Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

i-7324360a2edc0b97abfd5c9e7568db45-grad student parrot.jpg Rebecca O’Connor, graduate student at the University of California- Riverside, knows why parrots screech and bite and it has a lot more to do with human behavior than the bird’s. She’s written a book incorporating animal-training techniques, detailing how to improve the manners of an ill-mannered bird by rewarding good behavior while keeping a handle on your own emotions.

Part of an emerging group of behaviorists who reject old ideas of punishing and dominating birds, O’Connor is gaining national attention with her book, “A Parrot for Life: Raising and Training the Perfect Parrot Companion,” which was published in February 2007 by TFH Publications and has gone into a second printing. The book recently was picked up by national pet supply chains PetSmart and PETCO.

From my own experience, birds don’t know the difference between positive and negative attention. With Pepper (my African Grey) he gets just as much amusement from watching me laugh at his antics as from yelling about them. Loud, emotionally-laden speech and drama might seem salient to a bird, and the bird might imprint that to get you to do X all it has to do is throw all its food on the floor or give you a nip. Obviously its hard not to react or be frustrated, but its a better idea to just ignore behavior you don’t want to see ever again. You are your bird’s best friend, and attention from you is likely the best reward and motivating tactic.

I lucked out, somehow I managed to raise an extremely well-behaved parrot (how, well I dunno). He may not let me sleep in too late on weekends and about 50% of his food ends up on my bedroom floor, but I still wouldn’t trade him for anything.

Rebecca’s website

Comments

  1. #1 DV82XL
    August 2, 2007

    Hi Shelley,

    “…about 50% of his food ends up on my bedroom floor,…”

    A quick fix for this that I used to good effect.

    Measure the amount of food you give the bird, then measure the amount that is tossed. Then reduce the next feeding accordingly.

    Two of my birds for some reason seem to like to keep their food dish clean. Anything that I put in there will be removed. I did this experiment with Popsicle sticks (a great treat) and they too were sent to the bottom.

    Now I give them a measured scoop of pellets, and remove all fresh food when they stop feeding on it.

    DV8

  2. #2 Rebecca K. O'Connor
    August 2, 2007

    Shelley, Don’t listen to that author. I hear her African grey is the worst trained parrot ever.

    DV8 — That’s great advice! But if there weren’t enough parrot pellets to throw on the floor, what would my dog eat?

  3. #3 Drugmonkey
    August 2, 2007

    “Part of an emerging group of behaviorists who reject old ideas of punishing and dominating birds”

    really, please elaborate. who punishes and dominates birds? what fraction of owners? who is advocating this technique and how do you do this?

    this sounds like some bs straw argument to me. kinda like the people who critique behaviorism / experimental psych because “they use negative reinforcement”, thus demonstrating both ignorance of what neg reinforcement means and ignorance of what the field has demonstrated a looooooong time ago…

  4. #4 rebecca
    August 2, 2007

    For the record, I didn’t write the press release, the university press folks did. –that sort of stuff will always get you in trouble.

    And I don’t want to start a big flaming discussion on Shelley’s blog. So if this gets out of hand, perhaps we should go off her blog with it.

    Please look to Dr. Susan Friedman’s writings and Barbara Heidenriech’s work. I don’t claim to have a degree in psychology like Susan or the amount of experience that Barbara has, but all three of us have been lecturing and consulting to the general parrot public for some time. We advocate applied behavior analysis and of course, operant conditioning. Go back and read any general parrot book before 2000 and you’re likely to see little of this type of science-based information. Most of the training ideas prior are based on anecdotal common wisdom instead of in situ scientific observations and psychology basics. (Such as the idea of height dominanace which makes zero sense when looked at in the field)

    In the last ten years, I cannot begin to tell you how many people have told me that when their parrot bites they flick it on the beak, shake the cage, squirt it with water. That when it doesn’t want to step up you must make it step up. That you should not let a parrot be the one in control. (ie dominating it) No one is saying that people are beating their birds. (Although if we must go there, some do. I know this too from working the last few years fostering rescue parrots. -but I like to hope those people aren’t the norm) Currently though there is a movement in the pet parrot world to use science and psychology basics to reduce undesirable behavior in pet birds. (mainly so that we can help keep them in people’s homes and out of rescues — not to stop abuse per se)

    I train other animals too. Negative reinforcement and positive punishment do in fact work in some situations. Not so well with birds though. A flick on the beak will only encourage more biting. Beyond that, an animal will only work to the level necessary to avoid punishment. Use positive reinforcement and an animals will find inventive ways to seek the reward. It’s just common sense psychology, but trust me, for some reason the populace is better at applying it to dogs and horses than birds for some reason.

