Negative reinforcement is perhaps the most misunderstood of the methods of operant conditioning. Although negative is used in the term, it does not mean “bad.” Instead, negative means “negating” or taking something away. Reinforcement on the other hand refers to increasing behavior. Again this neither means good or bad but just means that the behavior will recur with greater frequency.
In the game of animal training, increasing desired behavior is generally the goal so reinforcement is to be used. But the question remains as to whether it ought to be positive or negative?
When it comes to whether an animal “wants” to do something, it should make little difference whether the reinforcement be positive or negative. Avoiding something aversive may be as, if not more, desirable as gaining something nice. Pretty much any behavior that relates to safety is going to be based on negative reinforcement. There is nothing bad about being safe and in fact it is a good thing.
So why does negative reinforcement carry a bad rep? Part of it is the misunderstanding of the word negative, where in this context it does not mean doing something bad. Many people confused negative reinforcement with positive punishment. Based on common language it would seem that negative reinforcement should be the opposite of positive but based on psychological terms that is not the case. Let's not get carried away with technical definitions and focus more on the meanings.
The main reason negative reinforcement is perceived badly is because professional trainers (or tamers as they used to be called) would intentionally introduce aversives, pressure, or pain to animals for the sake of being able to stop causing it as a reward for desirable behavior. This is how horses, donkeys, camels, elephants, and many other animals have been trained for thousands of years. Basically it would involve beating the animal a lot and letting it learn that if it would do what it was commanded, then the hurt would stop.
If a trainer walks around with a stick, hook, or whip, its very presence symbolizes negative reinforcement and that if the animal stops doing what it is supposed to, then it will be used. What's bad about this? If the animal always does what it is supposed to, the instrument won't even be used. The problem is that the animal is acting simply out of fear and not out of a genuine desire. This does not lead to a great relationship between animal and trainer. If the trainer were to stop carrying around the negative reinforcement instrument, extinction would begin to occur. Whenever the animal would slip up and not receive the normally expected beating, the animal would realize that it no longer has to do as the trainer commands. This is why this type of negative reinforcement is neither truly effective nor nice.
But just because professionals misuse negative reinforcement, does not mean that it is all bad. The professional does not seek to have a personal relationship with the animal like a pet owner would. The professional needs little more than for the animal to do its tricks on command in front of spectators. On the other hand, the exotic pet parrot owner seeks desirable behavior throughout the day and a fantastic relationship to go with it. Thus clearly a relationship based on fear cannot be the solution.
Negative reinforcement is frequently misused in the parrot community although most are unaware they are even applying it. “Stick training” where a dowel is shoved into a parrot's belly until it steps up is an example of the misuse of negative reinforcement that is neither ideal training nor good for the relationship. The parrot learns to step on a stick before it gets nudged. But what happens when a hand is substituted for the stick? The parrot may opt to bite the hand instead because unlike the stick, it isn't inanimate. The parrot doesn't learn to always step up but instead learns to step when a negative-reinforcement instrument is used.
If you aren't scared of a bite and let your arm be like an inanimate object, the same effect can be achieved and the parrot will even learn that biting is futile. But the arm becomes just as much the negative-reinforcement tool as it a part of your body. This is conveniently tempting because unlike treats, you can have this (your arm) with you all the time. The problem is that if the parrot has any alternative to reluctantly complying (such as flying away, clinging to the drapes, running under the cage, etc), it may choose to do those instead because they are less intimidating/painful than the arm into belly shove. The arm is both the thing you want the parrot to trust/like and the instrument of aversion which creates a dilemma. The parrot learns to step up onto the arm to avoid the arm. Thus this example of the classic step up routine, really is a parallel to the circus days of animal training.
If a parrot's wings are not clipped, it is difficult for the trainer to be able to apply negative reinforcement because the bird will sooner fly away than put up with threats to do a behavior. The old school approach of clipping, flooding, and trainer induced negative reinforcement fail to drive cooperation when a parrot is no longer clipped which makes the owner choose to clip the wings again. Genuine success cannot be achieved this way.
