Management of specific and excessive posturing behavior in a hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) by using applied behavior analysis.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Posture (Psychological aspects)
Attention (Physiological aspects)
Authors: Clayton, Leigh Ann
Friedman, Susan G.
Evans, Liz A.
Pub Date: 06/01/2012
Publication: Name: Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery Publisher: Association of Avian Veterinarians Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Association of Avian Veterinarians ISSN: 1082-6742
Issue: Date: June, 2012 Source Volume: 26 Source Issue: 2
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 298292708
Full Text: Abstract Applied behavior analysis was used in a female hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) to reduce specific, excessive mating-type posturing that had become disruptive due to increased frequency, duration, and intensity. A functional assessment and intervention design worksheet was used to evaluate behavior-environment relations and to develop an individualized behavior-change plan. The functional assessment indicated that human attention was maintaining the behavior. The intervention, differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior, was implemented to increase attention for standing upright and to remove attention for posturing. Within 1 month, posturing decreased to acceptable levels and was replaced with an upright posture. Problem behaviors that appear "reproductive" may be responsive to behavior management alone. Applied behavior analysis and a functional assessment and intervention design are ideal tools to address problem behavior in avian patients.

Key words: applied behavior analysis, psittacine birds, problem behavior, reproductive behavior, avian, hyacinth macaw, Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus

Clinical Report

A 21-year-old female hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) used in educational programs at the National Aquarium, Baltimore, had periodically exhibited a distinct posture akin to a mating position, excessive vocalization, and nesting attempts (ie, shredding material and moving it into a pile). The mating-type position included the head extended below the shoulders and the tail held vertically (Fig 1) and was called "reproductive posture" by the staff. The staff also categorized all the behaviors as "reproductive" and would label the bird as "reproductive" when any or all of the behaviors were occurring with frequency. The bird had demonstrated the behaviors since acquisition 3 years earlier but at an acceptable frequency, duration, and intensity. The reproductive posture was seen less than once a month and was very short in duration. There were no physical or physiologic changes consistent with reproduction (eg, egg laying, flaccid cloaca, changes in plasma biochemical values) during this time.

Over 2 months, in 2009, the staff reported that the bird was becoming more "reproductive." The reproductive posture specifically had increased markedly in frequency, duration, and intensity, and it was disruptive and upsetting to the staff. During the reproductive posturing, the macaw would also hold its mouth open, pant, and flash the cloaca. The position was adopted multiple times a day and could be held for minutes at a time. The staff could not distract the macaw from the behavior once it started. The reproductive posturing was now categorized as a problem behavior due to the intensity, frequency, duration, and repetitive nature. Excessive vocalization and nest building were not specifically cited as problem behaviors.

Results of physical examination, radiographs, and blood tests (complete blood cell count and plasma biochemical analysis) were considered normal and inconsistent with reproduction. Based on these findings, there was no evidence that the increased frequency of behavior was related to a medical condition or the physiologic process of actual reproduction. The increased frequency was thought to be a learned response to environmental contingencies. A concise, scientifically established method for evaluating and managing the problem behavior was desired that would standardize and incorporate opinions and experiences of multiple staff members and provide a clear plan that could be implemented by both staff and a large volunteer group. To meet these goals, applied behavior analysis (ABA) was considered the most appropriate behavior modification model, and a functional assessment and intervention design (FAID) worksheet developed to assist veterinarians in the application of ABA was used. (1,2)


The staff first reached consensus on the behavior to address (the posture described above) and focused on that behavior alone. Excessive vocalization and nesting behaviors were not at levels that were considered problematic and were not addressed. Animal care staff members (led by author L. A. E.) and 1 veterinarian (author L. A. C.) completed the FAID worksheet. The functional assessment identified key environmental factors that predicted and maintained the behavior. The behavior was primarily seen while the bird was on a play gym in a holding area and when certain people were in the room or approaching her. The behavior was not seen during programs and was not seen as frequently when the macaw was in its primary enclosure. The initial reaction to the behavior identified by the staff was typically to approach the bird, look at it, and talk to it (eg, "what are you doing you bad bird," "stop that"). In addition, people might gather in a group around the bird. Even if they subsequently left the area, the initial reaction was to provide increased attention. The functional assessment format related the behavior to the specific environment when it was most likely. The functional assessment summary statement was:

* Distant antecedent: On play gym/perch

* Antecedent: Person walks toward bird

* Behavior: Reproductive posture as defined previously

* Consequence: Human attention (verbal, eye contact, closer approach)

An intervention plan was developed. The plan identified standing upright (Fig 2) as a replacement behavior that the bird could do to get equal or more reinforcement. The replacement behavior was incompatible with the problem behavior (differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior). In addition, the staff would reduce attention during the problem behavior. Reinforcement was withheld when the unacceptable behavior occurred and was delivered when an acceptable, alternative behavior occurred, thereby maintaining opportunities for the bird to gain attention from the staff for acceptable behavior throughout the day. The acceptable behavior was one that the bird already offered fluently and at a high rate, therefore, there would be many opportunities to provide reinforcement without needing to train a new behavior before implementing this differential reinforcement procedure.

The intervention design summary statement was the following:

* Instead of adopting the reproductive posture, this bird can stand upright to get attention when people approach.

Refined observation allowed the staff to identify initial position changes associated with the reproductive posture. The posturing behavior would initially begin with the bird stretching its head down and out. Staff members were able to reduce attention at this point, before the bird exhibited the entire sequence of behavior. Reduced attention included briefly halting forward motion toward the bird and partially turning head, eyes, and/or body away from the bird. Generally, removal of attention was brief (1 minute or less), and the approach was continued as soon as the bird resumed a standing posture. However, the staff focus was on increasing attention for the alternative behavior of standing upright and providing attention for this behavior before the problem behavior could start. The staff conducted multiple education sessions with volunteers to incorporate them into the training process and to reduce incidents of inadvertent reinforcement of the unwanted behavior. There were no other management changes.


Success was defined as reduction of posturing behavior to less than once a week. The posture behavior quickly reduced in frequency when the staff increased attention for standing upright and reduced attention for the posturing behavior. Within 1 month, the behavior decreased in frequency, intensity, and duration to acceptable levels and, within 2 months, was not seen. It has been maintained at acceptable levels for 24 months. The reproductive posture is part of this animal's normal behavioral repertoire and, therefore, could recover (increase in frequency) in the future or occur in other environmental situations.


Applied behavior analysis is an ideal technology to address problem behavior. (3) Although problem behavior may develop because of conditions within an animal (eg, disease, natural hormone levels), it is equally appropriate to evaluate problem behavior as a learned response to environmental contingencies. Even if other factors contribute to problem behavior, thorough evaluation of the learning history is appropriate. When addressing problem behavior by using ABA, the emphasis is on changing behavior by modifying environmental antecedents and consequences (environmental stimuli functionally related to the behavior) and not on changing the animal directly or categorizing a disease state. (4) This approach is commonly used with human behavior modification and is applicable to nonhuman animals, including birds. (3-6)

A FAID worksheet has been developed to assist veterinarians in applying ABA principles to problem behavior. (1,2) The worksheet prompts systematic evaluation of the problem situation (behavior and environmental context) and development of a comprehensive, individualized treatment plan. The problem behavior is first clearly described (operationalized). Functionally related antecedents and consequences are identified (the functional assessment). By using this information, a plan is developed to make the undesirable behavior irrelevant, ineffective, and inefficient, and to positively reinforce alternative, acceptable behavior (the intervention design). (7)

Many problem behaviors are common in parrots, including excessive vocalization, aggression, reproductive behaviors such as masturbation, and feather destruction. (8,9) Problem behaviors are a major reason that caregivers rehome animals. (10) Applied behavior analysis and the FAID worksheet are important tools for addressing problem behavior and are critical for effectively managing problem behavior in the most humane and effective way.

