Saturday, October 8, 2011

Biting Behaviors: Predicting, Preventing and Replacing

"I have an almost four months old quaker parrot. He's very friendly and is not afraid of people. He gladly steps up to come out of the cage. He'll go up to you but when he's on your shoulder or hand he'll nip you HARD. I can't say he's being aggressive. He doesn't seem angry or stressed, he just pinch your skin so hard, its almost impossible to let him stay on you. He's fully flighted and he will follow me everywhere I go. What should I do to make him stop the nipping." - user Struckbygold

Hello! (I will refer to you as Adrian) it sounds like you have quite the mischievous Quaker! From the impression you gave me it sounds like one of his main reinforcers is human interaction. And this is true for many parrots, when a bird gets to play with a human that pets him, feeds him, and generally has a grand old time, what social species would not enjoy it? This is a major reinforcer for the bird. Keep in mind that every behavior that an animal keeps is due to a corresponding reinforcer.

Reinforcers come in two flavors, positive and negative. Let's slow down and define both of what "positive" and "negative" mean in the sense of behavior modification. I must emphasize that positive does not mean "good", this is the same for the word negative and does not mean "bad".  Instead think of the rules of addition and subtraction. Positive means "to add" negative means "to remove from".

Now that we have defined these two words lets remind ourselves that reinforcent means to increase a behavior, and you can do that by bringing something into the situation or by taking something away. To simplify we call this Positive Reinforcement or Negative Reinforcement, respectively.

So what is the reason your bird is biting? I cannot tell exactly why because I am not there observing the behavior, but I can take a good guess. We have already identified a positive reinforcer that your bird works for, and that is human interaction. Let's set up an example of how this behavior could be increasing due to the use of Positive Reinforcement. Here we will be using an ABC setup for Jane and her bird (you can learn more about this here).

It's morning and one of the first things that Jane does is to let the bird out of his cage to give kisses. She knows the bird is awake because he squawks. So she gets out of bed to make his food and opens his cage door to pick him up after he has had his fill, but forgot to kiss him.

A: Absence of beak kisses.

B: Bird bites finger.

C: Jane grabs bird's beak, shakes it, and tells the bird "no".

Predicted Future Behavior: The bird will continue to bite Jane if not kissed.
Can you see the Positive Reinforcement? Grabbing the beak, shaking it, and talking to the bird are ALL added to the behavior, thus "positive". And because we predict the behavior will not change but will continue to happen, we know that a reinforcement is in play.

Now let's look at what a Negative Reinforcement ABC setup looks like.

A: Absence of morning beak kisses.

B: Bird bites finger.

C: Jane drops bird to the floor.

PFB: Bird will bite the hand more often. And may avoid stepping up on the hand all together.
As you can imagine being dropped to the floor is very painful and dangerous for an unflighted bird and keel bruising and splitting are likely to result. Not only is it physically abusive but the behavioral side effects (such as fear) of using such ideas are not good for you or the bird. Hence we may see the 
"may avoid stepping on the hand" in our PFB.

But your bird is flighted! So even if you removed your hand from the situation the end result may be positive, especially if he enjoys flying. Because of this I'm going to say the likely reinforcer for your bird is a positive, not negative one, as you did not mention any behaviors that might indicate fear.

When addressing any behavior problem the first thing behaviorists look at is the environment and how it directly affects the behavior. In other words, what happens before the behavior so that it may be prevented? In our example biting could have been avoided if we gave the bird a kiss. In other situations biting can also be avoided by reading body language. If we know what a bird is trying to say we can prevent biting situations from occurring.

Can you tell when your bird is about to bite? Does he communicate with his feathers, beak, eyes or body posture? Does it happen during a certain time of day even? Find this out so you can prevent the behavior from occurring.

Now lets say you could not prevent the behavior and you see him getting ready to bite. What do you do to avoid the bite while keeping his trust? It's a rather clever concept. You should cue him for a behavior that makes it impossible for him to bite you. Behaviorists call this Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible behavior (DRI).

To prevent biting teach him a cued behavior that involves keeping his beak away from your ready-to-be-bit hand. Have him tuck his beak behind his wing, shake his head "no", or stand up tall. He cannot bite you while he's shaking his head! And then make sure to give him his kisses, this way it lets him know that everyone needs a second chance.

Good luck in your endeavors Adrian.

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog
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