Part Five: Cooperative Living with Flighted Parrots

Often, when I talk about living with flighted parrots to someone who has always clipped wings, they get a look on their face that could be interpreted as a combination of horror, perplexity, and complete consternation.  You can tell that they can’t even begin to wrap their minds around what that might look like, or why one would want to.

Photo by Dana McDonald

I stopped clipping wings back in the late 1990’s. As I had gained more hands-on experience with birds, it just seemed to be a no-brainer that they should enjoy flight.  So, I made the decision with an abundance of enthusiasm and the confidence that, “I’ll just figure this out!”

I don’t actually recommend this approach to those of you considering transitioning from living with a wing-clipped parrot to living with a bird who flies. It’s much easier to have a bit of guidance from someone who has experience in this area. Thus, I offer this blog post to you, so that you can avoid some of the hassles that I had due to my own inexperience. 

Keys to Success

The ability to live cooperatively with flighted birds depends upon three main areas of management: (1) setting up the environment effectively, (2) training yourself to be continually mindful, and (3) learning how to efficiently provide behavioral guidance. You’re going to have to accept the fact that you’ll be doing some training to maintain compliance.

If you don’t, you will have an out-of-control experience with your bird and will wind up relegating him to his cage whenever you can’t directly supervise. One hallmark of quality of life is the ability to make choices. That is why a flighted bird is so lucky. His ability to move around is not compromised, so he can make a lot more choices.

If allowing flight means that your bird stays in his cage for longer periods, you have accomplished nothing for his quality of life. You might as well keep clipping wings so that he can at least be out of his cage more often.

Managing the Environment

I once adopted a baby grey to a family who were so committed to allowing flight that they had remodeled their entire home to realize this first goal of having the ideal environment. All doorways were turned into arches to eliminate molding. Kitchen cabinets extended all the way down to the floor. The refrigerator fit into a recess in the wall so that no bird could perch on top of it to chew the gasket. It was quite remarkable.

You don’t have to go to that extreme, of course, but a bit of work is needed to achieve the objective of flighted feathers and earth-bound humans living side by side in cooperative fashion.

Photo by Gloria Fantin

Birds want to perch up high and flighted parrots go where they want. They will perch on bookcases and chew the spines of the books. Many seem to have a particular fondness for lampshades.  They enjoy sitting on top of doors to chew the molding.

Therefore, you will need to provide your flighted bird with his own “furnishings,” in order to keep him off of your own. The ideal environment will have a perch in every room to which your parrot has access.  It is a bird’s nature to follow the flock and a flighted parrot will follow you from room to room.  Skillful placement of hanging perches, free-standing perches and table-top perches will help to guarantee that the experience is fun for all. At the end of this post, I have included a list of perches that I know from personal experience to be attractive to parrots.

Hanging perches are especially valuable.  While these may seem, at first glance, inconvenient to install and maintain, they will make life so much easier. Birds naturally seek the highest place to perch. By providing perches that hang from the ceiling, your bird will be more likely to choose those instead of your own furnishings. 

It is a parrot’s nature to chew where he is perched. Window ledges and the corners of walls will be at risk. Home improvement stores sell acrylic corners that can be easily screwed in place to protect these. Bannisters can be wrapped with sisal rope.

If there is enough space above your kitchen cabinets for a bird to perch, it will be best to place a piece of acrylic or wood on top that extends an inch or two past the cabinets to prevent chewing on the tops of the doors. The same suggestion would hold true for the top of your refrigerator. It’s huge fun to perch on the blades of ceiling fans and chew these. It’s best to purchase a fan inside a cage – they do exist.

Electrical cords can be a hazard and replacing appliances gets to be a real drag. These can be protected either by using cord channels or black pliable irrigation tubing slit down the center and placed around the wire.

If you allow your birds to perch on your shower rod and happen to have a shower curtain, placing a second rod above the one that holds the curtain will prevent the need to replace that regularly.

If your bird never fledged or has been clipped for a few years, he might not fly much or venture into other rooms at first, causing you to think that my suggestions are somewhat over-the-top.  However, as he builds his flight skills and gains confidence, he will eventually begin to explore your entire house and it will become his territory as well. 

Managing the Mess

It’s hard to say whether flighted birds create more mess than their clipped counterparts. Parrots are just messy – period! The answer probably depends upon where diets and enrichment items are offered and whether your bird likes to fly with his food and eat it in different locations. There are some actions you can take to minimize the mess.

Photo by Kris Porter

Locate hanging perches directly over cages or play stands. If that’s not possible, use area rugs. Purchase two sets. I like the ones that have non-slip backing and can be washed and dried. I haven’t yet tried the Ruggable brand, but they look ideal for this purpose and look a little classier. When you need to wash the rugs currently under your perches, simply lay down your second set. 

If there is a tight spot that tends to collect droppings because you can’t get a rug to fit, Glad Press and Seal is invaluable. Having a light adhesive backing, it can be applied directly to a clean (uncarpeted) floor and then replaced when needed. For smaller messes, keeping a good quantity of small cleaning cloths and a spray bottle filled with cleaning agent is a good strategy for quick clean-ups.

Probably the best way to deal with mess is to contain it to certain areas. This will involve encouraging your bird to stay on the perches you have provided, which is covered in the section on Managing their Behavior.

Managing Ourselves

A friend once made me laugh by commenting that the only people who could use the remote controls in her house were the ones with long fingernails. We’ve all lost a remote control or three, depending upon how quickly we learn and how distracted we tend to be. We count ourselves lucky if they only take the buttons.

Parrots love electronics. Even the best among us have experienced a sneak attack on these valuables. Dr. Susan Friedman in a presentation once used a photograph of what her computer keyboard looked like after her Umbrella Cockatoo had quietly let himself out of his cage in the early hours of the morning. Of course, a clipped parrot could manage the same, but those who fly have increased access.

We have to learn to remember to cover computers with towels, put remotes away in a cupboard, keep certain doors closed, and not leave anything out in plain sight that might be attractive for chewing. This is essentially an exercise in mindfulness and the ability to anticipate problems.

We must think ahead when making purchases. For example, you might decide not to replace your old, worn furniture with a set of rattan. You get the idea. This is probably going to have to be a learn by doing experience. Be assured, the fun of living with a flighted spirit makes it worthwhile.

Managing Their Behavior

Life with parrots is always easier when we accept the fact that we must actively steer their behavior into desirable channels. When you live with birds who fly, getting into the mindset of living as a trainer is essential.

If you don’t, your experience may very well get out of control. Parrots constantly offer behavior, as all animals do. This is especially true of birds who fly. The more active a bird can be, the more behavior he can offer, and the more opportunities he has to act on the environment. Some of this behavior, you won’t like.

If you don’t step up and teach him what you want him TO DO, you will wind up behaving toward him in a very aversive manner – chasing him off locations where you don’t want him to be, acting like a crazy person when you find that he’s destroyed your containers of expensive make-up, and using force to get him back into his cage. Besides being incredibly uncool, this type of behavior will break all trust and make having a parrot no fun at all.

Thus, you’ve got to teach the behaviors that will allow him to be successful and for you to have control over your experience. I will describe these briefly; information on how to teach most of these is available in abundance online.

