Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

For the BIRDS

Classes teach owners of fine-feathered friends not to treat their pets like dogs

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Birds aren't dogs. And while bird lovers may order their birds to sit and obey, this may -- literally -- come back to bite them.

A popular training method that focuses on dog-pack mentality may be causing harm to pet avians. And rather than merely complain about a problem, a local bird expert is doing something about it.

Melanie Shura, the president of Avian Welfare Canada Inc., predicted this training trend could be destructive to birds. She feared people would try to use pack-leader training on them and she was right. Shura said she's seeing a large spike in two- to four-year-old birds requiring her assistance.

"It's an alarming trend," she said.

Some birds come to her with psychological damage. It may take "weeks or years to overcome," she noted. Shura has seen many bird relinquishments. They typically stem from an allergy to a family move -- or other life-related issue. Recently, many birds come to her because of behaviour issues. And most of these are caused by human error.

It's one of the main reasons she's excited to partner with the Winnipeg Humane Society to offer bird workshops. Shura's goal is to "reach more people."

Not only does she wish to work with bird lovers, but pet-trade workers, veterinarians and vet technicians, too. She wants to spread the message that the "I'm the boss" method doesn't work with birds. Instead, she seeks to encourage others to embrace behaviour modification methods that are "the most effective and least invasive," she said.

The classes will be broken into different sessions. They will cover many things, from care and environment to understanding communication and behaviour. Class participants will even be given homework to practise the methods taught in class. The end goal, however, is to prevent pet bird relinquishment and encourage a greater relationship between birds and their caregivers. Trust is key and it's not developed through negative reinforcement or pack-leader mentality.

While Shura's form of training is scientifically proven to work, it also takes time and patience. Therefore, it's vital that you have time to train a bird, should you choose to adopt or purchase one. It isn't the right pet for someone who wishes to tuck it in a corner and ignore it. Because some species can live as long than humans, birds are a big commitment. It's why her classes make so much sense.

Mistakes with a bird often begin the day it's purchased. Many people buy them on a whim. Who can blame them? Birds are beautiful. Society has taught us to expect our feathered friends to sit nicely on a perch or sing songs the minute they are placed in a cage. We often forget that they're complex, intelligent creatures.

Just because "a bird is hand-fed doesn't mean it's tame," said Shura. She explained that there are more than 300 species of parrots. Each species has different needs. Consider how they bathe in the wild: some prefer bathing in puddles, others like to be misted. These simple differences need to be addressed at home to ensure the bird is happy. The rule of thumb is to understand their natural habitat and mimic that in their home life.

Another habitat-related example can be seen in the budgie. You'd expect smaller birds would require a small cage. This isn't the case. In the wild, Shura explained, these sweet birds fly a great deal. As a result, they require more space -- at least a 21/2-foot cage.

"A bird cannot be happy if its basic needs are not met," she said. Like other creatures, these needs include environment, nutrition and exercise. When birds are unhappy they act out; they can even bite.

Even if their needs are met, birds can behave in a negative manner. Bad behaviour is learned. For instance, Shura explained, if a bird is yelled at every time it screams, that bird learns to continue screaming. It assumes you're just joining in. However, if we reward the bird for quiet behaviour it will learn that this is the preferred way to act.

When I interviewed Shura, she inadvertently offered an example. While we chatted, her bird, Lily, was quietly making noise. As Lily did this, Shura would praise her. At the same time, a cockatoo, which she was bird-sitting, was eager to let its loud voice be heard. Shura noted that to train that bird, she'd have to find opportunities to reward good behaviour. Lily's lovely greeting of "hello" would be reward enough for any avian enthusiast's patience.

The first step to having a well-behaved, happy bird is to understand these lovely creatures. You might not be the boss of your bird, but with Shura's help, you'll discover how to be a competent, knowledgeable bird lover.

Feather your

knowledge nest

Available classes:

Intro Small Birds: Budgies, Cockatiels, Lovebirds

May 3, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Registration Fee: $5

Intro Medium and Large Parrots

June 7, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Registration Fee: $5

Parrot School: Behavior I

June 12, 19 and 26, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Registration Fee: $125

To register, call: 982-3555

All classes will be held at The Winnipeg Humane Society, 45 Hurst Way

Also, varied species, including cockatiels, are up for adoption through Avian Welfare Canada.

For further information on these classes (or future ones), the newsletter, adoption or avian welfare, contact:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 1, 2012 D6

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