Avian Expert Articles

A Retreat All About The Bird Brain

It was a wonderful weekend at The 2014 Wellness Retreat: The Wisdom of Parrots sponsored by Phoenix Landing. The emphasis was on the brains of birds. This included topics ranging from avian brain anatomy and physiology, and diseases that affect the brain, to bird wisdom, bird behavior and how to help our companion birds live better lives, as well as the wisdom of wild parrots and even the brain of our wonderful Alex the African grey parrot and his grey team! The retreat was a tribute Liz Wilson — ­one of the pioneers in understanding behaviors of our companion parrots. I know that she would he proud! Liz was very devoted to understanding parrots and their compassionate care.

Liz with black Palm CockatooLiz, as many of you know through reading her many articles in Bird Talk magazine, was direct, no nonsense, very insightful with a dash of humor. She could cut through all of the “stuff” quickly to the real problem and explain things in her direct style so that “us humans” could get it. Dr. Scott Stahl related the fact that Liz was one of the first non-veterinary speakers to come to the Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV) conference and give a talk on problem behaviors in companion parrots and ideas on how to work through them. I remembered the time that she scolded us avian veterinarians at an AAV meeting on how we would towel birds in the exam room… the harpy eagle grab as she called it! And she, quite effectively, in one fell swoop, showed us our stupidity. Instead, she suggested to all in the audience and then she showed us, that you should simply and slowly towel a bird. Using the blue-and-gold macaw she had in her hand to demonstrate, we all got it in an instant!

Liz would have been intensely interested in the lectures throughout the weekend at out Wellness Retreat. Dr Susan Orosz gave a talk on the wisdom of birds, where she discussed the sociality hypothesis for brain development and complex cognition as a result of it. She related that birds have smooth-surfaced brains. Mammals have gyri and sulci and a multi-layered cortex that is found on its surface. The smooth surfaced brain of birds was thought to not have functions associated with the cortex of mammals. Therefore, it was thought, that birds operated by reflex only. However, the new hypothesis is that complex cognition results from social evolution. Intelligence evolved not to solve physical problems but to process and use social information, particularly the social knowledge of conspecifics or flockmates. Crows, jackdaws and parrots have larger brain power than that of some other species of birds. So even though they don’t have a cortex like a mammal they are able to do have “cortical thought” — they just use another part of their brain!

African Grey ParrotDr. Irene Pepperberg gave us insightful information on the studies that she has done with Alex and his other grey friends on their thinking ability and how they process information. She showed that parrots are capable of complex cognition. Their abilities are better than the apes and small children on the many tasks that they were presented. It was exciting to listen and understand how Dr Pepperberg worked through the process on how to develop the tasks to ask the correct questions. This was necessary so that the data generated in her lab using the African greys could be compared with other animals and their cognitive abilities. As you would expect the African greys are right up there in the complex cognition scale!

There were additional lectures that rounded out the two days of great learning. There were multiple sessions that ranged in interest and level of understanding. Dr. Lauren Powers gave several lectures, which ranged from “The Scoop on Poop” to an advanced session on the Avian Respiratory System. Dr. Scott Stahl discussed what owners need to know about Avian Emergencies and Reproductive Diseases. Drs. Rhoda Stevenson and Liza Clark discussed how they cared for Liz Wilson’s blue-and-gold macaw, Sam over the 40 years of her life! Dr. Frank Rutowski reviewed first aid and what you need in your avian first-aid kits and gave a packed lecture on the Wisdom of Wild Parrots. Dr. Lee Bolt discussed foot and leg care, while Dr. Beth Rhyne explained how to prepare and what to expect during an avian exam.

There were a number of behavior talks as well- just as you would expect since this event honored Liz. Kevin Blaylock did a Behavior Training Workshop, while Laura Ford did a Parrot Workshop. Leigh Ann Hartsfield discussed how to communicate with your parrot. Michelle Czaikowski Underhill discussed Boredom Busters for your parrot. There were plenty of great topics and great opportunities to learn from each other. It was an exciting time of learning! I also think that the large number of hallway discussions in a relaxed atmosphere benefitted parrots, their owners and their vets!

There was a silent auction with a large number of donated items! David, Liz’s husband donated a large part of her jewelry and books to the auction for the sake of the birds. In addition, there was the wonderful Phoenix Landing Parrot Store (Helpingparrots.com) with lots of items to choose and buy from! This store is also available online and the money goes to support the objectives of Phoenix Landing — to improve the quality of life for all parrots. To that end, the first line item is to provide educational opportunities for the care and needs of parrots. Liz was a board member of this non-profit for the betterment of all of our parrots. She was honored on Sunday morning with a tribute provided by a number of people whose lives she had touched. We talked about her wonderful sense of humor, her desire to learn the truth and use that information for the benefit of parrots. Liz was one of the pioneers in parrot behavior and spent a large part of her life teaching what she knew to owners, her fellow vet techs and avian veterinarians. This was a weekend of learning, communing about parrots and helping them have a better life. She would not want it any other way!

2 thoughts on “A Retreat All About The Bird Brain

  1. well deserved tribute to Liz Wilson and Phoenix Landing- sorry I missed it. thank you for this article

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