Five Essential Behaviors to Teach and Maintain

Step-Up:   The majority of birds who have been deemed good candidates for flight already step up, at least some of the time.  Likely, you will just need to maintain compliance by making sure to always reinforce this with a preferred food or head scratch.  A valuable practice: Ask your bird a few times a day to step up, provide a reward, and then put him right back down again.  This is good advice for any parrot.

Step-Off:  Birds who are strongly bonded to you may have a more difficult time with this one. If so, choose a reinforcer of high value to the parrot and show it to him when giving the cue, at least in the beginning.  Reinforce every time you cue this behavior with a high value treat.

Stationing:   Teaching your parrot to primarily use his own “furniture” is an essential practice. Three important benefits derive from this:

  • It keeps him off of your shoulder, which avoids the formation of a pair bond and fosters his continuing independence.
  • It helps to prevent damage to household items.
  • It prevents cavity seeking behavior.  

Instructions for stationing can be found on my website.

The Drop: You will thank yourself a millions times over if you teach your parrot to drop an item on cue. It saves a lot of money in replacing pens and will keep him safe if he ever picks up anything dangerous.

Offer him an item to take with his beak, such as a poker chip or whiffle ball.  Once he takes it, show him a food treat or something else he might want more and ask him to “Drop.” Once he has, give him the other them. Practice this often with a variety of things, gradually working up to those that are more valuable to him.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

The Recall: Teaching your bird to come when called is a must.  Having a rock-solid recall is essential to a happy relationship and drastically increases your chances of getting him back if he is lost. This can be taught a couple of different ways.  My favorite: If he has a habit of flying to your shoulder, turn when you hear him coming and say “Fly here”  while holding up your hand so that he lands there. Reward him with a treat.  As he learns that “Fly here” means to come and land on your hand, you can begin to cue him from a variety of different locations. 

Following these simple suggestions will go a long way toward ensuring that you establish a happy and cooperative existence with your parrot.

One final suggestion:  If you have never lived with a flighted parrot or currently have challenges with your bird who flies, please either call me for a consultation or get help from another qualified mentor. As Dr. Patricia McConnell once wrote about dog training: “You wouldn’t try to learn basketball just by reading a book, so if you need to play the game, do what any parent would do for their child, and find a good, knowledgeable coach.”

Resources for Perches

*Sneak Preview*

My friend, Chris Shank, and I often discuss parrots and their welfare. We share some serious concerns about both how baby parrots are hand-raised in captivity and the recent insistence among free-flight enthusiasts that candidates must be hand-reared and encouraged to develop a bond of dependence in order to be successful.

Chris has free flown her cockatoos for over 30 years and is an expert on the subject. Several years ago, two Bare-eyed Cockatoos were raised here by their parents and became successful free fliers through positive reinforcement training.

This spring, two parent-raised Bare-eyed Cockatoos have gone to nest and are currently sitting on eggs. Therefore, their offspring will be second-generation parent-reared birds and will become free flyers themselves. Chris will be revealing her experiences here as a guest blogger so that you all can share in this fascinating and exciting experience. We hope to show that hand-rearing is not necessary to have a trusting relationship with a young parrot and that a young parrot raised to be independent can succeed at free flight.

Please note that neither Chris nor I advocate free flight for the average owner, especially the flight of a single parrot.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots by offering behavior consultations and publishing information you can trust. 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!

Part Four: To Clip or Not to Clip?

The previous three episodes of this blog examined all of the reasons why allowing flight must be thoroughly considered before any decision to clip wings is made – in each and every case. Flight is the very best choice for physical and psychological health for the parrot and offers many benefits to the caregiver as well.

Courtesy of Siljan Nicholaisen

In a perfect world, all baby parrots would be parent-raised, fully fledged, and never have their wings clipped. In a perfect world, no one would adopt a parrot unless they could keep the bird fully flighted. However, this is not a perfect world.

The complicated lives of the complicated people who live with complicated parrots can make this decision a challenging one for those who have embraced wing clipping in the past. In addition to that, not every adult parrot is a good candidate for flight. This blog will take a look at how one goes about deciding this crucial question: “Is allowing flight the right choice for me and my parrot?”

It’s a Study of One

Careful consideration must be given to all aspects and all projected consequences of each option.  Many questions must be asked and answered about the home environment, the family, and the parrot. When owners take the time to do a thorough analysis, the choice then can be made with confidence. 

If we decide to clip those flight feathers, we may regret the need, but we will rest confidently in the knowledge that the choice is the right one, because the other has been thoroughly researched and found impossible.  If we decide to allow flight, our commitment to this will be complete and this will serve us well as prepare to live with a bird who flies.

Each parrot and his environment are a study of one.

Assessing the Environment

Not every home can safely accommodate a fully flighted parrot. Future episodes of this blog will deliver specific recommendations for how to live safely and successfully with birds who fly. Today, we will merely take a look at some of the considerations necessary to making a decision.

Can you secure your home by arranging your entrances and exits in such a way that the parrot cannot be lost if he chooses to fly to you?  Companion parrots will rarely fly out an open door without reason. They are typically afraid of the unfamiliar and will not consciously make a decision to leave the familiarity of the home for the strangeness of the outdoors.

They are most frequently lost when they try to join us as we leave or enter the home. Especially at risk are parrots who have gotten used to hanging out on shoulders. When we open a door to either enter or exit the home, a flighted parrot will often try to join us. Hitting the shoulder at the same moment that we open the door often provides that perfect instant of startle when they instead fly off out the door. Having a double-entry system will prevent this.

Family Members and Visitors

Are all family members reliable, in terms of keeping doors shut and remaining mindful about the use of ceiling fans and other hazards? If you have several small children around, the danger of loss could increase if doors are constantly being left open. Yours may be 100% reliable, while their friends may not. Living with parrots might need to wait until they are older.

It doesn’t do a bird much good to be flighted if he spends the majority of each day in his cage for safety’s sake.

Even adult visitors will need monitoring. One African grey loved to fly in a circuit around the living area. There was a sliding glass door between two of the rooms that was always left open…until a well-meaning visitor closed it and a tragedy occurred. Dangers must be anticipated and prevented, which requires constant mindfulness.

An Outdoor Aviary?

Photo courtesy of Nyla Copp

Is there room for an outdoor aviary or screened-in porch and are you willing to go to the expense and inconvenience of providing such a safe space out-of-doors? Aside from the fact that parrots need exposure to real sunlight for health, a flighted parrot will be safest if he is exposed regularly to the sights and sounds of your neighborhood. In the event of loss, this familiarity can keep him from startling and flying too far away for recovery.

Other Pets

Are there other animals in the home who might pose a danger? Most cats are not much of a risk to medium- to large-sized parrots, but will absolutely be attracted to the manner in which small birds fly.

Dogs with a prey drive may well leap up to catch a flighted parrot, but leave a perched bird alone. Dogs (and possibly some cats) can be trained a “leave it” cue, but this would require a good degree of training skill and persistent effort on your part.

Occasionally one parrot will develop aggressive behavior toward another. Training can resolve this situation as well, but in rare cases it could be best for everyone’s safety to perform a partial clip until such training is well under way. It is not typically necessary to perform a full wing clip to solve this problem temporarily. Removing about 1.5 inches of length from the first two or three leading primary flight feathers makes it more difficult to fly, which generally leads to a drastic reduction in such aggressive behavior.

Assessing Ourselves

As much as we might like to think that we are good candidates for living with a flighted parrot, not all of us are.  We must honestly assess ourselves, as well.

