Best Job Ever: Dr. Pilar Fish, Avian Veterinarian

Today is National Bird Day — a day devoted to reflecting on the beauty of birds and how they deserve our respect. Here at ModCloth, we fancy our feathered friends by featuring them on some of our favorite prints and pieces. But, we also admire the people who work directly with these avian animals and contribute to their well-being.

The folks at the National Aviary (based in Pittsburgh, the city where ModCloth took flight), are dedicated to all-things-birds, including conservation, education, and care. As one of the only independent nonprofit zoos exclusively for these animals, it’s home to over 500 from over 150 species around the world.

Dr. Pilar Fish, a veterinarian at the National Aviary, might just have the best job ever. Get to know all about her and her very important and inspiring work:

Dr. Fish examines a chick. Photo by Chuck Beard.

How long have you been doing your job?
I have been a veterinarian for 21 years and have worked in several zoos and wildlife centers. I’ve been at the National Aviary for the past 12 years.

Tell us how you got started. Why did you choose to focus on birds?
When I was in college, my pet bird became ill and I took him to a veterinarian. It was fascinating to see how the vet could figure out what was wrong and knew how to help. My bird recovered, and I became very interested in veterinary medicine.

I was fortunate to be from Florida and attend the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. They have an amazing zoo and wildlife program. I started out interested in working with all types of zoo and wild animals.

After I graduated from vet school and worked in several zoos, my interest in birds grew. I love how varied birds are in appearance, size, and color. Their feathers are beautiful, and it is amazing how they can fly. As a vet, birds are very fragile patients, and I enjoy the challenge of working with them.

Dr. Fish with Chris Gaus, Senior Aviculturist.

What’s a typical day like for you?
At the National Aviary, every day is different and fun. We have over 150 different species of unusual birds. In one day I could be working on a penguin, parrot, flamingo, finch, and owl, The medical procedures vary from routine examinations, vaccinations, x-rays, and blood work to complicated surgeries and treatments.

What’s the craziest or most unexpected thing you’ve had to do for your job? (Is professional bird-calling on your resume?)
Truly every day I’m doing things that I know are unusual. Every time I get to handle a fragile tiny baby bird or a powerful eagle, I know it is a special job! One of the most unexpected things I’ve had to do was give a giant Andean condor a blood transfusion.

What’s something about the birds you work with that would come as a surprise? I read that many birds mate for life… Please tell us more!
Many birds do mate for life. I have seen birds happily together for decades! They do everything together: eat, groom, bathe, sleep, and play. I’ve also seen when a mate dies, the other bird will mourn. They cry and stop doing normal activities. It takes them time but they can recover and hopefully find a new mate. It is a surprise to see how social birds are.

Dr. Fish with Sarah Shannon Gray, Supervisor of Hospital Wards & Intern Coordinator.

The National Aviary’s mission is to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds. That’s a tall order! Can you talk a little about that?
The National Aviary is a leader in all things birds: conservation, education, training, breeding endangered species, and health care. People can and be immersed among birds from around the world. It’s these close-up interactions that inspire people to appreciate nature. Also, we have many educational events, exhibits, and programs where people can learn about the environmental challenges for birds and how to make a difference.

What do you hope to achieve with your work?
I hope to be able to develop avian medicine to the next level. It is an honor to work at the National Aviary and be able to regularly create innovative new treatments that will not only help the birds in our large collection, but can be taught to zoos and wildlife centers around the world. One of the most important things to me is that we train the next generation of veterinarians to give them the knowledge and skills to help birds. We have a Teaching Hospital at the Aviary and train over 40 students a year in avian medicine.

What’s the toughest part of your job?
The toughest part of my job is when a bird passes away. We have geriatric birds who surpass longevity records and have long, happy lives. But when it is their time and a geriatric bird passes, it is always very sad. We get to know the birds very well as individuals. Some birds are curious and energetic, some are sweet and affectionate. When a bird passes away, I miss them very, very much. We work with the same birds every day for years and get close with them.

How about the most fulfilling or rewarding part?
The most fulfilling part of my job that never gets old is seeing a patient recover. A bird will come to me weak, ill, or injured. It is always alarming to see a sick animal or have a life-threatening emergency. After carefully doing an exam, tests, and treatments, we watch to see how they do. It is thrilling to see when a bird feels better & knowing that we helped. The reward is seeing them flying, swimming, or singing again.

Describe the National Aviary in 3 words:
Unique. Fun. Inspiring.

Tell us one thing you wish you knew before choosing to go into your profession. 
I honestly have no complaints or unexpected things about being an avian vet. It is hard but rewarding work. Even after a long, tiring, or stressful day, I leave work feeling very happy I helped a bird and fortunate that it was in such a special zoo.

There’s always a lot aflutter at the National Aviary.

+Can’t get enough of Dr. Fish and her feathered friends? Check out some of the National Aviary’s upcoming events, and share your bird-related stories in the comments!

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  1. Brandy 01/05/2016 at 9:20 pm #

    Two of my favorite things together – The National Aviary in Pittsburgh and Modcloth. =) The Aviary has been one of my favorite places to go for many years ~ wonderful place. Now I know what I’ll have to wear when I go next time. =)

    • ModCindy 01/06/2016 at 7:19 pm #

      We love it too, Brandy! It’s one of the many awesome things about our fair city.

  2. Cindy 01/05/2016 at 10:31 pm #

    Just wanted to point out that in the second paragraph, the line “As the only independent nonprofit zoo exclusively for these animals” is not correct – there also exists the Tracy Aviary which is also an independent, not for profit zoological institution that houses only birds. Just sayin’

    • ModCindy 01/06/2016 at 7:16 pm #

      Thanks for the heads-up, Cindy. Great name, too!

  3. Serena 09/03/2019 at 2:10 am #

    I love the National Aviary and I am interested in pursuing the same job as Dr. Fish as I love birds as well! I am a college student undecided exactly what do for a career with birds and as a result, I have been taking general ed classes for the time being. This article has given me some insight on the job of an avian veterinarian and I may just go to veterinary school! Super excited to work towards a bird-related career! I have a question that I am not sure if anyone would be able to answer here: I am interested in training birds as well, would that be a possibility for an avian vet?

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