Chris Davis heads west to make a house call. Feathers are flying in Thousand Oaks.
At the home of Jackie and Mickey Yablan, Davis encounters Xochi, a cobalt-blue hyacinth macaw who bites people and chases guests. After three months of torment, the couple called Davis, The Bird Lady.
Davis observes the bird, looks around the home and asks questions, seeking clues to the bird's aggression. Finally she advises the Yablans to lower the bird's cage so it doesn't feel so much in control and refrain from holding it for long periods so it doesn't throw temper tantrums when they leave the room.
If a bird starts to bite with its powerful beak, the handler should never slap its beak or spray it with water, punishments recommended by some handlers, Davis says. Instead, the handler should shake his arm, giving the bird an "earthquake." That way, the bird views it as an act of God, not of the keeper, she said.
The Yablans get a cage with a shorter perch and try Davis' method of punishment, and it isn't long before there is noticeable improvement in Xochi (the Aztec word for flower).
"Chris stresses positive attention. She says to not let them push you into giving them negative attention," Jackie Yablan says. "I wish I would have known Chris when I was raising kids."
Having an exotic bird is similar to rearing a child, Davis, 44, says. Parrots, like toddlers, have tendencies toward jealousy, possessiveness, self-centeredness and short attention spans.
"I tell people there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is they function on the level of a 2- to 3-year-old child. The bad news is, emotionally, they never outgrow it," Davis said.
Altering bird behavior is Davis' business. Each week, she receives about a dozen calls at her Sierra Madre home from people who have been referred by veterinarians, bird breeders or pet shop owners. She earns $50 an hour, whether she treats the birds over the phone or in a home, and claims a 90% success rate.
She is a consultant to Dr. Robert Chipsham, a Simi Valley veterinarian specializing in exotic animals. Davis, a frequent speaker at veterinary conventions and bird clubs, also writes for bird magazines and veterinary journals.
In the past 17 years, Davis has encountered hundreds of misbehaving birds that bite, scream or pluck out their own feathers. To understand the reasons for a bird's behavior, the owner must first see how the bird perceives itself in the world, Davis says.
Birds have a flock mentality and see themselves not as pets, but as equals with humans. Placing a bird on a high perch leads the creature to believe it rules the roost.
"In a flock, a boss can do whatever he wants," Davis says. "If he doesn't want to get off of his cage and you're insistent, he has a right to bite you. And you've signed the contract."
Don't underestimate a parrot's intelligence, she says.
"People say they don't understand what we're saying. We teach them that. We don't treat them like they're going to understand what we say," she says. "Frequently, birds are frustrated because they are so darn bright and people are treating them like they're stupid."
A bird's past experiences also can have a lasting effect on its behavior.
It took Mallory Kroner only a week to seek professional help after her new blue and gold macaw, Famous, pecked a desk and practically battered through a door. The bird had been traumatized by a previous owner, Davis says.
Davis suggests that Kroner stop feeding Famous sunflower seeds and frozen yogurt to relieve some of the bird's hyperactivity, get a lower perch and work at overcoming her fear.
However, sometimes the remedy isn't so easy. About half the time, Davis says, a bird's behavioral problems are triggered by difficulties among its human friends.
"If I see a single woman with a bird that is a feather picker, I am willing to say that 80 to 85% of the time, that woman has either a relationship problem or a work problem.
"She's part of his flock and the primary reason of the flock is protection. If your flock doesn't feel quite right, you're going to feel nervous."
Once, she made a house call to check on a bird that had suddenly gone into a biting frenzy. Nothing else in the bird's environment had changed, making Davis suspect that the problem was human-related. The startled bird owner confessed that she and her husband had recently begun talking of getting a divorce. Not even the children or the housekeeper had a clue.
"I was positive that was the problem," Davis said. "He was picking up the dissention. It didn't feel right. Static was going through his flock."
In rare cases, she even suggests that the bird's behavior problems would clear up if an abusive husband or boyfriend left the flock. She has received letters from clients reporting that the bird's behavior suddenly improved after the unpleasant human relationship ended.
Davis, who minored in psychology but holds no degree in zoology or animal behavior, trained by experience. Growing up in Walnut, Calif., Davis' first playmates were the animals that lived in the farming area. She frequently took walks with her white-faced, ring-tailed capuchin monkey, a white turkey, a sheep and a collie. She didn't meet another child until she was 4.
As a young adult, she worked on animal shows at Lion Country Safari and Universal Studios, receiving direction from her mentor, the late animal trainer Ray Berwick.
"It's that gut feeling of having been around them so much. I'll just know something is wrong," Davis said. "I use a lot of deduction and intuition."
Her clients say she has a way with birds that is unlike other trainers'.
"It's as if she can affect quite a bit of nonverbal communication with the bird and becomes one with the bird. It may be her spirituality coming out. Somehow, she just gives off an aura," said Linda Michaelson, whose military macaw was treated by Davis. "This bird probably would have been dead or have plucked out his feathers. Now, he's a truly happy being."
UP CLOSECHRIS DAVIS
Occupation: Bird behaviorist
Nickname (also a registered trademark): The Bird Lady
On birds vs. dogs: "There are some birds that are flat maladjusted from bad childhoods and from people wanting them to be dogs. These aren't dogs. They're very independent. They're little people, and they have their own way of doing things. You have to love them for what they are."
On communicating with a bird: "I talk to them as if they were a child. I don't use one-word commands. I talk to them."