Am I interested in training my bird and am I willing to devote the time to learn how? As I stated in my last blog post about the benefits of flight to caregivers, clipping wings and training are too sides of the same coin. (In reality of course, clipped birds need training too.) While clipping wings may accomplish a measure of compliance, you have no such advantage with a flighted companion. Reinforcing cued behaviors to maintain compliance and teaching a recall behavior are essential.

Training birds is fun, results in better relationships, and doesn’t take more than a few minutes each day. But, if you are unfamiliar with effective training strategies, this will require study, planning and preparation. If you feel that your life is out of control and you lose your keys once a week, it might not be the right time to live with birds who fly.

An Inconvenient Truth

Are you willing to tolerate some damage to household items? This should be minimal if you set up the house correctly and work on behavioral management. However, it will still happen.

Parrots often change their behavior as they get older and we will at times be absent-minded. How many remote controls are you willing to replace? Is it important enough to you to allow your bird flight to put up with the occasional need to repair woodwork or replace closet doors (as a real-life example)?

Parrot Perches

Photo courtesy of David Hull

Parrots need their own “furniture.” For flighted birds, this is essential. Since they can go where they want, they will use yours if they don’t have their own. To me, there is no greater frustration than watching a parrot perch on a bookcase and chew the spines of my beloved books.

Setting up an appropriate environment for flighted birds will remove your home a few steps from Martha Stewart standards. Can you make peace with this?

Assessing the Parrot

Not every adult parrot is a good candidate for flight. 

First, any decision to clip wings should never be made for the purpose of correcting behavior problems. It was common, when I was working as a veterinary technician, for a client to come in stating that she wanted her birds wings clipped because he was becoming “uppity.”

In other words, the owner wanted the clip for the purpose of making the parrot feel less safe so that he would be more compliant. This is not ethical. “Uppity behavior,” and any other problems, can be addressed through training – using positive reinforcement effectively, coupled with thoughtful arrangement of the environment. If you have a behavior problem, please call me for a consultation before you think about clipping wings.

Fully Flighted = Excellent Skills

In regards to the parrot himself, any decision to clip should be based upon safety considerations. Many older parrots will not learn to fly even if you allow their flight feathers to grow out. This creates a dangerous situation.

A bird with flight capability, but who lacks flight skills, is at greater risk of both physical injury and permanent loss than the parrot who practices flying regularly. Most of the accidents and injuries that are touted as reasons for clipping have occurred because of limited or nonexistent skills.

It is also too easy to imagine that the bird who doesn’t fly… can’t or won’t fly. These birds are regularly lost when owners take them outside on shoulders or perches, imagining that they will never fly off. All it takes is a startle, generating a spurt of adrenaline, a bit of breeze, and that bird is gone. Sadly then, he is often lost for good since he doesn’t have the skills to keep himself safe and then fly back.

If you are going to allow your parrot to keep his flight feathers, it is crucial that he uses them to fly as his primary means of getting around. Only in this way will he develop the skills he needs. Fully flighted parrots must develop stamina, the ability to maneuver in tight places, and to fly upward and downward at steep inclines. This will make their recovery more certain if they are ever lost outside.

Evaluating Candidates

Great candidates for the recovery of flight are those young parrots who were fledged well by the breeder, but then had their wings clipped before adoption. Typically, once they molt for the first time they regain flight easily. Unfortunately these days in the United States, breeders who fledge babies are rare.

Young parrots who never fledged, but who are allowed to retain flight feathers after the first molt, often also learn to fly well. That instinct to fly usually remains for at least a year after clipping. These individuals may need a little encouragement, but can still become great flyers.

Evaluating older parrots for flight can be difficult. I remember one conversation I had with Barbara Heidenreich and Chris Shank on this topic. We agreed that a heavy-bodied bird who had been clipped for eight years or longer is not likely to regain flight and would be a poor candidate. Exceptions exist, however.

Parrots with long tails (cockatiels, conures, macaws, etc) are often described as “light-bodied.” These individuals may be more likely to regain flight, even after a few years of clipping. Parrots with short tails (Amazons, caiques, African greys, etc) are termed “heavy-bodied” and often have a harder time learning to fly later.

For these birds, initial attempts at flight are not reinforcing. Flying is too hard and they frequently decide that it is not worth the effort, especially if they have been clipped for long enough that they have lost that urge to change location frequently that is a hallmark of the parrot spirit.

Small cockatoos do frequently regain flight, even after an extended period of clipped wings. Their dynamic, sprightly personalities seem to provide them with more drive for frequent activity. In addition, they tend to have wider wing spans in relation to their body size than other species do, which makes those early attempts less punishing.

Get a Mentor to Ensure Success

I strongly encourage you to engage the services of a mentor if you do decide to allow your clipped parrot to regain flight. It can be invaluable to speak with an experienced advocate who will evaluate your home for dangers, help you set up the correct environment, and provide you with the training knowledge you need.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

I’ve never yet talked to anyone who regretted the decision to allow flight. It’s an emotional experience that words struggle to convey. The rewards so far outweigh the inconvenience. It’s akin to touching the wildish heart of the natural world.

Please stay tuned for the next episode of this series, which will provide information on living successfully with flighted birds, including setting up your home and the necessary training.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots by offering behavior consultations and publishing information you can trust. 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!

Part Three: The Benefits to Us

I have never read any discussion about living with flighted parrots in which the word “inconvenience” didn’t appear. It’s true. Living with flying birds can be inconvenient, in addition to messy, challenging, and chaotic.

Despite this reality, I would never go back to clipping wings. Most others who have adopted the lifestyle agree. They can’t imagine a scenario that would cause them to clip wings again.

Living with birds who fly is an experience so special …so remarkable …that no amount of inconvenience, chaos or mess will press you to give it up. My last blog episode examined the advantages to the birds of enjoying indoor flight. In this post, I will focus on all of the many advantages to us.

Why I Do It

I initially stopped clipping wings because I thought it was the right thing to do. Preventing their freedom of movement no longer seemed an ethical option. Never, however, could I have imagined the gifts that would accrue to me personally of making this change. I can enumerate them as follows:

  • Greater sensitivity to and skill at reading body language
  • Greater awareness of my surroundings and my animals
  • Knowledge of how behavior works and improved skills at teaching and motivating
  • Deeper commitment to being responsible for the safety of my flock
  • Parrots with no behavior problems
  • The ability to recognize illness earlier
  • The ability to identify discord between individuals earlier
  • A deep sense of pride at how I provide for my birds
  • A deeper, more trusting, relationship with my birds
  • A great deal more fun!

Reading Body Language

We generally gain knowledge on an “as needed” basis – to meet our lowest level of intellectual demand. If our parrots do less because they can’t easily move around, we have less need to develop greater sensitivity. Oh, we usually (but not always) learn how to avoid being bitten. And, if we have a fearful parrot, we may learn which environmental factors scare them and how to avoid those.  We learn to respond to very overt body language.

However, the potential for problems of all types increases when you live with multiple flighted parrots. To avoid conflicts and accidents, as well as to maintain trust and compliance, it’s necessary to become exceptionally more sensitive to and skilled at reading body language.

Bird who enjoy frequent movement are constantly giving us feedback about ourselves. This creates for us greater sensitivity in regards to how our movements affect them. Move too quickly, or use a scary gesture, and they fly away. When we live with clipped birds, this type of subtle feedback is absent. Living with those who can fly makes us more sensitive and considerate caregivers.

