When birds won’t behave, owners flock to Barbra Bingham Deutscher

By Paul Maryniak

When their feathered friends won’t behave, owners flock to her

Barbara Bingham Deutscher is for the birds. And the Ahwatukee woman doesn’t mind anyone knowing that.

After all, when she’s walking around the Tempe Festival of the Arts with a giant macaw on her shoulder, it’s hard not to think she really likes feathered creatures. Besides, there are only about a hundred people like her in the world.

Deutscher is a certified professional bird trainer and a parrot behavior consultant, though in her business, Harmony Animal Behavior, she will help just about any owner learn to have a mutually satisfactory relationship with just about any pet.

But it’s hard not to consider her more of a human behavior consultant who teaches bird owners – particularly those who own members of the parrot family – how to behave so that their birds do.

The five birds that live in huge cages in her living room and on her patio are a testament to the need for someone with her skills and training. She’s rescued all five – Arie and Mack, two macaws; a white cockatoo named Boo and two conures who all seem perfectly at home with her horse, two cats and a 22-year-old fire-bellied toad.

“The cats get along great with the birds. These guys aren’t little flighty birds. These are birds that can hold their own,” she says. Pointing to the conure, more the size of your everyday parrot, she adds, “This guy will torture the cat. He’ll poke her, just fly at the cats and bounce off their backs.”

Some of them came from traumatic environments – one witnessed a murder-suicide – and others were simply abandoned. But she treats all five in pretty much the same way – with love, attention and a gentle but firm discipline.

“They need a lot of attention, probably more attention than a dog or cat,” Deutscher says of birds. “A dog or cat is always interacting with their environment. Birds are flock animals and want to be part of your life.”

Deutscher’s lifelong love of creatures has taken her from a veterinarian’s office to an aquarium and finally to cages. “I was drawn to animals since I was born,” she says. “I looked into being a veterinarian and worked at a veterinarian’s office.

“The medicine, the surgery and the animals were all great but I couldn’t take the clients,” she explains. “They were totally dismissive of their animals. They would want them put to sleep because they were biting.”

So the San Francisco native got her degree in music, then relocated to Hawaii, where she played French horn for the Honolulu Symphony. She spent her daytime hours working with dolphins, learning their language.

After nine years in Hawaii, she moved to Arizona in 1986 to play French horn with the Phoenix Symphony, bringing along the Amazon parrot she acquired in 1978 and had for 39 years before it passed away.

It was only natural that she settled in the Equestrian Trail neighborhood when she and her husband Ken moved to Ahwatukee in 1989. “When Ken and I were getting married, we had horses and there’s no better place for horses and there’s no better place for them than right here. We’ve got miles and miles of trails.”

She started studying bird behavior more earnestly, spending years working on her certification as a bird trainer, acquiring along the way the five birds who make their home with her and her husband.

Visitors to her home can always be sure they’re at the right house – the macaws’ loud screeches can be heard practically 10 feet away on the sidewalk.

Inside, they are just as much at home in their cages as they are flitting or strutting around in her living room, dining room or patio. And just as well behaved.

When she tells them to get in their cage, the macaws generally do just that. When she and her husband eat, they eat, and don’t make a fuss about being ignored. And when they turn off the lights to go to sleep, the birds follow suit.

“What I try to do is teach them all different scenarios,” she explains. “If every time you have dinner and feed the birds, your birds will expect to have dinner when you do.”

She takes the macaws in public “as much as I can.”

“We’re very bonded,” she explains, adding that whether the macaws are accompanying her to the Tempe Festival of the Arts or on a hike, they sit on her shoulder. Birds don’t do these things naturally, Deutscher explains.

“The length of time it takes to bond depends on their past and how you’re working with them,” she says, estimating that it can take anywhere from a few months to a year to develop that relationship.

“It takes a while for them to trust you,” she says, recounting how the previous owner of one of her rescued macaws got so frustrated by its refusal to shut up that the owner would keep a blanket over its head. “They weren’t enlightened people,” she adds.

Part of the trick to getting birds to behave, she says, is positive reinforcement. Initially, an owner will get frustrated and yell at the bird or worse. But that only confuses them. “They just know you don’t want them to do something, but they don’t know what to do,” she says. “They need positive reinforcement.”

“It’s a good idea to use food,” she says, as she gives a macaw a food pellet after it followed her instructions to get back into its cage. “I tell people, ‘Work with them, teach them what to do.’ The animals suddenly become a partner with them. They learn ‘I want some food, so I have to sit.’”

Deustcher doesn’t get called generally until the bird owner “runs into problems” – like screaming.

Teaching them not to scream is a matter of psychology. “The birds learn to scream because they see that’s when their owner comes. If you can get them early enough, you can teach them that when they whistle or make some other acceptable noise, that’s when you come to them. If they scream, you don’t give them any attention.”

“If you use force, they retreat into aggressive or fearful behavior,” she says. “What I like about my job is that I give them their natural choices back. They should be able to say no. They’re not slaves. We don’t want them to rip up a couch. We teach them to how to live in a house because they don’t know how to live in a house. You want to work with their behavior. They need to behave. We have behavior in order to affect our world. They just need to be shown how.”

For more information, call 480-272-0533 or visit harmonyanimalbehavior.com.

Barbara Bingham Deutscher is a certified professional bird trainer and a parrot behavior consultant.

(Photos special to LLAF)