If you find yourself wondering about the eye-catching signs on the building along Oakley’s main drag, take a look inside.
The Medical Center for Birds is exactly what the name suggests, improbable as it might seem that a smallish bedroom community near the easternmost reaches of Contra Costa County has a veterinary hospital dedicated to avian patients.
“I could be in San Francisco … but being out on the periphery is what I wanted,” says hospital founder and director Brian Speer.
Its location is even more unlikely considering that The Medical Center for Birds is quite possibly the busiest private practice in the world that treats birds exclusively.
Speer and five other veterinarians along with eight veterinary technicians and assistants have been working out of the approximately 4,000-square-foot building since it opened last fall following an estimated $1.2 million renovation project.
The Medical Center for Birds logged an estimated 6,500 patient visits last year, has 13 to 25 inpatients at any given time, and discharges an average of nearly 17 birds a day.
The facility features five exam rooms outfitted with the latest technology, an operating room and boarding facilities that can accommodate about 18 patients at a time.
Coffee mug in hand, the soft-spoken Speer recently offered a visitor a tour of the premises.
A pair of large metal herons grace the foyer, where one wall is lined with photographs of parrots, an emu and other avian art.
Nearby, a tall rack of shelves is filled with playthings, including short ropes in cheerful primary colors and mobiles fashioned from stacks of rainbow geometric shapes.
But they’re much more than toys, Speer said. He and his colleagues use them to redirect the self-destructive behavior that birds in captivity sometimes manifest, he explains, adding that these tools stimulate their brain by giving them something to do instead of languishing in a cage.
He pauses at a computer screen filled with color-coded appointments and notes that three birds were admitted that morning, bringing the number of inpatients to 27.
Then it’s on to view X-rays of a chicken’s gastrointestinal tract that isn’t pushing food through its body properly.
Next up is the ward for birds that aren’t critically ill; the day’s census included a rose-breasted cockatoo that’s missing its lower beak and a Goffin’s cockatoo with self-inflicted wounds.
Recuperating in the intensive care unit is a toucan that had flown into a wall the day before and a geriatric blue-fronted Amazon parrot with heart problems.
The conversation suddenly is interrupted by high-pitched screaming from another room.
“I’m on the phone! I’M ON THE PHONE!”
An amused employee videos the outburst on her phone as the vocal parrot repeatedly chides everyone within earshot.
When patients in another room register their excitement with an ear-splitting chorus of squawking. Speer grins and sticks a finger in his ear.
Cockatiels are the most common species he sees, with African grey parrots and pet chickens in second and third place, respectively.
His patients come in all sizes from hummingbirds and the Pacific parrotlet that weighs barely more than 1 ounce when fully grown, to ostriches, which once were a popular investment among farmers in east Contra Costa County.
Speer also has worked on Andean condors with 10-foot wingspans, eagles and flamingos that zoos brought to him after they were poisoned by the zinc in pennies that visitors tossed into the water.
He has attended to falconers’ birds as well, although typically Speer only triages and stabilizes wildlife before handing them over to specialized rehabilitation facilities.
The doctor has no favorites; each species is special.
“It’s the personality and relationship that I cherish. It’s the essence of who these animals are as opposed to what they are,” Speer said.
He’s encountered some memorable characters: Speer chuckles as he recalls examining a double yellow-headed Amazon parrot with a flair for the dramatic.
“He looks at me and says, ‘What are you doing? Help, help! I’m dying!’”
Then there was the mynah bird that had a respiratory problem. Speer was studying the creature’s breathing when it abruptly fixed its gaze on him and demanded, “What the f— are you looking at?” to his amusement and the mortification of its owner.
After graduating from veterinary school in 1983, Speer joined a practice in then-rural Oakley, attracted by the idea of having patients that included horses and livestock.
“I wanted to be a modern-day James Herriot,” he said, referring to the late British veterinary surgeon whose popular autobiographical books inspired a movie as well as a couple of television series about his decades of work in the Yorkshire Dales.
But in the mid-1980s Speer changed course, deciding that he wanted to specialize — and excel — in a particular area of veterinary medicine.
He zeroed in on the birds that showed up at the practice in part because avian medicine wasn’t a recognized specialty anywhere in the world at the time, and the lack of knowledge about bird health meant there was a need he could fill.
When Speer bought the practice from his partner a few years later, he turned it into a birds-only hospital.
“There’s something magical about them,” he said of his patients, recalling that as a young veterinarian the ones that were native to faraway countries seemed exotic.
As time went by, he also discovered that birds in general are more complex than he had ever imagined.
“These are massively sentient creatures,” said Speer, noting that all species experience a range of human emotions from grief and anger to happiness. “They (are) just really good souls to get to know.”
Despite naysayers who maintained that there wasn’t enough demand for bird doctors — fewer than 3 percent of U.S. households own pet birds — the practice has grown exponentially, said Speer, who thinks it’s precisely because he began developing an expertise in a narrower field of study that he’s been successful.
He belongs to an elite group of avian doctors around the world with certificates from two organizations attesting that they have demonstrated the highest level of proficiency in their discipline. Speer holds that status from the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners as well as from the European College of Avian Medicine and Surgery.
Speer and his colleagues employ high-tech tools that enable them to watch a bird’s crop disgorge its contents in real-time, view skeletons in three dimensions, and perform microsurgery on a tiny budgie to excise a malignant testicle.
“We get to do all sorts of cool things,” said Speer, who’s planning to start using 3D printing to make prosthetic beaks and limbs.
Pet owners who have heard of him through the “Birds for Dummies” book he co-authored or by word of mouth go to great lengths to have him treat their pets, some driving from as far away as Virginia and Maryland.
Valerie Maros flew her beloved 9-year-old sun conure from El Paso, Texas, by private jet to Speer in October 2018 after a Houston veterinarian told her the parakeet might not survive the surgery required to extract an egg that was stuck in its uterus.
Speer removed the large shell, which had cracked and was leaking yolk, performed a hysterectomy, and two days later Maros was back home with the saffron-colored bird she takes with her everywhere.
“I love this man. He’s just a godsend,” said Maros, who has brought Sunny back to Speer for two other procedures as well as annual checkups.
When Speer isn’t seeing patients himself, he’s mentoring resident doctors on staff, consulting with peers in the field, managing the business end of his practice, writing books, and presenting scientific papers at conferences — this year he’s traveling to Nevada, Washington, Massachusetts, and Spain.
As such, 60-plus-hour workweeks are the norm, and although the 67-year-old is not ready to retire, he says he’s “working on working less.”
“I’m hoping not to be so swamped,” said Speer, who wants to spend more time on pursuits outside work.
For starters, there are all the creatures great and small to care for on his two-acre spread in Oakley, a veritable menagerie that comprises three dogs and a cat along with three tortoises, including an approximately 140-pound sulcata.
And, of course, there are the birds: Ducks, geese, peafowls, pigeons and eight macaws in addition to Big Bird and Ernie, emus Speer has had since 1983.
He’s also hankering to spend more time crafting wooden furniture, running, and hanging out with his wife. (“We’ve been going steady for 42 years,” he says.)
“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Speer says of his career, and even after seeing his final patient he expects that he’ll continue writing and speaking.
“I will always be doing something in my profession.”