Greater Awareness of My Surroundings

Living with flighted birds comes with risks. Managing these risks successfully requires that we cultivate and maintain a greater awareness of our surroundings and our birds from moment to moment. This is simply a skill that develops over time.

Risk management is only one advantage from becoming more aware, however. The real gift is one of living more harmoniously with my flock. I will never forget the reverberation in my heart when I heard Barbara Heidenreich say, “If an animal is aware of you, you must be aware of your animal.”

My birds are infinitely aware of and sensitive to my movements. Thus, because I feel the truth of Barbara’s advice, I have required of myself that I learned to match their awareness with my own. This has created a much deeper connection to them that I struggle to describe.

Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills

Way back when, I taught stepping up through laddering. Because someone said I should. I got a reluctant parrot to step up by scaring him with a washcloth held close by. Because someone said I should. I kept a parrot on my hand by putting pressure on his toes. Because someone said I should.

I only got away with these strategies because at that time, I was also clipping wings and had pretty polite parrots who were willing to go along with my foolishness. Those types of interactions are aversive to parrots and rely on an attitude of force and command.

When you live with birds who fly, the use of force is completely off the table. They simply fly off if they don’t like what’s happening. If you respond to the behavior challenges that occur with a lack of skill, you can quickly lose all control over them. Your only option is to learn the principles that govern how behavior “works” and to use positive reinforcement skillfully in order to get the behavior that you want.

As my friend Leslie Mapes describes her experience:  “Giving my bird the ability to fly means that he is able to act on his environment and go where he wants to and connect with me (or not) when he wants to. His ability to move around on his own also makes me a better caregiver. I wouldn’t have it any other way for this very smart, very gifted flyer of a bird!”

Living Responsibly

Discussions about indoor flight are replete with cautions about the risks. They can land on hot stoves or fly out the door. They can drown in toilets. They can eat toxic houseplants, or fly into ceiling fans. Some of these presumed risks are very real; others are more imagined.

These risks can be handled successfully through skillful management of the environment, coupled with training. Nevertheless, living with birds who fly requires us to become and remain more watchful and responsible. We learn to automatically think ahead to anticipate potential problems and invent solutions before they arise. Rather than relying on the assumption that clipped wings will keep my birds safe, I must accept the responsibility for ensuring their physical safety.

I like how reader Rachel Crooks expressed it: “I think it’s my responsibility as an owner of a flighted creature to maintain an environment where they are safe to fly, rather than trying to adapt the bird to my environment.”

Absence of Behavior Problems

The majority of behavior problems are caused in part by inadequate environmental provisions – not enough choices, learning opportunities, foraging or freedom. A parrot who cannot move around at will is at greater risk for developing behavior problems.

This doesn’t mean that flighted parrots can’t also develop problems. They do. They can be loud. They can be aggressive. They can chew off feathers. However, the incidence of problems is much less among flighted birds.

My birds don’t need to scream for attention. If they need it, they fly to my proximity and indicate this in a quieter manner. They don’t need to bite; they simply fly away if I make a misstep. None of them destroy their feathers. The flying they do encourages normal preening and they are so busy, they aren’t prone to resorting to feather destruction for entertainment.

Recognizing Illness

We all know it – birds tend to hide signs of illness until they are so sick they can no longer do so. Even seriously ill parrots behave normally at times. This leads to their early loss too frequently – we just didn’t realize that something was wrong until it was too late.

Flying takes a lot of energy. If a parrot flies frequently as part of its daily behavior repertoire, an observed decrease in this activity is likely to signify the presence of  a problem. Clipped parrots often display lower levels of interaction with the environment, making it more difficult to identify behavioral signs of illness.

Thus, flight ability acts as an “early warning system.” If a bird begins to fly less, even if he appears normal in all other ways, I am going to get him to the vet without delay.

Recognizing Discord

Parrots have dynamic personalities. They don’t always get along. Some never do, while others can change their relationship dynamics over time. Those who used to be friendly can begin to have issues.

Differences in the expression of body language, along with issues of perceived territory, can cause some pretty consequential discord. Serious injuries and expensive veterinary bills can result.

Since parrots use flight to express themselves, in addition to moving around, peersonality problems become evident quickly. If I see one bird beginning to spend more time in the bedroom, away from the others, I know to look deeper into this behavior change. The likelihood is that someone is harassing her, at least on a subtle level. If I see any chasing happen, I know I’ve got a serious problem to solve.

Those who clip wings don’t have this advantage. Often problems between parrot personalities aren’t recognized until it’s too late.

A Sense of Pride

I believe that most of us feel guilt, on some level and at least some of the time, about keeping parrots at all. It was a blatantly stupid, arrogant, idea to take a creature who can fly, remove that ability, and confine it in a cage for human enjoyment. Those of us who choose to live with birds in our homes now carry the burden of this misuse of power deep in our souls, despite our distance from the original sin.

I contend that this quietly simmering unease causes us to make some really questionable decisions regarding our parrots. We want to make them happy, so feed them things they shouldn’t have, focus on the provision of physical affection, and allow them to hang out in closets for hours at a time. We give them what they want, rather than what they need.

I can’t forget that my birds didn’t evolve to live within four walls. But, by providing for flight, lots of freedom, and time outdoors, I can feel good about the quality of life that they enjoy at my hands. They can’t have it all, But they have enough to enjoy life to the fullest.

As behavior consultant Greg Glendell writes, “Is it a basic tenet of good animal husbandry that all creatures in captivity should be given the opportunity to carry out as many of their natural daily activities in captivity as they would in the wild.”

Relationships of Trust

This one is simple. Training always creates more trust. Clipping wings and training are two sides of the same coin. You either clip or you train. If you live with parrots who possess good flight skills, you don’t have any choice. You must provide training on a daily basis.

This ongoing behavioral guidance creates deep levels of trust in my relationships with my birds. Every interaction that I have with them involves choice for them. They don’t have to step up unless they want to. They don’t have to go back into their cages unless they want to. They don’t have to go outdoors unless they want to. But, they do want to because I have learned to be a good trainer and I know how to motivate them.

A Joyful Lifestyle

Parrots use flight for reasons other than moving around. They also use flight to express themselves. One might suddenly take it into his head to fly in circles, screaming happily. I get to share in that exhilaration.

One might fly to a perch and then flip upside down in silliness. I get to laugh. One might ace an especially complicated landing. I get to admire. I might find one in a completely unexpected place. I get to be surprised.

Birds who fly are simply more fun to be around. They reveal their unique personalities in a manner that sedentary birds cannot.

As reader Rachel Crooks describes, “As her flight feathers have come in over the past year, I have seen a huge growth in her confidence and independence. I love that she is able to explore and find new ways through flight to entertain and stimulate that little brain of hers! Part of her daily routine is to zoom around my apartment for 10 or 15 minutes purely for fun. My experience with her has taught me that flight isn’t a purely functional behaviour – it’s used as a way to communicate, to play, and to explore. I feel lucky to be able to experience this alongside my bird!”

My birds are also less dependent, which pleases me. They don’t need me for entertainment. They can go where they want and do what they want in an environment that provides them with plenty of opportunities.

