We get what we reward

I was reminded of that again yesterday when I saw a squirrel emerging from a twenty gallon pail of bird seed. I have been using a discarded chip collector to store bird seed, but it has become a training device for adventurous squirrels because I failed to seal it properly. The squirrels have learned that they can get access to unlimited amounts of birdseed by negotiating a maze of 4 inch diameter tubing with right angle turns and a metal baffle.

So how is it that I am rewarding them? I chase them away when I see them, but I have failed to take the time to seal off the openings. Banging on the lid of the can startles them and they shoot out of the tubes to safety, only to return minutes later when I return to my workshop. As a result, I have unwittingly trained at least two squirrels to carry out Mission Impossible type raids on my birdseed supply.

I get consistently undesired behavior from these squirrels because I leave a reward (food) in place even after scaring them away. To get desired behavior, I must constantly scare them off or, much easier, seal off the bird seed.

Like some parents with disobedient children, I am sending a mixed message. No, I don’t want this behavior but if you persist, you will get what you want anyway.

Squirrels are similar in some respects to unruly children, criminals and rogue nations. If there are rewards for unsocial behavior, there is no reason not to continue. The fault lies as much with those who fail to enforce acceptable behavior as with those who flout authority. Appeasement is not a workable solution.

I will take responsibility for this unfortunate scenario I have created and will ensure there are no further rewards for undesirable behavior. It was, however, a useful reminder of a lesson I should have learned a long time ago.

I’ll let you know how it all comes out…

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