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Home » 2009 - Issue 3, Behaviour, Companion Parrots, Featured Article, Issue

Straight Talk About Behaviour

By By Susan Friedman, PhD
Dept of Psychology, Utah State University



Have you ever heard the expression, “It’s like herdin’ cats”? That describes some of the best days working on our internet list, Parrot Behavior Analysis Solutions (PBAS;

PBAS is not a chat group; it’s a special interest work group dedicated to applying the scientific principles of behavior to living and learning with companion parrots. In light of the many preconceived and deeply-rooted notions about parrot behavior, not to mention behavior in general, maintaining this scientific focus is sometimes just like herdin’ cats! Still, there isn’t another crowd with whom I’d rather spend my Saturdays.

You may be thinking, “A science of behavior? Gee, isn’t anything left to common sense anymore?” Unfortunately, the subject of companion parrot behavior has been left to so-called common sense too long and it has proven to be far more common then sensible.

Common sense is often little more than a social record of folk wisdom, clichés and homilies about behavior. Common sense maintains the status quo, so we continue to do what we know best rather than seeking out the best we can do.

Our widespread acceptance of common sense information about parrot behavior has produced too many experts with too little expertise.

As a result, caregivers are often trying desperately to follow completely conflicting advice — sometimes found in the same book or magazine, or even in the very same article. Many of the problems people experience with parrots in their homes are either caused, or exacerbated, by this lack of basic scientific knowledge about learning and behavior.

Common sense tends to be inconsistent as a source of knowledge because, by definition, it is not grounded in scientific methods that aim for congruence of facts and theories.  The scientific method is not a single set of rules; rather it is defined by three general principles, all of them essential to our quest to understand, predict and influence parrot behavior for successful companionship in our home.

First, science employs methods of systematic observation of measurable phenomena. The current understanding of parrot behavior is plagued with vaguely defined labels and immeasurable concepts called hypothetical constructs, discussed further below.

Second, science aims to produce publicly verifiable knowledge through replication and peer review.  In the realm of parrot behavior, an “anything goes” attitude often prevails, characterized by such statements as “Only you know what’s best for your parrot.”  Too often disagreements about best practices are dismissed as merely political. This trivializes the urgent need for dialogue, education, and dissemination of replicable approaches.

Third, science seeks explanations that are testable.  Many of the assertions that characterize conventional wisdom about parrot behavior cannot be quantified and therefore cannot be tested. For example, do birds of a feather flock together or do opposites attract?  Do we spare the rod and spoil the [parrot] or do we treat our parrots as we wish to be treated?

Recently, with parrot training curricula popping up like mushrooms on the internet, bad advice is just plain out of control. These ads are slick and the sellers convincing:

“TIRED OF THOSE PERNICIOUS PARROT PROBLEMS? For just $759.99 ($59.99 if you buy now) you too can learn to don a leather glove, drag your struggling parrot out of its cage, and hold on to its feet until it learns to love you! Bandages are included so you can wear your scars proudly like the real experts!”

After all, common sense tells us that to know parrots is to be bitten by them. No?  We need to snap out of it.  Common sense is a myth.  And myths cannot be given the same status as scientific information if we are to provide well for our parrots.  Unfortunately science has a hard time competing with hype, and this is especially true with behavior science.

As parrot caregivers, we need to be critical thinkers skilled at evaluating knowledge claims and expert opinion; we need to resist the appeal of explanatory fictions, razzamatazz promises and feigned fixes; and we need to learn the basic principles of learning and behavior without the oversimplification that dilutes accuracy.  Given the rapid rise in the sale and subsequent relinquishment of scores of companion parrots yearly, it is clear we have no more time to lose.

Below are five common fallacies about behavior science and parrot behavior that we routinely discuss on the PBAS list as new people join us.  In addressing these fallacies we provide people with straight talk about behavior.  Our goal is to inspire parrot caregivers to look further and learn more about behavior science and living and learning with parrots.  A reading list is provided at the end of this article to get you on your way.  It’s really not a very steep climb. It’s just that for most of us, it’s braving new terrain. But, that’s what makes it exciting!

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