In Summary

I will leave you with the words of reader Paula Hobson: “I have mixed feelings about keeping companion animals.  On the one hand, I feel most peaceful and happy in the company of my 2 dogs, 2 parrots, and 2 parakeets.  Their beauty, affection, curiosity, attention, and the fact that they are always exactly who they are in the moment helps ground me and keep me sane.  That they aren’t human keeps me alert and curious about what the world is like with their particular senses, abilities, and unique thought processes.  On the other hand, they live mostly indoors, will never mate and raise young, interact naturally with their own kind, or make use of their considerable intelligence and resourcefulness to survive in their natural habitats.  In recognition of their great (involuntary) sacrifice, I try to provide the best diet, environment, and fun/challenge for them.  This includes as much freedom as you can have in a modest 3-bedroom ranch home.  They are out of their cages unless I have visitors or need to have the door open for any length of time.  They have play areas on their cages, java tree, toy tree, parrot stand, and refrigerator top.  They fly to the bathroom when I shower, and to my bedroom when I dress.  Just seeing their grace and beauty during flight lifts my heart, every time.  The physiology of flight, from unique skeleton and respiratory system, and the visual processing of the brain for flight and landing, are integral to the birds’ being.  To cripple them by clipping the wings and forcing them to walk everywhere would so severely limit their experience and freedom that I do not think I could justify it to myself.  Imagine being kidnapped by an alien and having your hamstrings cut so you could only get around in a wheelchair.  For your own safety.  How would this affect your quality of life?  Your mood?  I believe all living beings have pleasure moving in their healthy bodies and in having freedom.  If it increases some risks to the birds, I choose that over depriving them of flight.”

Now that we have examined all of the many benefits of flight, I will in my next episode, get down to the business of discussing how to make this difficult decision. Is my house a suitable one for having birds who fly? Is having flighted birds right for me? Is my bird a good candidate for flight? See you then!

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots, by offering behavior and husbandry consultations and publishing information you can trust. 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

McKendry, Jim. Publication date unknown. Wing Clipping vs. Flighted Companion Parrots. World Parrot Trust: Ask an Expert. https://www.parrots.org/ask-an-expert/wing-clipping-vs-flighted-companion-parrots. Accessed 03/29/2019. Accessed 03/30/2019

Sarah and Three Birds and A Cloud. 2012. https://threebirdsandacloud.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/life-with-flighted-parrots. Accessed 04/08/2019.  

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.

 

Part One: Parrots, Flight, and Humans

The conversation about companion parrots and flight has been ongoing for over two decades now, the hallmarks of which have been radical bias and lack of information. In short, the discussion has been acutely dysfunctional and has done little to move forward in any significant way quality of life for the majority of parrots.  Choices about whether to allow a companion parrot to fly in the home are still most often based upon opinion and/or fear.

While I see evidence these days of greater open-mindedness towards the allowance of flight for parrots in the home, a wide-spread lack of information and understanding about flight persists and must be corrected. We must all set aside personal biases, with the recognition of two dichotomous facts: (1) flight is a parrot’s birthright, and (2) flight is not possible for all companion parrots in all homes.

Between these two extremes, there is much to discover and discuss. Flight is such a complex system of behaviors, both physical and mental, that I might spend two years writing about it before I felt that the subject had been sufficiently covered. That’s not practical of course, but I will need to divide this topic into a number of posts. This one will serve as an introduction to the discussion.

I do not believe that we can, nor should, attempt to discuss flight for our own parrots until we obtain some perspective about the real nature of flight for birds.

Birds and Flight

Birds are currently the only living creatures with feathers and most species have evolved to use those feathers as their primary means of getting from place to place. Given that fact, even those readers without familiarity with parrots might assume that feathers and flight would be of critical, primary importance to the life experience of any bird. 

In The Lives of Birds, Lester L. Short remarks, “…everything about a bird’s physical structure, and indeed much of its physiology, is affected to some degree by the constraints of flight.”  We could take Mr. Short’s observations one step further to rightly state that everything about a bird is affected by its need and ability to fly, including its emotional make-up.  A bird is flight, and to ignore this in our parrot keeping practices is to do them an injustice.

Feathers and Function

Feathers come in several different forms.  Smooth ones cover the body, fluffy ones provide warmth and insulation, and long, stiff feathers provide support for flight. An average-sized bird has several thousand feathers, which grow in feather tracts, with patches of bare skin in between.  The flight feathers have a central, spongy shaft, making the feather lighter and more flexible for flight.

Barbs extend outward, slanting diagonally from either side of the feather shaft. You can easily pull these barbs apart, then by pressing above and below the separation, zip them together again, the same way the bird does while preening.  From each side of the barb grow hundreds of barbules that overlap each other. Minute hooks on the barbules lock the branches together.  The “construction” of even a single feather is exquisitely complex. 

Feathers have many advantages.  They are light and are replaced regularly when worn or lost.  Each feather is individually attached to a muscle, which allows for greater maneuverability. (Poole, R. 1983) Feathers enable birds to fly thousands of miles a year, to fly at speeds of 100 miles an hour, to hover and fly backwards, and to fly for days at a stretch without stopping.

Other Accommodations

The bird’s skeleton has evolved in such a way as to keep flying weight to a minimum.   The skull of most birds is paper thin.  Many have hollow bones, which are filled with air sacs for increased buoyancy.  A frigate bird, whose wing span is seven feet wide, has a skeleton that weighs only four ounces, less than the weight of its feathers. (Poole, R. 1983)

Internal organs have evolved in such a way as to make flight easier as well.  The heart has become enlarged to include four chambers in most birds, in order to be able to remove impurities from the blood more quickly. 

In the respiratory system, air is pumped through a system of air sacs that branch off the lungs to occupy much of the bird’s body.  In some species, this system of air sacs extends even down into the legs.  In fact, in 1758, an English surgeon showed that a bird could still breathe if you completely blocked his windpipe, but made a small hole from the outside into a wing or leg bone. (Page, J. 1989)

The fusion of various bones in the skeleton has also resulted in decreased overall weight, and in some cases more flexibility.  The bones of the clavicles have fused into the “wishbone” or furcula.  Scientists have been able to view, with high-speed x-ray movies, the flight of a starling in a wind tunnel.  They observed that the furcula opens and closes with each wing beat, acting as a sort of spring or bellows.  This appears to assist the bird in breathing, pumping air throughout the respiratory system. (Page, J. 1989)

Flight and Migration

One of the most important functions of flight is that of migration.

Even tropical birds, who are not subjected to the extremes of weather, move with the seasonal rains and droughts, often across hundreds of miles. Certain examples of migratory flight almost defy belief.  Some shorebirds fly non-stop from South America to the coast of New Jersey.  This flight takes ten days to complete, a total of 240 hours of uninterrupted flight.  The motivating force behind migration is about finding food, rather than avoiding severe temperatures.  In reporting the migratory efforts of the short-tailed shearwater, a bird that covers over 18,000 miles in a single year, Weidensaul comments, “Migrations like this leave us staggered; we are such stodgy, rooted creatures.  To think of crossing thousands of miles under our own power is as incomprehensible as jumping to the moon.  Yet even the tiniest of birds perform such miracles.”

Flight Skills

During flight, a number of flight skills are demonstrated.  The bird must be able to gain lift.  Three factors affect lift:  the surface area of the wing, the wind speed, and the angle at which the wing is held.

