I get a lot of requests on topics in which to write. I consider each and everyone of them and give them a lot of thought. I had recently posted on my
Lara Joseph; Avian Behavior, Training, & Enrichment Facebook page a photo of Rocky, my almost 13 year old moluccan cockatoo on my shoulder. What is the big deal about this photo? The fact that Rocky is on my shoulder. Rocky is a re-home that came into my life almost five years ago. He came to me from a shelter with a plethora of behavior issues and was highly suggested to me that he be euthanized for his level and intensity of behavior issues. Five years ago when I began interacting with him I was not able to get him out of his cage without a bite or obvious signs of aggression. Through consistent training and use of applied behavior analysis and positive reinforcement training over the past five years, Rocky is many things including one of the most well-behaved birds in my house and has just, for the first time ever, perched on my shoulder.
I hear cockatoos (in addition to many other parrots) getting labeled with names such as psychotic, unpredictable, hormonal, out of control, and yes, even vicious. I also hear them labeled with names such as cuddly, loving, needy, velcro birds, and very trusting. I don’t want this to be an entry about cockatoos. My intention is to have this be an entry about behavior, the procedures taken in changing behavior, and the fall-out with using labels.
Labels are descriptions given to describe, in this instance, birds. The problem with labels is that they can cause a lot of harm to the bird and its future. If a bird is labeled psychotic, many times it will cause people to not interact with the bird. The way I was taught was to describe what the behaviors look like because once you describe what they look like, you can then work on identify what is causing them. The objects or events that cause the undesirable behaviors to maintain or increase are called reinforcers. Once you identify these, then work can begin on changing the behavior and when behavior is changed from undesirable to desirable, it helps keep the bird and the caretakers happy in living together with less chance of the bird losing its home. Labels almost cost Rocky his life.
Birds are not hatched with all of these behavior problems and labels. They learn these behaviors through experience and observation. When they know what actions they make get them the reactions that work in their interest, they most likely will try exhibiting those actions again in the future. Training is learning and communication and birds are knowingly or unknowingly trained to behave much in the way they do. Training is always happening the question is, what are we training?
The longer a bird has to learn and repeat or refine behaviors, desirable or not, this is called a history of reinforcement. When I first brought Rocky home almost five years ago, I could tell his screaming probably had a long history of reinforcement. Generally the longer a behavior has been reinforced, the longer it will take to change the behavior because the bird has had such a long history of having that behavior serving some value to him or her. With observation I could tell Rocky was screaming for attention and from how strong and persistent he was with his screaming, I could tell the screaming had a long history of reinforcement. By no means did nor does this mean this behavior can not be changed. Five years later, Rocky rarely screams. In the beginning he screamed for several hours a day. With consistency and efficient use of differential reinforcement, I was able to see progress in change within a few training sessions. This doesn’t mean the screaming ceased in a few days. It took quite a while be able to get through a day without a scream, but when we did, it was nothing short of awesome and very reinforcing for me to continue interacting with Rocky in changing this behavior. Each bird is its own individual just as the behavior exhibited. The amount of time it took me to begin to see change in Rocky’s screaming could be different from bird to bird and from caretaker to caretaker. The methods used can be the same.
I hear several people say “All of a sudden my bird started (insert behavior here)”. If this is a behavioral issue, more than likely the behavior has been reinforced for a while. When behaviors issues are undesirable and intense consistently is usually when awareness is usually emphasized. Often times the undesirable behavior issue was unknowingly reinforced once in a while for a long period of time before it has reached intensity to where someone or another animal gets hurt or the behavior is unbearable to live with. When changing behavior, I have found it often takes a shorter amount of time to change the behavior than it took to unknowingly teach it in the first place.
Finally, when I first brought Rocky home my goal was never to see if I could get Rocky on my shoulder. Having a bird on a shoulder is many things
including individualized. When I first brought him home and observed all of his behavior issues including chasing me and lunging at me, getting him on my shoulder was the furthest thing from my mind and actually I probably thought it would never happen. Over the past five years I have consistently worked on many different behavior issues with Rocky. I took the same approach in changing all of them and that approach was a procedure called shaping; reinforcing small approximations toward the target behavior. If Rocky was perched on the arm of a chair I was sitting in when I tried to get up or if he got behind me, he would lunge at me and pinch me with his beak. This is definitely a behavior I did not want to see increase or even maintain so I immediately began shaping a new and alternate behavior. That behavior was having him remain calm as I stood up or moved past him. I slowly positively reinforced him staying calm while perched near my elbow. Over time I was reinforcing him for staying calm as I slowly stood up. Over the past five years with our interaction between each other being primarily based on positive reinforcement, the behavior of him getting further and further behind me or further and further up the arm of my chair was constantly changing. Instead of lunging he would wait for me to give him praise and scratch the back of his head. As you see in the photos Rocky and I now have a strong and very trusting line of communication and relationship built through positive reinforcement. All behaviors aren’t for all birds and for all households. Each bird, history of reinforcement, and behavior being trained or modified is as individual as you and I and should be treated as such. Rocky was a diamond in the rough. He is such a treasured jewel in this household and with those that have had the pleasure of meeting him agree. He has been one of my best teachers and I will always thank him for that.
