Interview: Pamela Clark, CVTJanuary 21, 2012
Pamela Clark, in addition to being a certified veterinary technician (CVT), is an author, speaker, and parrot behavior consultant with a special interest in feather destructive behavior, training, flight and nutrition. As a parrot behavior consultant, Pam focuses on coupling improvements in husbandry and nutrition with the most positive and most effective behavior modification strategies. Pam writes about parrots and behavior for publications such as Companion Parrot Quarterly, Bird Talk magazine, Birds USA, Parrots magazine, Good Bird magazine and the Holistic Bird Newsletter and her articles have been translated into several foreign languages.
She’s spoken at events for Phoenix Landing and took time out of her busy schedule to join Best in Flock for a quick interview.
Best in Flock: Please tell our readers about your background as a parrot behavior consultant and how you got into this line of work.
Pam Clark: I have a diverse background of experience with parrots. I have lived with companion parrots, ranging in size from parrotlets to the largest macaws and cockatoos, for over 40 years. For several years I bred African Greys and some of the smaller parrot species. As a breeder, I learned first-hand about the rearing practices that produce the most successful parrot companions and to understand how inadequate rearing methods can contribute to behavior problems later on.
For many years, I worked to rehabilitate previously-owned parrots. I converted them to a better diet, resolved their behavior problems, and finally adopted them into good homes. This allowed me to develop my effectiveness as a consultant by getting hands-on experience with a very wide range of species. I also train parrots in a variety of different behaviors, including free flight outdoors. Lastly, I am a licensed veterinary technician with 10 years’ experience working for an avian veterinarian.
I got into this line of work largely by accident. Because of my contributions online, the publishers of different magazines began to contact me to ask for articles that they might publish. As my articles were printed, parrot caregivers began to contact me for assistance. Since I love both people and parrots, I found this rewarding. At some point, it became prudent to begin charging for my services. I do not, however, recommend this method of becoming a consultant. While I was able to assist caregivers, I had no real background in the science of behavior. I do not believe that my early success would have continued had I not chosen to pursue further study into the principles of behavior, functional assessment, effective behavior change strategies, animal training and professional ethics.
What does it take to be a “good” parrot behaviorist? What advice do you have for people who might be interested in getting into this kind of work?
Pam Clark: You will note that I do not refer to myself as a behaviorist. This is because I do not have the educational credentials that would permit me to do so. My degrees are in journalism and ornamental horticulture. That said, a good parrot behavior consultant will know how to be effective with both people and parrots. This requires having both excellent written and verbal communication skills. It’s no good knowing a lot about how to solve behavior problems if you can’t create and maintain a good rapport with clients and then effectively teach them the things you know. This becomes an even greater challenge when you contemplate the fact that much of this work is done by telephone.
Beyond this, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the dietary and environmental factors that contribute to the development of behavior problems. Since many problems are rooted in poor diet, it’s vital that a consultant understand psittacine nutrition, its impact on behavior, and how to successfully convert a parrot to eating an optimal diet. In addition to the ability to assess diet, environment and social relationships and teach caregivers to make necessary changes, it is necessary to understand how to effectively change behavior using the most positive, least intrusive methods possible.
The field of parrot behavior consulting has historically been plagued with a lack of professionalism, which I hope to see corrected in the future. Therefore, after getting as much hands-on experience with as many parrot species as possible, the best approach is to enroll in a comprehensive program, such as the course in Parrot Behavior Science and Technology, offered by the Companion Animal Sciences Institute (www.casinstitute.com). This includes the module Behavior Consulting with People and Parrots, taught by Dr. Susan Friedman and I. It also includes a module on ethics.
What is the most common problem that your clients have with their parrots?
Pam Clark: The three most common problems with which I deal are aggression, screaming and feather damaging behavior (feather picking). The most common contributing factors that must be corrected before behavior modification strategies can be fully effective are (1) poor diet, (2) increased hormone production, (3) lack of independent living skills and (4) inadequate housing and perching options.
How have parrot care best practices and advice changed in the years you’ve been active in aviculture?
Pam Clark: I’ve seen a gradual change in the advice offered by experts regarding diet. Whereas 15 years ago, a pellet-only diet was often advocated, there is now a growing awareness among veterinarians and behavior professionals of the importance of feeding a variety of healthful fresh foods in addition to a high-quality pellet. The importance of foraging is also now more widely recognized, which is reflected in a much wider variety of foraging and puzzle toys offered by manufacturers.
