Before I was a Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant, I started promoting companion bird education while volunteering at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) at Nevins Farm in Methuen, Mass.. When I began volunteering back in 2010, I was told that January was Bird Adoption Month. I was so enthusiastic about promoting companion birds that I knew I wanted to get involved as soon as possible! In January 2011, I started my first education table at the MSPCA Nevins Farm. Each weekend in that month, I assisted with questions and answers from the public. I enjoyed conversation with those interested in having companion birds. Over the next five years, I tried to improve the event by advancing the marketing of companion bird education by:
- Renaming the event from January Bird Adoption Month to January Companion Bird Awareness Month
- Offering free educational sessions on topics likes medical care, nutrition, and understanding behavior
- Holding a free “Make Your Own Bird Toys” workshop
- Starting the Festival of Flight Workshop, which incorporated making bird toys, medical care, nutrition care, and understanding behavior
Despite these changes, attendance decreased over the years. I did follow-ups with some of those who attended in the past to determine the reason. They told me that they felt January was not a suitable month due to the cold and snowy weather, that they weren’t comfortable with the location because they felt like I was promoting adoption rather than education, and that they didn’t find the topics very interesting.
Armed with this information, I evaluated what I could change for January 2017. This is the story of how I spent a month dedicating myself to education and outreach and a summary of what I learned from my journey.
January Bird Awareness Month – Education on the Road
In 2017, I decided to make January Bird Awareness Month into a community outreach program with my behavior consulting and education business, Heart of Feathers. My idea was to bring companion bird education and assistance to places where people with companion birds will be. I began calling it January Bird Awareness Month – Education on the Road. I traveled to four locations in three different states and learned a lot about what can go right—and wrong—with outreach work.
Stop 1: Foster Parrots, January 14
I kicked off January Bird Awareness Month – Education on the Road at Foster Parrots, a sanctuary in Hope Valley, R.I. Foster Parrots is a nonprofit establishment dedicated to the rescue and protection of captive exotic birds. The sanctuary houses over 300 birds permanently in their facility.
On this day, Foster Parrots was having their annual open house.
At the open house, I was very honored to be able to set up a Heart of Feathers Education table in the main gathering area. The table promoted companion bird education, training classes, and companion bird consultations. I enjoyed speaking with people about companion bird behavior, enrichment toys, and webinars. While at the event, I met another IAABC CPBC, Leslie MacDougall, who works at Foster Parrots. She is doing fantastic work with birds that needs assistance at the facility.
The event had over 200 attendees. When the event started to come to an end, the president of Connecticut Parrot Society stopped by my table. We talked about the mission of Heart of Feathers Education and my work. After the conversation, she invited me to speak at The Parrot Club in Hartford, Conn., about my assistance with fostering birds from rescue to adoption.
Stop 2: Pet Supplies Plus, January 21
The next weekend, we headed to Pet Supplies Plus in Haverhill, Mass. Although Pet Supplies Plus is primarily an animal supply store, they do sell a range of companion birds from conures to finches. When I approached the manager back in November about setting up a table to promote companion bird education at the store, she was thrilled because she’d noticed that many of her customers were looking for more education on having a companion bird.
As people stopped by to visit the table, I demonstrated the importance of foraging and how to make foraging toys. In addition, I shared several articles from Dr. Susan Friedman, available on the BehaviorWorks.Org website.
Those who stopped by were very thankful for the information on understanding companion bird behavior.
A staff member at Pet Supplies Plus needed some assistance on where to start with training, so I showed her the fun of target training. Wanda and Cosmo loved target training. The following video clip is a snippet of the introduction to target training:
I learned a lot while at this event, especially about the most common questions members of the public had about their companion birds. By far the biggest problem I was asked about was owner-directed aggression: Over and over again I was asked, “How can I stop my bird from biting me?” When I asked how the person currently stopped the bird from biting I heard things like grabbing the beak, shaking the bird, yelling at the bird, and putting the bird on the floor, usually explained by the owner in terms of them feeling the need to show their bird who was dominant. This gave me some ideas about how I could focus my education on dispelling this myth in particular.
Thankfully, I also heard a lot more humorous misapprehensions of bird behavior from people stopping by my table. My favorite was when a customer told me she believed that all blue parakeets were badly behaved. She had had two blue parakeets at different times, both of which would chew the wood on the door frame in the living room when they were let out. The customer was adamant that she would never again get a blue parakeet because of their disrespectful behavior—now she has a yellow parakeet that does not eat the door frame!
