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Bird Careers, Vet Schools & Zinc Toxicity...oh my!

Bird Careers, Vet Schools & Zinc Toxicity...oh my!

By Susan Chamberlain

Heather wants to know: How do I start a career in bird training?


  Reading bird training books is a great way to begin a career in bird training


Learn all you can about bird training
by reading the latest bird books.

Books like this one give great insight
into behavior and training.

You’ve chosen an exciting and interesting vocation with varied opportunities. You might become an avian behavior consultant at a pet shop or work with private clients. Perhaps you’d prefer to be onstage! There are attractions and theme parks that feature exotic bird performances. Busch Gardens, Weeki Wachee Springs, Parrot Jungle and Sarasota Jungle Gardens are some of the better-known venues in Florida, and there are others around the country.  Sea World
also offers avicultural careers and requirements for Busch Gardens and Sea World. Their site also has a directory of educational opportunities.


There are many ways to prepare for a career in bird training. The first thing to do is to learn all you can about avian behavior.  Read about the history of parrots. Learn about their natural habitats and how they behave in the wild. Research their basic care requirements. Observe your own bird’s demeanor. Watch how it incorporates its instinctive behavior into domestic life. 


Read everything you can about bird behavior. Mattie Sue Athan’s A Guide to Companion Parrot Behavior and The Well Behaved Parrot are classics. The monthly print version of Bird Talk is a treasure trove of information, as is Sally Blanchard’s Companion Parrot Quarterly. Nikki Moustaki’s book, Your Outta Control Bird, is excellent, as is Birds off the Perch by Larry Lachman, Psy.D., Diane Grindol and Frank Kocher, DVM.


Watch movies about birds, such as The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. It’s still in theatres around the country (the DVD will be released in early 2006) and illustrates how a man’s patience and perseverance helped him develop close relationships with the wild conures in San Francisco. Another bird-themed movie is Winged Migration. This beautifully filmed movie earned an Oscar nomination for best documentary and gives you an up-close look at birds from around the world (available on DVD). Bird training videos are available as well. Watch several so that you become acquainted with different training methods. 


Attend performing bird shows, and pay attention to handling, motivation and reward systems used by the trainers. At Busch Gardens in Tampa, the trainers often stay and answer questions for a few minutes after the show. Bird clubs present shows and expositions throughout the year. Watch for one in your area, and go and network with exhibitors and attendees. Some of these shows also feature performing birds and may even offer bird-training workshops.


Get a job in a bird store and work on training some of the birds there.  Work with your own bird as well. Put some of the things you’ve learned into practice. Discover your strengths. Perhaps you’re best at trick training, or maybe behavior modification is your forte. Plan your education accordingly. If you want to work at a zoological park, you’ll need to go through an apprenticeship program. Get your foot in the door by taking any job you can, and take advantage of being on the inside to apply for positions working with the birds. You may need a college degree in animal sciences or behavior in order to advance. The Sea World website has some excellent advice on these points.


There are many paths to your goal. I always knew I’d be a writer, but I’m always amazed to find that I’ve become a bird writer!

Reader Tracey Sheehy has a question: “My son will graduate in 4 years and wants to go into veterinary medicine. Are there any scholarships that he can apply for through your magazine?”


Is your son graduating from high school or college? Before he goes to veterinary school he will have to complete four years of study in related sciences at a university.  It’s not too early to begin thinking about financing his education though. Although Bird Talk does not currently have a scholarship program in place, some of its advertisers may have such programs. Begin by checking out major bird food manufacturers and pet store chains for possible scholarship information. Bird clubs and societies may offer scholarship money or other help, such as books or supplies. There are federal and state programs for scholarships, and the schools themselves may also offer them. Some are based on scholastic merit, others on financial need or a combination of the two. Local scholarships may include those from civic organizations, such as Kiwanis and Lions Clubs.


Check eligibility requirements carefully, and don’t procrastinate. Submit your application before the deadline! Neatness, correct spelling and accuracy all count when you fill out applications.