I'm not going to get into the more successful positive reinforcement based method to training, you can find the details of this in my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. Instead, I'd like to write a bit about the positive side of negative reinforcement. How can negative reinforcement be a good thing?
Well, negative reinforcement is the increase of behavior through reduction in aversives. Thus any means of providing safety is essentially negative reinforcement. Safety is the reduction of danger and thereby a sought thing. There are naturally present dangers that drive fear in a captive parrot's life. By providing safety from these naturally present aversives, we can both provide comfort to our parrot as well as receive some training benefit out of it.
I do not believe that parrot owners should be intentionally causing harm to their pets in order to get to rescue it. But if the aversive already exists, then why not take some training advantage out of it? In fact, capitalizing on these negative reinforcement opportunities should help strengthen the bond rather than harm it. If the parrot realizes that it can receive protection from its fears through you, that will actually improve your relationship. This works as long as those aversives are not created (or even perceived to be created) by you.
For example if there is a loud disturbance going on outside, by stepping up for you, you bring your parrot to a quieter room, the parrot would be negatively reinforced for stepping up. The scary disturbance would be reduced by action you took to protect the parrot and the parrot would be more likely to step up for you in the future.
Here are some other examples from my experience. I take Kili & Truman to the park regularly to fly on harnesses or free fly. Sometimes the kids become too bothersome and I can tell the bird is getting a bit flustered. I will offer the bird a chance to flight recall to me and stay on me to avoid further confrontation. I don't have to give a treat for this type of flight recall because the bird gets reinforced negatively in the process.
Another recent example was when I took Santina to the vet for the first time. I was still in the early stages of gaining trust with her and using a lot of positive reinforcement to encourage her to step up. After Santina came back from anesthesia, Lorelei put Santina down on the floor. From the other end of the room I put my arm down. I did not go over to get Santina but instead she walked over to come to me. I was not giving out treats or head scratches. Santina came to me for safety and thus negative reinforcement for coming. I would not torment her with a towel (and I'm sure the vet wouldn't either) but since it was medically necessary and going to happen regardless, I might as well take the opportunity to take credit for providing safety. This is a case of a good application of negative reinforcement. The parrot learned to come to me for safety in moments of panic rather than to flee or worse yet that the danger was caused by me in the first place.
One of the reasons negative reinforcement tends to be ineffective is because of desensitization with time. As the animal begins to get used to an aversive or pain, it may loose its effect. Especially if the aversive turns out to be physically harmless, the parrot will realize and stop responding to it. For this reason either a stronger dose of aversive is necessary or the behavior is lead toward extinction. Since I don't mind my parrots to stop fearing the naturally present aversives they encounter, I am not worried if the negative reinforcement will lose effect. If my parrots stop fearing these things, I will be just as happy because I don't want them to be fearful. I only use occasional natural negative reinforcement on behaviors that are already trained through positive reinforcement. Since I do not cause the aversives intentionally myself (and disassociate with any aversives that could be perceived as caused by me), the intensity of the aversive should not change. Further, these types of scenarios are fairly infrequent anyway. But since they happen from time to time, I capitalize on the situation and play the role of savior for my parrot.
Let me illustrate with human example. Let's say you are on a long cross country trip with a friend driving. You get an upset stomach and really have to get to a bathroom. So your friend is very understanding and gets you to one promptly to one in return for asking persuasively. We can agree that you gain nothing from going to the bathroom but you do get relief so this is negative reinforcement. You would then be grateful to your friend for helping you find relief from something uncomfortable that isn't your friend's fault. Now what if your friend put something in your lunch that caused this? Even though your friend saves the day by getting you to a bathroom, they were still the cause of your discomfort. Would you be happy and grateful to them? Probably not. You'd be more angry that they caused you discomfort in the first place. This is the difference between giving negative reinforcement to a natural/unrelated aversive vs being the cause of the aversive. Negative reinforcement can only work well when it is providing relief from something you have not caused or associated with.
