity, i.e., the closeness or timing with which the consequence follows the behavior. When a consequence is delivered inconsistently, it is hard for the learner to associate the two events. If the consequence is delivered too far in time after the behavior, this lack of immediacy decreases the effectiveness of the consequence as well. Perhaps it is inconsistent delivery and poor contiguity that accounts for the fallacy that punishment doesn’t work with parrots. Parrots clearly understand cause and effect as they navigate hundreds of behavioral choices daily based on experience from which they predict outcomes. Parrots go to food bowls because doing so causes the effect of access to food; parrots step onto human hands because doing so causes the effect of being removed from their cages; and parrots scream because doing so causes the effect of favorite people appearing.
There are scientific reasons why punishment is the least preferred behavior-change strategy and should be used as rarely as possible. More than 40 years of study have shown that frequent punishment increases the probability of four side effects detrimental to the quality of life of all animals. These side effects include aggression, apathy, generalized fear, and escape/avoidance behaviors. Unfortunately, these side effects are commonly seen among captive parrots. This should lead us to wonder if this is the fallout associated with inadvertent punishment living among humans, from the parrot’s point of view.
Fortunately, there are positive re
A less positive, more intrusive
strategy (and therefore less desirable than differential re
Improving your skills as critical
consumers of behavior
It is hard to resist jumping from facts to stories, i.e., our personal interpretations of the facts. Many of us have a tendency to fall in love with our own explanations too quickly. These are two reasons why scientific thinking is so important. Scientific thinking increases our ability to sort out the wheat from the chaff that collects around the subject of parrot behavior. Perhaps the three most important skills of scientific thinking are 1) stick with behavioral explanations that can be observed and measured; 2) consider alternative explanations for what you observe that are based on the interaction between behavior and the environment; and 3) ask anyone making assertions about parrots, “How do you know that?” Be assured that confident experts are impressed by people who ask this question and they are happy to respond. Adding just these three skills to your parrot caregiving toolbox will greatly improve your ability to provide well for your bird. To acquire more teaching tools, read some of the books suggested below. As you will quickly learn, the fundamental principles of learning and behavior apply to all species of learners. As such, no behavior toolbox is complete without the tools of behavior science.
Alphabetical List of Suggested
1. Animal Training: Successful Animal
Management through Positive Re
2. Clicking With Birds: A Beginners Guide to Clicker Training Your Companion Parrot by Linda Morrow (available at http://www.avi-train.com/manual.html).
3. Clicker Training with Birds, by Melinda Johnson.
4. Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson
5. Do Animals Think?, by Clive D. L. Wynn
6. Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training (revised edition), by Karen Pryor.
7. First Course in Applied Behavior Analysis,
8. For the Love of Greys, by Bobbi Brinker (available at www.thegabrielfoundation.org)
9. Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavioral Problems in Companion Parrots! by Barbara Heidenreich.
10. How Dogs Learn, by Mary Burch, Ph.D. & Jon S. Bailey, Ph.D.
11. The Power of
*I want to thank all the participants of the Parrot BAS internet list, who inspired this article, for their fine teaching and learning.