Part Two: The Benefits to Them

Suggested Ground Rules

Before I begin my exploration of the many benefits of flight for companion parrots, I want to suggest something. My last episode on this topic has generated animated debate, especially on one site to which it was shared. A total of 55 messages (and still counting) illustrate perfectly what I have said before – that radical bias and lack of information play much too large a role in this discussion.

One of the reasons why we have not achieved more progress on this issue is that many people advise others, using information they are merely repeating after having read it elsewhere. Moreover, they have become inexplicably committed to this second-hand information. In addition, many who are knowledgeable in general about parrots feel compelled to also offer advice in areas in which they are not – such as this topic.

I suggest, going forward, that if you do not have years of experience living with flighted parrots in your home, then in this conversation you are a learner. Only by approaching with intellectual humility subjects such as this, will we create the more functional and truly informative discussion that is needed.

Let’s Get Straight About Definitions

For the purposes of this discussion, a fully flighted parrot is an unclipped bird who chooses to fly frequently as his primary means of locomotion inside the home. It does not refer to parrots with unclipped wings who do not choose to fly.

A free flighted parrot is one who is allowed to fly outdoors at liberty. That activity is not within the scope of this discussion. While I have trained companion parrots for free flight, this is not an activity that I advocate except for the rare few. For those of you interested in free flight, trainer Hillary Hankey has written an excellent article about this practice.

The Fledging Process and Brain Development

Fledging is the process through which young parrots learn to fly. The urge to fly is instinctive – every young parrot will at some point launch himself into the air if given the opportunity. However, flight skills must be learned through much practice.

Twenty years ago, it was common to read the statement: “African Greys are nervous, clumsy birds.” At the time I began breeding, I thought this was about the stupidest thing I had ever heard. How could this be? How could they survive in the wild with these qualities?

The truth? An African Grey parrot who was fully fledged is an entirely different adult parrot than one who did not. It is no different for any other species of parrot. Learning to fly impacts all aspects of the young parrot’s development.

“The fledging process itself contributes in many ways to long-term success for psittacine companions because during fledging, early behaviors culminate in a fully active animal totally engaged in and interactive with its environment, including human caretakers.” Further, fledging babies “does not result in cookie-cutter companions but the reverse. When raised in environments tailored to their growth, psittacine companions develop individual personalities, preferences and propensities.” (Linden, P. 2006)

The benefits of learning to fly, however, may extend beyond the coordination, confidence, and autonomy that result from the physical experience.

Development of the Senses

Steve Hartman of The Parrot University writes: “Babies learn best when multiple senses are stimulated simultaneously (i.e.; sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell). The best opportunity for a parrot to learn is when a combination of senses are experienced at the same time. The senses of sight, sound and touch take on a very different nature during flight. When a particular skill is being developed or experienced by different senses at the same time a different neuropathway is reinforced for each sense creating a much stronger neurocircuitry for that skill or knowledge being learned.”

“Each one of the senses, as well as mental and physical skills develop over a period of time, but not at the same time. Some of the development phases are symbiotic, meaning they need information being developed in another area of the brain for their own optimal development. For example, vision develops best when the baby can move around and see things from different angles and distances. Conversely, coordination develops best when the visual cortex can provide information on distance and perspective. Without this symbiotic relationship of vision and coordination, it is difficult to develop three-dimensional vision.” (Hartman, S. 2007)

“The faster he flies, the faster the visual ability needs to be and the faster the brain learns to process the information, and the faster he will be able to fly. Teaching the brain to process information faster and on higher levels, promotes faster decision-making and fewer mistakes in all areas of mental, physical and social competence.” (Hartman, S. 2007)

In Hartman’s piece, no research sources are listed. Such investigation through controlled studies has been absent to date. After all, why research the benefits of flight to companion parrots if we are dedicated to preventing this as a group of caregivers, as we have been previously?

However, evidence does exist for humans, as documented by the authors in The Role of Locomotion in Psychological Development: “The psychological revolution that follows the onset of independent locomotion in the latter half of the infant’s first year provides one of the best illustrations of the intimate connection between action and psychological processes. In this paper, we document some of the dramatic changes in perception-action coupling, spatial cognition, memory, and social and emotional development that follow the acquisition of independent locomotion.” (Anderson, D et al. 2013)

Were we to research further, we would find it true for all animals. The timely acquisition of a creature’s natural means of locomotion fosters more complete brain and personality development.

Benefits of Flight for the Adult Parrot

The fully flighted parrot enjoys physical, social, and psychological benefits far in excess of his wing clipped compatriot.