    I can’t quantify the amount of parrot owners who don’t use ABA and R+. I can tell you that there are 6.5 million households in the US that have birds and that most of those who approach me don’t. (maybe 10,000 over 12 years of doing bird shows, consults, lectures etc) It’s a poor excuse for a subset, but it’s all I can give you.

    so…torch my straw argument now if you will. :-)

  5. #5 Shelley
    August 2, 2007

    Thanks for stopping by, Rebecca. Don’t take it too personally, we just have a lot of skeptics ’round these parts (which is a good thing).

    Where I bought parrot food a while back, a lady used to work there who handled the “display parrots” that sat in the store. She was in the beak flick-water spray behavioral camp and swore by it. The parrots were pretty quiet when she came around but agressive with customers and each other. Learning to live with a parrot isn’t intuitive, and those who don’t make the effort to find out how to handle them might end up with an unruly bird.

  6. #6 rebecca
    August 2, 2007

    Are you kidding? That was a tame dismissal of my “work” compared to the groups I usually address. LOL And I wish everyone would demand substantiation of facts rather than accepting anyone who gets into print blindly. I welcome that sort of myth-busting thinking.

    And you’re spot on about living with a parrot not being intuitive. It could be argued that living with a cat or dog is intuitive because they have been domesticated for tens (or hundreds) of thousands of years. We’ve surely chosen to breed for characteristics that allow easy interpretation of behavior if not evolved together is some way. There’s got to be some sort of symbiosis there. Parrots though…not so much. Most of our “pet” parrots (with the exception of budgies and cockatiels) are F3 or F4 at best.

    But aren’t they a wonderful wild enigma to crack? I’m sure you and I could swaps hours of amazing grey stories.

    And thank you for posting on me. You come up often in my “parrot behavior” Google Alerts. So I stop in from time to time. I just never expected to see my own name!

  7. #7 Ole Blue
    August 3, 2007

    I feel any animal is like a perpetual one or two year old. But if you treat them nice they may be improperly behaved at times but they will all ways bring you joy.

  8. #8 Drugmonkey
    August 10, 2007

    rebecca, totally understood with the press office thing. but keep in mind that people in or trained under the behaviorist tradition experience a lot of “gee whiz look at this new way I train my animal” books and theories. and then see authors promote them by, among other things, bashing a cartoon version of behaviorism and a straw-man version of how “most” people train their animals.

    my point is this. positive reinforcement, especially the appetitive sort (yes combined with food restriction), dates back to the first domestication of animals. many people have an intuitive feel for it and apply it to their pet ownership behavior. admittedly, many people need help in the area of consistency, counter-control, extinguishing unwanted behavior and other things. but everytime someone trumpets “positive reinforcement” training as if it is some brand new bagel slicer it puts my teeth on edge.

    with that said, thanks for the points on beak flicking and water spraying as the examples you are trying to counter. i learned something there which was, of course, the goal of the question :-)

  9. #9 rebecca
    August 11, 2007

    DM- Although I appreciate the existance of pushbutton topics (I surely have a few of my own.) I find myself shaking my head and waggling a finger at you once again. I do wish you would have either read my book before you responded or at the very least examined my website.

    I’m a falconer. I have been thirteen years. I am full aware of the fact that my “appetitive reinforcement” technique lies on the back of 3,000 years worth of training legacy. (prob. more for domestics) I just wish that the majority of parrot owners lived in the same timeline. If they did, they might be training their parrots the same way I train my parrots, which is, in fact, the same way I train my falcons. You learn much more quickly from training mistakes that involve your bird heading for the horizon.

    I don’t claim a new technique. I claim to use modern psych and animal behavior understanding. Which is something for some odd reason that the average parrot owner does not do. As far as I can see, there is no place in the press release that claims I have something new to offer. In fact, it only comments on the anachronistic views of the common parrot owner. Nor did it claim that I was a single enlightened being. I think it said that I was part of an emerging group.

    But I thank you for prepping me to address the inevitable even though the science crowd is definitely not my focus. That’s preaching to the choir. I’m trying to get Mr. and Mrs. “I bought a parrot cuz its purty” to listen to me. Of course, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have something intelligent to say to the likes of someone such as yourself. There’s always at least one of you in a crowd. All knee jerk, no homework.

    That all sounds angry, but I would totally be buying you a beer right now. –R