The lesson from this is at any event with the public, there will be people asking for assistance, and people just wanting to tell you a story. When there are people telling you a story, the best assistance is just to listen. Yes, I wanted to ask for more details and try to explain the behavior in a more rational way than plumage color, but I realized this person just wanted to tell a story, and she walked away happy to have shared her experience with me.
As I closed up this event, the manager stopped by and thanked me for sharing so much valuable information. She asked if I could come back the end of each month to continue promoting companion bird education. I agreed. This was a very successful trip!
Stop 3: New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, January 22
The New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a multi-species (including companion birds) open rescue in Stratham, N.H.
I was asked to put together an education seminar to assist all attendees on caring for companion birds, so I created “The Four Keys to Happy Healthy Companion Bird.” NHSPCA did a fantastic job promoting this session, and I was pleasantly surprised to see more than 20 attendees, including NHSPCA staff, vet techs, NHSPCA bird adopters, and students attending veterinary school.
The above slide from my presentation was a real discussion point. Screaming was one of the top five reasons of why companion birds were surrendered to the NHSPCA, and I learned that many people believed this behavior could not be changed. When I started comparing screaming to challenging behaviors in dogs, however, something clicked with the audience and they began to understand that it was a behavior we can modify. We discussed differential reinforcement as a way to address problematic behaviors like screaming in birds, and how adopters and rescues should focus on positive reinforcement–based strategies throughout a bird’s life.
I was very thankful for this experience and I have since updated my presentation with even more information. I will be presenting this session again as a webinar for members of the Pet Professional Guild.
Stop 4: MSPCA Nevins Farm, January 28
My last stop took me back to where this all started, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at Nevins Farm.
I was scheduled for two sessions over two days. On January 28, the education session was on “Which Companion Bird is Right for Me?” I created a fun session to help people find a bird that fits their lifestyle, and to better understand the requirements of having a companion bird. Although the MSPCA promoted the session on the website and the weather was perfect that day (for January!), no one came to the session.
On January 29, I gave another session of my “The Four Keys to Happy Healthy Companion Bird” presentation, which I’d presented the week before in New Hampshire. This time, only six people attended this session, but this small group enjoyed a longer question and answer time, and more interaction.
During the event, MSPCA Nevins Farm announced they were adding a companion bird trainer to their training department. Heart of Feathers Education is now offering companion bird consultation and training classes at their facility.
January Bird Awareness Month – Education on the Road has come to an end. The key takeaway from this article is not the attendance or where I presented, but the positive outcomes from this program. In the weeks following the end of my tour, I received emails from two other rescues asking if they could be added to January Bird Awareness Month – Education on the Road next year. In addition, I was contacted to assist several people with behavioral challenges they were having with their companion bird.
As much as I would have liked more people to attend the sessions, I understood I was fighting against the month of January. When I asked for feedback, the two interesting comments were that January is not the best month for this promotion, and that people believed they could get all the bird education they need from social media.
I am not discouraged by this feedback. I will continue to improve my approach and my marketing, and hopefully have others join me promoting companion bird education in January. (After all, it’s not winter everywhere in the world!) I believe that despite the popularity of social media, there are still many benefits to providing education in person.
Here’s what I learned from my experience over the month:
- Outreach will give you opportunities to expand your footprint—if you get out in front of people, some of them will invite you to events you might not have heard about, so get out there!
- It’s important to anticipate the kinds of questions you’re likely to get, so that you can prepare the best answers and help the most people.
- When you’re trying to explain new or difficult concepts, or change beliefs, it helps to be able to relate the new ideas to knowledge the audience already has. Comparing behavior modification in birds to dog training helped one of my audiences understand that the same principles will work on both.
- Be prepared just to listen and not judge, even if you’re faced with a story that makes no sense!
- You can’t know in advance how well a session will go or who will show up, so don’t get discouraged if your attendance is low.
- Marketing is important! Make sure your event is being promoted, and promote it yourself as much as possible.
The more we get out there and spread the word about positive reinforcement, good welfare, and enrichment, the better we’ll be able to make the lives of companion birds, so please consider doing some outreach of your own next January!
Sheila S. Blanchette is an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and owner of Heart of Feathers Education, LLC in Haverhill, MA. After volunteering for a number of years fostering birds with behavioral challenges, and promoting education and enrichment, in 2017 Sheila was hired as part of the MSPCA-Nevins Farm Animal Training Department, where she continues to offer a full range of services for companion birds and their owners. Sheila’s family includes a husband, a pug, 2 lorikeets, a lovebird, and a quaker parrot.