Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category


Sad news about Liz Wilson …

April 14, 2013

Liz Wilson

It is with a heavy heart that we share the news that Liz Wilson has passed away. Liz Wilson was a dedicated advocate for parrots, writer, parrot behavior consultant, member of the Phoenix Landing Foundation’s board and a much-beloved member of our community. We had the pleasure of talking to her for this blog in 2009 and she’s been part of our online “flock” ever since.

She will be missed.


Interview: Dr. Irene Pepperberg

October 10, 2012

If you love parrots, and even if you don’t, you’ve probably heard of Alex the African Grey. The woman behind Alex’s accomplishments and the research that showed the world that parrots don’t just mimic but actually understand language was Dr. Irene Pepperberg, adjunct associate professor at Brandeis University. The main focus of her work with parrots is to determine the cognitive and communicative abilities of these birds, and compare their abilities with those of great apes, marine mammals, and young children. She studies the mechanisms of their learning as well as the outcomes.

In 2008, she published (and I reviewed) her memoir “Alex & Me.”  This year, a new film about Alex was released called “Life with Alex“. Dr. Pepperberg was kind enough to participate in an interview for our blog.

Q: First of all, everyone wants to know: how are Griffin and Wart doing? Can you share what they’re working on?

Dr. Pepperberg: Both are doing quite well…we have one paper in press on their ability to work together to maximize payoff (Griff does to some extent; Arthur is selfish) and another paper accepted pending revision showing that they can both reason by exclusion–that is, choose location X when they know that a treat is not at location Y, and show they know exactly what is at X and Y. We are following up on the reciprocity research with both birds, and Griffin is almost done with a study on optical illusions.

Q: What’s a common misconception people seem to have about you and your work that you’d like to dispel?

That Alex was some kind of avian “Einstein”. He had the advantage of being an “only” bird for his first 15 yrs in the lab, with a small army of humans treating him like a toddler. Griffin always had to share this attention, and Alex interrupted all Grif’s sessions. Too, we tried out some training methods with Griffin that proved unsuccessful (audio and video tutoring), so he has had less overall effective tutoring that Alex. That said, Alex seemed more interested in solving problems, but more so later in life, so there’s still that possibility for Grif and Arthur.

Q: You’ve been known to say that parrots have the intelligence of a small child. Do you still feel this is an apt and useful comparison?

For the general public, yes. Not only to gauge parrot intelligence, but also to understand the type of enriched environment that is required to keep these birds happy and healthy.


Watch a profile of Irene Pepperberg and Alex on NOVA ScienceNOW

NOVA: Dr. Pepperberg Profile


Q: My friends from Facebook want to know: Do you feel that African Greys are special or smarter than other types of parrots? Could you teach a different species the same things you taught Alex?

Have no idea! I could answer that question only by working with other species, and that isn’t going to happen at this point.

Q: What inspired you to share a more personal part of your own life in the book?

Actually, it was my publisher who pushed for those bits….although in retrospect, I can see how my story could inspire other young people.

Q:  Please tell our readers about your new film. How is it different from the book and what would you like viewers to be get out of it?

Life with Alex” is a memoir, told more from the standpoint of my lab manager, Arlene Levin Rowe, than from mine. It gives the public a feel for the birds’ daily lives and their personalities, how they play as well as work, how they interact with their human partners, things that come through more clearly in video than in the printed word.

Q: What was the hardest part of continuing your work after Alex died?

Primarily, simply missing him. Secondarily, realizing that many of the studies we planned may not be done, because Griffin and Arthur still need to learn a lot to be able to be tested in those ways.

Q:  A really important part of science is for other people to be able to replicate findings. Are there currently other people doing similar work that will be able to carry the mantel moving forward?

Not exactly, although there’s a terrific group at the University of Vienna that is looking at cognition rather than communication in Greys, and making some outstanding progress, with keas as well as Greys; they also plan to work with cockatoos. Two other groups that were looking at communication did not replicate my training techniques or the environment of the birds, and thus could not replicate my findings.

Q: What is some of the most interesting animal research happening in the field right now? 

Lots of work being done on a large number of different avian species–corvids and parrots–to determine their intelligence. Mostly being done in the UK and in Austria, however.

Q: Anything else you’d like my readers to know?

That funding for this type research is still close to nonexistent in the US, and that we are dependent right now exclusively upon The Alex Foundation to keep the lab open and running.