Reinforcers are anything that follows a behavior that causes that behavior to maintain or increase. For example, a bird steps up or flies to you when you ask and you give it an
almond. If the behavior of stepping up maintains or increases more than likely the almond is a reinforcer for the behavior of the bird stepping up. In this instance the almond would be a positive reinforcer because it was something that was added to the environment that caused the behavior to maintain or increase. Positive reinforcers are always items of value to the one giving the behavior.
Also, the bird is always the one that determines the reinforcer. The reinforcer is never determined by us. If the bird is full, more than likely that almond is not going to be of high value to the bird. In other words, it’s not a fair trade.
Birds are individuals too. Imagine living life from their perspective. We ask them to step up. What’s in it for them? If they really don’t care to step up onto us because they are enjoying looking out the window instead, why would we expect them to step up onto us? Because we want them to? Nope, it doesn’t really work that way.
Positive reinforcers aren’t always food related either. Food related reinforcers are called primary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are those that are needed for survival such as food, water, shelter, and reproduction. Secondary reinforcers are everything else such as a head scratch, a toy, a “Good Boy!”.
Secondary reinforcers can be very strong also. Reserving a known positive reinforcer makes the value of that reinforcer more valuable to the bird, if it is correctly identified. For example, Rocky, my moluccan cockatoo loves to be scratched around the neck. He loves it so much he’ll actually pick your hand up and place it on his neck. “Bingo!” This is an identified very valued reinforcer of Rocky’s. So I use it and I may reserve it for when I need it.
If my goal is to ask Rocky to step up out of his cage and onto my arm with the intention of walking him through the house to his play station in the bird room, I better use the neck scratch wisely and accurately.
I ask Rocky to step up onto my hand from his cage. He does. I may say “Good Boy Rocky” and that may be a good enough reinforcer. I’ve identified that he wants to come out of the cage and I know time or attention from me is also a valued reinforcer. The “Good Boy Rocky” and the stepping onto my arm are both valued reinforcers to him. Now, if I walk through the house scratching the back of his neck, why would he want to step off of me and onto his play station when asked? Why would he want to step off of me when he’s getting that highly valued reinforcer of HIS when he’s on my arm?
So I walk through the house and deliver the “Good Boy Rocky” for him perching calmly on my arm. Perching calmly is a behavior I want to reward so I better not forget to reinforce it. Sometimes a “Good Boy Rocky” is a big enough reinforcer for keeping him perched calmly. If I see that it’s not working, I may deliver an occasional head scratch during my walk to the bird room.
When I get to the bird room and am standing in front of his play station, I then ask him to step up. If he hesitates, I show him the positive reinforcer that will be delivered when he does. That is a me moving my fingers in a position that shows him that I want to scratch him. Almost always, he steps up. Yes, this may be called luring. I showed him the reward for the behavior I’m requesting. He steps up. I deliver the head scratch. This is called contingency. I deliver the reinforcer only when the requested behavior is given. The delivery of the reinforcer is contingent on the behavior of stepping up. This helps keep the behavior of stepping off of me very strong.
In the times that he choses not to step up, I rely on a list of reinforcers I reserve for when I find myself in this situation. Rocky loves peanuts. Rocky loves pine nuts. I break out one of these primary reinforcers and put them in his foraging toys and there goes Rocky. He steps up onto the play station and goes running to the foraging toy. No force needed. The bird’s choice still remains and the desired outcomes are still paired with my requests which makes behaviors more likely to happen when requested in the future.
On the other hand, we can strongly reinforce a lunge from a bird every time we walk by. If every time we walk by a bird and it lunges, that lunge is being reinforced. The lunge is maintaining or increasing isn’t it? It’s being reinforced. If every time our cockatoo is on the floor, it chases our feet. The chasing is being reinforced. So what do we do in these instances? Train. Train the bird to do something else that is of desired behavior, like stepping up or going to a perch and when it does, that is when we deliver the highly valued positive reinforcers we are reserving for times like these. The reinforcer better be of more value to the bird for stepping up than it is for continuing to chase your feet. That’s where our work comes in.
