Thursday, July 1, 2010

Signal Degradation

Quite some time ago, Coco learned that raising her foot resulted in her receiving a treat. This has been used to signal that she wants something I have. It could be a treat, it could mean she wants to come to see me (to step up), or it could mean she wants my jewelry! When I see her foot up, I know she is telling me that she wants something that I have or can bring her. This is usually accompanied by leaning toward me.

A few days ago I was giving her treats, cleaning her area, and interacting as usual. She was next to me on her main pole, and I turned slightly sideways to put one of her treats into her secondary house. While I was not paying attention to her, she leaned toward me, placed her beak on my hand, and applied and uncomfortable amount of pressure leaving a temporary indentation.

Hmmm.... what could have possibly caused this?

Had I only considered a cursory view of the situation, I might have said, "oh my goodness - my bird 'bit' me! Why the sudden change??!"

First, this was not a bite, but an attempt to communicate with me in a way that I found inappropriate. She could have done much more than simply apply uncomfortable pressure.

A bird chooses how much pressure to apply. The same beak used to peel the skin off a Spanish peanut can be used to break the hard shell of a nut open or splinter wood.

Time to consider some theories as to what might be going on.

First, I know that her lifting a foot is a signal to me, and it usually results in her getting what she wants. But sometimes it doesn't - - for example, my jewelry. She may signal she wants it, and lean toward it, and put her foot up again, but the jewelry does not become hers.

It is possible that as I had turned my side to place food in her hut, she did in fact signal me and I did not see it. She could have done this several times without my noticing. If so, that signal did not achieve the desired result, and it is feasible she chose to up the ante.

It is also possible that the cue itself has degraded. There are, of course, many times when I give her a treat simply for the giving - she does not need to ask for it. At this particular time, I was giving her treats because she was pretty and because she is Coco, not in exchange for performing a behavior.

I can only surmise what may have caused her to choose to apply some pressure to get my attention to receive a treat. More important - what steps will I take to address this new, surprise behavior?

First, I have returned to working on the foot raising cue. We have had several sessions of receiving a treat for raising the foot, putting her head down for a scritch, or shaking hands.

Second, I am chaining these responses together. For example, she may receive a treat sometimes for raising her foot. At other times, she will need to raise the foot and shake hands before receiving the treat. And so forth.

After several of these standard interactions, I again assumed the position I had been in the other day with my side to her and reaching in to place a treat in her house. (This time, I was watching her carefully!) Twice she leaned with her beak toward my hand in what I felt could have been an indication of an intent to apply pressure. Each time, I responded by taking a step away from her, pausing, and then asking her for a wave (indicating for her to raise her foot if she wanted a treat).

After these two back-to-back instances of leaning toward my hand, and then resuming requesting a behavior(s) for a treat, several more sessions have resulted in no leaning toward my hand. This evening's session, I spent nearly the entire time with my side toward her, and hand well within her leaning distance, and each time she lifted her foot when she had finished a seed and was ready for the next to be dispensed. Up went the foot!

Frequently I read "my bird suddenly bit me, and nothing changed!" The companion is flustered and flabbergasted about the bird's sudden change of behavior, or new behavior, and the whole thing is a huge mystery. First, we must understand that something did change. No two interactions or training sessions are identical, as we and our birds bring something new (if only our attitude and being) to each session.

Additionally, we understand that all behavior has function. Behaviors that result in the receipt of desirable rewards will be repeated. Those that do not result in desirable rewards will not be repeated.


My best analysis would be that I had let the foot up cue degrade. In addition to communicating she wants something I have by lifting her foot, she also has learned that mimicking speech gets my attention. I will now add a third option for her to communicate with me. I will be working in the upcoming weeks to chain a foot-lift, followed by a word, and then in time followed by moving to a perch slightly farther from me in order to receive the treat.

She is a quick learner, so I do not expect it will take much time for her to learn that if she moves to the next perch over, she will receive the treat. In addition to giving her another option to communicate with me, it will also reduce the likelihood that she will contemplate applying pressure to my hand, since she will be one perch back. Most important, I want to provide another layer of opportunities for her to communicate her desires to me - leading to further empowerment.



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1 comment:

Arlene said...

I would have thought she was just trying to get your attention figuring that you didn't notice her.
Sort of when my budgies tap each other or gently pull the others wing to get their attention.

I think all our birds from the biggest to the tiniest can use a freshen-up course in communication now and then.
I know mine sure need it.
Great article Robin. Thanks.

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