Physical Health

The parrot who flies to get around the home enjoys far greater health benefits, including stronger musculature, greater resistance to disease due to improved immune function, and better function of cardiac and respiratory systems. There is simply no way that clipped birds can achieve the same level of exercise through walking, climbing, and flapping exercises. (Glendell, G. 2017)

“Birds were made to fly and when they don’t, they develop problems similar to humans who do not exercise; they are more prone to obesity as well as liver, kidney, and heart disease. More over, studies of the bones of the wings and legs of our companion birds are currently being investigated under the lead of Dr. Scott Echols at University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City. The bone density comparisons of birds that are “perch potatoes” are very poor in comparison to wild birds. This metabolic bone disease may contribute to other medical conditions, but the extent is not known yet.” (Orosz, S. 2014)

Improved vision

Hartman suggests that parrots who live with clipped wings may have poorer vision. “Flying birds quickly learn to process visual inputs faster as they develop and reinforce new and improved pathways for routing visual stimulus at high speeds in a three dimensional manner. This educational process cannot take place without flight. Parrots with poor visual skills take longer to assess visual stimulus which may cause the bird to need to react aggressively until the information is processed. For instance, a new person entering the room or someone reaching out to touch may provoke ‘a bite first ask later’ response while the circumstances are being processed.” (Hartman, S. 2007)

Dr. Kenneth Welle concurs: “The use of flight for mental stimulation is very important — birds were designed to fly and the scenery rushing past them stimulates the optic cortex of their brain.” (Orosz, S. 2016)

Physical Safety

While much has been written about the risks that exist in the home for flighted parrots, these are quite easily managed through both training and careful environmental arrangement. In reality, the flighted parrot may enjoy greater physical safety due to his ability to escape unsafe situations.

If a flighted parrot finds himself on the floor with other family pets, he is easily able to fly upward to escape unwanted interaction. If he discovers he is heading toward the stove or other unsafe surface, he can hover and change direction. (A clipped bird who launches himself into uncontrolled flight has no such ability.) If he lands on another parrot’s cage, he can simply fly off before he loses a toe or two.

Social Functionality

Companion parrots who fly are in general more socially adept than those who do not. They quite naturally maintain their autonomy, better able to make choices about when and where to interact with members of the “family flock.”

“The social interactions of clipped birds often land on the side of “overdependent” because, lacking their own resources for exploration, they depend upon human caregivers for entertainment, transportation, and to save them from less-favored persons.” (Linden, P. 2006)

Flighted parrots also are able to make that age-old choice between flight and fight. If able, a parrot who doesn’t like what’s going on will simply fly off. As Linden explains: “Flighted birds flee from unsolicited interest and so find biting largely unnecessary, but clipped birds, lacking escape, often bite to drive away perceived intruders and other annoyances.”

Psychological Benefits

Flighted birds are better able to exercise their own autonomy, making a stream of choices throughout the day and expressing their natural behaviors. For example, my flighted parrots will engage in foraging for hours throughout the day, since I have food placed in several locations around my home.

Parrots who fly are at less risk for developing fear-based behaviors. They are better able to cope with stressful situations and recover more quickly due to the generalized feelings of safety that they experience as a result of being able to use flight for escape.

Quality of life is directly tied to the number of choices that a captive animal is able to make. Flighted parrots are able to make an abundance of choices when out of their cages, since they can perch where they want, eat where they want, and interact with whom they want.

The Obvious Action Step

The benefits of flight to both developing and adult companion parrots are irreplaceable and undeniable. No matter how diligent a caregiver might be, there is no way to fully compensate for a lack of flight ability. I do not believe that it is possible for a clipped parrot to enjoy the same physical, emotional, and psychological health that the flighted parrot enjoys.

As Matt Smith states: “What parrots want is flight and flock – the two things they’re denied as pets in most homes.” In my experience, the one guarantees the other.

A discussion such as this does little to advance quality of life for companion parrots. What we need are action steps that will create the greatest impact.

No one should adopt a baby parrot from a breeder or pet store if that bird has not been fully fledged for a number of weeks. Not all adult parrots can regain flight ability after being deprived of the opportunity during that natural developmental stage for learning. This one single step would have a significant impact on quality of life for parrots going forward. Voting with our dollars creates change.

In my next blog post, I will explore the many benefits to the caregiver of keeping flighted parrots. Until then!

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Resources:

Anderson, D. I., Campos, J. J., Witherington, D. C., Dahl, A., Rivera, M., He, M., Uchiyama, I., … Barbu-Roth, M. (2013). The role of locomotion in psychological development. Frontiers in psychology4, 440. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00440 Accessed 03/19/2019.

Bergman, Charles. 2013. No Fly Zone: Denied their natural habits, millions of pet parrots lead bleak, lonely lives. The Humane Society of the United States. https://www.humanesociety.org/news/no-fly-zone. Accessed 03/26/2019.