Photo by Mike Lovett. A big thanks to Dr. Pepperberg and Arlene Levin for their help with this interview. For more background and videos, check out my book review of Alex & Me


Interview: Pamela Clark, CVT

January 21, 2012

Pam ClarkPamela 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.

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Interview: Kris Porter, Author, Parrot Enrichment Activity Books

October 9, 2011

Kris Porter, AuthorIt’s time for another in our interview series and this time we’re talking to Kris Porter, author of the Parrot Enrichment Activity Books, which are available for free as PDFs from her website. She came to Phoenix Landing last year to give a parrot enrichment seminar, which gave us all tons of ideas for integrating foraging and stimulus into our birds’ lives.

Kris is a graduate of the online class in behavior analysis called Living and Learning with Parrots. She is an enrichment specialist on the World Parrot Trusts expert panel of parrot specialists,  has written enrichment articles for Good Bird Magazine, and her ideas with photos of parrot enrichment activities have been featured in articles in Parrots Magazine and Australian BirdKeeper Magazine.  Kris is well-known in the avian community for her  talent for coming up with ideas and using photos and video clips to enlighten, motivate and inspire all of us who are looking for ways to enrich the captive parrot environment.

She was kind enough to spend some time to give us an interview. Read on to learn more.

Q: What is parrot enrichment and why is it important?

Kris Porter: Enrichment is an integral part of responsible parrot care. It has everything to do with how we keep our parrots happy, healthy and active as well as intellectually and instinctually challenged. For me that includes providing them with foraging opportunities; different play areas set up in more than one room in the house; toys and positive reinforcement training sessions.

We recently moved from Alaska to Minnesota. Before the move we renovated the Alaska home and then completely remodeled the new home in Minnesota. I believe the enrichment practices in place in our home helped our own parrots deal with the challenges and stress associated with the move and the ongoing construction work in a more normal less fearful way. In Alaska we had many different perching and play areas throughout the house as well as an outdoor aviary where the parrots experienced new sights and sounds like lawn mowers and children playing next door. During construction and remodeling of the new home we made use of the playtops on their cages, made a play area out of the upstairs banister and offered foraging opportunities inside and outside the cage. I’m convinced being exposed to a broader range of experiences helped them cope more successfully with the stress of the move and construction.
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The Story of Snowball’s Rise to Viral Fame

September 20, 2009

We recently chatted with Irena Schulz, founder of the avian rescue Bird Lovers Only, which is best known for being home of Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo. Just over two years ago, Irena posted a video of Snowball dancing to the Backstreet Boys and this Medium Sulphur Crested Eleanora Cockatoo skyrocketed to viral video fame.

Irena estimates (between the Bird Lovers Only YouTube channel and other places that hosted copies of the video) that Snowball’s dance moves have been seen at least 15 million times (if not more). Together, they’ve appeared on Letterman, Leno, Ellen, Bonnie Hunt, Inside Edition, Good Morning America, Animal Planet, CNN, MSNBC, FOX and hundreds of other TV and news shows, plus commercials, scientific journals and blogs, avian magazines and blogs, and radio shows around the world.

Irena took time out of her busy schedule to do an interview and answer some questions about Snowball’s amazing rise to popularity.

Tell us how this all started – what’s the story of Snowball’s Backstreet Boys video?

Snowball was relinquished to us in August of 2007. The owner (a very nice gentleman) brought his favorite CD to show us how he likes to dance. We played the [Backstreet Boys] tune while Snowball stood on my arm and a few seconds after the song started, this bird boogied his feet off!!! He was kicking his feet way up in the air in time to the music, bobbing his head, swaying, headbanging, the whole nine yards….all on my arm!!!! So we had to film this. This was just too unbelievable.

We put it on our blog around Labor Day of 2007. We did not have a You Tube account and did not think to place this on there. We just wanted to break up some of the boring, monotonous educational information that we were posting with a video of a bird dancing his heart out. If you go to our blog and search back…that original video is one of the first 2 or 3 posts on our blog.

It was first seen on our blog and that was emailed around. I didn’t generate this, I just put it on the blog. Someone or perhaps a few people saw this in an email and decided to put it on their You Tube channel. This generated even more emails…it traveled around the world. It looked as thought the initial You Tube channel user was from Russia, but it has since been taken down by You Tube (the channel was still there, but the video was taken off). That video had generated 5 million hits on their channel at the time it was removed.

