Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Coco Getting A Little Scritching and Doing a Little Talking!

Coco was in the mood, this evening, for both scritches and talking!


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Does Ignoring Really Work?

Oh boy... I've been seeing a lot of "just ignore it" advice going around lately. So I feel compelled to write about this topic again.
It usually goes something like this: "you don't want to reinforce the biting/screaming, so just ignore it when he does that. Then he will LEARN not to do it."

Learning is an interesting thing.

I learned not to sass my mom because one time when I did, she shoved a bar of soap down my throat. I learned alright - and quite fast I might add! However, learning is not the only thing to consider when effecting behavior change with our birds. We must also consider how the relationship may be/is affected by the method we choose.
Methods of achieving behavior change in order from least intrusive on the relationship to most intrusive:

Positive Reinforcement
Negative Punishment
Negative Reinforcement
Positive Punishment
If my bird bites me, and I squirt water in its face, it might quickly learn not to bite me. If I squirt the bird, and it bites less, behavior change was achieved by means of positive punishment. This is also the most intrusive method. So I might not want to choose that method first!
But we must remember that there are 4 methods. It does not mean that we always and only choose positive reinforcement. I think that is not realistic and in many situations there are good reasons for choosing something other than positive reinforcement. But it is realistic, and my responsibility, to understand what method of behavior change I am utilizing, and what affect it is having on my birds.

My mom only had to put soap in my mouth once. She probably knew that I would not be happy with her for doing it. But she only had to do it once. She made a choice on which method to use, for her own reasons. I think we should be doing the same with our birds - understanding not only the bird's behavior and response, but also our behavior. I want to clearly know how my choices affect the bird's behavior and my relationship with her.
Any attempt to change behavior must be analyzed in the context of whether it results in an increase or a decrease of a particular defined behavior. Behavior that increases has been reinforced. Behavior that decreases has been punished. So to say to someone "you must ignore your bird's screaming, so you do not reinforce it," is simply not a valid analysis or conclusion.

If we respond to a bird's screaming by leaving the room, whether the action of leaving the room is reinforcing can only be determined by analyzing the behavior to see if it increased, decreased or maintained. This is why it cannot be declared that 'ignoring' will not result in a behavior being reinforced. That cannot be determined until we examine the frequency of the target behavior after the ignoring has taken place.

How does this 'ignoring' advice that is so frequently suggested to be used on birds work on our fellow humans? Let's see...

I call my husband to dinner.
He 'ignores me' (doesn't hear me/chooses not to respond).
I get annoyed.
I yell his name louder.
He 'ignores me' (doesn't hear me/chooses not to respond).
With an even louder and obviously irritated tone of voice, I say:
"Dinner is READY!!!!"

He 'ignores me' (doesn't hear me/chooses not to respond).

Any ideas what I may do next?
Most likely, I will escalate my behavior.
In fact, I already have escalated my behavior vocally.
I may also have moved toward him as I was vocally escalating.

Next, I just might walk over to him, yank that stupid x-box controller out of his hand, use it to knock him over the head, smile at him and say, "As I was saying: DINNER IS READY, (sweet-thing)!!!"

Did this interaction improve my relationship and communication with my husband?! Hmmmmm......

We do not have to imagine how we feel when we are ignored. We have all experienced it. And if it works to 'teach us a lesson', we are not left with a warm fuzzy feeling inside. We might even feel manipulated or coerced. It doesn't leave us feeling calm and happy.

What is reinforcing to one bird may not be to another; what is reinforcing on one day may be punishing on another. When the advice to 'ignore' behavior is given, it is done so with the implied idea that the companion is looking for a way to decrease an undesirable behavior such as biting or screaming. If successful, my bird still has not learned what I would "prefer it to do" or what ways in which it may gain something it finds rewarding.
While it is important to teach a bird what not to do, it is equally (if not more) important to teach a bird what TO DO.
Let's say the bird starts screaming.

I walk away. I'm waiting for the bird to take a breath and stop screaming.
I wait, and wait and wait....
And, wait and wait....

People are often amazed at how long a bird can scream without seemingly taking a breath! Much longer than most people have the patience to ignore!
And then I wait, and wait some more as the screaming continues.
If there are other family members around, they might not be on board with our training methods when they cannot hear themselves think!

And then I wait, and wait some more as the screaming continues.

Finally, the bird takes a breath, is distracted by something, and stops screaming for a moment.

Finally, the golden moment I have waited for has arrived! I run into the room, and give the bird a treat and praise.
What have I just taught my bird?

Scream for 20 minutes, take a breath, and she shows up.

Tomorrow the bird will be prepared to scream for 21 minutes if need be, to gain the reward of the companion showing up with a treat.

With Coco, it is my goal to address 'screaming' when she is first starting to get geared up to go to the ball game. I can tell... as I am sure all of you can with your birds as well! I do check to be sure she has everything she needs, just as one would with a crying baby. Is the curtain open? Should it be closed? Radio on? Should it be off? Wrong music station? Food? Water? A snake on the deck? Having an understandable need for some time with me that I should not ignore?

