In the minds of most people, watching a free flying bird of any species command the sky summons up feelings of freedom, independence, awe, and flights of fantasy (pun intended). When people are asked what special skill they would like to have, many answer… the ability to fly. Who wouldn’t? Swooping and soaring a sky that holds no boundaries or limits does offer ultimate freedom and control.
The Realities of Free Flight
I wish the reality of flying companion parrots outdoors replicated these romantic notions. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The open environment of the sky has many speed bumps and obstacles that flying birds must navigate. The list is as long and complicated as a peacock’s tail and includes things such as weather conditions, wind, predators, buildings, cars, hunters, and neighbors. Nevertheless, many parrot owners dream about offering their beloved companion the experience of flying the open sky.
There’s much to consider before offering a companion parrot outdoor flight or, as it is commonly called, free flight. Free flight, along with indoor flight, is a complicated and training-dense activity. Compared to indoor flight, free flying a parrot comes with an extra layer of consequences that can endanger the parrot’s life. With that in mind, let’s examine what I expect a competent free flight candidate to look like.
The Caretaker Trainer
The first element in determining whether a parrot is to be a successful flight candidate is not the parrot. Wait, what? In fact, it’s the parrot’s human partner that determines whether the bird fails or succeeds. A close look reveals the following facts:
- All flying bird species are excellent candidates for flight. Bird species meant to fly come equipped with the proper flight paraphernalia and mental acuity to do so.
- Captive parrots are also born with everything they need to successfully fly.
- Companion parrots are more often than not thwarted from learning to fly properly when humans clip the wings of fledglings or do not provide an environment conducive to learning all their flight skills.
- The training skills possessed by the average parrot caretaker typically do not reach the minimum requirements needed to produce a truly successful and safe free flyer.
It is the human component of the free flight equation that holds the key to a successful experience. It is essential that the parrot caretaker must be skilled in using positive reinforcement training. “But wait!” you say. “I’ve heard that if I hand raise a parrot, he will naturally bond to me and won’t want to fly away.” Sadly, this popular belief is fundamentally flawed.
Isn’t Our Bond Enough?
It’s true that by hand raising a parrot, a bond is normally created between caretaker and parrot. Unfortunately, some people believe this is all that is necessary for free flight and consequently, do little if any training. It’s like thinking your puppy will automatically come when called as an adult because she’s “bonded” to you. We all know that usually doesn’t happen.
Without a strong foundation of training, the bond that is created from hand rearing can and does break down as the parrot matures. Even if the bond does grows stronger, it won’t ensure the free flight parrot will be safe or competent in his flying.
The parrot must be taught the basic behaviors all parrots should learn. These include stepping up and down on cue, recalling, entering a carrier, and acceptance of husbandry procedures such as stepping voluntarily onto a scale to be weighed. Not only does this training help develop a confident bird, it goes hand in wing with creating a trusting working relationship between caretaker and parrot.
My intent is not to inform readers about how to train a parrot for free flight. I will, however, provide a short list of some of the factors that are involved.
Along with the behaviors mentioned above, the parrot must be taught to fly up from low places and down from high places while developing the physical strength to do so. He must be desensitized to the outdoors by becoming familiar and comfortable with his outside surroundings. He must be given the opportunity to fly in the wind, rain, heat and cold. He must respond to an outdoor recall cue from his caretaker. The list goes on and on.
The human partner to the free flying parrot must have a working knowledge of how to train with positive reinforcement, force-free techniques. Since the use of positive reinforcement and training in general are still not in daily practice by the majority of caregivers, it is likely that the “typical” parrot owner is not well-skilled in training, let alone training for free flight.
Because of this, I highly recommend that the caretaker seek the in-person coaching of an experienced parrot free flight trainer; someone who will guide and support the parrot owner through the process of training.
Online Courses vs. Direct Mentoring
There are trainers online who offer courses in free flight. They offer little more than an outline to follow. Even if they provide help by critiquing videos of their customers training their parrots, it’s just not the same as having an experienced mentor there by your side. Parrots and their people are individuals who have nuances, personality traits, and physical aspects that don’t translate fully via a video or even through discussion. The training mentor simply must be involved in person for the parrot owner to gain the knowledge that is needed to fly a parrot outdoors.
