This week, Quentin my African Grey has been making some perfectly imitated cockatiel noises. Mostly the loud contact call. This escalated today, where Quentin was sitting in the next room making loud cockatiel noises every few seconds.
If we start using labels, we would fall into the trap of “giving it a name” but not actually providing any solutions. If I label this behaviour “sassy”, would that help? Would that give me any idea what to do? Would it help Quentin make a different noise, or make better choices?
Avoid the labels by clearly describing the behaviour: Quentin is vocalizing loudly.
Then we ask: “What’s The Function?”. Dr Susan Friedman has coined this term, and lovingly taught us to check each behaviour with a WTF. What possible function could this vocalization behaviour have for Quentin?
Most likely Quentin is vocalizing to get attention. He is in a different room. He can fly, so he can move rooms if needed. He is not flying, he is vocalizing. Quentin is probably attention-seeking.
The function helps us by understanding the motivation. Quentin wants attention. He really, really wants attention, and is vocalizing loudly and repeatedly. Therefore we know a) attention is highly valuable aka reinforcing for Quentin and b) I must have accidentally reinforced this vocalization before…
What do we do about it? Now that we have a function, we can use it to our advantage. I think to myself: ‘Hey Quentin! You want attention? Make a noise that’s more pleasant.’ In this case, I chose a whistle, and waited. When Quentin did the whistle, I immediately rushed over and gave him attention. BINGO! Good job Quentin!
The next time he wants attention, what behaviour will he try? The loud cockatiel noise? Or the Whistle? And more importantly, which one are you going to reinforce with your attention?
A happy parrot is reinforced for behaviours we want to see. If you’re not sure what’s going on with a behaviour, ask yourself What’s The Function? WTF?