Another You Tube user urged us to put up a YouTube channel of our own and put him up there…she had even helped us get started with creating one. So his fame was complete accident…we hadn’t even done anything to encourage this…it just happened.

What did you do once you realized it was going viral?

I realized it was beginning to go viral when I began hearing from famous people. The biggest shock came when I received a call from The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno in Sept of 2007. I thought it was a crank call at first, but soon realized it was real. Especially when I opened my email and found an email from the show’s producer. What did I do? I knew I was not in the driver’s seat so I just went along for the ride. I’m a very spiritual person and I believe that everything happens for a reason…and only God knows what those reasons are. So I don’t question it…I just go along with it.

What do you think made Snowball’s Backstreet Boys video so popular?

The fact that it was ridiculously funny. In a world of overwhelmingly sad news, people want something that will make them forget how awful their day, week, month, year, or entire life is going. They need a release. Snowball was their release. They watched his innocence, his zest for life, his enthusiasm, his appreciation for music, his child-like playfulness, and his self-indulgent bow at the end to show he knew it was a “job well-done.”

What kind of interest did the video generate in your organization?

Many tv programs, news shows, newspapers, etc came for stories and interviews. Although questions were asked about our rescue and we were happy to give details about how large of a problem the rehoming situation is with parrots, those pieces were always edited out of the story because everyone wanted to know about Snowball. So one can go back to your previous question…the reason why the “sad” part of the story was always edited out was because people wanted the “happy” parts. When you find a release in your life (something that will make you happy), why would you want to ruin it with sad news? And I’m sure that’s how all the producers, reporters, writers felt…they were coming for an enlightening, happy story…they wanted this to stand out amongst all the terrible news in the world.

We received an exponential growth in calls and emails from people wanting to relinquish their birds. And…people would apply to adopt a bird, come here on the pretense that they were interested in adopting a particular bird, then ask to see Snowball. Then they’d leave without adopting. Many people were coming here…some were upfront and honest about just wanting to visit Snowball since they would be in the area. Visitors came from all over the country.

When someone sees Snowball’s videos on your YouTube channel, they see a “donate” button next to them. Has this been an effective way to turn interest in Snowball into support for your organization?

Yes, having the donate buttons have helped. I’m not sure if I would call it “effective.” The economy is bad and people are just not donating like they used to. There have been some steady donors …they donate on a monthly basis. Most donate in order to receive Snowball DVDs, shirts, etc.

In the subsequent videos you’ve uploaded, have you tried to emulate his earlier success to keep interest going?

No, we never intended to emulate the success of the first video. In uploading videos of him dancing to other songs, we wanted to show that he does like more than just the BSB. And with time, he has created new dance routines which are shown in subsequent videos. We teach him nothing…he creates these moves himself. Snowball LOVES to dance. So why not let the camera roll while he’s having a great time? If it turns out to be an entertaining video, we place it on You Tube for all to enjoy.

Music is therapy to Snowball…Snowball is therapy to millions. The scientist in me (I majored in molecular biology and worked as a researcher) continues to videotape him to capture him analyzing a tune, or snubbing it because it’s beneath his exquisite tastes. LOL

The main reason we don’t “try” to emulate his first viral hit is going back to my spiritual beliefs. Everything happens for a reason. If he is to have another viral hit, it will happen by accident. If he does not have another viral hit, that’s fine too…that would mean that there is a deeper purpose for his increasing fame than just his entertaining videos.

What are some of the most interesting places where the videos have appeared/or where people saw it that you’ve heard about.

Where do I begin? We have had 3 different Japanese film crews come here to film for different shows. We had a crew come here to shoot a commercial for a company in Sweden. Honestly, he’s been in hundreds (no exaggeration) of tv shows, news programs, magazines, newspapers, and radio shows around the world. I hear about his video popping up on the Bonnie Hunt Show (three times), Ellen (four times)…these are separate occassions.

The silliest requests come from two programs that I turn down each time they contact us…America’s Got Talent and The Gong Show! I hear about his videos appearing on blogs, programs, etc weekly. Not everyone is familiar with Snowball, so when they do see his video for the first time, it’s all over the blogs again.

What are some highlights of Snowball’s rise to fame?

There are two categories of highlights that I would need to lump them in. One category would be the actual appearances or experiences of being on certain programs. I was very impressed with Mike from the Mike and Juliet Show when we were there. He was actually late coming on stage because he came up to talk to me before the show. He was a genuinely nice man…not full of himself as so many others can be.