So am I encouraging you to go and use negative reinforcement with your parrot? Not necessarily. What I am encouraging you to do is to give further thought into whether or not you are rewarding by giving something (positive reinforcement) or rewarding by taking something away (negative reinforcement)? Are you threatening in some way that until the parrot does something you want, you will do something? Why should your parrot comply with your requests and what will the consequence be if it does not? Being more aware and intentional in your training means will ensure that you are making the most effective application but also help you to ensure a good relationship. Making sure that you are not causing aversives but helping to reduce naturally occurring ones will work in your favor.
My book almost exclusively focuses on training using positive reinforcement because this needs to be the basis of any parrot relationship. However, this article is a supplement for those who already use positive reinforcement. This is for those who want to take their training to an even further level and learn to apply the good kind of negative reinforcement responsibly to get even more out of their training.
Avoid using threats (whether it be with a stick, your arm, a squirt bottle, or going back in the cage) and do things so the parrot would want to engage in the behavior without coercion. But on the other hand, when there are opportunities to save your parrot from uncontrolled environmental factors, take training advantage by having the parrot do something for it. Stepping up, coming to you, flying to you, etc are all important behaviors and ones that the parrot can learn to do more readily when it feels scared. By teaching your parrot to come to you rather than away, you can ensure that in times of panic, your parrot is more likely to return to you and that your relationship can be so good that you would be your parrot's means for safety. Negative reinforcement is often misused but it is not always bad. Focus on the good stuff with your parrot and your relationship will be better than ever.
First a word about each parrot's personality and the role it plays in the flock. Kili is the oldest (at least in my mind because I got her first, in hers as well I'm sure!) and for sure the most aggressive. As a Senegal Parrot, it's just in her nature. But I have trained almost all of that aggression out of her so she is super well-behaved. But there is no guarantee that she won't try to attack Santina and start a dangerous war. Truman is an easy going Cape Parrot. He has been bullied by Kili all his life and has become accustomed to having to yield his perch. He is absolutely non-aggressive and doesn't start fights. He is, however, stubborn and provoking. Until Kili gives him a good bite, he doesn't want to yield. Santina, being a green-winged macaw, is the biggest parrot. She is also a rescue with not a fully known history. She is extremely friendly and non-aggressive with me but she has been known to bite others. I have to be careful with her because she has the potential to hurt any of the other birds. But on the flip side I also know that she doesn't hurt anyone she likes. It will be important to get everyone to be on her good side.
The very first step in the introduction process has been to not do anything and just let the birds see each other through the bars from a distance. I did not want to overwhelm anyone by forcing an interaction prematurely. The next portion of the process is to begin the introduction in safe foolproof ways. There absolutely cannot be a fight or provocation. The birds must only get used to being near each other but without resorting to fighting. Since I am limited in being able to control what my parrots do, I have to shape the environment and interactions for success. The essential thing to prevent for now, is for two parrots to end up in close enough proximity to be able to start a fight for any reason. Thus the challenge is to bring the parrots closer together while keeping them apart.
To bring the parrots closer together without potential physical contact, what I have been doing is getting Kili or Truman in a grab (they like being grabbed so it's no problem) and holding them near Santina. I kept them out of biting range for sure. At first I kept them at some distance but progressively approached closer. This is a way to directly control the first interactions and helps me establish the relationship for both birds simultaneously. What I don't want is for them to establish relationships on their own terms because I don't know what those terms might be. I would rather take it slowly and ensure tolerance and ideally friendship between everybody. While holding one of the old world parrots in my grab, I would use my free hand to give scratches to both. I'd alternate between giving Truman a head scratch and then Santina.