This brings up yet another factor in the making of a capable human flight partner – truly understanding the dangers involved in flying the parrot outdoors. This is another area in which having an experienced trainer by your side is essential.
And to this end, the trainer caretaker must examine whether she has the inner fortitude to accept that her parrot, no matter the proficiency of training, could be lost, injured, or killed at any time during flight. This understanding and acceptance are perhaps the most difficult things to acknowledge and internalize before undertaking the flight training of a parrot.
I am a realist when it comes to free flying parrots and after forty years of flying my cockatoos, I still, to this day, heave a sigh of relief when everyone is put away safely after flying. No matter how much we love our parrots and wish for them a life as close as possible to that of their wild relatives, launching them into the open sky unprepared or partially prepared is a recipe for disaster for both the parrot and her person. There is a steep learning curve for all involved.
So, please, if you are considering free flight for your bird, do a conscientious examination of your personal attributes, talents, deficiencies, personality, and your motives when it comes to wanting your bird to free fly. If you’re honest, the answers will influence whether you proceed with flying or not.
The Latest News!
We recently held a training workshop here at Cockatoo Downs. We invited Susan Friedman and Peggy Hogan to head the weekend and dispense their knowledge about training and behavior to an eager group of trainers. The enthusiasm from the people who attended was palpable and infectious.
Susan Friedman, PhD gave a fascinating presentation about the fact that control is a primary reinforcer, as important to the animal as food. As she stated, “Control is a biological necessity.” Any behavior offered moves the environment – much like a stone tossed into a river. It creates ripples; behavior does as well. All animals behave in order to control their outcomes – access reinforcers or avoid aversives. The reason that animals and birds love training so much is because they are offered the chance to control reinforcers through their behavior.
And, in fact, she stated her belief that a lack of control for a parrot is a risk factor for feather damaging behavior. “Control is the nucleus of behavioral health.” This is one reason that Pam and I lobby so strongly for allowing indoor flight whenever possible for companion parrots.
Susan contrasted training theory held as gospel 20 years ago to the new concepts some trainers are learning to embrace today. Two decades ago, trainers believed that all behavior needed to be under cue control. In other words, the animal should not offer a behavior unless a cue had been given.
A more modern training approach offers the animal more control, in the form of start buttons and request cues. Training is seen as a dialogue between the trainer and the parrot.
This information was kind of a mind blower for me and I’m still digesting the information she shared.
Peggy Hogan presented on start buttons, otherwise known as “yes” or “consent” signals. These allow the animal to communicate when it is ready to proceed with the training task or behavior. Peggy is a zealous campaigner for using start buttons in our training, as this gives the animal control and establishes a dialogue between learner and teacher. Powerful stuff!
Discussions carried on while attendees were coached in working with the cockatoos and equines. Ann Dahlen brought her adorable (is there any other kind?) mini horses and generously allowed people to work with them. Violet, my donkey who easily shows fear reactions, nonetheless sought out any human who was willing to partner up. She’s learned over the last two years of living here that people mean good things. She’s trying hard to be braver each day and it’s paying off.
Flash and Bebe, the Bare-eyed parents, participated in their own way. They have continued to “ask” to go out flying each morning. When I let them out to fly, I seized the opportunity to show off their chick to the training group. The parents accommodated by flying up and away and out of sight. As I brought the chick out of the box she dazzled everyone with her cuteness! In the photo she is 21 days old.
Once the parents were safely back in their aviary, it was easy to see that they were nonplussed by the ten or so people moving about during training sessions. Pam even went into the parents’ aviary at one point and Flash flew to his perch for a quick targeting session while Bebe manned, um, womanned, the nest box watching the action from the entrance hole.
It was a weekend not to be forgotten anytime soon and we were all grateful for the extraordinary learning opportunity we received from Peggy and Susan.
Just For Fun
The free flyers are enjoying time at the creek at Cockatoo Downs. It’s always fascinating to me to watch their interactions with the environment.
In this case, I was sitting on the footbridge while the cockatoos explored the creek. The creek offered an opportunity to practice what comes naturally to a wild cockatoo and that is finding and drinking water. In this video clip the cockatoos learn that drinking water is not always in a bowl. What a concept!
Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.
Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.