Home > Behavior, Screaming > ‘Tis the Season…..to Reinforce that Screamin’!

‘Tis the Season…..to Reinforce that Screamin’!

Happy Holidays & a Happy 2010!

I hope everyone had a great holiday season and I’m giving well wishes for everyone for the new year. I can’t believe the last one is already over. I had a great and prosperous 2009 and am ready for the new and big adventures staring me in the face for 2010. I hope you enjoy the posts I have lined up. I’ve had numerous requests on topics in which to write, and this one I felt fit due to a recent situation. I love to write about birds, my observations, and my interactions with them. I have some great ones coming in which I hope you love as much as I do.

I titled this entry what I did because I know the holiday seasons are full of times for family and friends to visit our houses. To those of us with birds this can be a great time to share the joy of our birds with family members, and for others it is a time where all kinds of negative behavioral issues are reinforced whether we know it or not. I’ve already heard of a few instances already.  Many times this is out of our control, but most times it is within it if we are really paying attention. I know I had one incident here at my house on Christmas morning when my father came to visit. He loves saying hi and interacting with all of my birds. We were sitting at the dinning room table and Rocky, my Moluccan Cockatoo began yelling for attention. Well before I could do anything about it my dad yelled out “How ya doing in there, Rocky!” At first I felt my muscles tense up in my body to his reaction to Rocky. I then thought “Wow, he really doesn’t know what he just did.” and I looked up at him right before he was getting ready to say something else in response to Rocky’s yelling and said “It is your attention he is yelling for, are you sure you want to reinforce that behavior?” and I smiled the most pleasant smile I had. He sat thinking and looking at me and chose to not encourage Rocky’s screaming any further. I then pushed a plate in front of him and said “Good boy, Dad. Here, have a cookie.”

I’ve been helping a woman change a negative behavioral issue in her bird. Want to guess what negative behavioral issue it is? I bet you guessed accurately based on the title of this entry. Yes, it is a screaming issue. Which reminds me of a study performed and results given at an Association of Avian Veterinarians conference a couple of years ago. When companion parrot owners were questioned about the most common behavioral issues exhibited by their parrots, one of the top three was screaming with aggression and feather picking being the other two(1). I haven’t performed a poll in a few years, but I do know screaming was one of the top three accompanied by biting and cage aggression, such as biting while in or around the cage and having problems getting the bird to come out or go back into the cage willingly. In thinking about this, I’ve decided to add a poll here. If you get a chance please add your vote to the poll I designed for you below. All votes should show up as percentages. Feel free to add “other” and comment.

So back to the woman I’ve been helping. She mentioned her one bird screaming for long periods of time while in his cage and also when she’s out of the bird’s sight. I suggested to her to find out what it is in which the bird is screaming. She admitted it was for her attention. She also mentioned that she has another bird in the same room that has to put up with this annoying screaming and is starting to mimic the scream. Now the plot thickens but here I’ll focus on just the one issue of the bird screaming for her attention. I suggested to her the usual…. find another behavior the bird knows how to do that is acceptable and give the bird attention while it does this behavior all the while ignoring the bird when she is screaming. This way if the bird finds the alternate behavior is getting her the attention it places value on this alternate behavior, while the value the scream has looses value as she continues to ignore it. She reported

Shaping for a nail trim - see videos below

back a few days later that she couldn’t believe how well this worked and how quick and wondered if it she could actually being seeing the desired consequences this quickly. “Absolutely” I told her. “If we pay close attention to the details, we can often see progress within the first minute of training or shorter.” I know, I do it daily. It all depends on the individual bird and the fluency in good timing delivered by the owner.

Through giving behavioral and training consultations, I’ve noticed how common it is for too big of steps to be taken in trying to change behaviors or training new ones. When the steps are too big, often our accomplishments or intended progress back fires and frustration of both the owner and the bird grows. I train birds on a daily basis so I am used to looking for the very small and visible movements in the right direction, a process called shaping of a behavior. We look for the small movements in the right direction and reward or reinforce the movements made in the right direction. Through this woman’s responses, I could tell she was paying close attention to the details. This really excites me when attention to the smallest behaviors in the desired direction is observed and rewarded because it is so commonly over looked.