The fun and effectiveness of training parrots has caught on, thanks largely to Barbara Heidenreich’s workshops and training DVDs. Perhaps most important of all, the validity of information about parrot behavior has improved. Early on, much inaccurate and harmful information was dispensed about parrot behavior. One of the best examples of this is the old myth of height dominance, which unfortunately has been published repeatedly in different parrot-related articles and texts. Thanks to the influence of Dr. Susan Friedman, who offers the online course Living and Learning with Parrots for Caregivers and its accompanying discussion list Parrot Behavior Analysis Solutions, more caregivers understand how behavior works and how to modify it effectively and compassionately.
What advice would you give a new bird owner who wants to avoid having problems down the line?
Pam Clark: The best advice I have to offer is to think in terms of being a good “zookeeper.” This means that you give equal weight to all the parrot’s needs and provide for those. I think it is human nature to focus largely on the social needs of parrots and the fun involved in developing the relationship. However, social interaction is just one of a parrot’s needs.
To avoid problems, it’s also important to identify and feed an optimal diet, to teach the parrot to bathe and to be comfortable in a variety of social contexts, and to foster independent play skills. It’s important to provide a varied and stimulating environment which includes a large enough cage, multiple perching sites, plenty of enrichment and an outdoor aviary. And, caregivers must make sure that intellectual stimulation is present in the form of problem solving and the ability to learn new things.
If I could offer only one piece of advice about what NOT to do, I would recommend keeping the parrot off of the shoulder and to avoid cuddling and snuggling. I see more problems related to these activities than to any omission in providing for the parrot’s needs. Allowing a parrot to perch for extended periods on the shoulder teaches him nothing except how to be dependent. This is the antithesis of a parrot’s true nature and problems are inevitable from this practice. Parrots who enjoy this privilege not only become overly dependent and lose their independent play skills, but they also tend to form a pair bond with the caregiver, which results in problems that vary from chronic egg laying to aggression directed at everyone but the bonded human.
How long does it usually take to “fix” problem behaviors in a bird?
Pam Clark: The amount of time required to resolve a behavior problem depends upon three factors: (1) the type of problem we’re dealing with, (2) length of time the problem has been going on, and (3) the caregiver’s ability to implement solutions in a timely way and to maintain consistent effort aimed toward the solution.
Problems with aggression or screaming can often be resolved in just a few months. Problems with fearful behavior or feather damaging behavior might take a year or longer to fully resolve. And, of course, the longer a problem has been doing on, the longer period of time will be needed to affect a complete resolution. Finally, a lot depends upon the caregiver. For a busy individual, it can be very difficult to immediately implement all the necessary recommended changes and then to maintain steady effort in all areas. It is much more common to have to prioritize changes, making first one and then the next. This means that the length of time before the full behavior modification program can be implemented is protracted.
What are your favorite parrot behavior or training resources?
Pam Clark: I often refer clients to Jenny Drummey’s site at www.projectparrot.com. She offers some very good training videos that are free of charge. Kris Porter at www.parrotenrichment.com also offers some excellent training information, especially when it comes to teaching parrots to interact with foraging projects. Barbara Heidenreich’s workshops, her training DVD’s, and her online magazine Good Bird are invaluable.
Every caregiver should take the course developed by Dr. Susan Friedman called Living and Learning with Parrots for Caregivers. Information about this course can be found at www.behaviorworks.org. Also available here are some excellent articles, which can be found by clicking on the link “Written Works” and then “Behavior and Learning.”
Anything else you’d like to share with my readers?
Pam Clark: Perhaps the most important message I can offer readers is to get assistance early on when problem behaviors crop up and to do so from an experienced professional. It is human nature to diminish problems in our minds in the beginning, hoping that things will improve. However, a great many clients who contact me for help have allowed the problem to go on for so long that the relationship with the parrot has begun to have less value to them.
To make the situation worse, they have often turned to the Internet for solutions, receiving ineffective and conflicting advice, which they nevertheless have attempted to implement. Therefore, these clients are often equally desperate for a solution by the time they contact me and equally unprepared for the amount of effort they must exert to resolve the problem. When problems are addressed quickly, motivation to help the parrot is still high and the length of time required for a solution is still within the caregiver’s ability.
Thanks to Pam for her time and insights!
Read more interviews with other parrot trainers and interesting personalities in the bird world.