After Snowball and I were on the Mike and Juliet Show, we broke to commercial and I was about 20 feet or so away from Snowball. Juliet was leaning towards Snowball, holding out her hand to have him step up on her hand. I saw the “look” in his eyes and he began slithering towards her. I quickly ran to scoop him up just before her hand was within striking distance. I’m sure she was not happy that I didn’t allow her to ‘play’ with Snowball, but what she didn’t realize is that I had saved her pampered skin from vicious bites if I hadn’t.

Another amusing highlight was being on Letterman when Dr. Phil was on. I remember walking out after our segment and walking face to face into him with Snowball on my arm. One would think I could find some profound conversation to engage with this man…instead “Oh. Hello.” came out of my mouth and that was it. He did say hello in response, but I’m sure he wondered why I breezed by him without even asking for an autograph. Answer: although Snowball was wonderful with me while appearing on these programs, he was very ready to attack others…hence, we moved on to an area where he could invoke the least damage. There are way too many highlights to go into over the last two years (almost), so let me touch on the other category of highlights that really mean much more to me.

Those highlights are the quality people that I’ve met and befriended through Snowball.

I have a great deal of respect for the individuals who have come into my life because of Snowball. I befriended some email friends…these people started out as fans, but we continued writing to one another out of pure enjoyment of one another. The researchers that I now collaborate with on Snowball studies are extraordinarily wonderful people…very humble, personable, humorous, and yet professional.

And there is one highlight which I have to mention that I hold a special place in my heart for. A girl who just graduated from the eighth grade in New York. She began writing in emails last summer. She addressed all emails to Snowball. I didn’t know much about her, but she didn’t write much and what she did write was very hard to understand. She misspelled many words so much time was spent just trying to figure out what she was saying. Her name is Abby. When I wrote back I would sign the emails “Love, Snowball.” One day her mother wrote to me from her own email address. She explained that Abby was autistic and did not relate well to people, but she related beautifully to animals. The email from her mother was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. She thanked me for writing to her as Snowball because her friendship with Snowball had made a difference. So when I write to Abby as Snowball I ask how her grades are coming along and I praise her when she earns good grades. I will correspond with this lovely little girl for as long as she chooses. She introduced herself as Snowball’s #1 fan in her original email last year, but she is my #1 highlight.

What’s the best thing to have come out of this?

Two things. 1) I’ve been able to reach many, many more people regarding responsible bird ownership through educating them on their needs, habits, etc. 2) Snowball brought the plight of the parrot to the forefront. Because of him, people now know that there are bird rescues and sanctuaries and, hopefully, will not purchase a bird on whim to end up in one when they realize that they have a high maintenance creature on their hands.

What’s next for Snowball and your efforts?

Because I am not in the driver’s seat, I can only HOPE that as Snowball’s fame increases, so will my chances of passing some meaningful legislation to protect parrots and to build rehabilitation facilities so that we can ‘teach’ these parrots how to forage for food in the wild, how to avoid predation, etc so that they can one day be introduced back into the wild and live their lives freely. Cockatoos come here with what seems to be the most severe behavioral problems…some were not only aggressive towards humans, but other birds as well. These are the birds that need to be introduced back into the wild (whatever their closest habitat should be).

Scientifically, we continue running studies on him which go on to benefit us in learning more about human movement disorders such as Parkinsons. Luckily, he enjoys dancing and is very happy to dance on film for us. When he gets bored, we quit so this doesn’t turn into work for him, but to keep it enjoyable for him.

Thanks to Irena for taking time to speak to us about Snowball. If you’d like to support the Bird Lover’s Only Rescue, please visit and purchase merchandise or make a donation.


Interview with Parrot Behavior Consultant Liz Wilson (CVT, CPBC)

August 16, 2009

lizwilson_macaw_sIf 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.


Interview with Free Flight Trainer Chris Biro

October 8, 2008

(Updated Oct. 18) It’s my pleasure to post another in my ongoing series of interviews with well-known “parrot people”. Today’s interview is with Chris Biro, best known for his educational program The Pirate’s Parrot Show and the amazing YouTube videos of free flying macaws in the Moab Desert.

Chris Biro has been doing his The Pirate’s Parrot show at state and county fairs, parks, libraries, schools, etc. for 18 years. Today, the show includes several “pirates” and dozens of birds, focused on safe hands-on interaction.

