Friday, April 17, 2009

Flight or Bite?

An aversive is something a bird will work to avoid. An example of something aversive (to most humans) is a seat belt buzzer. We want to make it stop, therefore we have learned to buckle our seat belts. Sometimes, even before it starts buzzing! If the buzzer causes us to increase the frequency of buckling, then our behavior has been modified through negative reinforcement.

While a bird's body language is rich and complex, they have two general responses to aversive stimuli:
                • Flight
                • Bite
If a bird is able to flee, it will usually choose this option first. Birds are prey animals, so it is a natural instinct to escape.

Let's pretend my bird is fearful of me/my hands. When I start to approach the bird, it moves to a different perch, retreats to a corner of the cage, begins thrashing or flies away. These are all attempts to communicate with me.

I can respond to this body language in one of two ways:
  • Stop in my tracks; back up.
  • Continue moving toward the bird.
If I understand what the body language means, and I choose to stop, back up and put more distance between myself and the bird, an important event takes place. The bird begins to learn that I understood; communication is sent and received. The bird has been rewarded (empowered) for communicating with me. The communication worked; my behavior changed.

Now armed with the knowledge of the boundaries of this particular bird's comfort level, I can work to increase the level of trust. On another try, I may get several steps closer before I see that body language and respond by backing off. By understanding, respecting and responding to that bird's body language, I've made great strides in forming a relationship.

If instead, my response is to pursue the bird and interaction, this will usually result in an escalation of body language. Much the same as when I yell to the family that dinner is ready and I get no response. I will escalate by yelling louder. If I still get no response, I may walk up to someone and poke them!

So initially, we may observe the more subtle body language:

  • Leaning away
  • Moving away
  • Flying away
There are others of course. Some birds may even growl or scream.

If a bird's more subtle body language is consistently missed, it may then begin interactions using escalated body language:
  • Lunging
  • Biting
This is what many of us do with telemarketers. Often we have had so many experiences with them refusing to take no for an answer, or not responding to requests for the phone call to end, we often begin the conversation by ending it. Our starting point is already escalated because of our prior experience.

Similarly, a bird that has experienced its subtle body language being ineffective, may start the conversation with escalated body language.

We can ask: if we took the time to speak to one telemarketer, and that one telemarketer did end the conversation upon our request, and it was a positive experience, would we suddenly start to give all telemarketers the benefit of the doubt and no longer hang up on them? Probably not. Our vast experience with many telemarketers would not easily be changed by one (isolated) positive experience. It would take many telemarketers responding to us in a desirable fashion to convince us to stop hanging up on them. It would take much to build or rebuild lost trust.

As we continue to learn, and respond effectively, to our bird's body language, the relationship thrives. Amazing benefits are reaped as we increase the number of positive experiences with our bird, and our ability to understand the birdie body language. Once thought elusive, progress is made, and our relationship with our bird blossoms.



Jim said...

This is a great post, Robin. Understanding my birds' (two macaws) body language and respecting them has been key to a trusting companionship.

You have a very nice blog with lots of great information. Good stuff! Looking forward to more.

Robin said...

Thanks, Jim! I bet those two macaws keep your skills at reading body language quite polished!

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