By alternating my attention between the two birds, I deter jealousy and encourage mutual cooperation. You may recall that I encouraged cooperation between Kili & Truman by using the prisoner's dilemma in making them have to work together to get mega-treats. I would recall the birds to fly to me together and unless both came, neither would get the treats. They learned to work together for mutual success. Likewise, by requiring both Santina and Truman to be calm in each other's presence to earn head scratched, I am able to build a similar experience. Both birds were earning welcome head scratches that they would not have been getting otherwise at that time.
While holding Kili or Truman in a grab near Santina, I was carefully assessing each bird's body language. I was careful not to evoke any aggression while promoting responses most closely associated to contentedness. Nothing bad was happening to any bird but only good things. Interestingly, Santina was very calm. Although she showed some modest interest, she did not show the aggressive body language I have come to recognize that she makes when she ultimately ends up biting people. With Truman's approach, Santina simply turned her head around backwards and proceeded preening. This is definitely a sign of calm and trust. Likewise, Kili & Truman showed no aggression and enjoyed extra scratches.
By keeping the guest parrots in my grab, I was able to get Santina to associate some of the happiness she feels in seeing me toward seeing these other birds. They were a sort of extension of my reach. Santina's trust of the fact that anything I present to her is good, also helped. I repeated this grabbed showing exercise a few times.
The next step was to introduce some closer interaction with greater freedom without letting the parrots cross paths. I began working on flight recalls in the bird room with Kili & Truman. With Santina on a stand at the far end of the room, I gave Kili & Truman the freedom to fly in the same room as her. So even though they could fly up to her and start a fight, they didn't. They know how to focus on a training session and ignore all else during this time. This is where a focused training approach comes in really handy when introducing birds. The birds don't even have to know how to fly or do complex tricks. Just getting each bird to focus on some sort of known positively reinforced behavior (such as target) is a great starting point. The training creates sufficient distraction while also inadvertently reinforcing the parrots for being in proximity without contact. Santina wasn't neglected during this training time either. While Kili & Truman would be eating their treats, I would continue training with Santina as well.
By using pellets as treats for all birds, I was able to buy sufficient consumption time that I never had more than one unoccupied bird at a time. While the parrots were occupied eating their treats at distant ends of the room, there was no opportunity for aggression. With time and progress, I would have the birds end up closer to each other. I had Kili or Truman buzz right by Santina in flight to recall to me. They would ignore her presence and focus on flying to me instead. Since Santina was preoccupied eating her own treat during that time, she had little reason for concern either. Interestingly, Santina was not bothered or surprised to see these flying birds despite being clipped and living around clipped birds.
To take things even further, I began finding reasons to give a nut to each bird and putting them near each other to eat it. A nut is a really big deal for all of my birds and it keeps them so occupied that they notice little else while consuming it. I would have each bird do something to earn a nut and then put each on adjacent perches. None of the perches were in stepping distance of each other but the flighted parrots could easily hop or fly the gap if they really wanted to. But since all birds were preoccupied enjoying their nuts, nobody went anywhere and the all of the parrots had practice being in each other's proximity without doing anything undesirable.
These early introductions have been very successful. I will continue training the parrots near each other while maintaining separation. With time the separation will be reduced. I will also take the parrots places together. I have found that travel and socialization really brings parrots together in their familiarity with each other but not the new places. Lastly, at some eventual times the parrots will inadvertently come in each others immediate proximity and I will be evaluating the outcomes and whether or not they can be let together for any extended or unsupervised spans of time.
This is not an absolute approach to parrot introductions but it works well for me. This is the method by which I originally introduced Kili & Truman to each other and it worked. Now I am using the same for Santina. Having a good training background and well-behaved parrot in the first places are important requisites to having success with this introduction approach. So if you haven't already, check out my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots to help you get to a point where applying this kind of training, being able to grab your parrots, etc are all possible in order to take advantage of these introduction techniques.
Kili & Truman buckled up their harnesses and rode on my shoulders the few blocks to the new house. I had a bug problem at the old apartment so I've been leaving as much behind as possible and only bringing clean things. This is why Truman's old aluminum cage had to be abandoned and not because there was anything else wrong with it. This is also why I opted to move the birds wearing harnesses rather than carriers.