Biro also founded the Freeflight list at Yahoo Groups in 1999 when he had trouble finding resources devoted to the topic. His group currently has members from all over the world.

He personally has 8 macaws and 14 conures that fly outdoors (including Snicket, the cute sun conure from last week’s post).

Prior to becoming a well-known parrot trainer, he studied Electrical Engineering and spent 10 years in the US Army and Army Reserves. Chris enjoys flying radio controlled airplanes and helicopters, and photographing and video taping flying parrots.

Big fat disclaimer: All the answers in this interview are the opinions of the interviewee Chris Biro. Just because I’m featuring an interview about free flying on this blog does not mean I advocate free flight for your birds — in fact, it scares the living bejeezus out of me. I can’t stress enough though: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME! If you’re interested in learning how to free flying parrots, please research the subject extensively.

So, without further ado (although I reserve the right to throw a few more don’t-do-this-yourself disclaimers in there), here’s the Q&A with Chris:

Q: You have a particular interest in free flight — in other words, allowing your birds to fly outside without restraint. How did you get started in this area?

Chris Biro: In 1993 I had an Umbrella Cockatoo that several days in a row kept escaping from the aviary I had just built. Before I could figure out how she was getting out, I discovered I could get her back down to me each night pretty easily. So I started letting her out on purpose and bringing her in at night. This prompted me to begin searching for information about flight training. Not finding any information in books or magazines about flight training I started experimenting with several of my macaws and conures with different ways to train flight.

Once I discovered how naturally and quickly a baby bird learns to fly, there was no turning back for me. I discovered internet email lists in about 1998. I had a lot more to learn about flight training than just training methods. My queries searching for other people keeping flighted birds on various email lists promptly resulted in me being unsubbed. The topic of keeping flighted birds it turned out was quite a volatile subject so in April of 1999, I started the Freeflight email list so we could have a “safe” place to discuss the issues related to living with and training flighted birds.

Q: Can you describe your training methods and philosophy?

Chris Biro: The methods I use are derived from the scientific principles of Operant Conditioning. I train using positive reinforcement.

I use a clicker and favorite treat rewards for most of my training because I believe most behavior is trained faster with precise timing. I have always presented mostly natural behaviors in my show so my training methods and style rely heavily on use of the animal’s natural tendencies. I pay close attention to their natural interactions and observable interests and use those to help with setting them up to succeed. Using their natural tendencies in combination with positive reinforcement methods makes my training really efficient and fun for both myself and the birds. This approach is well suited for flight training.

Since flying parrots outdoors does involve elements of risk and danger I believe strongly in selecting the bird, the trainer, the methods, and the environment for maximum success potential. I am not in favor of pairing inexperienced trainers with high risk flight students and less than ideal training environments.

My recommended approach to flight training, as found on my website, is intended for everyday bird owners, not just skilled professionals. Even though it does require owners to learn some new skills before attempting this, these skills are within the ability of most bird owners.

Hand feeding skills and basic clicker training, including shaping skills, should all be well understood before attempting to flight train a bird following my approach.

I usually start with a baby bird at the same age it would learn to fly in the wild: prior to weaning. A pre-flighted bird cannot leave the nest to get to the food sources. I let the young bird fledge in the house and learn to master basic flight control. Once it is flying indoors it soon is flying to be with me. I then capture this “flying to me” and put it on cue, called recall. This then is turned into a fun game of “flying back and forth to a perch or cage top.” We will expand this to include flying through doors and from different rooms, becoming a form of hide and seek. In this way the bird is expanding its basic flight skills and it learns to come when called, even when it cannot see me. The goal here is for the bird to master all the skills available to it in the indoor environment.

During this time I am also letting the bird spend some time in an outdoor cage so it is becoming comfortable and relaxed being outdoors. When I take the bird to fly outdoors for the first time, I want everything possible to be familiar to the bird, including the behavior I will ask of it and the elements of the location. I do not want to ask it to do something it has never done before nor do I want it to be frightened by being outdoors. A bird that is spooked will not respond to recall in a predictable manner.

The location itself will also be carefully selected so that there are minimal restrictions of view or hearing to the bird and minimal restrictions of movement. It is important to be able to see the bird where ever it goes. Actually this is one of the most important factors in recovering a loose bird, knowing where the bird is located at all times. It is also important to be able to easily follow the bird where ever it should go.

