Success with Lee:
Rockx: Loud Repetitive Vocalizations
Reported by L.
McGuire and S.G. Friedman, PhD
The S Files are
real case studies of behavior challenges faced by companion parrots that were
successfully resolved using systematic change strategies, without force or
coercion. In all cases, the
interventionists are the parrots’ actual caregivers. Many of the caregivers have
little or no prior experience applying the teaching technology of applied
behavior analysis but all of them have a strong commitment to changing behavior
with the most positive, least intrusive effective strategies.
The S Files are
not behavior-change recipes. Train-by-numbers approaches often fail because
every bird is a study of one and
every relationship and setting is unique. However, the steps used in these case
studies can provide the scaffolding to better understand, predict, and change
behavior with your own parrots or those with whom you work. Appreciation and
admiration is extended to the many caregivers described in the S Files for
their willingness to share their dedication and behavior programs here. This S file describes a recent
intervention implemented by one of the authors’ own birds.
Lee McGuire: Caregiver
Rockx: Approximately 13 year old, Moluccan Cockatoo
In July of 2006, Rockx’s previous caregiver
arrived at the difficult decision to find Rockx a new home in order to provide
a better quality of life. Rockx arrived in my home carrying with him a
behavioral history that had worked for him in the past. Included in his past
behavioral repertoire were excessive and sustained vocalizations; general
apathy (inactivity); biting male family members; feather destructive behavior;
repetitive circling on his perch ending with a loud vocalization plus a 30-45
second delay (latency) before he would step-up. Rockx is fully wing-feathered
but he does not fly. In his former home he was a single bird housed either
alone in a bird room or on a stand in the living room. He now lives with three
other parrots, two dogs and a cat.
TARGET BEHAVIOR -- What is the one problem behavior you want to change?
Describe it in unambiguous, observable
Rockx vocalizes loudly and repeatedly
during the day and at bedtime. At the most, one, sometimes two, seconds elapse
between loud calls. This behavior can last anywhere from 1 minute to 30
minutes. Rockx also exhibits repetitive circling behavior on any perch. He will
circle in one spot 2 ½ times. Just before he puts his right foot down to
complete the third circle, he emits a loud screech. Without intervention, this
behavior can last for up to an hour.
ANTECEDENTS -- What events or conditions immediately precede the behavior that
may set it off? Specifically, consider the following possibilities:
GENERAL: Rockx is left alone.
WHEN is the problem behavior most likely to occur?
When Rockx has had no caregiver contact
for more than one hour and is not actively
engaged in playing with toys, foraging for a portion of his daily food intake,
preening or napping.
With the exception of paper and wooden
toys, when new events or situations occur.
When put to bed at night.
When the doorbell rings.
When one of the other parrots flies “over” rather
than flies “by” where Rockx is perched.
When Rockx sights
any outside bird no matter the size or airplane in the sky.
B. WHERE does the problem behavior occur?
In any location when there has been little
direct caregiver attention or interaction for variable times or when one of the
three parrots flies over his head. When outdoors, if wild birds or high flying
planes that pass overhead Rockx screeches loudly.
WHO is present when the problem behavior occurs (people and pets)?
vocalizations occur when I or other family members are present including my
brother, two dogs, a cat and 3 other parrots.
When is the parrot most successful, that is, when doesn’t the problem behavior
When Rockx is receiving direct caregiver
attention, chewing up wooden blocks, shredding paper, investigating the cage or
play tree, preening or napping.
How might the behavior relate to behavior in the wild?
In the wild, the vocalizations may serve
communication purposes including contact calls with mates or peers, general
alarm calls or attraction of mates.
CONSEQUENCES - What is the purpose or “payoff” for engaging in the behavior?
Positive reinforcers gained:
and interaction with caregiver
Item or Proximity
sensory reinforcement for vocalizing and petting
Feedback: received from caregiver.
B. Negative reinforcers removed,
escaped or avoided:
SUMMARY - FUNCTIONAL ASSESSMENT OF THE INITIAL PROBLEM BEHAVIORS:
A: Background: Rockx has been left alone for a period of
Antecedent (A): One hour of no attention; not engaged in an activity
Behavior (B): Rockx vocalizes loudly
Consequence (C): Lee provides attention
of future behavior if nothing changes: Rockx will continue to vocalize to get Lee’s
Background: Lee is in the room the same room as Rockx.
Antecedent (A): One hour of no
attention; not engaged in an activity
Behavior (B): Rockx circles
2 ½ times then screeches
Consequence (C): Lee provides
of future behavior if nothing changes: Rockx will
continue to screech
V. REPLACEMENT BEHAVIOR - What
alternate behavior(s) would meet the same function for the parrot? What behavior(s) do you ultimately want the
parrot to do?
I. PRELIMINARY STRATEGIES - How
can you adjust the environment, including what you do, so that the behavior
doesn’t occur in the first place? What behavior can you teach or re-teach so
the parrot can successfully demonstrate the replacement behavior?
Antecedent Changes to
Changes to Reinforce Alternate Behaviors
New Skills and
Place the cage in a location
where Rockx is included as part of the family and has the opportunity to
interact with both humans and other parrots throughout the day.
Put caregiver interaction
with Rockx on a schedule so that he will learn when Lee’s direct attention is
available, when it’s not, as well as
when it’s time to go to sleep.
Take Rockx for a walkabout
and sing a song to him just prior to bedtime.
Add multiple foraging and toy
opportunities to the cage increasing the complexity as each one is mastered.
Modify cage interior, and
tree/stand configurations to increase the probability of successful toy and
Increase amount of exercise
Rockx gets through the use of targeting, flapping exercises, climbing ropes/
apparatus and running games.
