What Reinforces A Parrot's Behavior?

What Reinforces A Parrot’s Behavior?

 August 25th, 2014
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Umbrella cockatoo

To reinforce a parrot’s behavior means to respond to something they do in a way that makes it beneficial enough for your parrot that it will be repeated. We do want to reinforce behaviors that we are training and we do so by offering treats for a job well done. But it is very easy to inadvertently reinforce behaviors that we don’t want such as biting or screaming. We have all been guilty of this at some time during our journey with our parrots.

You will often hear “ignore screaming and reward quiet” when it comes to stopping screaming behaviors. But when you do this the wrong way you can easily reinforce their behavior – I know a lot of people struggle to understand what is and what isn’t reinforcing. I want to share an experience I had recently that I think will be helpful because it points out how my actions might have resulted in reinforcing screaming:

Linus is a good sleeper. He doesn’t make noise at night unless something loud wakes him up. Usually, it just takes him hearing my voice telling him to go back to sleep to quiet him. However, when Linus is hormonal, he doesn’t sleep well and I can count on at least a couple of nights a year where he wakes up and starts calling for me. Typically, it isn’t loud and I can get him back to sleep by acknowledging his calls and telling him to “go to bed”.

But this time it was different. I could hear him wandering around his cage in the dark and then he started yelling loudly and persistently. It was nearly 2am and I needed to get him quiet FAST.

I went out to his cage to try to calm him down – he was very stressed (hormones do that to him) and I calmed him down with my own calm energy and went back to bed. About 20 minutes later I could hear him wandering the cage again – a few minutes later the yelling started again. I reluctantly went back to the cage to quiet him. I have now gone running to him twice after he started yelling. Two times already he has gotten my attention by screaming for me. A third time might be all he needs for this to become a habit.

After I quieted him for the second time, I laid awake trying to figure out how to handle the next screaming bout I felt sure was going to happen. I couldn’t ignore the screaming in the middle of the night but I couldn’t run to him a third time either.

So I waited until I heard him rummaging around his cage again (knowing this preceded the screaming) and I went into his room at that point and spent time trying to get him fully calm before I returned to bed. By going to him BEFORE he screamed, I was able to keep him quiet without responding to his screaming and reinforcing that behavior.

Because Linus never got around to screaming again he was not as worked up this third time I went to him and he was much more relaxed and receptive to matching my energy level. He was finally quiet for the rest of the night following this visit.


There are many things that will reinforce a behavior for a bird. Laughing at the wrong time, or over-reaction to something on our part will do it – birds find the strangest things entertaining. That is reason enough to repeat a behavior. This is especially true of young or new birds where everything you do is being closely monitored.

If you have been careful with your own behaviors with your bird for a period of time (i.e. NOT running to them when they scream) they are less likely to be reinforced by a single misaction on your part because they already know that your response isn’t the norm.

However, even the best training can go south if you aren’t consistent. If something unusual happens once, it is an anomaly. Twice, it might be a coincidence. Three time suggests a pattern, though, and your bird is smart enough to understand this and use it to his benefit.

YOUR actions will inspire your bird’s behaviors. Think before you react.

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10 Comments on “What Reinforces A Parrot’s Behavior?”

Ryan  08/27/2014 9:15 am

I’m just curious. I haven’t heard much from the Womacks lately. Are they coming out with any new things soon or maybe doing a Skype or some online thing? Would love to hear about what they’ve been up to lately. 🙂

Max  08/28/2014 3:12 am

My birds usually scream for a specific purpose; “We heard you’re awake, now get up! PLEASE!”

Helen  08/28/2014 3:49 am

Help….My bird has lost all her belly feathers. She has laid 2 eggs. I took her eggs out of her box.(she does not like the male bird.} Her feathers never grew back. How or what happened???

Clumpner Archives  08/28/2014 3:49 am

Are there supplements, foods, or herbs that one can get that will mitigate their hormonal issues?
My tiel becomes very possessive in his cage periodically and I suspect this to be a hormonal reaction.

Jesse  08/28/2014 6:25 am

A few times a year my Goffin cockatoo, Sunny, will refuse to go to sleep and scream all night. Seeing as I live in a tight apartment complex with exceptionally thin walls and echoing hallways, any loud noises after 10pm are an issue. The only thing I’ve found to quiet him is to sleep on the couch next to his cage with him on my lap. However, this usually results in my couch getting a few new holes and having substantially less stuffing in it by morning. Fortunately these events are rarely near the same time (typically separated by several months) so I have been hoping I’m not reinforcing the behavior, but ~3 times a year for 6 years does add up to a pattern that I’m afraid Sunny is noticing.

I assume these are hormonally driven events, but do you have any suggestions of something else to try next time?

Andy  08/28/2014 1:06 pm

My military screams off and on all day. He sits on his perch crouched down with one (sometimes both) wings flapping and screamssss until I pick him up. If I don’t pick him up he continues screaming….what’s this mean and how can I stop it?

Ian  08/29/2014 7:05 am

my bird is a very picky eater and when I say very, I mean VERY. The place that I bought her from was feeding her mixed seeds for god knows how long. I wanted to know how I could get her to eat more fresh fruits and veggies because I am concerned that she does not eat enough. I have tried giving her some of our food, cutting things into different sizes, even in mash but it doesn’t seem to work. I don’t want to give her the seed mix because she only eats the sunflower seeds and the rest falls to the bottom of her cage. What can be done to get her to eat healthy? Thanks so much for any help!

Samantha Wilkinson  08/30/2014 1:10 pm

I have a 6 year old blue and gold macaw named Bentley that my husband and I rescued a couple of weeks ago. We have never owned a big bird before and have done as much research as we can to educate ourselves and do everything right. I am afraid however, that we are missing something. Bentley will act aggressively half the time and the other half is the perfect bird. I am afraid that it is getting worse and I worry about our 5 children getting bitten since we don’t know when he will strike. He will be in a good mood and cuddly and just all of a sudden get aggressive. I have been watching your videos and have tried click training but he doesn’t seem to be responding, he just gets crabby. I know it has to be something that we are doing but I don’t know what….HELP!!!!!!

Loraine from South Africa  09/22/2014 3:40 am

Why does my African Grey plucking out his red feathers. She gets a healthy dient

She is for-eveerr without a tail!!!!

Lloyd  09/22/2014 12:21 pm

when my cockatoo does something wrong such as screaming all I have to do is show her a spray bottle of water and she will stop and go to the fartherist part of the cage. she does not like to be sprayed with water but does like the to be in shower. When she does something we like we tel her good bird.If she talks we will let her out of her cage but if she is banging her things we will spray her,
and say BAD bird.