Video 1: Shaping a nail trim.

Did you see it in the video? Did you see the areas of hesitation from my Umbrella Cockatoo? There were two areas. One was right before the 2nd beep of my Eclectus, and the second was the second to the last time I asked him to touch the nail file. Big deal? They are definitely areas in which to pay attention. I noticed he hesitated, so this is a signal to me to not move ahead until he is ready and also a signal to maybe back up a bit to get him more comfortable with the sight of the nail file which you don’t know, but I do that Rico, my Umbrella is very uncomfortable with the sight of the nail file.

Video 2: Next step in shaping of a nail trim. Watch in this video, he is ready when I start with his foot up. His response to my request is quick. Very important and I tell him “Good” immediately to let him know that highly valued reward is on it’s way. 2nd time, I let him grab it to see what he does and he seems to becoming more comfortable with not only the sight but the touch of the file. 3rd time, I slightly and quickly slide the nail file on his nail and reward. 4th time, I slide the nail file again. 5th time I slide again. Did you notice what he does this time? He pulls his head back as I slide it. What does that mean? I know based on past experiences with him. It means he’s not necessarily comfortable with it. A very, very small step and a very big observation that could make a big difference in the reaction to my next step, which I will make quick and smaller than the one I just did. You’ll see I let him have a big reward for the big request. I love that little cheater and we ended our training session with some smooches and some cuddles in which he loves. A big reward for two training sessions back to back which I consider great accomplishments in the right direction based on this individual bird.

So here are two back to back training sessions in shaping a behavior and that behavior is of Rico, my Umbrella Cockatoo getting his nails filed. The first training session or video lasted 1 minute and 46 seconds and the second lasted 1 minute and 10 seconds. That was it for our training at that particular time. I picked that particular time to end our training session because it ended on a positive note, this way Rico looks forward to the next training session because this one ended so well. It works and it works very well.

So this woman continued to tell me her progress. She told me the usual suspect was screaming in his cage in the bird room while the other bird was in its cage in the same room. She then proceeded to tell me that she walked in to get the bird out of the cage that wasn’t screaming and take him into the other room so it didn’t have to listen to the screaming. “Uh oh.” I thought. If the culprit was screaming for her attention, then he just got it when the woman walked in the room to remove the other bird. She then proceeded to tell me that the culprit continued screaming until she walked in and got him out of his cage and brought him out on his play stand but other than that, things were going well.

What she just described to me may be defined as an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. What? Let me explain because it is very important. So important that I’m basing this entry around it’s definition, it’s use, and how strong of a reinforcer it is. If I knew my bird was screaming for my attention, and I wanted to change my bird’s behavior of screaming to a whistle, each time I heard my bird whistle I would run in there and deliver a highly valued reward. My consistency of rewarding every whistle is called continuous schedule of reinforcement. When I start varying the amount of times in which I go in the room and reward him, it can be defined as an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. It is not every time the behavior is exhibited that I walk in and reinforce, it varies. It is a strong reinforcer, I know because I’ve seen it work numerous times and what this woman was explaining to me just turned into an intermittent schedule of reinforcement by ignoring the screaming sometimes yet then walking the room at other times, such as removing the bird that wasn’t screaming and then walking in again later and putting the screaming bird on the play stand. By her giving in and walking in and bring the bird out on his playstand, she just gave it a huge reward and the bird has now learned to scream and scream and scream and she’ll eventually walk in and probably at some point put him on his playstand. I didn’t see all the times she walked in or out of sight while the bird was screaming or not screaming, but Dr. Susan Friedman had told me once, for every negative behavioral issue lies an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. When I heard her tell me this eyes stayed focused on her’s but my mind drifted into all the times I may have seen this happen. Since I heard her tell me this, I’ve paid oh so close attention to this intermittent schedule and how absolutely strong it is. It is strong, it can be intentional, and it can be beyond our control. As far as most behavioral issues I’ve seen, it is almost always within control.

