The ABC of Behaviour Change in Parrots

Presenter – Dr Laurie Hess DVM,Dipl ABVP (Avian), an internationally recognized expert on bird and exotic pet medical care. Owner and founder of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in New York.

My knowledge of parrot medicine isn’t substantial and I know even less about their behavioural issues. I realise without a history and passion for the subject, I will never be a parrot guru but after listening to Dr Laurie Hess I now feel I have at least stepped up a rung on my understanding of the behaviour of parrots.

Dr Hess works in a Veterinary Centre for birds and exotics within the USA and wanted to offer her advice on following a practical protocol for behaviour change using applied behavioural analysis. Susan Friedman from the land of human psychology came up with this protocol for parrots having dealt with many children with behavioural issues. Her theory was based on transferring the protocols she uses to treat children across to parrots with behavioural issues such as biting when asked to ‘step up’ to a hand or screaming when an owner leaves a room.

Dr Hess cited a case of a parrot called Myrtle who was about to get her owners evicted from their house due to her incessant and repeated screaming when the owners left her alone. After performing a thorough clinical examination, Dr Hess started by performing an ABC summary on this particular case. Myrtles A (antecedent), B (behaviour) and C (consequences to the behaviour) were as follows.

A: The Owner leaves the room

B: Myrtle screams

C: The owner goes to the cage to get Myrtle to stop

Myrtle’s likely continual behaviour would be to continue to scream in order to get the owner to come back to the cage. The aim of the applied behaviour analysis is to replace the undesired behaviours initially with replacement behaviour and finally with a desired behaviour which in Myrtle’s case is to play quietly with her toys whilst the owner leaves the room. The best incentive for Myrtle was food and the owner would repeatedly drop food into the cage if she was passing by and Myrtle was sitting quietly. The time that Myrtle would need to be quiet was gradually increased before she got her food treat. From this point the owner would then leave the room and reward Myrtle only when she was reasonably quiet and playing with her toys. Again the time for these periods of quiet needed to increase before Myrtle could get a treat. This training can take weeks, if not months to perform and would likely need to be re-enforced for the rest of the bird’s life.

Obviously this type of behavioural training takes a lot of owner commitment and a lot of time for the vet to explain all the necessary information and answer any questions. However over time Myrtle’s screaming became a lot more acceptable and you will be pleased to hear her owners escaped eviction.

To get more information on how this protocol works it is well worth logging on to ‘The Webinar Vet’ and taking a look. I am still of the opinion that if I get a parrot with a behavioural issue I will probably refer to a specialist but having the appropriate seed of knowledge is really useful as I know things can be done to help owners who are suffering at the hand of their parrot’s behaviour.

The Stethoscope (MRCVS)