Yesterday afternoon, Barbara Heidenreich posted the following status on her Facebook page:
Oh my. I think my parrot Delbert has said “That’s a Poo Poo” 400 times today. Ah yes, positive reinforcement does work : )
If one of my birds started repeating that phrase, I would surely have to stab myself.
Granted, the behavior is cute, once. You can see for yourself in the video Barbara posted on her YouTube channel:
So what do you think? Adorable or annoying?
Don’t get me wrong, I think Delbert is adorable, and I’m glad that Barbara is so tickled that her bird is repeating a phrase that she likes. She’s a smart lady, and her training techniques are the bomb. I’ve been to one of her awesome workshops, and I plan on attending more in the future.
I just don’t want my bird saying, “that’s a poo poo!” I am sure that it would drive…me…crazy.
Which is why it’s worth pointing out that desirable behavior, just like positive reinforcement, is in the eye of the beholder.
I find it interesting, and somewhat coincidental, that Meg over at A Parrot for Keeps wrote about the same thing, yesterday:
What qualifies as a well-behaved parrot is always going to vary from person to person. And how to achieve whatever your definition of a well-behaved parrot is will also vary widely.
She is absolutely right.
Here are a few examples that come from my experience:
My old African Grey, Coco, absolutely would not put his beak on anyone, unless he was going to bite. I got the impression that his previous owners discouraged him from beaking human skin, and when he first came to us, he would actually appear nervous if his beak accidentally touched someone. He had somehow learned that beak touching skin was equated to biting, which was forbidden. Although I tried, I was never able to fully convince him that nibbling was okay, while biting was not. The closest he would allow himself was some gentle nibbling on my shirt. Every once in a while he’d let me grab his beak and poke at his tongue, but he would never reach out and nibble skin. He’d been taught that it just wasn’t okay.
Now in my house, beaks on skin is 100% permissible and encouraged. Parrots use their beaks to communicate, to preen and to play, and it would be a whole heck of a lot less fun around here if my birds didn’t nibble and sometimes play-bite me. As far as I’m concerned, as long as a bird isn’t hurting me or punching holes in my clothing, she’s welcome to nibble, play-bite or preen away.
The same thing can be said about birds sitting on your shoulder. Some experts will tell you that, under no circumstances, should a bird be allowed to sit there. Other people will tell you it’s fine. I let my birds sit on my shoulder because a) it’s a convenient place for them, b) they like it there, c) they usually step off without much complaint and d) they aren’t inclined to bite me in the face. That doesn’t mean that inviting Luna to your shoulder would be a good idea (it probably isn’t) and it doesn’t mean that I’d let anybody’s random parrot sit on mine.
So again, desirable behavior is in the eye of the beholder.
As I’ve started working more with my birds, when I consider the behaviors I want to reinforce, and those I don’t, I try to keep an eye towards the future. I find myself asking the question, “if something were to happen to me and my wife, is this a behavior that my birds’ future human companion would find desirable?”
If the answer is a resounding no, then I skip to the next thing.
This is why, I think, it’s probably not a good idea to teach your bird to curse. Although I know young guys in college dorm rooms think it’s hilariously funny if their cockatoo can swear and open beer bottles, the next family that takes him might not be so amused. Worse, these kind of parrot antics can really offend the neighbors, and make for difficult relations. The family next door might not resent a few minutes of Tweety’s noise in the mornings and evenings, but they absolutely won’t appreciate his cussing up a blue streak in front of their five-year-old.
True story: as a kid, my family ended up with some temporary neighbors who had some sort of parrot that cursed all day long. I’m guessing I was about 11 at the time, and my sister would have been about 9. My mother was completely offended that we were hearing the f-word dozens of times an hour. She marched over and demanded the neighbors hush their bird, and they responded by keeping him covered all day long.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but in retrospect, I feel sorry for the parrot. It wasn’t his fault his owners had taught him bad manners.
So I guess the upshot of what I’m saying here is that it’s probably wise to give some consideration to the behaviors you encourage from your parrot. It’s important to remember that they have incredibly long lives, and it’s not uncommon for a bird to live in a few different homes during the course of his life. Just because you think something is cute doesn’t mean that the next guy won’t find it a problem behavior, so give a little thought to the long-term consequences of what you teach.
In my experience, it’s easier to teach desirable behaviors from the beginning, than to erase undesirable ones.