Gliding is another important skill for a flying bird.  A bird will stop beating its wings, and thus begin to glide.  This results in a loss of speed, which enables the bird to land.  Gliding and hovering are necessary to landing. Powered flight requires more energy, and is achieved when the pectoral muscles drive the wing downwards. Birds must also be able to steer themselves once in the air.  They can do this solely through the use of the wings. This is achieved by altering the angle or shape of one wing. 

Flight and Humans

Aside from the importance it has to birds, flight has carried significance for humans since time began.  As Jack Page and Eugene Morton write in Lords of the Air, “We humans appear always to have been on the lookout for ways to understand ourselves and our world, and for most of our tenure here, we have rarely looked at any bird – say, a crow – and simply seen a crow….  In the first place, crows and most other birds fly, and flight has meaning. 

The crow is black, and black means something.  Feathers mean something, as do the eggs from which the crow is born.  For most people throughout time, these meanings have been as real as the bird itself, and perhaps more so, since the meanings were taken to be universal and eternal.  Flight means space, light, thought, imagination.”

Among the early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, the bird came to signify the human soul.  In ancient Egypt, the feather was one of the hieroglyphic elements that spelled such words as lightness and height. Wings have been seen as analogous to spirituality.  To the Greeks, they also signified love and victory.

While these are only a few of the fascinating facts related to bird flight, they underscore two major points.  First, every physical feature of the bird has evolved to facilitate flight.  Second, much of our fascination with birds is because they can fly.

A Subjective View of Feathers and Flight

I bred African Grey parrots for many years, back at a time when wing clipping was done by rote. Thanks to mentor Phoebe Linden, however, I understood the importance of the fledging experience. In the earliest years, babies enjoyed flight for two weeks before gradual wing clipping.

As I observed the astonishing gains to them from this experience, I made sure that they flew for three to four weeks before their clip. I was witness at this point to how young parrots use flight to reach important developmental milestones. After fledging, they first work on developing flight skills – landing safely, calculating the power of flight necessary to cover a particular distance, hovering, and more.

Once able to fly with skill, they then began to use this newfound ability to explore their environment. Finally, in their fifth and sixth week of flight, they turned their attention to the use of flight to communicate with each other and to build social relationships with each other and with me.

At this point, I made a discovery that completely changed my breeding practices and thinking about the importance of flight to a companion parrot. When I performed a slight wing clip on babies who had flown for a period of six weeks, I saw that this had a devastating impact on them. Flight had truly become who they were, and I had taken that away from them.

I had perpetrated a crime in my own ignorance and because, like so many, I had accepted without question the oft-repeated advice that companion parrots should have their wings clipped. Never again. From that point on, I quit clipping babies entirely, sending them to new homes fully flighted and trained to recall on cue.

We Destroy What We Value

Documentation of much of our own human behavior over millennia reveals how much we value birds and their ability to fly. Yet, we have been emotionally comfortable removing this remarkable ability from those in our care.

How do we reconcile this? Frankly, I don’t know. While the ability to fly has enchanted us on one level, we have been quick to prevent it on another.

Perhaps it’s our unquestioned conviction that we always know what’s best for animals in our care. Perhaps it stems from a need to have an experience with birds in our homes that is predictable and controlled. Perhaps it has been a too-easy acceptance of what others have pronounced to be true.

Myths about Flight in the Home

How often have you heard that we must clip our parrots’ wings to keep them safe? To protect them  from flying into windows or onto the hot stove? To keep them from drowning in toilets? Some veterinarians still espouse this advice by rote.

In truth, parrots are learners. If they can learn to keep themselves safe in the wild, they can (and do) learn to keep themselves safe in our homes. True, accidents can happen. However, accidents happen all the time to parrots who can’t fly as well. That is our purview – to anticipate possible problems and make changes to the environment to prevent them, no matter the state of flight feathers.

The real question is this: Can companion parrots enjoy complete physical, mental and emotional health without flight? And, if the answer is “no,” then where do we go from here? How do we learn to live successfully with a parrot who flies?

Future episodes of the blog will explore the benefits of flight to companion parrots, how to determine whether your bird is candidate for flight, how to set up the home for flighted bird, and how to live successfully and safely with flighted parrots.

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

Short, Lester. 1993. The Lives of Birds. New York, NY. Henry Holt & Co.

Poole, Robert M. ed. The Wonder of Birds. Washington D.C: National Geographical Society. 1983.

The Gift of Birds. 1979. National Wildlife Federation.

Page, Jake and Morton, Eugene S.  1989. Lords of the Air: The Smithsonian Book of Birds. New York: Smithsonian Institution.

Weidendaul, Scott. 1999. Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds. New York: North Point Press.  

Perrins, Christopher. 1976. Birds: Their Life, Their Ways, Their World. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Siljan and Dorris

Occasionally, I am gifted with an experience that is mind-blowingly remarkable.

Siljan Anna Jørnsdatter Nikolaisen contacted me on December 1, 2018 with a request that read as follows:

“Hi! I was sent here to you by Barbara Heidenreich, and I really hope you can help me with the issues I have with my parrot. I am from Norway, so my English isn’t so very good, but I hope you will understand. I have seen several training videos by Heidenreich about positive reinforcement and clicker training, and I have also read some in my own language, but i feel still cant start doing this in practise with my own bird. Her name is Dorris, and she is a 9 year old Indian Ringneck. The problem is, she wont even give me a chance to start training her. She is flying all over the place, and wont stay still a second. (She is NOT wing clipped, and i absolutely won’t do it) so I feel I cant start with anything. She is a fast flyer, and i’m pretty afraid that there is no hope for Dorris, my crazy bird at all, before I have even tried. Anyway, I have problems with understanding english when people speak to me, so if we could only write, I would be very happy about it.  I really hope you have the opportunity to help me with some tricks, one way or the other. Best regards Siljan and Dorris!”

Challenge Gladly Accepted

And so began the journey of helping Siljan to train “crazy” Dorris through email correspondence from over 4,000 miles away.

Siljan is 36 years old and lives in the small town of ​Bodø in northern Norway. She adopted Dorris 6 years ago. Before that, she had a Jenday Conure who passed away at the age of 31. She had never trained before.

At the time that Siljan wrote to me, Dorris would not consistently step up. When she did, wouldn’t stay on Siljan’s hand for long. Thus there were times, such as when visitors arrived, when Siljan needed to use coercion to get Dorris into her bedroom or back into her cage. This had broken trust and explained some of Dorris’ behavior. As Siljan wrote: “Then I sadly sometimes need to pick her up and put her inside the cage against her will, and that is awful.”

Finding Reinforcers

During initial sessions, Dorris was not particularly motivated to earn food reinforcers. We needed to clean up her diet. She was already eating pellets, but also got nuts and some types of table food. Raspberry jam was a favorite. Dorris, like most parrots, prefers foods that are high in fats and carbohydrates. And Siljan, like most bird owners, loved to treat her to these to make her happy.

We eliminated these treat foods, refining her staple diet down over time to just pellets and vegetables. Dorris could still have her treats, but she was going to have to earn them. This change produced the motivation we needed. We simply took the treats she used to enjoy for no reason and used them in our training.

Initial Concepts

As we began our work together, I offered an analogy: “Building behavior is like building a brick wall. You have to lay down the first course of bricks, put the mortar between them so that all cracks are filled, then let it dry before you lay down the next course. You have to teach the simple things before you can teach more complex ones.  And, you absolutely must first have a trusting handling relationship.” Thus, our first step was to teach Dorris to step up reliably and then to stay on Siljan’s hand instead of flying off.