When this woman told me she had been consistent in rewarding an alternate behavior while ignoring the bad behavior, yet then she walked in and removed the bird that wasn’t screaming, she was being inconsistent yet still rewarding the negative behavior in which she wanted to see diminish. By her waiting for the screaming to stop and when it didn’t, she walked in the room, in the line of sight of the screaming bird, removed the non screaming bird, and then left the room…..she just reinforced all the screaming the bird did before she walked in. Let’s say the bird had been screaming for 4 minutes before she walked in to get the non screaming bird. She just taught the screaming bird that “Hey, when I sit here and scream for 4 minutes she’ll walk in. So, I shall continue to scream.” Then the woman finally gave in to the screaming bird, let’s say 10 minutes later. She went in and got the screaming bird out of it’s cage and brought it to the living room to the play stand. “Ah ha!” the bird thought. “Sometimes I scream for 4 minutes, sometimes I scream for 10 and she’ll come in or let me see her. Let’s see what happens when I scream for 20!”

Now I could get into many schedules of reinforcement but I am trying to be a brief and understandable as possible. I have another great example of an intermittent schedule of reinforcement and how strong they can be. I know, because I live with an intermittent schedule reinforcer, and this would be my husband.

We share our household with a lovely 11 year old Moluccan Cockatoo who came into our home 3 years ago when it was suggested he be put down for his plethora of behavioral issues. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to this advice, because he is now one of the most well behaved parrots in my household. Among the many negative behaviors he used to exhibit was a loud, ear piercing scream that would happen every 4-5 seconds for anywhere from 1-2 hours straight before he would take a 10 minute break and start again. By consistently rewarding an alternate behavior he already knew how to do, which was whistling, while ignoring the undesired behavior of screaming, the value he placed on the whistling quickly outweighed the value he put in his screaming. Hence his name, Rocky The Whistler; in need of a little fine tuning. He now whistles, whistles, whistles. He whistles familiar tunes, but his whistling of his own tunes far outweighs the familiar. It is rather funny and quite entertaining; an obvious and livable difference between this and the screaming every 4-5 seconds for 1-2 hours at a time with a 10 minute break.

Rocky in relation to the coffee pot (left) and the trash can (right)

So I started noticing and rather quickly and obviously, that the house was either quiet or full of whistling tunes throughout the week. Ah, then comes the relaxing weekends. NOT! All was fine in the house when I would get up around 8 am until about noon. Yes, noon is the time my husband prefers to get out of bed on the weekends. Hey, I envy him for being able to sleep like this. When my husband would get up, he’d walk to the back sunroom say hi to Rocky, wave, fix his coffee and walk to the dinning room table out of Rocky’s sight. Oh, the ear piercing screams would start again. A few weekends went by while I watched and payed close attention to all the surroundings and happenings in the environment when Rocky was screaming. It didn’t take long before I saw what was happening. A lot of intermittent schedules of reinforcement for that paint sliding, back bone chilling scream. Yes, from the best I could tell, all intermittent schedules of reinforcement were given by my dear, lovely and unsuspecting husband. Rocky would scream and scream and then my husband needed a cup of coffee. Yep, up from the chair he went in clear sight of Rocky’s while Rocky was screaming. He’d  fill his coffee and say “Oh hi Rocky!” as he’d turn and walk out of sight to the dinning room table. Oh what a strong reinforcer or reward this was to Rocky to continue that lovely, bone chilling scream.

I thought of how to positively reinforce my husband’s behavior of not intermittently reinforcing Rocky’s screaming. Yea, I tried. Hmmm, I moved on to other tactics. Finally I said “Sweetie, do you know you are reinforcing Rocky’s scream?” His reply is one that I don’t find uncommon. “No, I’m not. I didn’t tell him he was a good boy or anything.” “Ah, you didn’t have to.” I thought. Rocky’s reinforcer for screaming was the sheer sight of my husband. I know Rocky would pass his favorite food and treats for 5 seconds of my husband’s attention at almost anytime.