Glendell, G. 2017. Birds Need to Fly. The IAABC Journal. http://spring2017.iaabcjournal.org/birds-need-fly. Accessed 03/24/2019.

Hartman, Steve. 2007. Thinking on the Wing.The Parrot University. https://theparrotuniversity.com/flight. Accessed 03/26/2019.

Linden, Phoebe Greene with Leuscher, Andrew. 2006. The Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ames, Iowa: Blackwell Publishing. Pages 93-111.

Moser, Dean. 2004. Parrot and Flight: Flight and the Companion Parrot.AFA Watchbird: Journal of the American Federation of Aviculture. https://journals.tdl.org/watchbird/index.php/watchbird/article/view/1841/1815. Accessed 03/27/2019.

Orosz, Susan PhD, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian). 2014. Is Your Bird Ready to Fly? Avian Expert Articles. https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/bird-ready-fly. Accessed 03/22/2019.

Orosz, Susan PhD, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian). 2016. Free Flight: Lessons from ExoticsCon. Avian Expert Articles. https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/free-flight-lessons-exoticscon. Accessed 03/22/2019.

Proctor, Noble and Lynch, Patrick. 1993. Manual of Ornithology: Avian Structure & Function. Ann Arbor, MI:Yale University. Pg. 214.

 

Published by

Pamela Clark, CPBC

IAABC Certified parrot behavior consultant offering services to parrot owners who need advice regarding parrot behavior and parrot training.

13 thoughts on “Part Two: The Benefits to Them”

  1. Everything you said is right on with what I see with Ozzy the grey who did go through birdie “boot camp” at your house. He has always been fully flighted,he is confident, well balanced physically and mentally. As He goes through his day he has so many choices he can make, go upstairs,downstairs, sleep high or low, follow me around, take a shower with me, go see one of the other big birds,leave fast if he has to,so many choices he makes for himself!

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  2. I have an almost 3 year old african grey. I hate getting his wings clipped, but Im afraid if he gets out and away from me, Ill never get him back. Its a hard decision to clip or not to clip. But what are options???

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    1. Hi Marguerite,

      I agree with you. It is a hard decision. That is why I am dedicated to writing this series. Hopefully, the decision will be easier for people if they have the information that they need. I will give you a short answer here to this complex question. However, please remember that I will be answering this and many others in much greater detail, as the blog series progresses. I do plan to address how to make the decision and then how to live safely with a bird who can fly. Part of the solution to loss prevention is environmental management and part of it lies in training.

      In my experience, parrots are not just waiting to fly out the door. Instead, they prefer to remain where they feel safe. The times when they are most often lost is when they are trying to follow the owner as that person leaves the house. Thus, carefully structuring how you leave and ow you return to the house can go a long way toward preventing this problem.

      Second, it’s crucial that anyone with a flighted parrot teach that bird to fly to them when called. This is not difficult to do, if your parrot has good flight skills. In addition, the bird should spend time outdoors in a safe enclosure to become familiar with the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. When this has been the case, then the parrot is not likely to startle and fly far away. Mostly, they just fly up into a nearby tree to get their bearings. If they have been trained to fly down to the owner’s hand, they are usually recovered.

      There is always risk. Remember that these tips are intended only to give you some idea of how these issues can be handled. Please read the entire blog series before making any decisions. You might also want to consider doing a consultation. I often consult with owners to help them decide if a flighted parrot is the right choice for them and, if so, how to transition to that lifestyle safely and happily for all concerned.

      Best,

      Pam

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  3. I’ve been so looking forward to part two, and it does not disappoint! Wonderfully written, and in my mind a must read for anybody with a bird. Thank you for this!

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  4. I love the ideas you presented in the first post and the very words you wrote, “not every home can have a flighted parrot”. In addition, I really value your insights you provide about flight benefits in this piece. As usual, a work of art in your skills!!

    I’d also like to see addressed are those homes that cannot have “flight” for whatever reason. One thing we are learning more about over time which is utterly fantastic are the various qualities of life we can improve with our parrot management. Flying being one of them. In the same light, advocated flight as a must vs. working within the limitations of the bird, the home and the owner is equally valid and needed. There are instances of flight-incapable birds (broken wing, deformities, etc) to also address that I hope to see addressed as well.

    I disagree on one point only. That clipped parrots cannot live a life of happiness or fullness that compares to a flighted bird. I’ve met, seen and have worked behaviorally with many flighted birds that are remanded to a cage most of their life because people fear them attacking people OR fear their flying away. I’ve seen flighted parrots that are given a lot of great things, do great things, and I’ve seen clipped parrots that are given a lot of great things. The work of Noelle Fontaine with clipped macaws comes to mind. Her birds are in fantastic health, go outside daily for decades, never having lost one.