There is so much proof in the power of positive reinforcement. This type of training helps build relationships with the animal and helps behaviors remain strong. The outcome of using positive reinforcement training is the positive reinforcer for me continuing to use it and share it. There are several reasons I love using it. First, it is the most ethical way I have seen in interacting with an animal because it gives choice the animal and reduces stress. Stress levels can be a major factor of working with birds under our care or any animal in any type of confinement. Second, it develops into a strong line of communication between the handler and the animal or bird. Third, it builds trust between the handler/caretaker and the bird. Fourth, it is so effective when working with a bird showing ‘frightened’ or ‘aggressive’ behaviors. Fifth, with consistent pairing in delivery of positive reinforcers and attention to body language, soon the handler/caretaker will see the reinforcers shift or grow. With consistency it doesn’t take long for the bird to choose the proximity to you or to be with you as a highly valued reinforcer. Creating stress-free and enriched environments is a goal of mine with every bird I encounter.
Just a bit of Saturday morning blogging. Next I’ll dive into the commonly misused term of ‘negative reinforcement’.
Video: Rocky stepping onto his play station for a head scratch. Real-time in how it works.
Everyday I stumble on to new circumstances, interactions, or behavior concerns with my birds or the birds in which I work. No day is ever the same so I don’t expect the behavior that happens in the house to be the same from day-to-day either. I don’t expect my bird’s behavior to be the same today as it was yesterday. We learn from our environment and exploring that environment is how we continue to learn. This works the same for our birds. What Rico, my Umbrella Cockatoo enjoyed interacting with yesterday is going to change in some way today. This is how intelligent minds work.
So this morning I decided to have Rico come out into the kitchen to fly around and interact with my husband and I as we both got ready for work for the day. It was something different and a consistent changing environment that Rico can learn from and interact with. By consistently changing I mean, a lot of things are changing around him. I’m moving about the kitchen putting away dishes and preparing fresh veggies for the birds. My husband is walking around taking out the trash and carrying things in from the garage. Every time we move something in the kitchen, Rico’s environment changes and Rico learns from watching and interacting with those changes. I learn more about Rico by watching what he focuses on and what items in which he interacts. By watching him and living with him, I can learn and predict what things he will be drawn to in his environment and what things he is about to get into. When we learn what items and situations are attractive to them, we can use these items and situations to guide them to the things we want them to do and away from the potential undesirable things they are getting ready to do. A perfect example happened this morning.
Rico was flying around the house and interacting with some of his favored toys. I was watching him while I was continuing on about my business. He checked and interacted with all of his toys and then flew back to the kitchen. He sat there perched on his boing with a bird’s-eye view of everything that was going on in the kitchen. He flew down to a huge bowl of popcorn I had sitting on the countertop from my late night munchies the night before. He flew down to it. He stood and stared at it and then the behavior began. He stuck his beak in the middle of the dish and began swiping back and forth. With each swipe he was pushing popcorn out of the bowl. I chuckled and continued lining bird bowls in a row on the counter. My husband walked over and took the popcorn bowl away from him. I watched him and I watched Rico. Rico looked up at him like someone just took the world’s largest lollipop from a three year old kid. My husband sat the bowl on another table. I laughed because on that table also sat his sunglasses, his pen, his watch, and a few important notes. I looked back at Rico and saw Rico look at the bowl and then move his eyes to the lovely, attractive, enrichment items beside the bowl.
I asked my husband why he moved the bowl of popcorn and the reason was exactly what I thought it was going to be. “Because he’s making a mess” my husband said. I replied “Well he was having fun with it and popcorn is very easy to clean up.” I could tell the interaction with that large bowl of popcorn was going to take up a good deal of Rico’s time and attention this morning. Now it was gone. Now what behaviors are going to take up the rest of his time this morning? Rico quickly flew to the other table. I told my husband the popcorn is a lot easier to clean up than destroyed pens, glasses, destroyed notes. My husband looked at where Rico flew to and immediately ran to collect his valuables. I picked up the popcorn dish with Rico perched on the side of it and moved them back to the countertop where it was a safe place for Rico to play and safe for all of the items around him. There he began swooshing the popcorn out of the dish once again. I laughed as I looked back at my husband. I could see him understanding why I was letting him swoosh the popcorn.
Telling Rico what not to do doesn’t give him the opportunity of learning what is ok to do. Often when we continually tell a bird what not to do and pull them away from the objects we don’t want them interacting. Usually the only thing this teaches the bird is how to get to those objects faster and sneakier next time. I knew the swooshing of the popcorn was only going to attain his interest for a so long. So, I grabbed a paper cup and threw an almond in it. I stuck that almond in the new contraption of a toy we made the day before. He now has to search for a way to get the toy open to get to the cup to extract the almond which he has to shell before eating. He loves this and I know, because I watch the things he enjoys interacting with in his environment. If I don’t provide appropriate enrichment items, he’ll make his own.
