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Why ignoring a problem behavior might not be working for you: the pitfalls of extinction.

Updated: Jun 26, 2022

When your bird screams, bites, or does any other behavior that you don't like, what can you do to get them to stop?


 

At some point, it is inevitable that your companion parrot will display a behavior that you don’t necessarily like—for example, biting, screaming, lunging at people, and so on. I know I have had my fair share of experiences with Petrie screaming like there is no tomorrow, just absolutely begging for attention. Naturally, if your bird is presenting these behaviors, you want to find solutions on how to make them stop. Probably the most common piece of advice I’ve seen is to simply ignore the behavior you don’t want. This basic concept is called extinction, and if this method has ever worked for you, I would love to hear about it because I have never once had it work for me. And believe me, I am not alone in this.


If you’ve been following me for some time on social media, you know that I am a huge proponent of training primarily through positive reinforcement supplemented by other techniques such as negative reinforcement, systematic desensitization, or the combination of all three (such as in response substitution...side note—check out my harness training video on YouTube if you want to see an example of response substation in action). Here’s the problem: these techniques often don’t fit when we think about approaching really tricky behaviors such as screaming and biting, especially when we consider how these behaviors are often automatically reinforcing. As such, trainers often turn to other lesser-used techniques, like extinction, to approach these challenging behaviors. As somebody who has attempted to utilize extinction in my training practices, I can attest to how incredibly frustrating it is to actually have the undesired behaviors become stronger over time.


Why extinction isn’t working for you

There are so many reasons why extinction fails, and to walk you through just a few of those reasons, I’m going to use my own ongoing experiences with Petrie as a case study. Alexandrines are vocal birds with the ability to be extremely loud. Ok, they aren’t as loud as a squawking macaw, but they are incredibly loud, and their screams can be very high pitched. Personally, I’d take a macaw screaming over an alexandrine any day. Some screaming is to be expected from any bird, but it got to a point with Petrie where I was totally losing my mind. Something had to be done, and so after reading a few books and articles, I decided to try ignoring the screaming. But what does “ignoring the scream” really mean? Some articles mentioned acting no differently and continuing on with whatever it was that you were doing before the screaming started. Others mentioned looking away from your bird, covering your eyes, or even curling up into a fetal position. Some mentioned leaving the room entirely, which assuming your bird likes you and views your presence as enjoyable, is actually utilizing punishment (side note that punishment does have its place in training and isn't always a bad thing). I tried them all, starting from the least extreme (acting no differently and continuing on as usual) and ending with the most extreme (completely leaving the room). Nothing worked, and unfortunately, Petrie’s screaming problems only got WORSE. He somehow got louder, the time between screams got shorter, and his body language suggested to me that his anxiety levels increased.


So why didn’t those methods work? First and foremost, it is HARD to be consistent with your response, especially when you aren’t the only person the animal has interaction with. Sometimes the screaming happens when you are on an important work call, when you have a headache, when you have friends over, or during any other number of situations when you just can’t ignore the scream. Alternatively, you could have ignored the scream for half an hour and eventually (in the interest of protecting your own sanity), you approach the bird to finally have some peace and quiet. The result is that the screaming problem persists because the scream gets inconsistently ignored and by extension, inconsistently rewarded. What’s worse is that the bird has learned that the level of scream it has to reach to get the response out of you is higher than it used to be. Another important factor to consider here is that it isn’t always possible or practical to leave the room. Petrie’s screaming issues started back when I lived in an open floor plan apartment, so there was really nowhere for me to go that was out of sight. Now, the house I live in is so small that no matter what room I go into to get away from the screaming, Petrie can still hear me and so he continues to scream.


Let’s consider another scenario: your bird bites. You hear through various channels of information that ignoring the bite is the only way to get your bird to stop biting in the first place. There are so many issues with this, but more on that later. Following this advice, the next time your bird bites you, you try your best to not flinch, make a sound, or change your posture at all. Then, your bird bites you again, only this time a little harder or maybe for a little longer. You tell yourself that you just have to keep ignoring it, and so you try your best to. Finally, your bird chomps down on your finger so hard that it is impossible to ignore. Or, even if you do manage to not flinch or make a sound, your finger gets red, inflamed, or if skin was broken, maybe even bleeds. In this case, it doesn’t matter that you have nerves of steel, because the bird still managed to get a reaction—your finger becoming inflamed or bleeding—out of you. Not to mention the fact that you allowed yourself to become injured in the process. Regardless, the bird has now learned that in order to provoke a response from you, it had to bite down harder and/or longer than before. In other words, ignoring the bite did not teach your bird to not bite…it taught your bird that to get a point across, it had to escalate the bite. Yikes.


What you can do part 1: determining the cause of a behavior.

It is so important to keep in mind why certain behaviors occur in the first place. I have a sort of checklist of questions I use when trying to determine the cause of a behavior:


  1. Is there an underlying medical cause? This is an especially important question to consider if the behavior started suddenly and/or is accompanied by other notable changes. The best way to diagnose this is to go see your avian veterinarian.

  2. Is the behavior in response to a specific object? A common example would be that your bird only screams/bites when a certain object is near them (they may be scared of the object).

  3. What was the bird’s body language before the behavior was presented? Our birds communicate to us through their body language, so it is important to be able to recognize what different postures mean. Let’s say you just got bit. Was your bird puffed up and in a crouched stance? Were their eyes pinning? Were they “dancing” with fluffed feathers and/or pinning eyes? These are just a few examples of body language that would indicate to me that the bird would have preferred space.

