Peer Support and Networking for Parrot Behavior Consultants: An Interview with Robin Horemans

Although birds are a relatively common pet around the world, compared to dog and cat lovers I think it’s fair to say that “crazy bird people” are few and far between. Of course, what they lack in numbers they more than make up for in passion – something families and friends often just don’t understand! That’s why opportunities to meet up with parrot lovers and behavior geeks in person, like at the yearly IAABC Conference, are a vital point of connection for so many people in our industry.

Unfortunately, this year COVID-19 put a stop to meetups, conferences, and in-person training classes where avian behavior consultants can share their love and learning. Thankfully, IAABC’s Parrot Division chair, Robin Horemans, stepped up to fill the gap, providing some of that sense of shared joy and connection to IAABC Parrot Division members during lockdown. We interviewed Robin about her weekly “Squalk ‘n’ Talk” video chats and how the pandemic inspired her to reach out and connect to more parrot people.

What gave you the idea for Squalk ‘n’ Talk?

The idea came to me while I was outside for a walk around the neighbourhood. It was during the start of lockdown, and I was feeling very isolated. I was also feeling isolated from other “bird people.” My lovely partner did not share the same depths or passions I wanted to express, and his unenthusiastic reactions left me feeling less than validated. I needed to talk to someone who would get it, another bird professional. Due to social distancing rules and the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought that getting together virtually would be the next best thing. The weekly Squalk ‘n’ Talk chats were born!

Any difficulties that you initially had with technology? Was it easy to get everyone together using the same tools?

 We had previously used Zoom for meetings of the IAABC board, and a few other division projects. We created the Squalk ‘n’ Talk as a once-a-week Zoom meetup (which quickly turned into twice a week!). This created some challenges, like purchasing Zoom, figuring out how to use it as a host, how to set up proper security features like waiting rooms and passcodes, how to admit people, how to get the Zoom link to members, etc. We got together as a group and conquered them all. By having meetings through this medium, we could introduce the Zoom platform to members each week. This expanded their understanding of this new technology as a safe and accepting (R+!) atmosphere. In becoming familiar with Zoom I hope they felt more comfortable using it with clients. I really enjoyed breaking down these challenges into small steps for myself and our members. It was a great learning and teaching opportunity!

Describe a typical event. What do you talk about? Is it different from what you imagined?

A typical Squalk ‘n’ Talk meets for about an hour, sometimes longer if we all have the time. Typically, we start with greetings and introductions of unfamiliar faces. Sometimes we would have a round table to introduce ourselves and our birds. We might talk about what we were working on professionally. Once we got to know each other, we were interested in personal stories: How is the construction going? How is your health? How are your families? Really, we wanted to connect in any way we could. We shared our fears over COVID or our recent challenges with wearing a mask. We would talk about uncertainties about the future from our various countries around the world. We would have chats about interesting training we saw on the internet, or the latest viral animal video. Sometimes we would ask each other about current training problems and brainstorm a solution together. We would talk about cases we were working on and share updates. The decompression was great, and the camaraderie with other professionals was fabulous.

We have had tours around an aviary in Arizona, enjoyed views out the window in Australia, shared tea in Alberta, saw the smoke in Oregon, and saw many beautiful places. Some people joined from home, some from their phones on the road. One time I even joined in the middle of a bird rescue situation, though I didn’t stay on the chat for long! I was glad to have another member take over hosting that week.

Each of our Squalk ‘n’ Talks feature members’ animals, from parrots to dogs to horses to other non-human family members. As animal behaviour professionals we are often working with other people’s animals, so it was lovely to be able to have our own personal animals online to share. The best thing that happened during one of our Squalk ‘n’ Talk meetings was one of our members children wanted to read us a story. The cutest 3-year-old picked out a book, and Mom read it for all of us. It was the best five minutes of the chats so far! Life is so wonderful; we just have to remember to look.

What are the benefits to these kinds of informal connections, especially during a pandemic where in-person conferences have stopped?

The professional benefits have been subtle yet enormous. The members have been talking about upcoming Squalk ‘n’ Talk meetings with enjoyment. They have connected with other members, and with the chairs of the division. The invisible barriers of experience, which lead you to believe you should not talk to another member with much more experience than yourself, have been removed. We connected as a division in our shared passions of animal behaviour, birds, and the shared experience of craziness of the times.

I have found personal benefits from reduced feelings of isolation, and better outlooks for the future. The weekly “appointment” allowed me to make goals and set intentions for the future. I looked forward to the meetings, even if nothing else felt great that week. Through talking with other members, I could fight off the imposter syndrome and connect in deeper ways.

The Squalk ‘n’ Talk meetings for the IAABC Parrot Division members are now moving to bi-monthly meets. As we start to get back to work, we will balance the need for connection with the need for real life. Members from other divisions are welcome, but are required to show an interest in learning parrot behaviour. Many of our division members train multiple species. We would welcome other like-minded members!

If you’re an IAABC Member, you can join our Parrot Division Facebook Group here.