Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

By Carla Thornton

WATSON THE PIONUS and Dana Wilson, a writer and film producer, were best buddies.

Then Wilson added two blue-front Amazon parrots, Rochester and Bertie, to the household and everything fell apart.

"Watson immediately intimidated both of them," recalls Wilson. "For nine months he tortured Rochester, the larger one, who pined for him and never struck back when Watson lunged at him. Watson realized there was an advantage in having a parrot three times his size totally devoted to him. He could demand around-the-clock preening. He could demand that Rochester turn over all his treats."

Watson picked on Bertie the Amazon, too, and then began behaving badly toward Wilson. He screamed at her, bit her, and even made ďdistress callsĒ to get his protector, Rochester, to attack his owner.

An expert steps in
Wilson asked Sue Farlow, a bird behavior expert who lived in nearby Lincoln, Mass., to assess the situation.

When Watson saw her, he "snarled like an angry dog - wing flapping, screaming, eyes flashing, lunging," recalls Wilson of Farlow's visit. "She put him on the floor. I have never seen such a look of anger, probably hate, in a parrot's eyes, as he looked up at Sue. 'How dare you!' he seemed to say. He was in total shock. No one had ever stood up to him."

Farlow said Watson was overstressed by the "job" of having to "manage" both his owner and the two new birds and needed Wilson to "take back control."

"Sue said that every time he was unpleasant I should put him on the floor. And not let him pile out of his cage like a fireman down a ladder. Make him ask before he got to come out. I made him say hello.

"Within a few days, he stopped the tantrums. He dutifully said hello, and still does, before I lift him out of his house. That was six years ago."

Looking for help
More people are discovering that owning a parrot often is not as easy as it seems. Sooner or later, most owners, especially those of larger parrots, encounter a tough behavior problem such as aggression, screaming or feather plucking.

When to take the plunge

YOU CAN READ much of what parrot behavior experts have to say in bird magazines (including, which offers Steve Martin's Behavior column). When is a private consultation warranted?

Consider one if you have a spare $100 and you are:

  • So frustrated by a behavior problem that you're considering giving up the bird.
  • Someone who has never owned or been around a parrot before and wants a quick leg up. Behavior experts are more than happy to school you in the basics, one of the easier parts of their jobs. A home session is best so the expert can demonstrate how to handle your bird correctly.
  • Someone who would enjoy having a deeper understanding of parrots that can come from another point of view.

The majority of readers who responded to an informal poll said that yes, they would hire help.

"I would absolutely hire a bird behaviorist if I had a bird with problems," wrote Pamela, a marketing communications manager in Perry, Iowa, who has a red-lored Amazon. "It is too easy to simply pass a parrot with difficult characteristics on to someone else. If you are going to own one, you have to do everything you can to make the situation work for you and the bird and not give up."

Only a handful of respondents said they would never hire, citing distrust of qualifications and the fact that much of the same knowledge can be found in books and through personal experience.

"I know some bird [behavior consultants] who are very good. I also know several who know very little about birds," said Sabra LaBrea, who takes care of 10 abandoned parrots in her Miami home. "We don't need all these 'bird behaviorists'. We need to cage our birds less and play with them more and not turn around and dump them the minute they are too inconvenient."

A fellow parrot rescuer named Gio agreed. "I just can't see how a person can see a bird for a couple of hours and make a diagnosis. What works for some birds may not work for others. Sometimes it takes a while to find out the cause and then it takes time working with the bird."

Many people respond to trouble by getting rid of the bird. Some others are turning to experts in bird behavior for help.

The bird world's version of a family psychotherapist, parrot behavior experts interview owners at length about their birds, sometimes meet the patient, and offer a set of suggestions designed to help bird and owner live together peacefully.

Sometimes, as in Wilson's case, success appears to be immediate. Other times, it's more difficult to tell whether outside help has made a difference.

Regardless, behavior consulting for birds has become so popular, some conscientious owners are using it at purchase, hoping to nip potential problems in the bud - a sort of avian form of pre-marriage counseling, if you will.

Bob Hulsey of Austin did a lot of research on parrots before buying his first one, a four-month-old yellow-collared macaw he named Angel. When his vet recommended he get a behavior expert to assess the new relationship, Hulsey readily agreed.

The expert Hulsey hired, a woman with 20 years of experience working with show macaws in Las Vegas, "worked magic training Angel to 'step up' and 'step down'", he says. "She watched Angel climbing around on me while we talked and pronounced that Angel 'just adores you,' to my relief."

Choosing help
Do you need a parrot "shrink"? If your birdís behavior is making life unbearable, you might well be ready to spill your innermost frustrations about Beaky to a professional.

But first youíll have to pick an expert, and that can be a challenge. The field of animal behavior is not regulated like the human mental health field, so terms such as psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, therapist or even consultant donít have the same meanings for animals as they do people.