This is a quick follow-up post to my former entry of “Ah, so it’s going to be one of those days.” Greta made a comment on this post in regards to how she incorporates choice into her dog’s environment by asking to pet. I thought this was exciting because I do the same with my birds. It’s something so easy to incorporate and it empowers the animal in their environment. Empowering our animal’s with choice usually has an obvious effect on our relationship with them. What I notice is the more choices we give them, even in giving them room to escape or move away from us, usually results in them wanting or seeking more interaction with us. In this video you will see me give a hand signal, which all of my birds are familiar, while verbally asking if I can pet. You’ll see Rocky, my Moluccan Cockatoo moving in to let me know this is what he wants.
I have another example I’d like to share showing how incorporating choice into the environment of training a Harris Hawk has resulted in him wanting more interaction with us. I shot these videos for a presentation I’ll be giving this November, but want to share them now based on what we are discussing. There are 3 trainers I’m training at a wildlife rehabilitation center. We were standing outside of the Harris Hawk’s enclosure trying to figure out a training plan in getting closer to the bird and figuring out a way to allow him choice in his environment. There are a few common perches in his enclosure that he often flew to and he would fly randomly as soon as we opened the door. What we decided to do was putting meaning to three of his different perches. Every time he flew to the perch on the far left, we left the enclosure. We would wait outside the enclosure and say “perch”. We wanted to put meaning to the blue perch on the right. When he would fly to the blue perch on the right, we would walk in the enclosure. If he stepped off the blue perch and onto the perch between what we ended up calling the “get out” perch on the far left, we would simply stop moving. So, we gave 3 different perches 3 different meanings. The one on the far left was the “get out” perch. Every time he flew to it, no matter what, we stopped what we were doing and left and shut the door. The blue perch on the right meant “come in”. The perch in between the two meant “stay in but stop what you are doing”. The middle perch is one of my favorites because I call it his “observation perch”. We’ve given him control over his environment and when he flies to this perch, it let’s us know we are moving too fast for his comfort level. He doesn’t want us to leave, but he’s not comfortable with something we are doing. By making all of these perches contingent on our behavior, we quickly saw a change in his behavior. It was and still is nothing short of FASCINATING. What we saw was how quick he learned what each of these perches meant. Also what we saw was him flying to the blue perch (the come in perch) more often. From the best we could tell, he was obviously enriched through his new-found control over his environment. He worked for no food in any of our interactions with him, at least not while we were there training him or the other birds. The best that I could tell, his reinforcer for continuing the behavior of flying to the different perches, was his control over his environment.
This video shows a few times after we’ve implemented the meaning to each perch. You’ll clearly see Inyo, the Harris Hawk choosing to fly to perches that have meaning and you’ll see Joan, the trainer, reacting to Inyo’s choice in perching.
Joan, the trainer shown in the video, is Inyo’s preferred trainer. Here are a few videos of how we introduced Inyo, the Harris Hawk, to a new trainer, Andy. Andy first opened the door and Inyo immediately flies to the “get out” perch. You hear me say “perfect” in the video because our intention is to let Inyo know that Andy also understands the meaning of the perches. So on to our next move in our training plan of introducing Inyo to a new trainer. We knew that Inyo had a great working relationship with Joan, the trainer in the former video. So, we used Joan’s presence as the reinforcer for introducing Andy, the new trainer. I’ll show 2 videos so you can clearly see the difference. The time in training between the first and second video is about 5 minutes. In those 5 minutes, we also had a few seconds of pre training planning strategies before the 2 trainers walked in.
Andy (new trainer) walking into Inyo’s enclosure.
Here’s another video showing Inyo making choices on how fast the approach of the new trainer. I love this video because it shows show much communication from the bird, and so much communication of the trainers back to the bird. A relationship is building.
Joan (Inyo’s preferred trainer) reinforcing Inyo with her presence in introducing Inyo to Andy, the new trainer. Watch how both trainers pay close attention to Inyo’s body language and act quickly on Inyo’s perch placement. Their behavior of acting quickly to Inyo’s choice in perch placement helps put value to the meaning of the perches, which in turn gives Inyo control over his environment. Watch Inyo’s behavior of quickly observing advancement and behaviors of both trainers. Inyo stays on the blue perch (the it’s ok for you to stay perch) the whole time.
Inyo now vocalizes for trainers to come into his enclosure. He is a true joy to interact with and from the best we can tell, he enjoys the interaction. The power of positive reinforcement training is beyond words. Giving choice back to the animal has such an obvious and positive effect on their behavior. It has such an obvious and powerful effect on the relationship with the trainer. With each interaction we have with the animal, they are learning and training is taking place. It’s up to us in how we use it.