01 Aug Training Your Parrot to Sleep Past the Crack of Dawn
Sundays! Aren’t they the best? Long lazy mornings in bed, sleeping while deeply nestled in your pillow long after the sun rises, and slowly opening your eyes to see the world already percolating around you? Not if you have a parrot, I bet you’ve been told. Here’s to rising at the crack of dawn every day, because that’s what parrots do in the wild.
While it’s true that wild parrots get an early start when the sun comes up and head off to their foraging grounds, you will often find their behavior varies widely in our homes and parks depending on our schedules. The truth is, we play a part in how they participate as flock members. With positive reinforcement training and step by step approximations, we can train them how to let us (and our neighbors) sleep in longer. The focus, as with any positive reinforcement based training program, is for the parrot to opt for the desirable choice because it is a valuable choice for him.
Lucy is a twelve year old Umbrella cockatoo that I worked with who called from sun up to sundown. We had our work cut out with her. We took each part of her screaming bit by bit. There is so much to talk about when it comes to screaming parrots and using positive reinforcement as a foundation to teach them better voice behaviors, and this article could become quite long very quickly.
One of the first things we tackled was how to teach Lucy to be quiet first thing in the morning to help her family’s autistic son get ready for work. Working on this specific scenario gave us the much needed boost we needed to help accomplish success with Lucy’s other screaming issues.
Even though we can consider morning calls a parrot’s natural behavior, it’s still based on flock behavior and feedback, and we can modify the frequency and intensity using positive reinforcement. It just means that the readiness to perform this behavior will be right there at the surface, especially with a bird like Lucy who has been utilizing this behavior for years.
Annoying behaviors, as behavior scientists have noted, are those that get our attention the fastest. This means we inadvertently reinforce the undesirable behavior over the desirable behavior. Therefore, they can be the most robust because the feedback loop is consistently offered. Noisy behavior when we are trying to relax can really cause us to react, which adds another layer to why waking up early is so easy to reinforce.
We came up with a program for Lucy. As with all behavior change programs, we would gradually change our criteria as her behavior changed. It did not take long for us to see success.
First, we established a secondary cage where Lucy could go to sleep. The secondary cage was a normal sized cage, not particularly small, and still had plenty of toys, food and water dishes in a separate room that was a little quieter for her. One mistake that was made with another bird that was waking his family and other apartment dwellers up too early was that the bird’s secondary cage was too small and he viewed it as a nesting space. Creating a space that brought about reproductive behaviors opens a whole different can of worms that can also make our screaming issues even worse.
Lucy’s secondary cage was also covered at night. Now this alone isn’t always enough to solve the problem of waking up early, as many parrot owners can attest. Even if a heavy black out blanket is used, some parrots will start waking up regardless. Their internal clock and learning history will tell them that there is value in waking up when they hear the rest of the family waking up. The toys are important to provide value for Lucy to opt for the right behaviors to do in the morning instead of start calling.
Next we took some data: What time was Lucy starting to wake up? As it turned out, she very consistently started making some noise at 6:30 every morning.
I instructed her family for the first week to give Lucy a little snack and some of our premade foraging toys (see below for our tried and true foraging toy ideas) that we talked about at 6:15 each morning, fifteen minutes before Lucy would normally start making noise. She would stay covered, work on these goodies, especially the destructible foraging toys which are designed to be thrown into cage and prolong the eating experience. This would keep her quiet and the family would go about their business, either back to sleep or getting the son ready for his day.
For the first week, we wouldn’t expect Lucy to stay quiet for very long, maybe another hour and she could be uncovered. We would also stay pretty quiet around her (which is why the secondary cage in the other room helped, too!). This kept the criteria for staying quiet low: we didn’t expect too much of her. We knew she was used to waking up regardless of whether or not there was activity nearby. So by keeping the ambient noise to a minimum, we eliminated another variable. For now.
This did two things. First, we taught her that something would come when she was quiet, before she started making noise. If we had waited until she made noise, quieted, and then added the goodies, we could have potentially created the issue of building a chained behavior. Instead, we prevented the problem before it started. Second, we didn’t ask for too much too soon. We kept her busy for a little bit of time, made sure she stayed successful, then uncovered her and prepared for the rest of the day.
Lucy learned to expect her goodies early in the morning. After at least seven repetitions of this, we pushed it back to 6:30 AM and kept the rest of the routine the same, only expected about an hour or so of quiet while she worked on her premade goodies.
Once she got used to her 6:30 delivery, we pushed the delivery time back to 6:40 AM and kept it there for about four days, then we pushed it back to almost 7:00 AM.
It didn’t take long before Lucy got the picture and could sleep in until about 7:30 or 8:00 in less than six weeks, which after ten years of screaming nonstop was pretty incredible. The family did a wonderful job of staying consistent and thorough. We were also gradually able to add in a little more hustle and bustle around her sleeping cage, especially by adding in some items to keep her busy beforehand at the onset of the addition of that new criteria. We could even pre-set some foraging goodies in the night before for her to work on when she woke up, which would set her on a pattern of looking for things to do on her own, like play with her other toys.
As with any training program, at first the training is more labor intensive as we do what I call re-setting the behavior tracks and patterns. Each party – bird and humans – have well-worn grooves that we travel each day that are hard to break out of, even when the behavior isn’t meeting our needs. Shifting to a new set of tracks takes a lot of effort at first. But once we do it, we just have to check in every once in a while to make sure we are staying on the right path.
Training our birds to sleep in is just one part of noise training, but a very important part that can go a long way to a healthy partnership with our avian companions.
For ideas on how we teach our clients to premake simple but awesome foraging toys and teach their birds to engage with to support good behavior, you can get our downloadable goodies from our new online course and membership website here (there’s a waitlist!). A mini course with how-to’s and tested ideas will show you what we have been using for years!
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