  4. What was I doing before the behavior was presented? Let’s again consider when your bird bites you. What did you do that could have influenced your parrot to bite? Maybe you suddenly grabbed the bird, approached too quickly, or made a loud noise. Situations such as these could result in a bite as it is a way for the bird to quickly and effectively communicate to you that it didn’t like what you were doing.


Determining the cause of a behavior can make finding a solution much easier. That said, sometimes you just cannot figure out why your parrot behaves a certain way. You can still move on to implementing a solution.


What you can do part 2: finding and implementing a solution.

If you determined that the cause of the behavior was medical, treatment prescribed by your avian veterinarian might be enough to entirely fix things. If you determined that the behavior is actually a fear response, systematic desensitization or response substitution are excellent training strategies to use. If the cause is not medical or fear based, there are basically two methods that I have found work time and time again for addressing undesired behaviors. These are not techniques that I myself developed, but rather learned over the years from articles and videos made by two extremely talented and knowledgeable animal trainers: Hillary Hankey (Avian Behavior International and also the Avian Behavior Lab, the latter of which I am a member of) and Barbara Heidenreich (Good Bird Inc.). The first method is simple: prevent the undesired behaviors from happening in the first place. Oftentimes, this just means interpreting and respecting your bird’s body language. For example, if you approach your bird and their response is to pin their eyes, crouch down, fluff up, and hiss, the best way to prevent being bit is to move away from the bird. In doing so, you are respecting their body language, which will only improve your relationship with your bird. There are of course other situations that are not as straight forward and require careful action on your part. For example, let’s say your bird only bites you out of misplaced aggression when another person they don’t like enters the room. The solution to this problem, at least at first, is to make sure that your bird is not on you when that person is around. Simple. Let’s take another example: your bird screams for attention when you are in the same room as them talking on the phone. The simple solution to this is to not talk on the phone in the same room as your bird. In all of these examples, notice how there aren’t any types of reinforcement in this prevention strategy.


There are times when preventing a situation from arising is impractical or non-ideal. If this is the case, I’d recommend utilizing the second strategy: differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior (DRI). This technique is tried and true, although it takes a bit more effort on everybody’s part. Ultimately, DRI is utilized to overtime stop an undesired behavior by conditioning a different behavior. This one can be confusing, so let’s get into it. A super common example of DRI is training a bird that usually lunges at you when you approach their food bowl to station on a perch on the other side of their enclosure. The bird cannot lunge at you if it is nowhere near you (hence, incompatible behavior). There are many strategies for actually implementing DRI in training, but one common strategy in this example is to use positive reinforcement to train the bird to go to the desired perch whenever you approach the cage. Slowly, you start introducing not only approaching the cage, but approaching their food bowl, and eventually interacting with their food bowl, all while the bird is receiving positive reinforcement (i.e., treats) for remaining on the desired perch. If you want to watch a truly excellent webinar on differential reinforcement, I highly recommend checking out this great one by Barbara on her "Animal Training Fundamentals with Barbara Heidenreich" facebook page.


Let’s go back to my own struggle with Petrie’s screaming. This is an ongoing issue, but we have made great progress using DRI in two different ways. The first way I use DRI is to provide Petrie with a foot toy stuffed with treats before I leave the room, which is often a trigger for his screaming. He can’t scream if he is using his beak to forage for treats—there’s the incompatible behavior. The reinforcement comes on its own in this case, when Petrie finally manages to get the treats from the foraging toy. The other strategy I use is to reinforce “acceptable” vocalization—such as Petrie saying “hi!” or playing peak-a-boo—when I am out of the room. He can’t scream if he is playing peak-a-boo or making other “acceptable” noises (hence, incompatible behavior). My approach has been to leave the room, wait for the screaming to stop (even if just for a few seconds), cue him to say a different word, and then reenter the room immediately after he responds. Usually, reentering the room is enough positive reinforcement such that I don’t have to give him a food treat. If he starts screaming again, I leave the room (negative punishment), wait for silence, cue a different word/noise, and reenter the room when he responds appropriately. After several repetitions of this, when I leave the room, Petrie won’t even scream before starting to vocalize appropriately. In other words, I’m not just ignoring the behavior when I leave the room but also incorporating other training tools such as DRI to achieve the desired result. If you follow me on Instagram, you may know that this DRI strategy has resulted in Petrie “sneezing” whenever I leave the room.


Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that just like any other form of training, consistency is key to success. It is also important to recognize that the two most common problem behaviors we want to prevent—biting and screaming—are not easy behaviors to change. I mentioned earlier that such behaviors are often self-reinforcing, meaning that they are enjoyable to the bird regardless of our response. It is unsurprising then that these behaviors can take a long time to change. Be patient with your bird and with yourself. Parrots are intricate beings and often lifelong companions. They deserve the time, respect, and effort from you as their human companion to work through difficult situations.


Dr. Stephanie Rosenbloom has her Ph.D. from Cornell University and has been caring for parrots her entire life. She believes that we can all benefit from asking more questions, seeking knowledge from reliable sources, and giving others the benefit of the doubt before drawing conclusions. She applies these concepts to her practice as a parrot trainer and behavior consultant.

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