Don't we do this with our children? Does anyone ever suggest that we ignore a crying baby so that they 'learn' that crying doesn't gain it anything? We try to address the situation and affect behavior change when the child is starting to get geared up... not after it has been screaming its lungs out for 30 minutes.

Behavior change is not about providing a recipe for what to do, in order of how to do it, and then voila... no more screaming/biting, etc. However, I will say this: I rarely respond to screaming by leaving the room. If she is gearing up, I usually go toward her and see if I can get her interested in something such as playing with me and some toys, or taking a walk around the house, or (fill in the blank). I try to address it before the screaming starts, not after..

As I am so fond of saying, "The only bite that cannot be inadvertently reinforced is the one that does not happen." The same is true with any behavior - including screaming. We are good at watching body language so that we can avoid a bite. The same can be applied to screaming. Watch the body language. It may be 'vocal' body language. It is with Coco. But she also displays body language such as standing tall or perhaps pacing when she is getting geared up. Through the benefit of a relationship with her, I learn what triggers her, what situations may cause her to gear up, what to avoid, what to change, how to redirect her attention, what signs she displays when she is feeling uncomfortable, and so forth. Then I have the ability to try to get her involved in an activity that she finds reinforcing, and situations where she has the chance to gain something rewarding!

A busy beak is a happy, quiet beak.

Want a treat, little girl?!


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Birds That Love Their Toys Too Much!

In my last post, Enrichment, there is a video of Coco playing in her box. You may have noticed that she seemed much more interested in her box than in helping me make a great video for the blog! She was almost too interested in her box to try the bean mix... almost!

So, what if I concluded that she 'ignored' me in lieu of playing with the box? That she was more interested in the box at that time than me! Should I take her box away so she will pay more attention to me? Should I be concerned that she seems to like the box a lot more than me??
You may see where this is going.....

We recognize that providing mental, physical, visual and auditory enrichment is an important part of our role as a good caregiver to our companion birds. Therefore, we rightfully spend a great deal of time, thought, effort and money on toys and other forms of enrichment.

However, after spending all this time, effort and money, when we finally find a toy that our bird really likes, how do we react?

  • Are we threatened that they are spending too much time with the toy and ignoring us?
  • Are we concerned that they will "bond" with the toy, and stop wanting to be around us?
  • Do we moan and groan because they spend a lot of time looking at the 'birdie in the mirror'?
Hey - isn't that why we got the toys to start with? So, they would play with them?!
It sure seems such a bizarre dichotomy... who thought there could ever be "a bird that loved their toys too much"?!

Perhaps the problem is not that they love their toys too much, but that we are concerned or convinced that they may "love us less", or not at all, if they are allowed to keep a toy they really enjoy.

Do we really think that the bird is confused into thinking that the plastic toy in the cage is a real bird despite it not moving, breathing, chirping, regurgitating, preening, eating or flying?!

We acknowledge that our birds have the intelligence of a child between the ages of 1 and 4 (depending on the species). If our toddler had a favorite rattle, doll or blanket, would we take it away for fear they were liking that toy 'just a little bit too much'?

Instead, we let them carry the dirty blanket around, and sneak it to the washer while they are sleeping. We encourage play, even independent play, and are thrilled when we find a toy that the child actually likes to play with (as opposed to the wrapping paper!). We love seeing them play by themselves or even with their little friends, and are not at all concerned that it will affect the 'bond' that we share with them. We recognize that we are not their entire life, although a big part of it, and it is important for them to have a well-rounded life and experiences. But this knowledge flies out the window (pardon the pun) when it comes to living with our birds.

Far too often we become threatened when they have a favorite toy. I will even read of people responding by removing the toy that "is coming between them" and the relationship with their bird.


Our relationships with our birds are such that they can be threatened by a plastic toy, perch, swing or favorite mirror?

Can the mirror give them rides around the house or millet treats? Can the swing whistle and sing funny songs with them? Is it necessary to deprive our birds of a toy they enjoy because we are concerned that it might become a threat to our relationship?

This is also often cited as the main reason not to allow a bird to have another bird friend. ... "oh - don't dare do that... the bird will really like the other bird and stop paying attention to you.!!!"

Well, if this were actually true, and it was what made the bird happy (spending time with one of its own species), then shouldn't we place the happiness of our bird ahead of our own desires and expectations?

The good news is that birds, like people, can enjoy a variety of relationships and activities, all without the companion feeling insecure or threatened that a toy may be coming between them and the bird, and making a decision to dump the toy. The budgie-boys do things with each other that I cannot do for them: preen, regurgitate to one another *yuck*, and have relay races. On the other hand, I provide them with activities, treats and rewards that they cannot gain from one another. There is room in their lives and in their hearts for both.

But to take away a favorite toy because I am concerned that they are 'liking it just a little too much'? Wow.... In other words, I am threatened by their enjoyment of the very toy I bought for the purpose of enjoyment and enrichment!

Before taking a toy away from your bird, consider this:

Is the toy being removed because it is in the bird's best interest to do so? Is the bird really loving the toy too much, or are we insecure and afraid that the toy may be "coming between" us and the bird? Food for thought!