This case study highlights the importance of defining and describing the actual behavior rather than labels for behavior. An effective intervention plan was initially delayed because of the application of the label "reproductive." Use of this label caused the staff to assume that the problem was inside the bird (eg, reproduction, emotional state such as boredom or stress) or was related to the environment in general (eg, light cycle, bonding to specific people) instead of a discrete behavior being maintained by immediate environmental consequences (operant learning). The labels and generalization could have potentially led to ineffective changes to the environment (eg, attempting to control the light cycle), changes that might have been detrimental to the animal (eg, reducing interactions with specific people that the bird found reinforcing), inappropriate use of staff time (eg, nonspecific increase in enrichment in an already highly enriched environment), or administration of unnecessary medications (eg, leuprolide acetate). There was a clear advantage to describing (operationalizing) the specific, observable behavior and then identifying and addressing the specific environmental factors that signaled and maintained the behavior. This approach allowed multiple people to contribute to defining the problem behavior and exploring the environmental factors that maintained the behavior. The behavior change program successfully incorporated all staff members' opinions and insights in a coordinated fashion. It also allowed precise communication of the plan to the staff and volunteers.

Ideally, the staff would have maintained a record of the frequency of behavior before and after intervention implementation to document the response rate. In general, response to a well-designed plan should be seen in 3-5 days, particularly if there is no history of prior, repeated, failed behavior change programs. In this case, response was rapid, with clear and quick reduction in the problem behavior, which indicated that the appropriate environmental contingencies were identified and that the plan was implemented correctly. If the reduction had been slower, then evaluating the response numerically would have provided further insight into the response process or shown if the plan was not working.

Overall, the plan kept the level of positive reinforcement for this individual bird very high by providing attention for the replacement behavior while reducing attention for the problem behavior. This principle is termed "fair pairs" in the ABA literature and is a critical component of appropriate behavior modification programs. (11)

Many problem behaviors with parrots are responsive to behavior management without medical management or the need to ascribe behavior to elaborate diagnostic constructs. Veterinarians can work with clients to develop functional behavior intervention plans. Behavior intervention plans based on accurate application of ABA should be used more often for addressing behavior problems in parrots.

Acknowledgments: We thank Sue Hunter, director of the Department of Animal Programs, and the Animal Programs staff and volunteers at the National Aquarium, Baltimore, for their participation in developing the functional assessment and successful implementation of the intervention design.


(1.) Friedman SG. A framework for solving behavior problems: functional assessment and intervention planning. J Exot Pet Med. 2007;16(1):6-10.

(2.) Behavior Works: improving the quality of life for all learners. Functional Assessment & Intervention Design Web site. Accessed March 2012.

(3.) Chance P. First Course in Applied Behavior Analysis. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press; 2006.

(4.) Friedman SG, Edling TM, Cheney CD. Concepts in behavior, Section I: the natural science of behavior. In: Harrison GJ, Lightfoot TL, eds. Clinical Avian Medicine. Vol I. Palm Beach, FL: Spix; 2006:46-59.

(5.) Friedman SG, Haug LI. From parrots to pigs to pythons: universal principles and procedures of learning. In: Tynes VV, ed. Behavior of Exotic Pets. Ames, IA: Wiley-Blackwell; 2010:190-205.

(6.) Susta F, Zoula R. Reducing aggressive behavior of kiang--Tibetan wild ass (Equus kiang hodereri) male in Prague zoo. ABMA Wellspring. 2010; 10(4),11(1):22-25.

(7.) O'Neill RE, Horner RH, Albin RW, et al. Functional Assessment and Program Development for Problem Behavior: A Practical Handbook. 2nd ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole; 1997.

(8.) Gaskins LA, Bergman L. Survey of avian practitioners and pet owners regarding common behavior problems in psittacine birds. J Avian Med Surg. 2011;25(2):111-118.

(9.) Jenkins JR. Feather picking and self-mutilation in psittacine birds. Vet Clin North Am Exot Anim Pract. 2001;4(3):651-667.

(10.) National Parrot Relinquishment Research Project Web site. documents/NPRRPReport.pdf. Accessed November 2011.

(11.) Haring OR, White N. Exceptional Teaching. Columbus, OH: Merrill; 1976.

From the National Aquarium, Baltimore, 501 East Pratt Street, Baltimore, MD 21202, USA (Clayton, Evans); and Utah State University, Department of Psychology, 2650 Old Main Hill, Logan, UT 84322, USA (Friedman).

Leigh Ann Clayton, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian), Susan G. Friedman, PhD, and Liz A. Evans, BA
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.