Making Chop with Patricia Sund

July 21, 2013

On July 20th, I had the enormous pleasure of meeting one of the most prolific bird bloggers on the internet, the wonderful Patricia Sund, who came all the up to Maryland to lead a Phoenix Landing class on how to make “Chop”.


What is Chop?

Chop is a feeding concept Patricia has been advocating for on her blog for years, which calls for mixing a healthy variety of “real”, fresh, nutritious and flavorful foods in large batches, bagging portions to freeze, and then thawing and feeding the mix daily for as long as it lasts before making more.

“Chop is a concept, not a formula.”

The idea is not just to provide healthy foods to our companion birds but to do so in a way that’s easy and stress-free (because if it’s not easy, few will stick to it).

Patricia started this feeding method because she found that cooking for her (then only) parrot on a daily basis was just too time consuming! And since she traveled a lot and relied on friends and neighbors to come feed her bird (now birds) while she was gone, it also wasn’t feasible or realistic to ask other people to prepare parrot meals from scratch twice daily. Chop was the solution to all that.

She blogged about her process and was overwhelmed by the positive response — the idea really resonated with other bird owners who felt guilty about not feeding more fresh food or were overwhelmed by the task of preparing or cooking food for their birds all the time.

Since then, she’s become a vocal advocate for the Chop concept, touring the country to visit bird groups and show them how it can simplify everyone’s life (but she’s quick to point out that she didn’t invent the concept, she’s just working to popularize it.)

A Master(chef) Course in Chop!

Her visit to Maryland is just one of many such workshops she gives every year. I showed up to class to see two huge tables covered with ingredients that we were going to use. Many of the ingredients came from a regular grocery store run from the day before, but quite a bounty came from the garden of Laura Ford, Phoenix Landing’s MD education coordinator.


Read the rest of this entry »


Just say NO! to Candy-Covered Millet Treats for Birds. Gross.

July 17, 2013

So this was just brought to my attention: A brand called FM Brown’s is selling bird “food” called Extreme! Candy-Covered Millet Treats. Hat tip to “Amanda’s Tweeties” for posting this picture:


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Someone at a company that makes bird food thought it was a good idea to cover natural millet sprays with a candy coating. That’s basically sugar and carnauba wax, beeswax, shellac  (I’m not making this up! That’s from the ingredients list!) and a bunch of unpronounceable things.

Birds already love eating fresh millet… why in the world would anyone think covering it in edible wax is a good idea? This is beyond just a silly idea; I find it irresponsible and terrible corporate citizenship to push this product as “food” for animals as sensitive and small as birds — it’s hard enough getting them to eat real, healthy food. We should demand a much higher standard of excellence from any company that claims to “understand that your companion animal isn’t just a pet; they’re a part of your family. That’s why for six generations we’ve devoted ourselves to creating tasty, healthy, nutritious animal food and treats.” (emphasis mine)

A little googling shows that Brown’s isn’t the only company offering this. This isn’t just about FM Brown, but about any company that would sell this type of thing to unsuspecting pet owners who just don’t know any better just because it’s attractive on a shelf (I bet it’s super cheap to make and stays shelf-stable forever! Just want you want in a food product, right?). Pet owners, please educate yourself on your animals nutrition needs and give this type of thing a wide berth.

Please, please, please to not feed this crap to your birds. And you may want to consider not giving companies who make this type of product any of your pet-related business. If they think this is “food”, what other terrible decisions are they making about your animals’ health?

If you’re looking for healthy ideas for treats, try the Phoenix Landing cookbook for some inspiration: Nourish to Flourish: A Healthy Cookbook for Parrots.



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.


You know you’re a bird nerd when …

February 4, 2013

I’ve been watching the Netflix show “House of Cards” (great show, btw) and there’s an episode where the main character Frank Underwood visits a billionaire who happens to own a parrot. The parrot, you eventually see, is a sun conure. Which of course I point out to Stewie, who is sitting behind me. The screen has caught his interest because the sun conure is chirping away (cute little chirps, not Stewie-level squawking… because if the TV bird sounded like Stewie, everyone would just turn the show off. Seriously.)

In one scene, Underwood picks up an ornithology book, flips through it, looks at the caged bird and says “Carolina parakeet”. I kid you not, I turn around and say out loud to Stewie (with a tone dripping of condescension), “The Carolina Parakeet is extinct”, implying “duuuh”. As soon as that leaves my mouth, the billionaire says (voice dripping with condescension), “The Carolina Parakeet is extinct.”

Obviously I don’t expect everyone to be able to identify a sun conure after flipping through an ornithology book for 3 seconds — and it wouldn’t have been a terrible guess — but I’m sure that the very first thing a bird book would say about the Carolina Parakeet is that it is, sadly, an ex-parrot.

What do you think?  Do they look alike?


The attention to detail to that show is pretty impressive. House of Cards has nothing to do with parrots and I think the whole point of the bird in that episode (minor spoiler alert!) is only to set up a scene where Underwood is wrong about something, so there’s no real point to quibbling about the lack of enrichment activities in the parrot’s cage or that the kitchen might not be the best place for an animal with a very delicate respiratory system. I just thought it’d be fun to point out what I bird nerd I am. Aside from that, House of Cards is a really great show and you should go watch it.


2012 in review

December 30, 2012

Happy New Year!

It’s been a light year on this blog, but WordPress ginned up a report for the site. According to the report, my most popular posts for the year were written in previous years:

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Not so surprising, given that it’s not been a prolific writing year. But what was surprising was that my readers came from 166 countries!

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My resolution for 2013 is to try to write a bit more, if I can. Leave a comment to let me know how you found this blog and what you’d like to see me write about.



“Life with Alex” DVD is Here

October 11, 2012

Look what I got in the mail today!  I’ll be doing a review of the film (and talking to some of the people involved in the making of this documentary) very soon. Watch this space for updates.

Get your own copy!


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