We walked in through the bird room door and surprised Santina. She was sitting on the edge of her stand, excited to have company. Santina watched eagerly as her first bird visitors were settling in to the room next door. Kili & Truman watched me assemble water bottle holders, mount perches, and add toys to their bare cages. I bought two water bottles for each cage and mounted both brackets. Although I will normally only be using a single water bottle, when I need to go away for a weekend I will be able to leave twin water bottles for the unlikely event of a failure (in 5+ years using water bottles for my birds I have not had a problem).
The parrots sampled the toys as I was putting them into their cages. Truman gave his approval for a long strand of stars and Kili immediately began chewing up a cute shredding toy. These parrots love new toys, places, and situations. This is why it was an absolute non-event to move them to a new house. They have not shown the slightest sign of upset such as not eating, being quiet, or just inactive.
The reason it was so easy to move to a new house with my parrots without them freaking out is because we have already done this plenty of times before! Every outing, every trip, every household change we have ever made was a preparation for the unknown but inevitable eventual move. People often ask me "I am moving to a new house tomorrow, what can I do to make it easier for my parrot?" At that point it is already too late. The time to begin preparing your parrot for a move is now.
I occasionally took Kili and/or Truman with me to visit other people's houses. I took the birds for drives and outings. I had the parrots living out of their travel cages during trips and when we went camping. I even had the parrots living in completely different bird cages when we were visiting Ginger's Parrots Rescue. All of these different encounters prepared Kili & Truman to live in any sort of cage or house. And since they get excited about new toys, moving to a new cage with new toys is an opportunity rather than a burden for them.
Not long after I had the birds on top of their respective cages, Kili hopped over to Truman's cage and kicked him off to the smaller one. The funny thing is that the first time I let them out since, the first thing Truman did was to go and climb up into Kili's cage and stay there. It was as though she convinced him that if he just yields the bigger cage to her that she won't beat him up for it.
As for Santina, well she came from a rescue so she was already used to other birds. I could tell that Santina was excited to see other birds around and not upset. Kili & Truman have been to places with other parrots so to them it was no surprise to see a big bird next door. The move was such a non-event that it makes for a boring story. But that's what you want it to be. So begin preparing your parrot for any sorts of unforeseen changes by socializing and traveling with your parrot now.
Kili & Truman are moving to the new house where Santina has already been in quarantine. Now that Santina is clear of infection and moved to the big room, the smaller room - originally planned for cages - is now vacant. Having had a powder coat steel cage for Kili and aluminum Kings cage for Truman, I knew immediately what I'd be getting the birds at the new house.
After having Truman and his cage for 4 years, I continue to stand by the original review I did of the aluminum cage. It's expensive and it's not perfect. But it's the best cage for the money hands down. Powder coat cages just aren't sufficient in quality. Inevitably after a lot of use and washing, the coating comes off and they rust. Stainless steel cages are unbearably expensive. The aluminum cage is lighter in weight, easy to assemble, and overall good quality.
For the price, I think the aluminum cage line provides the best bang for the buck. At roughly double the price of a comparable powder coat cage, you get the benefit of non-corrosiveness that you can get from stainless steel at even twice more. As you folks probably know by now, I'm more value driven. I don't mind spending more but I hate spending more when I don't feel a sufficient benefit to justify the price. That's why I think a cage made from aluminum is the perfect compromise.
When you think about the long lifespan of a parrot and estimate the value you will get out of a cage, paying more up front for a cage makes more sense. Let's say the parrot will live 20+ years but the cage won't even make it that far. Depending on how bad you're willing to let the cage get before replacing it, I'd say it is reasonable to say that 5-10 years is realistic for the powder coat and 10-20 for the aluminum. Stainless might last even longer but if it's poor quality stainless it might not. Usually the hardware, hinges, food doors, etc will fail before the bars and the hassle will make the cage need replacement regardless. So if the aluminum cage can solidly last twice as long, at about twice the price it's a good deal. This is because you're getting a better cage with thicker bars during that time. There won't be any rust or chipping even when the cage begins to be less than desirable to keep.