We got a strong start, but then our efforts had to be put on hold when Siljan went to visit her mother over the Christmas holiday.  She took Dorris with her, but she had to be confined to her cage during this time. This hampered our ability to make progress on what we had begun, but we simply shifted our focus.

Targeting Through Protected Contact

Siljan purchased a GoPro video camera for recording training sessions. I suggested that she begin to work with Dorris on targeting. She could work with Dorris from outside the cage while Dorris remained inside.  

Very early sessions

This is called working “through protected contact” and is a great way to begin training fearful or aggressive parrots, as well as those who will not step up at all. None of these issues applied to Dorris, but this was a type of training that was possible during this period of physical restriction. Further, targeting is a behavior that assists in the training of other behaviors so we could use this skill later once learned.

Our Real Work Began

By January 9, 2019 Siljan was back in her own home again and our real work began.

Since Dorris often flew away when Siljan approached her, we began with some CAT training. This too is a training strategy that works extraordinarily well with fearful and aggressive parrots. While typically referred to as Constructional Aggression Treatment, in this case it might be more correctly called Constructional Aversion Treatment.  My instructions were:

  • Stand as far back from Dorris as you can, given the physical arrangement of your house. 
  • Begin to slowly walk toward her, one step at a time. Don’t talk to her.
  • As you do, watch her body language for any sign of movement. Go slowly and take your time.
  • At the very first sign of discomfort on Dorris’ part, stop where you are and stand still. (Signs of discomfort might include standing up straighter, eyes wider, feathers held tight against the body, leaning or moving away from you.)
  • After you have stopped, watch for signs of another (hopefully more relaxed) behavior. For example, she relaxes her position a bit, her feathers puff up or she turns her head – anything that looks less tense than before you stopped.
  • As soon as you see any behavior indicative of less stress, turn around and immediately walk away, back to where you started. (Try to find a behavior that will allow you to retreat within just a minute or less.)
  • Approach again and continue to repeat the process for up to 15 minutes at a time. 

Once Siljan could walk all the way up to Dorris without her flying off, we began to work on teaching her to step up with greater compliance. It was only a few days before Dorris was stepping up readily. By the time another few days had elapsed, she would remain on Siljan’s hand for extended periods since she knew that was the place where the goodies appeared. Soon after, Siljan was able to walk with her slowly around the apartment, offering reinforcers frequently for continuing to stay on the hand.

Our work together began to take on a rhythm that continues today. Siljan films her training sessions and sends the videos to me through a file sharing service. I respond with tips on how to improve her technique and suggestions on when to move to the next approximations. This system has been remarkably successful and demonstrates just how much can be accomplished at long distance, even with a bit of a language barrier.

The Human Side of Training

Siljan has frequently expressed anxiety and doubt over her own ability to perform the training correctly, even in the face of obvious success, and this has become an underlying theme of our work. As she voiced one day: “This is a little bit exciting, i’ll try not to be too disapointed if it doesn’t work at first try. I am actually a little bit nervous to fail and not make it work at all, but I would never give up trying, because I know Dorris can do it!

Her expressions of self-doubt always surprised me. I saw no reason for it. She made amazing progress with everything I asked her to do. Our exchange often reminded me of James Clear’s words: “Successful people start before they feel ready.” Consider the timeline below:

  • By January 24th, Siljan had taught Dorris to willingly get on a scale to be weighed.
  • By January 28th, Dorris was flying back and forth between two perches when cued to do so with the target.
  • By February 3rd, Siljan was teaching Dorris to fly to her hand using the target stick. Within only a day or two, we were able to fade out the use of the target so that Dorris was flying to Siljan’s hand on cue.
  • By February 4th, Siljan could transport Dorris into her bedroom when people came to visit and to get her back into the cage without any use of force.
  • By February 8th, Dorris was flying a good distance to Siljan’s hand and was learning to fly back to the perch instead of being carried back.
  • By February 20th, Siljan had taught Dorris to turn around on cue and was preparing to phase out the use of the target as a lure.
The beginning stages of teaching Dorris to fly back to the perch
  • By February 8th, Dorris was flying a good distance to Siljan’s hand and was learning to fly back to the perch instead of being carried back.
  • By February 20th, Siljan had taught Dorris to turn around on cue and was preparing to phase out the use of the target as a lure.

Nevertheless, I continued to receive Siljan’s input about her own emotional experience. No matter how much she achieved, she continued to experience anxiety. She would send me a video, believing that she had done a terrible job and I would watch it, thinking that she had done extraordinarily well.

The funny thing about training is that it creates a new world of intimacy between the animal and the trainer. It also creates greater intimacy between trainer and coach.

When I questioned her self-doubt, Siljan quite openly explained that she suffers from mental illness and severe self-injurious behavior to the degree that she once spent 16 years in a mental hospital, 9 of them in a high-security ward. She has never been to school or held a job. She has improved now to the extent that she can live independently, in a building with others who also have behavioral challenges, with staff on-site who can look in on them to make sure that all is well. She has important goals for the future.

In Siljan’s words: “I have a mental ilness, and my days can be rough and long, but Dorris is the one to get me trough it. After I met you, I have now become so much closer to Dorris, and for me, it opened a whole new world when I started to train her. With hard work, everything is possible!” 

A Graceful Gift

Every once in a while, we have the rare gift of stumbling upon greatness. Often, it shows up in the most unexpected of places. I wrote to her not too long ago: “What makes greatness is attitude, compassion, acceptance. You have them all, Siljan. I’m happy to know you.”

Her response: “And, who would believe that I should be an inspiration to others? That. That is amazing…”

Written with full permission from Siljan and Dorris.

(We did, however, have to bribe Dorris with a pomegranate.)

Credit for all photos and videos goes to Siljan Nicholaisen.


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. Also, don’t forget my Q & A Sessions every Sunday at 1:00 pm PT. Sign up on the Products page. Until next time!

Remember to Say “Thank You!”

This is a bit of a follow-up to my last post, Avoiding Aggression with Start Buttons, because I think there is more to be said about aggression in parrots. Prevention is truly the key and there is one other important step to avoiding this problem. I mentioned it briefly in my previous post, but it deserves more focus. That is the need to say “thank you.”

Biting problems, once they develop, can be resolved. But remember this: A behavior that an animal exhibits can only be suppressed through behavior modification efforts. It cannot be completely eradicated from the bird’s “behavior repertoire.” Thus, a bird who used to bite can always begin again if the social and environmental circumstances support the reemergence of that behavior.

Because of this, we need to center our attention on preventing aggression in the first place. Biting parrots aren’t a lot of fun to live with; I don’t know anyone who loves the thrill of never knowing when the beak might strike next. Plus, aggressive parrots often lose their homes. We need to help each other learn how to live with our parrots respectfully, so that the problem never develops in the first place.

This simple goal is easier said than done. Using start buttons to clarify communication and being mindful to pay attention to body language will both go a long way to preventing a biting problem. However, there is an even more essential ingredient to our social relationships with our birds. It is vital that we remember to say “thank you” to them when they comply with a request.

The Importance of Concepts and Language

Let’s deviate and talk for a minute about the language we use when we talk about training parrots.  When discussing behavior, I often bring in comparisons from the dog and horse training worlds and will do so here as well. I have two reasons.