Parrot experts-for-hire go by a variety of titles, including behaviorist and consultant. They vary widely in experience and background, ranging from professionals with degrees to enterprising enthusiasts who have owned parrots for only a short time.

You'll want to pay close attention to qualifications and make sure they match what you need (see "Tips for choosing a consultant" on this page).

Experts with degrees
One type of expert who might be able to help with your birdís behavior is a behaviorist.

The label of behaviorist often is applied to anyone who works with animals. In fact, a behaviorist is someone who has earned an advanced degree, usually a Ph.D. in psychology, biology, anthropology, neurobiology or another foundation of animal behavior, with a strong background in research methods and analysis.

Most behaviorists work in zoos, labs or in the field observing wild animals. However, in a slowly growing trend, some behaviorists are using their advanced training to help pet owners.

What does CAS mean, anyway?

YOU'VE PROBABLY seen the mysterious initials "CAS" after the names of some behavior consultants.

They stand for certified avian specialist. One becomes a CAS by completing a four-hour seminar on bird care taught by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit trade association for the pet industry. PIJAC offers the seminars several times a year at the conventions of various animal groups.

Anyone willing to travel to a seminar site can take the course, which covers the proper care and handling of birds, dietary needs of different species, environment and sanitation standards, and common avian disorders. Passing an open-book test at the end of the class earns the certificate.

While a solid grounding in bird basics is never a bad thing, certification as an avian specialist isn't reason enough to choose one bird behavior expert over another. Pay more attention to other qualifications such as years of experience.

One example is the board-certified veterinary avian behaviorist. In addition to being certified avian veterinarians, these super-vets have studied animal behavior and seen a minimum of 400 behavior-related cases in residency, making them extra-qualified to offer advice on their patients' mental as well as physical health.

One obvious advantage to using a veterinary behaviorist as a behavior expert is that a full medical workup to determine whether any underlying physical problems are present automatically comes with a consultation.

The downside is your chances of finding an avian veterinary behaviorist near you are slim. According to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, there are only four in the United States.

Dr. Lynne Seibert, a clinical researcher and veterinary behaviorist at the University of Georgia Veterinary Teaching Hospital and Behavior Service in Athens, is one.

Dr. Lynne Seibert
Lynne Seibert, Ph.D., MS is one of a new breed of veterinarians who are also certified behaviorists.

Seibert studied dominance and aggression in breeding parrots and feather picking in cockatoos for her master's and Ph.D. theses, respectively, and earned her doctorate in psychology with a focus on psychopharmocology, the relatively new practice of using drugs to help treat behavior problems in some animals.

Although 80 percent of her clients are aggressive dogs, Seibert consults with up to six or seven parrots and their owners each week for behavior problems.

Seibert and her staff wear business casual during behavior sessions so they don't alarm their animal patients, and save any physical examinations or laboratory tests for later, "so we get to observe a relatively relaxed patient during the consultation."

Because students are involved with each consultation, they typically take several hours. For birds, the hospital typically charges around $90.

Seibert prefers conducting behavior evaluations in person. "I like to talk to people face to face. A lot of treating behavior problems is educating the owner and I like to get an idea of whether they're really listening. When I suggest something and the owner gives me 'that look,' I'll know." However, she and her staff also do consultations over the telephone.

The applied behaviorist
Another type of expert you might consider hiring - if you can find one - is an applied animal behaviorist. These are behavior experts who are not vets but have graduate degrees in animal behavior.

There may be only two such bird behaviorists in the country, including Dr. Susan Friedman, a faculty member in the departments of psychology and special education at Utah State University.

Only Dr. Joanne Oliva-Purdy, based in Denver, Colo., consults with pet bird owners. Along with a Ph.D. in biopsychology specializing in animal behavior, Oliva-Purdy offers 15 years of diverse practical experience in the field, including stints at a zoo and research lab. She stays abreast of in-the-field work with wild animals and follows what bird trainers and vets are doing in bird behavior.

However, birds currently constitute only about a quarter of her caseload, down from about half when she hung her shingle out as a behaviorist in 1999. Sheís seen about 50 birds in all so far, but currently owns only finches.

Behavior consultants rule the roost
Parrot "behavior consultants" make up the bulk of the bird behavior advice crowd. They're the experts whose advertising on the Internet and behavior articles in bird magazines you see most often.

Liz Wilson
Parrot behavior consultant Liz Wilson draws on her 20 years of experience spent working with birds as a certified veterinary technician.

Mostly ex-veterinary technicians, ex-bird trainers, breeders and uber-owners, consultants rarely have a formal education in animal behavior. However, many do offer extensive hands-on experience that often translates well into practical advice for the typical bird owner.

Some, in fact, were inspired to become bird behavior consultants after noticing that degreed colleagues don't always have the right answers.