Sometimes you have to move quickly to follow a flying bird because a bird is not slowed by obstacles that can restrict your movement. Selecting a location with fewer restrictions of movement can prevent
you from losing sight of the bird. Wide open fields with no tall buildings, fences or busy roads nearby are good choices for first outdoor flying practice. Restrictions from private or government property also should be considered.

The main point here is that every element that we can control should be carefully selected for maximum success potential before we take the bird outdoors. Too often people just step outside with any bird and say “You’re a bird, go fly.” Birds in the wild do not learn this way. The process of natural selection has configured them to be ready to learn in the environment their specific species lives and at the most opportune mental and physical state. We are not able to follow the baby bird where ever it goes as the parents can, so we need to be a bit more methodical in our approach. If done correctly, training parrots to fly outdoors can be done with a high degree of safety and can be a lot of fun. This kind of interaction between bird and owner can be very rewarding for both the trainer and the bird.

Recently a parrot owner named Andrew lost his African Grey Tui because he underestimated the dangers of free flying a bird who hadn’t been trained under those conditions. He thought Tui’s bond with him was so strong that she’d never fly away from him. Do you have any thoughts on that unfortunate incident?

Chris Biro: Andrew is an unfortunate example of what can happen if people are not properly prepared for flight training. It is clear in Andrew’s other videos that Andrew clearly loved his bird and Tui clearly loved Andrew.

But having a fully flighted untrained bird in an non-secure location is a very common way people lose birds. To expect the bird to automatically understand all it needs to know about flying so it won’t get lost if accidentally getting into the air, is failing to consider important information.

It is natural for a bird to be able to fly, just as it is natural for us humans to be able to walk. But we had to learn how to walk, just like birds have to learn how to fly. If the bird grows up in a cage, when does it have the opportunity to learn how to fly? Often it never has that opportunity.

This is why I have put much of my training theory on my website. It is my goal to help people avoid such mistakes by offering the basics of how I train flight. Hopefully after someone reads the various articles on flight training, they will have a better idea of what is involved with flight training and be able to avoid most of the mistakes that [cause inexperienced people to lose their birds].

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever seen regarding training a flighted bird?

Chris Biro: The worst advice I have ever seen regarding training a flighted bird has been “The best bird to flight train is the bird in front of you.”

Not every pet bird is a good candidate for flight training. Some have fears and bad habits that make them especially unsuitable for flight training. And not every person is ready for this level of focus and dedication. Some people have no experience or knowledge of training methods or are highly anxious personality types.

[That advice] potentially pairs the worst candidate and the worst trainer. That is asking for accidents. I cannot control the skill level of the trainer. I can only recommend that they learn about Operant Conditioning and practice clicker training with other animals before they attempt to flight train a bird. I cannot control what bird they select as their student to train to fly. I can only recommend they select what I know to be the easiest and safest student available. The baby bird at the natural age of fledging has no phobias or bad habits to overcome. Every baby bird I have trained has been an eager and willing student who learns to fly in a fraction of the time even the best suited adult birds will learn.

Can you clarify the importance of the “baby bond” between a parrot and his owner with regard to free flight training?

Chris Biro: I use the parental bond as part of my approach to training flight. I do a lot of clicker training with the birds and do not rely solely on that bond. There is also a social bond that flock members form and also a pair bond that forms between mates. All three are different.

There is a short period in a baby bird’s life during which it is programmed to stay close to mom.

The social bond and pair bond do not invoke this same level of “stay close.” It would be unwise to expect social or pair bonding to produce the same kind of stay-close response as the parental bond.

The issue of encouraging people to select a baby bird instead of an adult bird for flight training is not without controversy. Some feel the average bird owner is not capable of learning to hand feed a baby bird.

This is an opinion I disagree with so long as the person finds a suitable mentor to help train and coach them. It should also be noted that anytime a person selects a less than ideal flight candidate (like an adult never flighted pet parrot), they are at the same time choosing not to select a baby bird, meaning some baby bird out there will now spend its life as a clipped bird instead of as their fabulous flyer. If I can help people who are already getting a baby bird to select their bird for the purpose of flight training, give them the tools needed to train the bird, and offer them the moral support they need, then I think I can help prevent a lot of lost adult birds and help many young birds become great flyers. There are lots of baby birds being sold into peoples homes and those are the birds I think are best suited to become flighted birds. This of course means people need to stress to their breeders, NOT to clip the baby birds’ wings. It is sad to me to walk through a pet store and see all the clipped baby birds. All that eager potential so casually stripped from them just breaks my heart.