Only one company makes aluminum parrot cages so there's no shopping around, Kings Cages. There is only one cage design to choose from but two sizes. I just call them the small aluminum cage and the big one. Kili is getting the small one which measures in at a sizable 25"x22"x45". This cage has 5/8" bar spacing and is great for Senegal Parrots, Conures, Cockatiels, Quakers, and other similar sized parrots. Considering that Kili is moving up from a 18x18x32 powder coat cage, it's an immediately obvious improvement. Back when I got Kili and that cage, I didn't know any better and until I was moving didn't find the chance to replace it. Truman on the other hand is getting a new version of the same cage he used to have as well. This one is 33"x25"x49" and makes a good sized cage for a Cape Parrot, Timneh Grey, Galah, or Smaller Amazon. I'm not sure if I would keep a CAG in this cage though. Maybe a smaller CAG yes but not the really big 600g ones.
The Aluminum Kings cages in 2 sizes come in 3 styles: standard, arch top, and play top. To me, all but the dometop are a waste of money. The playtop is expensive and not beneficial. Parrots will play on top of their cages with or without one and frankly a separate tree or stand is much better to have. The standard cage loses a lot of good living space without the archtop (playtop version included). For just a few $100 more and not a substantial amount in proportion to the main price, the living space is greatly expanded. There is a downside to the dometop though. Clumsy and baby birds can have trouble climbing around on it. When Truman was a baby he used to have trouble getting around and would fall off. But for agile adult birds this is no factor. It's also a bit of a pain trying to reach up and around to clean the dometop from inside.
I am handy with tools so the fact that the Kings Cage is so easy to put together plays little role. But, for most consumers this is a huge plus. It comes in just 8 pieces and all but the top two of the arch just snap together. The arch top connects with just 4 standard screws. Assembly is easy but you must pay attention that alignment is perfect or it won't come together. It only took 10 minutes to assemble the small cage by myself and then 10 minutes to assemble the big one with the help of my brother.
As I said in my first review, I don't like the wood dowels and plastic food cups.I immediately replace these with stainless steel cups and natural or NU Perches. The cage is actually a bit harder to clean than the powder coat one but not substantially enough to make it less worthy. The lighter weight and mobility make up for that. Another issue is plastic handles for the food doors can potentially be chewed off by any parrot. Most of the flaws are little nit picks and nuisances whereas the cage overall is solid, durable, and reliable.
So is it my dream cage? Does it have every feature/quality I'd want in a bird cage? No. But it is by far the best quality and value cage I have encountered and the one that I choose for my parrots Kili & Truman.
I have now had Santina for over 3 months but because of her questionable health, I had to keep her separate from Kili and Truman on prolonged quarantine. Now that she has taken medication and her infection cleared up, things are all set for the introduction.
Since it is difficult to impossible to truly disinfect colored toys and large porous perches, I opted to play it safe and discard all of the old stuff. Having already spent thousands on her vet care, what is loosing a few toys to make sure this illness doesn't rear its ugly head again? Since Santina would need a new stand in the big room anyway, I took this opportunity to set things for the long run.
I bought a ton of different branches and got to work piecing them together for a macaw megastand. This one incorporates more branches than the original and is entirely free hanging for easy cleaning. I also think that hanging stands are ultimately more natural for birds because they incorporate some natural motion and sway. This stand is so big and heavy that it is stable enough that Santina was not bothered by it. In fact one of the first things she did was to climb up to a high swing mounted on the already hanging structure.
Santina spent all day watching me build her new housing so she was more prepared for it when the time came to try. A tour of the room and features coming soon but in the meantime here are photos and video of Santina's new crib.