Philadelphia-based consultant Liz Wilson overheard her share of bad behavior advice during her 20 years of working as a certified veterinary technician alongside veterinarians who knew their medicine but were flunking animal psychology.

"They would say, 'If you have a screaming parrot, give it a mate.' Thatís the worst possible advice. You donít have a child to fix a child."

The bad advice continues, Wilson says. She recently heard of a veterinarian who told the owner of a budgie that regurgitating overnight was normal behavior. "Iím sorry," she says. "It canít be behavioral in the middle of the night."

Tips for choosing a consultant

TAKE YOUR TIME when choosing a bird behavior expert. If possible, read published articles or books to get an idea of how she thinks. Use free introductory sessions to interview several experts and ask as many questions as you need to. Base your final choice both on rapport and qualifications.

Here are some things you should look for:

  • A free get-to-know-you session. The expert should be willing to chat with you for at least 15 or 20 minutes off the clock to see if the partnership is going to be a good fit. If not, the expert should be willing to refer you to a colleague who might be able to help. Beware those who ask for a credit card number before they will speak with you.
  • Reasonable fees. Help doesnít come cheap, but you may find some experts' fee structures easier to handle than others. For instance, most ask for an hourly rate but a few charge by the minute, which can quickly add up.
  • A willingness to make house calls. House calls are usually the best way for a behavior expert to take full stock of a situation. Beware those who refuse to visit even if you are within driving distance. If a faraway expert sometimes travels to your city on other business, ask if she would be willing to come to your home while in the area. An alternative might be to find others in your area who also need her services and who could split her travel costs with you. If a home visit is not possible, ask the expert how she plans to make up for the lack of information. Will prior years of experience doing home visits help her fill in the blanks? Does she accept photographs, videotapes or room sketches?
  • Experience that matches the problem. You wouldn't see a cardiologist for a broken arm and you shouldn't hire a behavior expert who does not have experience with your type of parrot and its problem. Sometimes even closely related species behave differently, so make sure she knows scarlet macaws, not just blue-and-golds. If she breeds or keeps your type of bird as a pet, that's a good sign. What's her behavior speciality? If you need help with a feather picker and she works mostly with biters, keep looking.
  • Education. What extras does she bring to the table? Has she earned a pertinent degree or worked with birds professionally in a vet's office or zoo? How many years has she been offering behavior advice?
  • Reputation. What is her standing in the avicultural community? Does she publish articles or books, give lectures or teach avian-related courses?
  • Reasonable success rate. Ask how successful she's been at helping other birds with the same behavior problem. Unless the assignment was something easy, such as teaching a bird to hand perch, beware the perfect record.
  • Happy clients. Ask her if you can contact some of the people she's helped.
  • Veterinary behaviorist Seibert says she respects parrot behavior consultants' abilities. "I read all the popular articles written by them," she says. "Iíve learned so much from those who have far more experience with hundreds of species than I have. I would never discount them. I think it's fabulous what theyíre doing. Not having a scientific background doesn't mean you can't help birds with behavior problems."

    Ramping up
    While parrot behavior experts may vary considerably in style (see Tale of two consultations), there are certain things you can usually expect from any consultation.

    Most behavior experts begin with a free "get-to-know-you" phone session lasting 15 or 20 minutes. This helps both you and the expert decide whether you want to proceed with a full-blown consultation, which can be costly.

    Some consultants require upfront research before they will take you on as a client.

    Oklahoma behavior consultant Mattie Sue Athan asks that potential clients read at least one of her six books on parrot behavior. "Sometimes people find the answers to their questions in a book. This saves a lot of phone time and, therefore, money."

    If the consultant does not live within easy driving distance of your home, you will have to decide whether you will be happy with a consultation done entirely over the telephone and e-mail. (To help you decide, see Not being there.)

    Once hired, your expert will probably ask you to fill out a lengthy questionnaire so she can get up to speed quickly on your parrot's history and environment.

    Next, the two of you will decide on a date and time for her home visit or your toll phone call to her.

    Session length and cost varies among counselors, but most initial consultations last a couple of hours and cost an average of $100. Expect to pay for gas if she comes to your home and more if she advises on additional birds.

    You can take a consultation as far as you like. If you are lucky, the expert will deem it a simple behavior problem and send you on your way after one session and a couple of follow-ups. At the other extreme, she may prescribe a long list of things to try over a period of weeks or months.

    Most experts offer free followup help on the phone or via e-mail for as long as you continue to work on the same problem

    Individual results may vary
    Even if you follow all your expert's suggestions to a "T," your birdís behavior may not change the way you would like it to.

    For one thing, birds have different personalities, just as people do. What works for one may not for another. Also, with no hard-and-fast scientifically-based rules for how to modify parrot behavior to follow, behavior experts don't always apply the same principles across the board, which can vary the outcome.

