To kick off 2020, I’m excited to share a conversation with Michelle Underhill, the Executive Director of Phoenix Landing Foundation. Full disclosure: Michelle and I have known each other for many years through her active involvement in Phoenix Landing, and she’s one of my all around favorite people. Please read on to learn more about what Phoenix Landing does and what it takes to keep a multi-state animal adoption non-profit growing and thriving.
Q: You’ve somewhat recently stepped into a newly created position at the foundation. Tell us about your background and what your new role entails.
I’m the Executive Director for Phoenix Landing Foundation. I have about a decade of experience in management, administration, and grant writing. I earned a certificate in nonprofit management in June of 2018. I’ve been a volunteer with Phoenix Landing Foundation since 2008, serving as the Education Coordinator for the Raleigh area. For the past five years I’ve also volunteered with Triangle Rabbits, a rabbit non-profit. I am passionate about and love all that Phoenix Landing is, does, and is doing. I look forward to continuing to grow with Phoenix Landing.
Phoenix Landing is a parrot welfare organization that not only rehomes birds, but has a strong focus on education for people who live with them, too. That’s one of the things I love the most about the organization, and this position. I will wear many hats, and be involved in lots of parrot-related things. We have educational events, facilitate parrot adoption, do workshops, have a conference in Asheville for bird owners every other year (the next one is in May of 2020!), coordinate ecotours to see parrots in the wild, and more.
Q: What is the biggest focus in the near future for Phoenix Landing (generally) and for you (specifically)?
Phoenix Landing has always done great things. We will continue to find homes for birds, and have educational events about birds. I’m very interested in hearing from adoptive homes, fosters, and volunteers as to what else Phoenix Landing might do to help them with the birds with whom they share their lives.
In addition to just getting to know the organization on an even deeper level, my personal goals for the near future are to connect more with our incredible volunteers, who are the heart of the organization, and also to really explore what more we can do for bird owners online, which is a frequent request we receive.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge or threat facing companion parrots today?
While at ExoticsCon, a veterinary conference for exotics veterinarians, this September, I asked veterinarians a very similar question. I was shocked at the answer. There are still many large parrots out there on a seed diet. So, this leads me to believe that the largest challenge or threat facing companion parrots today is a lack of updated information or knowledge concerning diet and husbandry for those who live with them. Diet and exercise are important to their health, just as it is to our own.
There are a lot of committed bird owners who always want to do better, or more, for their birds, and do a lot of research online. How do we educate the countless others who do not, and who feed seed diets?
Another huge challenge for companion parrots comes when they need new homes. We need more people to consider adopting a bird first and foremost, before considering a baby bird. Birds live a long time. They need a succession of good homes. There are so many great birds who lose their homes through no fault of their own. I read the stories every week. The parrots need more people interested in adopting.
Q: Can you tell our readers a little bit about the adoptable birds available through Phoenix Landing?
We have adoptable birds in Maryland, DC, Virginia, North Carolina, and the Jacksonville FL area. There are usually over 100 up for adoption at any given time, and over 100 more on our waiting list. The specific species vary – from Parakeets and Cockatiels, to Quakers and Conures, to African Greys, Cockatoos, Amazons, and Macaws.
We’ve rehomed almost 3,000 birds at this point, and every one has adjusted to a new home and environment just fine. That just shows how adaptable and smart birds are!
Q: What should someone know about birds before they choose to get one, or before they contact you?
Learn all you can about birds, and remain committed to always learning about them. What we know about them is changing all the time. Birds are highly intelligent, so need a lot of enrichment.
Please consider adoption first. If we take good care of our birds, they will hopefully all live long lives and may need more than one home throughout their lives. Baby birds grow up to be parrots in their teens, 20s, 30s, etc. that still need and deserve another amazing home when the time comes for them to get one. Pay it forward and give an awesome bird that isn’t a baby a great home.
Birds are only a few generations removed from the wild, and because of their anatomy we cannot safely spay or neuter them at this time. These two things can make them a more challenging companion animal to live with than a spayed or neutered dog, cat, rabbit, etc.
