If you subscribe to the very popular Bird Talk Magazine (found at the check-out stand of every major pet store chain I’ve ever been in), you may already know the name of this month’s Best in Flock interview subject. Liz Wilson has been writing the “Parrot Psychology” column in Bird Talk Magazine since 2001.
Liz Wilson is a certified veterinary technician (CVT) and certified parrot behavior consultant (CPBC) who has been working with companion parrot behavior for over 20 years. In addition to numerous veterinary articles published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), The Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery (JAMS), and the Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine, she also wrote or co-wrote eight separate chapters in various veterinary textbooks.
Liz Wilson also founded and currently chairs the Parrot Division of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), and serves as the Education Vice President of the Phoenix Landing Foundation, a non-profit parrot welfare organization.
In this interview, Liz talks about her experiences as a parrot behavior consultant, solving parrot behavior issues, and resources for people who want to develop better relationships with their companion parrots.
Best in Flock: Please tell our readers about your background as a parrot behavior consultant.
Liz Wilson: To make a long story a tad shorter, I have a bachelors in elementary education w/ a minor in psych. I taught elementary school, then worked with disturbed children and then did crisis counseling with adults (all of which proved very useful many years later). Then I bagged working with humans (I thought) and went back to school to become a veterinary technician. I’d owned all kinds of exotics including parrots, so it was a natural for me to specialize in avian and exotic animal nursing. After 20 years of that, I left veterinary medicine and started working on my own as a parrot behavior consultant. Incidentally, I do not call myself an avian behavior consultant as some of my colleagues do, as I know nothing about ostrich or penguin or hummingbird behavior. In my opinion, parrot behavior people calling themselves “avian behavior consultants” is almost equivalent to dog behavior consultants calling themselves “mammal behavior consultants.” (After all, there are almost three times as many bird species on this planet as there are mammal species!)
What exactly is an animal behaviorist?
Liz Wilson: Here in the USA, an animal behaviorist is someone with an advanced degree in animal behavior or ethology. I am not an animal behaviorist, as I do not have such a degree. This is why Sally Blanchard started calling our field “parrot behavior consulting” years ago – to stay off the toes of those with graduate degrees. Differences exist in other countries, I hear.
What does an animal behavior consultant do, and what do they not do?
Liz Wilson: An animal behavior consultant works with the gestalt of the parrot’s life – in other words, the entire environment and human society around the animal, as well as the animal itself. Therefore, 99% of my work is not actually with the animal itself – it is with the owner. An unlike veterinarians, animal behavior consultants do not proscribe prescription drugs nor do they make medical diagnoses.
What is the most common reason someone calls you for help?
Liz Wilson: Generally speaking, there is a glitch in the relationship with their parrot, preventing it from being truly fulfilling (because the bird is aggressive, screams excessively, whatever). They want to try to fix the situation instead of throwing the bird away.
What’s the most interesting case you’ve ever seen? How were you able to help?
Liz Wilson: Probably the strangest consult I did was an in-home I did with a “phobic” Amazon who wouldn’t let the owners near her. She’d panicked so badly at the sight of them that she’d damaged the tips of her wings by constantly flailing about. By approaching her in a totally submissive manner (lying on my stomach on the floor with my hands hidden), I discovered she wasn’t “phobic” at all. Instead, she came waddling over to me, flashing her eyes and cooing with pleasure. I realized from observing her that she had something wrong with her feet so she couldn’t grip. As a result, she’d hurt herself by falling repeatedly off the owners’ hands, so had learned to equate the humans with pain – hence the fear response. I referred her to an experienced avian veterinarian who was able to help. Eventually, the bird’s behavior returned to normal, with her playing and acting like an Amazon.
What’s the difference between working with birds and working with other types of pets?
Liz Wilson: I have never trained cats to do anything, and haven’t trained dogs in years, so that’s tough for me to answer from personal experience. However, dogs and cats are both predators, so their responses to the environment are quite different from prey animals like parrots. It’s a fundamental difference in psychology and behavior. As a result, it can be very difficult for a dog trainer to train a parrot. Switching from horses to parrots is easier, as horses are prey animals as well.
Is there ever a point where you think a “problem parrot” (or the relationship) cannot be rehabilitated and you advise relinquishing the bird?
Liz Wilson: Absolutely. Some people refuse to take responsibility for the mistakes they made – and we all made mistakes with our parrots! It’s entirely the parrot’s fault, not theirs – which is NEVER the case. If they won’t take responsibility, then they won’t change their behavior – and if they won’t change their behavior (which is usually accidentally rewarding the bird for misbehaving), the parrot won’t change, either. There are also some really untenable situations, like having an aggressive male cockatoo going after small children and putting them at risk. Most owner-parents are simply not able to deal with something like that. It’s also very difficult to teach people who think they already know everything. (I have on occasion interrupted owners who are telling me how to do my job, to ask them, “If you understand everything about what is going on and how to fix it, then why am I here?”)
There is a preponderance of “Get Your Bird to Stop Biting in 5 Minutes”-type of ebooks and video programs on the Web. Google anything related to parrot training and you’ll find self-described “bird whisperers” selling their “secret systems”. What do you think about these products?
Liz Wilson: It saddens me to see people with little or no experience with parrots or understanding of their psychology, trying to cash in on the problems that parrot owners can have with their birds. Simple rule of thumb is that it takes time to create a problem and it takes time to fix it. Anyone that promises a quick solution will be popular, as people frequently don’t want to put in the work to improve things. However, owners will gain no long term resolution with a quick fix. If you don’t address the reason for the unwanted behavior, then getting rid of that behavior won’t fix anything except temporarily. Problems will crop up again, as the core issue is still unresolved.
What resources do you recommend to people with pet birds who are exhibiting problem behaviors like screaming or biting?
Liz Wilson: There is a plethora of information out there in books and the internet, but people need to understand the basics to be able to evaluate how accurate the information is. I recommend a basic book like Blanchard’s “Companion Parrot Handbook”, and have heard excellent things about “A Parrot For Life” by Rebecca O’Connor. Books by Barbara Heidenreich are also quite useful. Out of curiosity, I did a search for the topic of “excessive screaming in parrots” and immediately got 188,000 hits – but keep in mind that not all those sources will be useful. That’s why new owners need good books like the ones I’ve mentioned.
What’s one question that you wish people would ask but never do?
Liz Wilson: A few owners have asked me this but unfortunately most don’t:
“What am I doing wrong and what do I need to do to fix things?”
Update, April 14, 2013: We are extremely saddened by Liz’s passing. She was a tremendous friend to parrots, teacher to us humans, and an irreplaceable member of the avian community. She will be missed, but her memory and her work will live on.