    For instance, many behavior consultants believe in the concept of "flock leader" - teaching your bird that you are boss, and making sure you never let the bird perch higher than your head to establish dominance.

    Behaviorists, on the other hand, tend to shy away from theories such as these because they have not been scientifically proven. In fact, some behaviorists who have studied parrots in the wild say they have not yet seen evidence of height dominance.

    "I keep those various theories in mind, but I donít take them as fact,Ē says Denver behaviorist Oliva-Purdy. Does the Ďstep upí command really make you dominant? Hard to say. [Then again,] itís a good idea to have control of your bird."

    Something worked - but what?
    Georgia Wheeler isn't certain what exactly helped her cockatoo recover from a bout of feather pulling. Before the behavior consultant Wheeler hired arrived on the scene, Wheeler had tried several things, including buying another bird to keep the cockatoo company and cutting back on vitamins.

    "Her conclusion was that he was pulling out his feathers for attention, and that when he did it we were to ignore him," said Wheeler.

    "I don't know if I totally believe that he was doing it for attention, but I was aware that we were rewarding the behavior. We were so frantic about his feather plucking and how he looked that every time he put a feather in his beak we all jumped up and handed him food, or started singing to him, or gave him a toy."

    In the end, something clicked and the bird stopped plucking. "My friends tease me about my 'bird psychiatrist'", says Wheeler, "but when you don't know what to do, sometimes it helps to have a sounding board."

    Fellow cockatoo owner Yvonne Miller agrees. "One never really knows if a consultant will really be helpful. However, that said, even if they can't solve the problem completely, they should be able to at least provide new perspective and ways of looking at the situation."

    Erez and Luna
    Erez Miller accidentally frightened his cockatoo, Luna, with a harness.

    Miller's consultant, Kim Bear, eased the fears of Miller and her husband, Erez, that their cockatoo, Luna, would never recover from her nervousness. She advised Erez Miller, an overly-enthusiastic owner who loved to handle Luna, to give the bird more breathing room.

    "We are still early in the 'recovery' process, but we already see improvements and, most importantly, we have a renewed optimism that - through patience and diligent work - we will eventually have our baby bird back," says Yvonne.

    Bob Hulsey, the owner of Angel the macaw, liked the basic advice he got from his expert, but was disappointed in her suggestions for stopping screaming.

    Her advice to "shun" Angel - turn his back to show displeasure- and praise her when she was quiet didn't work. Her last-ditch advice to squirt Angel with a plant sprayer earned Hulsey condemnation on a parrot bulletin board he frequented.

    But Hulsey would use a behavior expert again; in fact, heíd like to get a second opinion on Angel's latest bad habit: biting.

    "It was overall more positive than negative. I don't see the screaming as a big problem except in certain situations - in other words I'm 'dealing with it'. One thing I've concluded is that it's unrealistic to think parrots won't scream."

    Your bird's okay, you aren't
    More owners should think like Hulsey, say many behavior experts. Some of the behaviors that cause bird owners to run for help are either perfectly natural or inadvertently caused by the owner.

    "One young man wanted me to tell him how to teach his African grey to shut up when he wanted him to be quiet. I told him parrots didnít come with off switches," says consultant Liz Wilson.

    "In 90 percent of [my] cases, it is the people...who need to change, both in their thinking and their practices," agrees Pamela Clark. "These are, after all, wild animals we have brought into our midst; and upon whom we have placed the template of our expectations we have unconsciously developed as a result of our other 'pet' experiences."

    Ironically, some owners donít discover they can't deal with a birdís natural personality until it recovers from a long-standing illness, notes Wilson.

    "When I worked as a technician, it became obvious to me that saving a bird's life medically didn't necessarily save its home. These were beloved birds the owners would do anything to save. But once it recovered, they realized they didnít like living with a healthy parrot.

    "Chronic malnutrition takes the edge off a birdís personality. It's like my aunt always said, 'I love my kids most when they have 1 degree of fever.'"

    In a psychoanalytical twist Freud would have loved, some consultants believe their human clients subconsciously encourage their birds to misbehave in order to satisfy a victim complex.

    "Not too infrequently, I find an owner who has adopted the role of 'victim' to her bird's 'perpetrator,' says Clark. "Usually, this concerns the aggressive cockatoo, Amazon or conure. The person feels betrayed because the once-loving parrot has now started to bite and the owner can't see past her own vision of this as a serious betrayal of love."

    Sometimes success sticks
    Dana Wilson is glad to have left her "victim" role behind a long time ago when consultant Sue Farlow showed her how to calm down Watson, her out-of-control pionus.

    Watson is still "Napoleonic," Wilson reports, but he's mellower than before, and that's something she can live with.

    Related article | Do phone consultations with bird behavior experts work?
    Related article | Tale of two consultations Published 2002.


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