Begin preparing now for that scholarship. Talk with professors and guidance counselors about your goals. In addition to high marks, leadership, extra-curricular activities and work and volunteerism in your chosen field are important. If you’ve already received some scholarship money from another source, note that on your application as well. It is an endorsement of your worthiness.

Darrel K. Waters tells us: “We have two Alexandrine parakeets that love to shred the paper towel rolls.  In the pamphlet given out by Harrison's Bird Food, it lists items that are unsafe. It says not to give your bird access to paper towel rolls because they are a source of zinc. Is it safe to give them the rolls? 


Bird: African Grey Parrot
This parrot's toy has no metal parts, thus reducing
the risk of zinc poisoning.



Bird: Hyacinth Macaw
Child-safe plastic toys help reduce risk of heavy
metal poisoning.



Bird: Red-bellied parrot
Never used galvanized metal dishes for bird food
or water. Instead, use plastic like this one, or
glass or stainless steel.

Wow! This is really scary!  I’ve been permitting my Amazon parrots to play with paper towel rolls (I never gave them toilet paper rolls for fear of e-coli contamination!) for years with no ill effects, but I guess the party’s over! Long Island, NY, veterinarian John Charos has seen many cases of zinc poisoning in birds, but has never traced the cause directly back to paper towel rolls.

“It’s usually an older cage or the washers used to attach toys or perches,” he said. On the other hand, I visited and found information derived from a talk presented by Dr. Fern Van Sant that identifies paper towel rolls as a source of zinc. “There may be significant amounts of zinc in the adhesive found on paper towel and toilet paper rolls.”

Zinc toxicosis is quite common in pet birds.  Even low levels of exposure can be harmful.  Some symptoms of acute zinc poisoning are vomiting, loss of appetite, larger than usual green droppings and, in some cases, sudden death.  Kidney damage, digestive tract upsets, increased thirst and even feather picking have been linked to zinc toxicity. Cockatoos are particularly sensitive. If your cockatoo is a feather plucker, have it tested for zinc toxicosis, as it the bird may be subject to low levels of poisoning from something in its environment.


Galvanized after welding wire contains enough zinc to be toxic. Cages made from this wire must be cleaned with a wire brush and vinegar before placing birds in them. Never use galvanized dishes for bird food. Instead, use stainless steel, plastic or glass.


Birds do not have to actually eat flakes of the metal to get sick, as it can be leached into their water or soft foods, and, theoretically, leached into the water by soaked paper towel rolls if you have a bird that loves to dunk its playthings.


Padlocks and some toy hangers may have high levels of zinc. Metal that appears dull and emits a whitish dust should be suspect. Replace cage hardware with stainless-steel components. Some paints and varnishes contain zinc, and many common adhesives do, as well.  Pennies, curtain or vertical blind weights, household hardware, keys, costume jewelry, floor tiles, duct tape and other common items may all contain zinc. If your bird chews on these, zinc toxicosis is a possibility.


A bird does not have to have visible metal in its system for a positive diagnosis. The only way to accurately diagnose zinc toxicosis or other heavy metal poisoning is through blood tests.  Chelation therapy, which removes the metal from the blood of a sick bird, is used to treat heavy metal poisoning.


I e-mailed several major paper towel manufacturers to ask about the possibility of zinc in the cardboard rolls.

I received a reply from the Kimberly Clark Corporation:


Thanks for your e-mail about SCOTT® towels.

Although the core glue is safe for its intended use, it is not intended to be ingested.  It is not food grade and does not meet indirect food contact regulations. Therefore, we cannot recommend that it be used with pets.

Thanks again for your e-mail.


Consumer Services

Kimberly-Clark Corp.



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Bird Careers, Vet Schools & Zinc Toxicity...oh my!

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Reader Comments
I would love to start a career with birds and this article helped me get motivated!
Sunny, Fort Collins, CO
Posted: 1/9/2008 10:53:07 AM
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