As a certified parrot behavior consultant and certified professional bird trainer setting up a practice, one of my first impressions was that people seem to be more reluctant to spend money on a bird than on a dog. Experience a serious issue with a dog and most people will look for help, as opposed to waiting it out and hoping for the best or making the assumption that “it just has to be that way.”
Take biting, for example. I had one client who had been bitten every day for three years after adopting the bird before seeking help. Another client had been bitten in the neck every day for a year, the bite drawing blood each time. In both cases I identified simple antecedent arrangements after completing a functional assessment, and there were no further problems.
What interests me is that the owners waited so long before seeking help. I always asked how long the behavior had been happening, but I wish I had asked them why they waited. It’s a change I’ve made to my intake form.
I’m involved with several different rescues, so I have a lot of opportunity to talk to bird owners, past bird owners, and prospective bird owners on a regular basis. I think there are several things at play.
Too much information
First, the wonderful (and often horrifying!) quantity and quality of information on the internet. Anyone can present themselves as an expert in any field with no education or credentials, and in some cases, with very little experience. I’ve yet to meet with any client who looked at the information presented online, and the source of it, with a critical eye. I almost cringe when a conversation starts with, “I looked online…” What percentage of people accept the information they happen upon as fact? What percentage have totally unrealistic expectations as to the time, strategy, and effort it may take to make a change, assuming they could even use the information they’ve found to make an effective change at all?
What is normal?
Next, the perception of what is normal in living with a parrot. I’ll just bet that I’m not the only one who has heard again and again that “all parrots bite” and “biting is normal in parrots.” I’ve seen people sneaking glances at my hands, probably looking for scars and missing digits!
Lack of knowledge on how to train using positive reinforcement is another issue. One client was told by a breeder to sock a blue and gold macaw in the face when it bit her. The “push on their chest and they’ll step up” trick is still making the rounds, too, as is squirting them with a spray bottle (which would actually thrill a lot of parrots!).
Finally, I’ve found that clients have an unrealistic expectation about parrots as pets, compared to dogs, believing that they will love to be petted all the time, no matter what else is going on for them. Because parrots are intelligent and form bonds with humans, some clients expect more dog-like behaviors from their birds.
A hopeful new direction
When I first started, all of my clients contacted me because of undesirable behaviors, mostly screaming and biting that had been happening regularly for a long time. People were surprised that it wasn’t always a quick fix (especially for screaming!). This led to frustration on the part of the individual, as well as frustration for the bird. Few people have the willpower, stamina, or endurance—or whatever else we should call it—to deal with a screaming parrot in the most effective, humane way possible. I found that many clients ended up providing intermittent reinforcement for screaming long and loud, which of course compounded the problem.
But I’m seeing a very hopeful change taking place. More than half of my clients now contact me to help acclimate a bird to a new home, rather than to address a problem they’ve been having for literally years. The first time that happened I was dumbfounded. Thrilled, but dumbfounded. In some cases, I work with the owners and bird within one to two weeks after the bird arrives—we’re then able to discuss scheduling (sleep requirements, showers), diet, cage set-up and placement, foraging and other forms of enrichment that can help their bird feel comfortable and thrive in their new family. In fact, I’m now meeting with some people before the bird ever comes to their home! I’ve worked with them, and their bird-to-be, at a rescue so that we can develop some solid skills and have a basic understanding of behavior, setting up the bird for even greater success, and the people with a plan based on realistic expectations.
In both situations, we can discuss body language in parrots (particular species as well as the individual), basic training concepts, how to choose appropriate reinforcers, and maintaining a high rate of reinforcement. I make sure this is two-way communication between the clients and myself, not a lecture, because I want them to ask questions about what they might have heard so we can address outdated information.
Reaching out to new parrot owners
I’d love it if every time someone brings a new bird into their home, they call on a certified parrot behavior consultant to help them make sure they’ve got the knowledge, skills, and the right environment to maximize their parrot’s welfare and hopefully prevent many of the behavior problems I’ve spent my career trying to address long after they’ve started. So, how do we connect with people who might need our services as prevention or problem-solving?
I can say that I’ve lost count of the number of times that someone, even a veterinarian, has said to me that they had no idea that there were parrot trainers and behavior consultants out there. This means the onus is on us to promote our skills and businesses as effectively as possible.
I’ve made it a point to network with vets in a fairly wide range, even stopping to visit offices when I’m traveling, taking the time to introduce myself and leave cards. In every case, the vet and staff have been thrilled to learn that this was an option to offer their clients. My very first clients came from a local vet who said he thought people had a grasp on the basics, such as cage size and food choices, but needed help with realistic expectations and dealing with undesirable behaviors.
I’ve also worked with a variety of nonprofit rescue organizations, talking to administrators and caregivers. In some cases I’ve donated my skills to get a foot in the door. I’ve found that the IAABC certification impresses people, so I always mention that. People think of us as animal whisperers when we know that we are using science. A new thing I’m offering is working with the potential adopter at the rescue with the bird to improve their skill set and provide solid information. I offer a reduced rate for this, and it has started to pay off with people hiring me after the bird comes to their home.
Another thing I’ve done is introduce myself to the managers at local pet stores. Most have been very receptive and posted my cards in a public area for people who might be interested. I’ve provided information, if requested, to the manager and staff about the parrots they have for sale. One wonderful manager asked me to take a look at the cage set-up and make recommendations. I’ve yet to be contacted by anyone who has purchased a bird from a pet store, but I’m hoping it will catch on.
I’ve also worked at different animal rescue events. I stick out among all the dog and cat rescues like a sore thumb, but it gets people to walk up and have a conversation! Most of those conversations start with, “I know someone who has a bird.” Great opening to pass out cards and tell them a little about what I do. There’s a lot of old-school information out there, and this is a good opportunity to gently inform people that there’s a kinder, gentler way to interact with animals through the use of least intrusive, minimally aversive techniques.
To sum up, we have lots of opportunities! Arming people with solid information and realistic expectations, and giving them science-based information, will improve the lives of parrots and the skills of their owners. Figuring out viable ways to promote ourselves, our businesses, and IAABC will help us spread the word on our organization and what we do.
Debbie is a CPBT-KA and CPBC, specializing in parrots. Her business is called Parrot Ps and Qs. Check out her Facebook page here.