Here’s how to stop your Parrot from biting.
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A useful way to gather background information is to keep a diary for a while. This entails tracking a variety of specific things, and collecting data about each of those things.
To maximize the effectiveness of journaling or keeping a diary, everyone in the bird’s daily environment needs to participate; so provide each person with his or her own notebook.
Then whenever the problem behaviour occurs (aggression, in this case, or any other behaviour you wish to better understand), everybody should grab their notebook and write down the following:
Time of day
Phase of the moon (the moon often affects bird behaviour, in both full and new moon phases)
What is going on when the behaviour occurred (e.g., “Tom was trying to put the bird in his cage so he could leave for work.” Or, “I was trying to clean the bottom of the cage.”)
What you were wearing when the unwanted behaviour occurred? (Going-to- work clothes? New red headband? Different colour nail polish?)
What exactly did the bird do? (Describe the unwanted behaviour)?
What was the bird’s apparent mood? (Seems agitated? Afraid?)
Your mood? (Stressed by work? Upset about boyfriend?)
The apparent moods of others in the area? (Dogs fighting? Husband angry?)
Any other changes or new things in the environment, no matter how small and/or insignificant they might seem? (New picture on the wall? New throw pillows on the sofa? Just carried in and set down 3 full brown grocery bags?)
Add anything else that might be germane to the situation. Collecting too little information is more problematic than collecting too much.
Once all this stuff is recorded for each incident, everyone should immediately put his/her notebook away. It is important that no one goes back over the notes, or discusses the diary or behaviour information with anyone else – especially others also recording their observations. (More on this in a moment.)
After each of you has made several behavioural entries in your diaries over a week or two, the first thing to look for is patterns, repetitive actions, events, or emotions that might offer insights into the problem behaviour. But understand this: if you discuss or over-analyze things you observe, you will likely taint the data.
And be careful about your assumptions; we humans love patterns, and we are quite capable of inventing one that didn’t previously exist. I’m sure we do this unconsciously, but even thinking about possible patterns ahead of time is likely to influence the results in a negative way – that is, it will confuse the heck out of you.
Once everyone has collected data for a while by observing and carefully recording events, each person reads back over their diary separately, looking for patterns, and then you come together and compare notes with the other diarists. You might discover patterns such as, “the Parrot only shows aggression when they are in or near their cage,” or, “She only bites when it’s late in the evening.”
If the bird is only aggressive around its cage, this indicates that the bird protecting its territory, its turf. You can step around this problem by “perch training” the bird so you can move it away without being bitten before you service the cage. In the second instance – late evening biting – the bird might be over-tired and/or sleep deprived from being kept up past their bedtime. (My husband can tell you that I get very crabby when I haven’t slept enough.)
Perhaps you should set up a night sleep cage in a quiet room so more sleep is possible. Many Parrots seem to need 10-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep to be at their best.
So you see, you collect data, analyze the situation, and agree on a hypothesis about what’s causing the unwanted behaviours. Then together you formulate an action plan to make changes in the environment that will eliminate the aggression.
If you can detect patterns in your data, this is lovely, as you can often change a behaviour by simply changing the pattern that leads up to it. For instance, if your Parrot becomes aggressive after being petted for ten minutes, then stop the petting after five minutes to avoid the negative behaviour (which might be caused by the bird being over-stimulated).
Or if the bird starts to get crabby after 20 minutes spent sitting on your knee while you watch TV, he is likely to be feeling restless and bored. Next time, return him to his cage or playgym after 10-15 minutes of TV watching with you, before he tires of the activity.
While diaries can be extremely useful in capturing information about patterns, they can’t always give us what we need. Sometimes a more analytical approach is required to dissect behaviours, and this is where the science of applied behaviour analysis [ABA] shines.
With the technique of A-B-C, or Antecedent, Behaviour, and Consequence, we can break a behaviour into small enough fragments that we can better understand the animal’s motivation.
The Antecedent is what happens just before the unwanted behaviour.
Then the Behaviour occurs.
The Consequence is what happens within a couple of seconds after the behaviour. (This is why trainers must be precise in timing their rewards. If they aren’t careful and accurate, they may well end up reinforcing the wrong behaviour.)
By breaking down a behaviour pattern into tiny fragments, we can also analyze a situation to better understand what is actually happening.
Let’s suppose you want to pet your Parrot, so you reach for her head to stroke her. The bird leans away from your hand, but you persist. The bird bites you. You leave in a huff because your bird bit you for no reason.
Let’s look at this scenario again, using ABC. Now we can see a totally different picture:
Antecedent: You want to pet your bird, so you insist that she allow it.
Behaviour: Bird bites you.
Consequence: You go away.
When the sequence is broken down this way, it becomes obvious why the aggressive behaviour is happening. As far as the bird is concerned, you rudely invaded her space, and then you demanded she acquiesce to whatever you wanted her to do.
In response to your disrespect, she bit you … and you went away. This is precisely what the bird wanted you to do; hence, you inadvertently rewarded her biting behaviour. Or to be more blunt, you teach your Parrot that biting is the only way she can penetrate your oblivious discourtesy, communicate her opinions to you, and get you to leave her alone when she wants to be left alone.
Again, the important thing to understand is that the Consequence is what happens IMMEDIATELY (within seconds) after the behaviour. The Consequence is the reason why this behaviour does or does not continue.
Analyzing behaviour using the A-B-C analysis method requires making detailed observation notes in your diary (so you don’t forget), and keeping an open mind as to what the bird might consider reinforcing (or rewarding), and what the bird might consider aversive (discouraging). By doing this, you can learn to understand why a problem behaviour may continue despite your response. Once you understand, you often can figure out your own way to change the negative behaviour. So let’s rewrite the scenario and see what happens.
You offer your crooked finger as an invitation to your Parrot to be scratched if she wishes.
Your Parrot comes to your finger and puts her head down.
Your Parrot gets a scratch.
Don’t you agree that this is a better approach? After all, if you have a Significant Other, is your S.O. allowed to fondle you whenever he/she wishes, whether you like it or not? Of course not.
And instead of expecting a Parrot to docilely acquiesce to being locked in its cage anytime you must leave the house, why not give it a good reason to want to go into its cage? My Macaw Sam is happy to go into her cage because she knows I will reward her immediately with a luscious nut.
As a result, she looks forward to returning to her cage. Simple solution. And isn’t this what we want for our Parrots, who need to be caged for their own safety when we are away? Just like with children (and spouses), it’s a matter of showing respect by offering choices (and rewards), not by a show of dominance and power.
Prevent, don’t punish
The most important message I have for you is not to worry about what to do after your Parrot bites; instead, think about what you need to do to prevent a bite from happening in the first place. Parrots are not like dogs. They have their own opinions about things, such as when they wish to interact and how they wish to interact.
If you are a person who expects a companion animal to always be in the mood to do what you wish, please stick with dogs. (It is for this very attribute – they want to please us and always love to interact with us – that I am a devoted dog lover.)
The bottom line: whether born in captivity or not, a Parrot is NOT a domesticated animal. There is no question in a Parrot’s mind about who is the Centre of the Universe. It certainly isn’t you! (Come to think of it, if this attitude troubles you, you probably should avoid cats, too!)
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