My focus is not so much on helping people train their current pet birds. Instead I think we will have the highest degree of success if I can reach some of those people who are getting a new bird.

So you don’t think free flying is an option appropriate for most pet parrots?

Chris Biro: No. I believe most pet parrots that are currently in people’s homes are poor candidates for flight training. Most have grown up and learned to live a life style that is not conducive to being good flight students. Some may be able to learn to fly indoors, and I think that is great, so long as the owner understands that they need to be training for the day the bird will get loose outdoors.

But for most pet parrots currently in people’s homes, I recommend clipping their wings. Some will be suitable to indoor flight training but most will not. I have always recommended either clipping or fully flight training pet parrots. There are many stories of indoor flyers getting outdoors without proper training so even the indoor flyer needs to learn good recall responses and be conditioned to being in the potential outdoor environment.

A third option is a large aviary, though most pet parrot owners lack the space or resources to construct an aviary large enough for their bird to get much actual flying in.

[But] I believe most pet owners are capable of doing this training if they have the right bird and methods.

Is there a single most important thing to understand about parrots and their ability to fly?

Chris Biro: Flight training is not something to take lightly. It often involves lifestyle changes. I liken it to keeping horses. If you don’t have the right set up, it may not be right for you. One serious difference though is that the birds can become lost or killed more easily through trainer error. Only people who are dedicated to doing the homework, locating and selecting the right conditions, and devoting adequate time and resources should consider taking on the freeflight experience with their own birds. Everything comes down to setting the birds up to succeed. If you have done your job right in selecting the right candidate, the right location, the right method (positive reinforcement) and have honed your own training skills through practice, then everything should go smoothly and quickly.

To wrap up, what’s your favorite thing about training parrots?

My favorite thing about training birds is watching the birds master new skill levels. It is an amazing experience to watch them fly, playing in the wind over a 2000 foot tall cliff or flying from tree to tree or rock outcropping along a canyon as we hike up the canyon trail.

These are all very natural activities for wild parrots and to get to watch my birds enjoying similar activities and similar skill levels does something for me I cannot easily explain. I know there are risks involved but for me the benefits greatly out weigh the risks. With proper training the risks are reduced to what I think are manageable levels. Figuring out exactly what that proper training involves is something I think the engineering part of me really enjoys.

I also enjoy the reaction people have when seeing the birds flying free. I can always tell who the bird people are in my audience by the way they react to seeing the birds flying loose. The non bird person points at the birds and tells their friends “Thats cool!” The bird person though is standing there with mouth wide open in total amazement.

You can see them go through a stage of total fear, thinking someone’s bird got loose, to total amazement once they realize the birds are loose on purpose and are eagerly flying back to me on the stage. The fact that people don’t think this is possible but yet see it happening with their own eyes is very rewarding to me. I get to expand their world a bit and maybe even the world of a few birds out there. People who get into flying parrots will always wind up learning about better training methods. They just have to or the birds will destroy their homes and become a complete nuisance.

Learning more about the science of training ultimately results in enriched and improved lives for all of their pets, not just their flying birds. I cannot help feel that people who see our birds flying come away more open to the ideas science has to offer us about learning and training.

Where should people go to learn more about training their birds to fly outside?

I have posted several articles about flight training at my website I would also recommend a few books, even if none are devoted to flight training, since any improvement in training skill in general will help with flight training. I highly recommend as a good getting started in training book “Don’t Shoot the Dog“, by Karen Pryor.

For those interested in learning more about the science behind training and how we learn “Learning and Behavior” by Paul Chance. And if you want to go into more depth “Learning and Behavior” by James E. Mazur.

If you can make it though my articles and the material in these books, you should be pretty well prepared.

Copyright Chris Biro. Used with permission.

For more information on Chris Biro’s training, visit his YouTube channel, his website Wings at Liberty, and his Free Flight discussion group on Yahoo. [Again: this is not an endorsement!]

Reminder: All the parrots shown in the photos and videos above are extensively and specifically trained on outdoor recall – DO NOT TAKE THIS CASUALLY: AN UNTRAINED PARROT SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED OUTSIDE WITHOUT RESTRAINT ON A WHIM. Okay, I’m done shouting. Just need to be as clear as I can be about this.

A big thanks to Chris for his time to do this interview!