Working as a parrot behavior consultant for 20 years, I have done thousands of consultations. Now that I am taking no new clients, I thought it might be interesting to share how I worked.
I developed a constantly evolving system that worked for me as I gained experience, constantly learning from colleagues and clients. Hence my behavior interview form has been rewritten at least 2,684 times (only slight hyperbole).
The First Phone Contact
While actively working, I received daily phone calls from parrot owners who wanted help with what they considered “bad” parrot behaviors. Invariably rushed, I learned to minimize the time needed to get the information I required to judge if I felt I could help, or if I needed to refer this person to someone else; for instance, an avian veterinarian or another behavior consultant.
Fully aware that most callers have no idea what I consider important, I started our conversation with the following questions:
What is the parrot’s species? Since there are wide variations of normal behaviors within differing species of parrots, knowing an animal’s species is crucial. While it might be normal for a large macaw to emit a few window-shattering, psychosis-inducing shrieks a couple of times a day, I certainly would not expect this from a Pionus. And I’ve been amazed over the years how many people don’t know the species of their psittacine. They know it’s a cockatoo, but they don’t know there are different species of cockatoos (and they thought, like I used to, they all were from Australia).
What sex is the parrot? Males and females often do not have the same chores in life; hence they often exhibit different behaviors. To better understand a parrot, a behavior consultant needs to know the parrot’s sex, and so does the owner.
What age is the parrot? For obvious reasons, baby parrots don’t always behave the same as adolescents, which don’t always behave the same as an adult. Hence the animal’s age is important. (Note: we often don’t know ages with rehomed birds, and that is ok. We just do the best we can with what we know.)
How long have you owned this parrot? This information gives the behavior consultant crucial information about the situation in which owners (and their parrots) find themselves. A parrot’s behavior could be interpreted differently depending on how long it has been in a particular environment. For example, it is often normal behavior for a parrot to sit totally still and silent its first week in a new environment. Not so if the bird has been in residence for several years.
In 10 words or less, what is the problem with the parrot? I want a brief history, as opposed to starting with why you got into parrots to begin with. (“I fell in love with birds when I was 5 years old, when my neighbor got a parakeet …”) That type of information is rarely needed! I do need to know if the problem is excessive screaming, biting, feather destructive behavior, etc. At this point, I am not asking for a full history of the problem.
Armed with that very brief chunk of knowledge, I can judge if I am the right person for this job. If, for example, the bird in question is a species with which I have no experience, I would want to refer to a colleague with more knowledge and experience. Often the bird has not been vetted and/or the situation could be medical in origin, so that requires an avian veterinarian referral.
Prior to doing a consultation, I would send clients an extensive questionnaire to fill out and return to me at least two weeks prior to our appointment so I would have time to study it. The questionnaire asked a huge number of very picky questions about management, such as diet (estimated percentages and types of foods actually consumed, not just what is put in the food bowls), hours of sleep, cage location, toys, etc. The questionnaire also asked owners to describe the average work day and nonwork day.
Using a brilliant suggestion from Dutch avian veterinarian and certified parrot behavior consultant Jan Hooimeijer, owners were asked what they considered to be normal and natural parrot behaviors, as well as what they considered problem parrot behaviors. This illustrated how knowledgeable owners were about parrot behavior. If they considered destroying woodwork to be a problem behavior, then they have identified a natural parrot behavior (chewing) as a problem. This does not bode well for a happy outcome. Natural behaviors can be channeled (e.g., wood chunks provided for destruction) and controlled to a degree (e.g., no access allowed to woodwork and priceless antiques), but they cannot and should not be eliminated.
Detailed queries also addressed the reason for the consultation. Clients were quizzed as to the duration of the problem, what has already been tried to change the behavior, and whether or not the behavior is escalating. Owners were also asked how those in the environment respond to the problem, as well as their impressions of what happened immediately before and after the behavior in question. No detail was missed if I could help it, and owners were encouraged to write as much as they wished.
My upcoming columns will address my use of visualizations like videos, my approach to the consultations themselves and how I did follow-ups. Up next: Visualizations for phone consultations — why and how.