Over the weeks I noticed more intermittent schedules of reinforcement being delivered from my husband. We have a back sunroom in which the birds have their favored play systems. Yep, that’s where Rocky’s is and right next to the door that gives a clear shot into our kitchen. My husband prefers to clean the bird cages because he thinks he gets them cleaner than I do. So I play dumb and let him think this is true. The trash can is next to the back sun room. My husband would come in and dump cage papers into the trash can. Well guess who’s play system is in clear shot of the trash can? You got it, Rocky’s. Rocky would scream and scream and scream. I sat and watched. My husband would clean cages out of sight for long periods of time before walking back to the trash can. Rocky would scream for 10 minutes. My husband would come out and dump cage papers into the trash and say “Oh now Rocky, you stop it.” and laugh and walk back into the room to clean cages. Not sure I understand where the laughies come in because I’m sitting there feeling the vibrations of Rocky’s scream rippling up my back bone. I’d watch my husband. 20 minutes later he’d come back to the trash can, not saying anything but focused on his cage cleaning, and off to the cage room he headed again. The first time he walked in Rocky’s sight Rocky learned he now had to scream for 10 minutes before my husband would come in line of sight and say something to him. A double reinforcer; just seeing my husband and then having my husband whispering sweet nothings to him. The next time my husband walked in Rocky’s sight, Rocky learned “Ok, now I need to scream for 20 minutes before I get to see him again. I saw my husband walking from the cage room to the trash can again and I picked up the dustpan and threw it at him before he got in line of sight of Rocky. I’m kidding. I didn’t, but the thought did cross my mind. Instead, I arranged the environment for success. I moved the trash can so my husband didn’t have to walk in line of sight of Rocky in order to dump the cage papers. That worked for a while. Then my husband had to walk to the sink…..which is right beside where the trash can used to be. 😉 I realized it was not only my bird’s behavior that needed modified, but my husband’s.

I am glad to say that three weekends of consistently and positively reinforcing my husband’s behavior of not intermittently reinforcing Rocky’s scream AND consistently reinforcing Rocky remaining quiet and calm for periods of time has greatly paid off. We still have a little screaming on the weekends but it is obvious in Rocky’s actions and short periods of screaming, that he now knows the quiet and calm is much more valuable to him than the scream. Consistency, patience, and finding the reinforcers has paid off for all in this household. There is rarely any to no anxiety in Rocky’s behaviors on the weekends anymore. Oh what a reward that is to me and to all the other birds in this household. From what I’ve seen, a content bird is a happy bird and I can now put that mental dust pan away.

(1) 2008 Association of Avian Veterinarians Proceedings

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  1. January 5, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    I want to thank everyone who has been voting on the poll. The results are pretty cool to see. I just went ahead and entered my vote too just now. I had to vote because I saw no one had voted on the abnormal repetitive behaviors. Maybe that is because I didn’t define it. ARB’s are also called stereotypical behaviors. I call them ARB’s based on science because stereotypical behaviors get very detailed. ARB’s are defined as any repetitive behavior you will not see a bird do in the wild. I have that here in my household and is most clearly evident in my Moluccan Cockatoo. He flips on the cage bars. Not nearly as much, but he does. He used to give the same rhythmic yell along with it. That I have pretty much modified to being non existent, but in times of anxiety, stress, and/or frustration it is almost definite this cage bar flipping will begin. He used to do it daily for minutes upon minutes at a time and then repeat. Now he rarely does it, but he still does.

  2. January 6, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Good job Lara.

  3. dorothy long
    January 21, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Lara u r tba best!i really enjoyed ur web site.i feel honored mi met u at parapalooza in burlington, nj.i highly respect ur way of training birds.i love ur rico.happy 2 c rico’s peekaboo game on ur website 2! t2u soon. sincerly, dot long

  4. Shannon Masiak
    June 23, 2012 at 8:04 am

    Have you considered doing seminars about husband training there may be a little more money involved. I know I’d pay for that.

    • June 23, 2012 at 8:32 am

      Actually Shannon, the approaches are the same. I use them all the time on human behavior. 😉 Your reinforcers just have to be very effective and highly valued.

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