First, behavior is behavior is behavior. What does that mean? It means that the same behavioral principles apply to the training (teaching) of all species. The most effective methods for training dogs aren’t any different than the most effective methods for training birds. There is a science of behavior that has been in existence for a century now. That’s a whole lot of data on how behavior works that we have at our fingertips.

Second, the training concepts and language used in dog or horse training tend to infiltrate conversations about parrot training.  A person who took their puppy to obedience school learned certain concepts from the individual conducting the classes. Many of those concepts might not be valid, depending upon the education and experience of the class leader. Many popular dog training practices are rooted neither in scientific theory, nor ethics.

They are nothing more than concepts. A concept is “an abstract idea or general notion.” It is not a proven fact or reality. Nevertheless, many of these concepts are pervasive and extremely resistant to break-down. Language reflects concepts, so let’s take a brief look at some of that. Why? Because the concepts we hold to be true and the language that lives in our heads can inform our own attitudes when we aren’t paying attention.

Is It a Command or a Request?

It is still most common for people to use the word command when it comes to describing a training cue. I would like for all of us to get this right. When we ask a parrot to do something, it is NOT a command. It is a request, a cue.

We don’t actually have the ability to command a parrot to do anything. A parrot’s beak puts him on pretty equal footing with us when it comes to that. The word command means to “give an authoritative order.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been successful in giving an authoritative order to any of my parrots. So, let’s call it what it is. Words matter. When we ask a parrot to do something, we are giving a cue…not a command. It is a request – nothing more.

Courtesy or Dominance? Your Choice.

It’s not any different than when we make a request of a family member. We usually get the best results if we preface it with “Would you please….” Most of us then make sure to remember to express gratitude for the favor done by at least saying “Thank you.” If a stranger holds a door open for us, we say “Thank you.” If the UPS driver hands us a package, we say “Thank you.” These good manners are deeply ingrained in us because we have been taught to be courteous. Why should we be any less courteous with our animals?

I think it has been different in our animal-human relationships because of that ever-lurking idea that we must have dominance over them. But it should not remain so. Our goal has to be that of building reliable, cooperative behavior. It’s hard enough living with parrots if we can’t get them to cooperate or if we get bitten every time we try. It’s time to cast aside invalid notions and focus on what works.

Crazy Thinking Gets in the Way of Effectiveness

Let’s go back to the idea of saying “thank you” to our parrots. This is also an area where language and concepts born in the dog training world infiltrate our own parrot community. Specifically, there is much confusion about the use of positive reinforcement and training “treats.”

A quick Google search brought me face to face once again with some of these invalid ideas. One website states that using food treats could foster dependence in an animal. “If you use treats, and only treats as a reward, it may happen that your pup always wants a tasty reward for a job well done or an acceptable behavior.”

What is wrong with that? Expecting a reward doesn’t mean that the dog won’t perform the behavior. It just means that he’s a bit disappointed when the treat doesn’t appear.

In reality, there is nothing wrong with an animal expecting a “thank you” in those circumstances. Moreover, just because he expects a treat doesn’t mean that we have to deliver one every time. Usually, it is best to reinforce every time, but there can be valid reasons reasons for not doing so. An example would be if you are putting the behavior on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement.

This same website warns readers to always also provide positive reinforcement through the use of affection and praise. That’s fine, but only if the dog is motivated to earn praise and affection. Most parrots couldn’t care less about praise and if you have a parrot who bites, I wouldn’t recommend using affection as your primary reinforcer.

A last caution raises the issue that the trainer might not demand respect if relying solely on using training treats. I’m sorry, but that’s just silly. You can’t demand respect, even from dogs.

Teaching New Behaviors is Good

Most of my blog topics arise out of conversations that I have had recently with people. I’ve had a lot of them lately that have to do with training. Most people I talk to balk at the idea, envisioning the need to set aside a block of time each day in their already-busy schedule to teach specific behaviors.

That type of training is wonderful and there are a great many benefits. Teaching new behaviors creates greater trust between parrot and owner. It increases the bird’s quality of life. It frequently causes the owner to appreciate the bird in a whole new way. The bird becomes easier to care for. Having regular training sessions can help to resolve some problem behaviors. Training improves communication between us and the animal. Pursuing training teaches us to be more observant.

Daily Habit Training Is Better

However, an even more important type of training takes place on a daily basis, whether you are cognizant of it or not. Parrots are always learning. Every single interaction you have with your bird is a learning moment for him. This means that you are constantly teaching, whether you choose to be aware of this or not. The truth: You get the behavior you reinforce, not the behavior you want.

The need to pursue training of any sort is a relatively new idea in our “parrot world.” Some have embraced this enthusiastically, posting video after video of parrots with impressive skills. But for most, it is still not a common practice to use positive reinforcement on a daily basis throughout the flow of life with our birds.

The Gist of Positive Reinforcement

So, here we are again – talking about the use of positive reinforcement. Those words may sound like mumbo jumbo to some. So, let’s break that concept down. Here are the steps to using positive reinforcement (making a request and saying “thank you”):

  • Know your parrot and what he wants most – whether that is a food treat, head scratches, or a bottle cap to play with.
  • Ask him to perform a behavior, such as stepping up, going back into the cage, or stepping down onto a perch. (The Request.)
  • Immediately give him the item he wants, if he performs the behavior as asked (or close enough). (The Thank You.)

When you follow this pattern in your interactions with your parrots, you will find that the thank you guarantees the please. Your parrot will begin to respond willingly to your cues because he has learned that you will always say “thank you.”

This is an oversimplification of the process, but is not inaccurate. This type of training is simple – as simple as it gets. These types of interactions occur regularly throughout our days.  We are already using reinforcement with our parrots. The key is to be cognizant of what behaviors we are reinforcing and when we are doing so.

Great! One More Thing I Now Have To Do….

How many of you are now groaning, thinking, “Great…one more thing I have to remember to do!”? I sympathize. It took me the longest time just to remember to put a handful of sunflower seeds into a pocket in the morning, so that I would be prepared when those moments arose to deliver some well-timed reinforcement. Truly, the hardest part of all this is getting into the habit.

Make It a Habit

I have a pattern of living in my head, rather than being present in the moment. When I live in my head, I forget stuff. I’m working on this.

One trick I have learned is habit stacking. Habit stacking is a trick for developing new habits by linking them to existing ones.  For example, if you make coffee in the morning, you might put the jar of sunflower seeds next to the coffee maker. That will serve as a visual cue to you to put some into your pocket. Saying “thank you” effectively throughout the day means that you need reinforcers close at hand. By using this trick, I soon remembered to put sunflower seeds and/or nut pieces in my pockets in the morning.

This practice, however, did not help me to remember to actually use them to reward my parrots’ good behavior. For that, I needed punishment, which appeared in the form of my dismay when they all fell out onto the floor at night when I undressed. The experience of sweeping up sunflower seeds off my bathroom floor every evening soon helped me to be cognizant of the fact that they were in my pocket. That, in turn, led to my using them throughout the day. Granted, I can be a slow learner, but perhaps you can relate.

When you teach your bird to do things, or work to strengthen behaviors that are already in place, by using positive reinforcement, you are simply remembering to say thank you. If you use those simple steps on a daily basis, you will have an agreeable parrot who complies with your requests and never learns to bite…because he doesn’t have to.

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, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Also, don’t forget my Q & A Sessions every Sunday at 1:00 pm PT. Sign up on the Products page. Until next time!