We need to have different expectations of our relationships with birds than we have of our relationship with a dog or cat. I know some people pet their birds all the time, and in inappropriate ways. But, just because someone can pet a bird down their back or under their wings, doesn’t mean they should. A bird should only ever be petted on their head. Anywhere else is sexy and can lead to physical and behavioral issues. That ultimately is not in the bird’s best interests. So, if petting and cuddling an animal a lot is a top priority for someone in a pet, I would encourage them to consider a dog, cat, or another animal, first. (Recognizing that some individual dogs and cats aren’t fond of being pet, either.) Some birds don’t even like to have their head petted, but you can still have an amazing relationship with them.
Birds are amazing
If you are drawn to birds for their intelligence, interesting behavior, etc. they are well worth it. They are amazing animals.
Q: Why should people choose to adopt through Phoenix Landing?
Our adoption coordinators are amazing. While we do list some of our birds on Petfinder, what we really hope people will do is work with their adoption coordinator to find the best parrot match for their home.
We are more like an employment agency rather than a job advertisement site, except we match birds to homes rather than job seekers to positions. We want to make a good match for your home and for the bird. But, of course, adopters must realize that all relationships involve some work, including our relationships with our pets.
I love that Phoenix Landing has a two-month foster period for all birds with adoption fees, to make sure it is a good fit for your home as well as for the bird, before you are asked to finalize the adoption.
Q: What are a couple simple things every parrot owner can do to ensure they are giving their birds the best possible quality of life?
9 tips for taking the best care of a bird:
- Learn all you can about birds. And don’t stop learning about them. New information is coming out about them all the time.
- Give them lots of variety, and as much choice as you can. They are highly intelligent animals and appreciate being able to choose whether they’d like to come out, interact with us, etc. at any given time. Give them enrichment at different levels. Like us, they need challenges, but also need easy wins at times, too.
- Pick the right size and type of cage. When choosing their cage, get the biggest one possible with bar spacing that is safe for them. Have multiple play stands in the house for them.
- Go to an avian veterinarian for regular checkups.
- Make sure they get a good diet. That means a variety of good, healthy foods that are bird-safe.
- Learn about their body language and respect what it is signifying.
- Learn about behavior and reinforcers. When facing a behavioral issue, start by thinking about what you want them TO do rather than what you don’t want them to do. Reinforce what you want them to do.
- Encourage independent play. A bird that can happily hang out with you in the same room, without being on you, is a wonderful thing for them and for you. We shouldn’t be their only source of interaction and enrichment. Overly dependent birds may learn to scream, bite, or destroy furniture for attention.
- Plan for your birds and other pets in the event that something ever happens to you. Set up a short-term caretaker in case you have to be hospitalized suddenly for any period of time. Create a plan in the event of your death, too, and make sure all individuals and/or organizations involved are aware of your plan in advance. For animals that potentially can live for decades, thinking about their futures is important, too.
Q: Lastly, on a more personal note, I know you have your own animal companions whom you’ve been training to do some interesting things. Tell our readers more about what you’ve got your pets learning and why!
Jen Cunha’s work on teaching birds the concepts of “yes” and “no”, to communicate choices through flash cards, and to read, is groundbreaking. If you haven’t already, take a look at her website and resources at myreadingpets.com.
I’ve been working on some of these concepts and skills with my own birds. Birds are really smart, and this not only taps into their natural curiosity and ability to learn new things (I think captivity must be boring for many), but helps my relationship with them, too. I am learning to communicate and understand them better in ways I hadn’t thought possible. And, the most amazing thing is that anyone can do the same with their own birds.
A big thanks to Michelle for taking time out of her busy days at The Landing and to you, dear readers, for continuing to learn with me. Please check out the Phoenix Landing blog for amazing stories, tips and even bird-safe recipes. And if you’re in the mid-Atlantic area, please join us for (free!) classes and events.