Drama Rewards

Oh, how parrots like drama! They should all be on the Academy Awards selection committee, but since they can’t, they do it in our living room! Because they are extremely empathetic, they immediately pick up on our emotions (positive or unpleasant) and reflect them back to us via their actions. Even if you’ve only had your parrot for a few months, you’ve certainly observed his dramatic inclinations to respond to your mood in conversations with him. Unfortunately, this may be the start of many typical behavioral issues (biting, screaming, plucking, etc.) that we unintentionally encourage into harmful habits that we desperately wish to avoid.

Of course, this love of drama may also be beneficial. Amber, my Blue and Gold, is a TOTAL drama queen who likes being the center of attention and having an audience. One of her favorite things is to swing from her high-wire by her beak and feet, then when I scream “Amber, no hands!” she lets go of the bar with both hands, hanging just by her beak for a few seconds. We react by cheering, laughing, and passionately congratulating her on her ability!! Amber adores this trick and learnt it fairly instantly as a result of our passionate praising. Why? Again, the parrot’s penchant for drama! Amber enjoys Joseph because he is highly active and exuberant in his interactions with her – in other words, he generates a lot of (good) drama! Unfortunately, we humans tend to save our excitement mostly for the “bad,” so birds learn to labor for these (negative) drama rewards.

I just published an essay on “fast cures” and why they fail. Most fast foxes are solely based on drama incentives – shouting at the bird, squirting water, knocking on the cage, and so on. Because birds want attention, they will choose bad attention over no attention at all in a dysfunctional relationship (much like abused human children.) This starts the patterning of the behavioral issue.

So, how should you handle bad behaviors in order to prevent drama? To begin with, DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY! We love our parrots so much, and they love us so much, that we tend to personalize unpleasant behavior, but it isn’t meant to harm us – our friends aren’t evil plotters of vengeance! Ignore bad habits as much as possible while eagerly reinforcing favorable ones. If a bird attacks you, just say “No!” and “evil eye.” It’s necessary to tell him his biting is unacceptable, but sobbing, waving your finger in his face, and going on and on about his “badness” merely adds to the drama, which reinforces the behavior. Running to the cage and shrieking “SHUT UP!” at the top of your lungs is seen as an invitation to squawk together! Going up to a plucking bird and lecturing him on why he shouldn’t self-mutilate while pointing to and counting each feather on the cage floor validates the activity. If you come and see me every time I remove a feather, trust me, I’ll keep plucking those feathers out.

I have a juvenile macaw that has fallen and damaged his keel bone. He was in a lot of discomfort, so I would hold him close, rub him, and croon to him about how “poor baby” he was. He fell again shortly after, and since he was uncoordinated, I raced over and grabbed him up, hugged, and kissed him. It wasn’t long before this person started falling all the time since he enjoyed the attention I was giving him for it – yet another drama reward gone wrong!

So the secret is for us to attempt and outwit our parrots! Reduce your energy, take a deep breath, and stay alert. Avoid protracted, emotional replies; instead, ignore or simply admonish the conduct. Save your excitement for rewarding “positive” behaviour!

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