    I think we should also explore the real, energetic costs and requirements of wild parrot species and their flight use or non use vs. that of our in house flight parrots. Right now, we only see a signfiicant study on parrots that are clipped vs. flighted but don’t know or can extrapolate from Dr. Echols study how much flying are the flighted parrots doing vs. how much exercising vs. non exercising are the clipped parrots getting by contrast?

    Then ask, is flying outside required to maintain the maximum health of the parrot? How much flying is needed to reduce these bone density losses mentioned in the study? Say, for example, examining the physiological difference in O2 use with in home only flighted parrots vs outdoor flighted parrots. Then comparing and contrasting the use of “volunteer flight” in outdoor flighted vs. indoor flighted birds, both enclosed? If we refuse to look at these, we cannot conclude the difference in an active clipped parrot that fledged and an indoor flighted that flies little or desires to fly little.

    We also need to discuss and discover the physics of flight–wing to body ratio discussion. Why weights matter, how weight distribution changes flight pattern behavior. Why only certain birds migrate. Why most parrots do not. Then ask why they don’t? Only one species of parrot, the Swift Parrot, Migrates. From Tanzania to mainland Australia and back. There are parrots that opted not to fly ever again in ground parrots and the kakapo.

    Parrots that opt to climb and have developed expertise in this skill vs. other bird species. The only bird coming close being a woodpecker. Why did this bother to develop at all if flight is so critical and so needed as the means of locomotion? Is it the only means of locomotion? We know it’s not. That crows and parrots walk, climb as well as fly. Then ask how much walking and climbing is used?

    We know, like you said, to look at all of these things would take hundreds of pages and citations to determine. It’s through those hundreds of citations and things that I’ve discovered over the years, especially when taking comparative anatomy and physiology courses, why animals develop different survival strategies over time. Why, really, so few other mammal species, for example, bothered to develop flight.

    It could be and, according to comparative anatomy scientists, the reason they don’t fly is due to a very high energetic (metabollic) cost. According to what I’ve read, studied, etc, at UC Santa Cruz under Dr. Terrie Williams, PhD, physiologist, flying is the highest cost of locomoting. This is in contrast to running, swimming, or climbing (for those designed to do it). Which is why many opt not to do it. Or evolve it. Those that do have to drop ounces for the edge in surviving. Which is what we see today.

    Some of those edges we see naturally come in the form of waiting to attack prey until needing to attack. Learning to attack only prey you know you can get for raptors, for example. Perfecting the attack technique, or perish as many do in very high degree.

    Parrots have made advantages of flying less, by climbing and social flocking to help each other out. That way, no one bird has to do all the consuming all by themselves. They have a partner that can help out when needed. Continuously throughout their life. That helps reduce the total dependence on getting all for one with increased energy to do it. Climbing to reach target forage another way to keep fit, without needing to fly same with crows walking on the ground to forage bugs vs. always catching them mid air.

    Here in our homes, our parrots don’t really need to fly. Minus that they SHOULD fly for the very reasons you state in your piece. In the same light, I feel we can and should support those that don’t fly and find ways to give all the same benefits to those that don’t to live a long, and fulfilling life as those that do. I’ve met clipped parrots that are more healthy than flighted ones simply because they were fed a better diet. So, resting all or nothing solely on a parrots’ capacity to fly is not were we should focus overall welfare and ability to gain “happiness” with parrots.

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    1. Debra,

      Thanks very much for taking the time to provide such thoughtful comments. I have two thoughts for you.

      First, I believe that the “thinking” that we do as humans about flight in companions parrots and the opinions that result from that thinking quite naturally follow a path of growth and knowledge. This has certainly been the case with me, as I have indicated in this blog to date. However, I believe firmly that any thinking that incorporates ethics will eventually, after years of experience, lie 100% on the side of allowing flight – even to the point of asking that, if flight cannot be accommodated, “Should you really have a bird then?” It is unconscionable that we would take away mobility from a captive creature merely for our own convenience.

      I have read your opinions before and these have led me to believe that, in this continuum of thinking, you are quite a bit more pro-clipping than am I. That’s okay. We can agree to disagree.

      However, I would encourage you to choose your words carefully. You state: “Here in our homes, our parrots don’t really need to fly.” Really? I can’t imagine what would lead you to make such an assertion. My flighted parrots would disagree with you wholeheartedly. They certainly seem to believe that they need to fly – for exercise, to interact socially, to express themselves, to forage, to be themselves.

      Pam

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Mike. I don’t mind at all if others challenge my position. However, I ask that they do so with knowledge and information borne of experience. Someone who has never lived with flighted parrots is not qualified to challenge information about living that lifestyle.

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