Drama Reward

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The Drama Reward

or How To Reward Your Parrot Without Really Trying!

By Liz Wilson, Parrot Behavior Consultant

Not long ago, I received a phone call from a very excited lady who wanted to know how to stop her budgie from chasing her children around the house. My answer was simple: "Tell your kids to stop running!" Obviously, the budgie was having a wonderful time -- he would swoop over, shrieking his head off, and the kids would scream and run. What a great game! 

Inexperienced parrot owners often make the mistake of rewarding their birds without realizing it, and this can obviously lead to problems -- especially when the person thinks he or she is punishing the bird. The most common way to do this is through what we call The Drama Reward

Sally & Bongo Marie

Sally Blanchard tells a wonderful story that really illustrates this concept. Years ago, Sally's African grey parrot, Bongo Marie, had been chewing on the wooden cafe doors next to her cage, and Sally had understandably been trying to discourage this. So whenever Sally heard the sound of splintering wood, she would come running, yelling "Bongo, BAD BIRD -- Get back on your cage!" This routine went on for several months, with the behavior continuing despite Sally's best efforts. Then one night, with Sally sitting in the same room, Bongo started making the sound of splintering wood!

The moral of the story? Bongo enjoyed Sally's running in and yelling -- that was even more fun than actually chewing on the wood (and heaven knows, parrots LOVE to chew on wood)! Bongo loved the drama of her pet per-son yelling and she also liked making Sally appear when she wanted. Sally may have thought she was reprimanding Bongo for being destructive, but in actuality she was rewarding her!

Rewards for Screaming

I do phone consultations all the time, and one of the more common problems I'm confronted with is excessive screaming. When I ask the owners what they do to stop the bird from making a racket, people usually tell me they do one or more of the following: they rush back into the bird's room and yell at it, or let it out of the cage, or they give it something to eat to shut it up. 

And then the human can't understand why the hideous noises don't stop! Obviously, the behavior is going to continue and probably get worse, because the owner is actually rewarding the bird -- NOT punishing it.

Fun & Games, Parrot Style: BITING

Parrot owners make the same mistake when they yell at a parrot for biting -- the reality is that parrots LOVE it when we yell at them. From the parrot's point of view, there are few things in the world as much fun as getting your person mad enough to yell at you. Watch closely, and you'll see the little monster's eyes flash in excitement! And the next time the little fellow gets bored, don't be surprised if he bites you, again -- just for the fun and excitement of it!


Another fun parrot scenario is The Foot Chasing Game. The rules are simple. The parrot gets down on the floor and runs at the feet of the nearest human. The human, anticipating tender toes being bitten, lets out a whoop and dances around the room, waving their arms and yelling. Now, put yourself in the parrot's place -- how could any game be better than this?!!


Another nifty game is what I call "Catch Me If You Can". It is generally played when the parrot is on top of its cage and the human is late for work and in a hurry to get the bird back in the cage. The owner reaches for the bird. The parrot, fully understanding the joys of this game, ducks and runs to the back of the cage, well out of reach. The human, reacting in true play fashion, yells at the bird, then rushes around to the other side of the cage and makes a grab. The parrot, really getting into it now, faints to the left, dodges to the right, and escapes again. The human is now yelling and getting red in the face, which REALLY tickles the parrot! Times like this, I've known certain little feathered individuals to gleefully yell, Bad-Bird-Bad-Bird!! while playing this game. What fun!

Illogical Higher Life Form

In all of these cases, the bird is not trying to be bad at all -- it thinks the human is playing, too. It does not understand that the person's yelling indicates anger -- after all, parrots yell simply for the fun of it, right? So it is illogical of us humans ("higher life form" that we're supposed to be) to expect that they should perceive a human yelling as a reprimand. We humans consider yelling to be negative feedback because we don't like it when someone yells at us -- so we mistakenly assume that our parrots feel the same way -- and we are very wrong!

Negative feedback a lá Nurturing Dominance

Since parrots love drama, the point is obviously to avoid drama when you want a particular behavior to stop. If you have a relationship of nurturing dominance established then reprimanding a parrot in a manner it understands is easy. If you are late for work and need to put it in its cage, you simply say Up and your well-trained parrot will step onto your hand, so putting him/her away is ridiculously easy. If your parrot screams from another room, you do absolutely nothing. Under NO circumstance should you go into the room to punish them, because if you do, the next time they want you to appear, they will yell. If your parrot screams for attention when you're in the same room, you give it a REALLY ugly look (the Evil Eye) and say No in a firm, unfriendly but not loud voice. If your parrot bites, you quietly and firmly say No and ladder the little monster from one hand to the other several times, using the Up command in conjunction with the Evil Eye. (I never felt the need to de-fine the word "several" until I discovered a client laddering her parrot 35-40 times as a reprimand. So several is hereby defined as five or six.)

NOT a fun game....

Parrots do not care for these disciplinary techniques, so the techniques constitute negative, not positive feedback. Consequently, if you are consistent (and that's the key word) in their use, your parrot will learn not to do the behaviors that result in them. In this manner, you won't be accidentally rewarding your parrot for behaviors that you would like to eliminate, not reinforce.

Liz Wilson has been assisting pet bird owners with parrot behavior problems for over a decade through lectures, phone consultations and house calls in the Greater Philadelphia area.
A regular contributor to The Pet Bird Report, Bird Times, and Parrots Magazine, she can be reached at via e-mail at: Lwilsoncvt@aol.com, via phone at: (215) 946-5964 or through her website at: Up at Six



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Last modified: November, 2007