ARTICLES | Parrot Problems

ABC-analysis for problem behaviour in parrots

While trying to solve problem behaviors, ABC-analysis is an extremely helpful tool.
ABC stands for the three areas that we need to understand, to facilitate a solution to the problem.
The A stands for antecedent. This is whatever happened just before the behavior was shown. B stands for behavior. This would be the problem behavior which we are trying to correct. Finally, C stands for consequence, or what happened right after the behavior was shown.
I treat problem behaviour on the basis that behavior does not develop in a vacuum and that most behaviors can be changed. ABC-Analysis helps us to identify the triggers and rewards for behavior. This enables us to approach the problem in a focused manner which makes a successful therapy so much more likely.

How is behavior formed?

Your parrot’s behavior develops through many different factors right from the time of hatching. These factors may be the form of rearing, environment, keeping conditions and the way he is treated. The bird will continuously learn new behaviors as a response to changes in his life. Each change will trigger a behavior. This behavior is reinforced, if showing it was worthwhile to your parrot.
In many cases the bird owner’s reaction to a new behaviour is reinforcing to his bird. For example the bird gets spooked by something and screams. The owner tries to “calm” him down by talking gently to him and maybe even giving him a treat. Thus, the bird will learn that screaming is worthwhile. It gives him his owner’s attention and a treat. Even worse in this example, the bird being scared is also likely to be reinforced by the owner’s reaction. Thus he may end up with a phobic, screaming bird. Not the kind of feathered companion one would wish for, is it?

How can I change behavior?

There are basically two means to get rid of a behavior

1. Avoid anything that triggers the behavior
2. Avoid reinforcing the behavior

Depending on the behavior we wish to change, we must avoid the trigger or reinforcer of the behavior, ideally both. In our example about the phobic, screaming parrot this would be avoiding anything that could spook the bird and completely ignoring his reaction. However, if for example the bird was spooked by another bird flying by the window, this would be really difficult to avoid. In that case we could only work with avoiding the reinforcement of the behavior.
If the behavior has already been firmly learned, the trigger is not that relevant anymore. In that case too your focus must be to avoid the behavior being worthwhile to your bird.

A completely different example is breeding behavior. Not rewarding this behavior is something that is impossible to do. After all the bird does not start to breed, because we give her attention or a treat. We do not have any control whatsoever over the rewards of breeding behaviour. In this case, our best approach is to completely avoid any triggers. Many birds will not get into breeding behaviour, if they do not have any nesting sites available. No nest boxes, obviously, but also not drawers, snugglies etc. Also shortened daylight hours and loads of activity may help to alleviate breeding behavior in parrots.

It is important, to address problem behavior, as early as possible. It is much easier to alleviate such behavior in its early stages, before it has become firmly established. Remember also that all sudden behavior changes may be indicators of medical problems. Thus the first step in any behavior therapy is without exception to take you bird to an experienced avian vet.

How to carry out an ABC-analysis – The problem journal

Triggers and rewards of behaviors can of course only be avoided, once they have been identified. As real life situations are usually complex, it may be difficult to identify exactly what the triggers and rewards for a behavior are. This is where a problem behavior journal comes in really handy. By collecting information regularly, you get into a position where patterns become obvious that you would simply not be able to see in a day to day situation. Yes, it is tedious to keep a journal and it requires discipline. But, hey, you are trying to solve a problem and this tool will help you. Written notes tend to be more objective than your memory which tends to be selective. It also doesn’t change. A journal will also help you to collect information in the required detail, as you are addressing each item on the list. A detailed problem journal will also help to differentiate between similar, yet distinct behaviors. A bite is not a bite is not a bite. I hope I could convince you that in the end it really is worth the effort of keeping such a journal. 

How do you go about it?

Note into your problem journal for each situation in which the behavior occurs the details pertaining to it with respect to the “A”, “B” and “C” aspects of the analysis.

Following this, your problem journal could look something like this:

date / time
from – until
surroundings A: What happened immediately before the behavior was shown? B: detailed description of the behavior C: Reaction to the behavior
10:43 – 10:50
Coco sat in his cage in the living room. We (Mom, Dad, Grandma (on a visit), Tim and Tina) were in the kitchen. Dad laughed Coco screamed Mom yelled „quiet“, Tina ran to Coco, to give him a treat so he would be quiet (she is afraid that her parents will get rid of Coco otherwise)

Record all such situations into your problem journal for a few days or however long it takes. This way you can for example find out, if Coco only screams when Dad laughs, or if he screams regardless of who is laughing. You can find out whether he only screams when he is alone with everyone else being in another room. You would also come to understand, if Coco only screams when you have visitors, etc.
With this kind of detailed knowledge about a behavior, it is so much easier to come up with an appropriate treatment.

Enjoy observing. 😉


Ps. Here’s more on how to get help once you have completed your ABC-analysis.