Place the kitchen tree in such a way that
Rockx can observe activities but is not close enough to be alarmed by any of
the activities but close enough that he can observe all the action and choose
where or not to join in the activities. Move stands closer depending on safety
and interest. Repeat in other rooms of the
Position the cage such that
Rockx might observe the active 25 year old Mitred conure foraging,
interacting with, and picking up, toys in the cage.
· Reinforce each, and every, pleasant sound (talking, whistling,
soft quiet vocalizations) that Rockx makes by providing immediate attention
and by answering contact calls.
· Reinforce longer durations of toy playing, foraging activities
and independent play with a moment or two of direct attention.
· Throughout the day, provide a few seconds of direct attention in
the form of a few words or a quick pet while Rockx is engaged in any activity
that does not involve loud vocalizations.
· Leave the room with- drawing Lee’s attention each time Rockx
makes loud and repetitive vocalizations. Say “Goodbye” to mark problem
vocalization followed immediately by withdrawal of my attention.
nearness to new objects, and situations, in the home environment both inside
the frequency of step-ups asked for ensuring that the outcome is not always a
return to the cage, tree or being left alone.
· Teach Rockx to climb ropes, and rope type
activity centers to increase the overall amount of exercise he gets as well
as increase the amount of positive reinforcement available.
Rockx to target and “recall” which
will provide increased running exercise and more reinforcement.
· Put the
“circling” behavior on cue, and slowly, over a period of time, fade offering
PRINCIPLES, PROCEDURES AND OUTCOMES
After a few days of observation and data
collection, I developed a systematic, multifaceted strategy to replace two of
Rockx’s problem behaviors - screaming and circling. While the change of homes was undoubtedly stressful
to him, I made every effort to allow him the opportunity to make choices in his
new surroundings always keeping a watchful eye on any body language he emitted.
Any “escape” or “avoidance” movements
that might indicate fear or discomfort were noted and the plan modified
accordingly. In other words, I systematically
desensitized Rockx to new rooms, movements, sounds and household objects by
never going further than his comfort level, as evidenced by relaxed stance,
eyes and feathers. Nearness to new toys, animals, play stands and trees were
carefully shaped using tiny approximations of the final desired target
behavior. Praise, petting, pine nuts and almonds were used as reinforcers.
Numerous antecedent changes were necessary for this intervention. One of the
setting events for Rockx behavior
that I altered was positioning the cage in a high traffic room where
interaction with family members was assured. Rockx was put on an “attention
schedule” that allowed him to learn when both ambient and direct attention
would be available. That type of schedule allowed him to relax and engage in
other activities at other times of the day, rather than anticipating
Another type of antecedent that I put to
good use is known as an Establishing
Operation (EO). EOs change the relative value of the reinforcer that
follows behavior either increasing or decreasing that reinforcer’s
strength. In this case, I took Rockx on
a walkabout providing lots of direct attention prior to bedtime. This strategy
allowed Rockx to fill up on my attention prior to going to bed thereby reducing
the likelihood of vocalizing for more attention.
As can be seen from the Functional
Assessment in Part IV, caregiver attention maintained the excessive
vocalizations. In the morning, late afternoon and evening, I would spend about
10-15 minutes teaching Rockx new, or reviewing old, behaviors such as recall,
climbing, targeting, wings out, turnaround, step-up. The effect on Rockx was
twofold. He would be getting more caregiver attention plus receive greater
amounts of positive reinforcement for learning new behaviors or performing old
ones better. As well, a fresh daily supply of wooden, and paper, chewables were
made readily accessible. As Rockx activity increased, I very slowly shaped
moving more and working longer in order to engage interactively with the toys.
This helped Rockx build up some stamina in preparation for activities such a
rope climbing and running.
You may be asking yourself why exercise would be a component of any
plan that purports to reduce excessive vocalizations. A bird that is tired from exercise is less
likely to engage in maladaptive behavior such as excessive vocalizations.
Additionally, the exercise itself can become an intrinsic positive reinforcer.
Positioning Rockx cage next to an active 25 year old Mitred conure who
makes good use to the entire cage, inside and out, allowed observational learning to take place. Rockx was observed carefully
watching the conure removing and interacting with toys from the toy basket on
the floor of his cage and then copying the behavior.
I further used to
two types of Differential Reinforcement to change Rockx’ behavior. Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible
(DRI) behavior was used to rapidly reduce excessive vocalizations. The
principle behind DRI is that Rockx can’t loudly vocalize and talk, whistle
or speak softly at the same time. When Rockx receives more attention from me, a
positive reinforcer for him, for the less “noisy” behaviors those sorts of
vocalizations will occur more often as they require less effort than loud
sustained screeches along with garnering the attention reinforcer he was
seeking. I also implemented a Differential Reinforcement of Alternative
(DRA) strategy for interacting
with foraging toys and shredding. Rockx can still loudly vocalize while chewing
and foraging but if the reinforcement is sufficient - he will not. The key
component was adding attention, his reinforcer of choice, in careful amounts
and then fading the amount of attention as time past. I ensured that Rockx
initially had easy access to chewing and foraging opportunities and then slowly
increased the duration and complexity necessary to obtain the reinforcer.
Within the first two weeks loud
vocalizations dropped radically. Five months later, I am very pleased to
report that Rockx no longer vocalizes loudly and repetitively throughout the
day nor at bedtime. Rockx’s contact call is a soft vocalization, a whistle or
“Hi Rockx” and the circle/screech behavior has reduced to once every week or
so. He is now playing and chewing more as well as becoming more confident,
resilient and investigative as each day passes.