Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Great Coffee Cup Fiasco

Over my 13 years with Coco, I have made a whole host of 'mistakes'. Living with a bird, in a relationship, is an ongoing and ever-growing process.

It is important for me to remember that I have and will continue to miss things. There is a benefit in relaxing and embracing the learning process that each day brings. It is never dull!

One of the learning experiences has been the importance of considering how the repetitive actions of my day-to-day life may affect my birds. At times, these patterns can influence my birds' behavior in quite a dramatic fashion.

Thus, one of my mantras:
Our birds are always watching us, and always learning something from us.

One such example is when the repetitive actions of my morning routine inadvertently resulted in a situation that was aversive to Coco (something she worked to avoid). The detrimental side effects of such are aggression, escape/avoidance or learned helplessness.

The example below was a tremendous learning experience for me. Perhaps you will be able to relate; I can now look back upon it, and it makes complete sense to me. At the time however, I was quite oblivious, and therein exists the opportunity for growth.

I am a creature of habit.

The up side of this: my birds can observe these habits and patterns.
The down side of this: my birds can observe these habits and patterns!

Over time, I developed a distinct week-day pattern of being in the bird room in the morning for an hour or more prior to work. I began my day with my coffee, moving in and out of the bird room, reading, etc. Then: I would pick up the coffee cup, say goodbye and leave the room. The next time Coco saw me was many hours later when I returned home from work.

Part of my morning routine was sitting in my chair and drinking my coffee. Coco often joined me on the chair, in my lap or on my shoulder. As I went in and out of the bird room in the process of preparing for work, my coffee cup remained beside my chair. When Coco was with me on the chair, she was in close proximity to the coffee cup with no observable reaction. I drank from the cup; the coffee cup was neutral to her in that situation (neither a reinforcer nor a punisher).

One morning, a day which began seemingly like all the others, I followed my usual pattern of picking up my coffee cup, saying goodbye and leaving the room. As I approached the door, this time, Coco flew to me. She landed on the edge of the cup, hanging on the best she could, and proceeded to unleash a fury of aggression toward the coffee cup the likes of which I had never seen. And I, getting caught in the crossfire, received a strong nip on my hand during the incident that did not break the skin but left a significant bruise.

It was my analysis that Coco chose to work to avoid the aversive situation (my leaving the room for an extended period of time), by expressing extreme aggression toward the coffee cup. She had observed that while the coffee cup remained in the room, I continued to return to the room. To this day, the coffee cup remains neutral when I am sitting in my chair and drinking from it. But leaving the room with the coffee cup in hand presents a completely different situation.

It had never occurred to me to view my routine/repetitive actions from her perspective, or to consider the possible affects.

If, for example, I were to simply stop picking up the coffee cup when leaving the room, but instead picked up the remote control, turned on the radio, set it down and then left the room for the day, I predict it would not take long before she began viewing that action in the same respect as leaving with the coffee cup. I would then have two situations to address! So as I contemplated the steps I could take to turn things around, this was important to bear in mind.

My approach began with providing Coco a reinforcer upon every entry and exit of the room, and requesting a simple behavior such as a wave, a shake or moving to a certain perch. Over time, I provided the reinforcer on an intermittent, unscheduled basis. Especially in the morning, I entered and exited the bird room many more times than actually necessary.

This was where I began; there have been a variety of other steps I have taken to un-do the results of my actions.

The Great Coffee Cup Fiasco was a huge learning experience for me. In my relationships with the birds, especially Coco, I must remain aware that
the repetitive actions of my day-to-day life may affect my birds. Thus, I strive to consider them, the best I am able, through the lens of a bird's eye.

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