Commentary on Free Flight: Part Two

It was a coloring book kind of day: blue skies with big, puffy white clouds and a yellow sun spotlighting the greens, reds, and browns of nature in every hue. Reb, my companion Philippine Cockatoo, was high on the top of a tree announcing that he was the master of his domain. Suddenly, he fell from the tree, opened his wings, and swooped down in an exhibition of perfect flight control. He does know how to dazzle his audience!

Which Parrots are Good Free Flight Candidates?

In my last post, I discussed the qualities necessary in the caretaker/trainer that must be realized before free flight outdoors should even be considered. Free flight is fraught with risks and is not appropriate for most caretakers and most parrots. In Part Two, I will be examining the qualities the parrot must have to be considered a candidate for this experience.DSC_1905  

Reb is the perfect free flight candidate. Like all cockatoos, he came equipped with what he needed to be a flyer: excellent feather condition, two full wings and tail, eyes with perfect vision, legs and feet that were strong, ears that could hear – you know, the works. He was the standard model of a wild cockatoo and did not require any upgrades to fly successfully in the forests of his native country, the Philippines.

But he was not going to be a wild cockatoo. He was to be my companion free flying cockatoo. His future lay not in the jungles of the Philippines, but in the more restrictive and unnatural environments of a cage, aviary, and house, as well as daily flights outside.  His flight education had to be shaped to accommodate such a life.

The Necessity for Fledging

The making of a first-rate companion parrot free flyer starts with the obvious—he must know how to fly well; and, the caretaker must know what that looks like. Many people describe their indoor flighted parrot as an excellent flyer. Upon observation by a more skilled observer, however, it’s apparent the parrot is in the kindergarten stage of flight skills. He flies weakly or with hesitation. Decisions made while in flight can be tentative and landings clumsy.Blue Bird

Watch local native birds. They’ll give you perfect examples of what a companion free flight parrot should exhibit. You’ll see a bird entirely in control. You’ll see a bird who flies quickly with coordination and strength as she takes off and lands. There is no hesitation in her decisions and reactions. You’ll see a bird who knows how to fly in wind and rain. She is as natural at flying as we are at walking. This is what we want to see in our companion free flyer.

Fledging is the optimal and natural time any bird learns to fly. It’s a time-sensitive window to intense learning for the young parrot. Once that portal closes, flight mastery is much harder for the parrot to attain.

If a parrot intended for free flight did not learn to fly skillfully during fledging, dire consequences can occur. It would be like letting a sixteen-year-old teen with little to no driving experience weave his way through busy city streets packed with trucks, impatient Lyft drivers, cars, and pedestrians. Sometimes it doesn’t end well.

The Process of Fledging

A young parrot doesn’t burst from his nest cavity as a perfect flyer. His flight skills develop somewhat slowly. The process starts in the nest where he flaps his featherless wings, building muscle. Later, when he emerges from the nest, he’ll grow in coordination and strength as he practices his developing skills. Providing a large outdoor aviary during fledging gives the young parrot the opportunity to develop his muscles, coordination, and confidence.Perching in Aviary

Years ago, my parent-raised Bare-eyed Cockatoos gave their fledglings a master class in learning to fly. As the fledglings left the nest box, they never ventured far from their parents while in the aviary. After a couple of days of aviary flight, I released the family to the outdoors where the parents flew to an ash tree next to the aviary.

The kids followed and, under the watchful eyes of the parents, spent the day climbing in the tree and practicing short flights from branch to branch. The parents encouraged exercise by moving about the tree and flying to the aviary. The youngsters would follow, all the while getting stronger and more confident. It was a little less than a week of this routine that the fledglings’ skills improved dramatically.

Does Species Matter?

Recently, I read a query on social media from a potential free flight caretaker: “What species is better suited to free fly, a Galah or an African Grey?” One response explained that the Galah was a better candidate, as the Grey was “wide-bodied.” Now that’s just plain silly! Being “wide-bodied,” whatever that means, prevents the Grey from flying well? It should be noted that watching a flock of wild Greys fly is watching precision in action. Their “wide bodies” don’t seem to handicap them in the least.imagesCAG0IJ72

My point is that all bird species who evolved to fly well, do. Examples of species that have evolved with less than perfect flight abilities, such as domestic turkeys, chickens, and quail have evolved other survival tactics that get them through the day safely.

The Parrot’s Size

Size does matter when choosing a free flight candidate. Generally, the larger species, such as large macaws and cockatoos will attract less attention from a Cooper’s hawk. A Cooper’s hawk is a smaller-sized raptor, very common in the United States, who makes his living hunting smaller-sized birds. Typically, a Cooper’s wouldn’t try to tackle a large macaw or cockatoo, yet wouldn’t think twice about taking down a conure or Senegal. (Please note, any parrot, no matter the size, represents a meal to any hungry bird of prey.)Cooper's Hawk

I fly smaller cockatoos such as Goffin’s, Bare-eyeds, and Philippine Cockatoos. Because of their smaller size, I am always conscious of the possibility of a Cooper’s hawk attack.

And it has happened. There is more safety in numbers, however, and my birds fly with at least three or more of their flock mates. The more eyes watching out for danger the better.

Even if a free flight parrot has been superbly trained, flying him alone is asking for trouble.

The Parrot’s Age

The age of the free flight candidate is an important factor influencing free flight success. The majority of experienced free flight trainers select young parrots, younger than one year of age, to train to fly outdoors.

Some people have older companion parrots, well past one year of age, they want to fly. Free flying an older parrot can be a lot riskier, making it necessary to evaluate many different factors.bird-1298346__340 

One matter would be the older parrot’s learning history and life experience. For example: Has she been trained with positive reinforcement? Is she an enthusiastic learner? Does she have a solid background in flying? Did she have access to flying in an aviary, or just a house? Does she use flying as her primary mode of transportation? Does she fly without hesitancy? Is she fearful of new experiences or is she accepting of them?

Another factor to examine is the older parrot’s health. Is she strong and robust? Is she without disabilities? Does she have good eyesight? Are her feathers in excellent condition? All of these factors and more need to be thoroughly contemplated and answered honestly in determining if a companion parrot is suitable for free flight.

Certainly older parrots can be taught to free fly. As an example, my Goffin’s Cockatoo, Topper, came to live with me some years ago. He was in his early 20’s. He apparently had had a long history of indoor flight, because he was very adept at flying around my house.

Topper in flightThe longer he was in the house, the more I became convinced by his confidence, skill, and strength that he could apply for the job of free flying. I embarked on his training and he earned his wings with distinction. I attribute his accomplishment to his plucky, inquisitive nature, his good health, original flight skills, and his readiness to learn.

Topper’s example will serve as the exception, however. The vast majority of older parrots will not be suitable for free flight. If you wonder about your own parrot, the best step you could take would be to have her evaluated by a skilled mentor. 

Essentials for Success

This article is not intended to serve as a primer for evaluating prospects for free flight. I intend merely to open your eyes to the rigorous requirements for success when choosing the parrot candidate.

Further, I would be remiss by not underlining once again the importance of the companion free flight trainer. The caretaker must possess and practice good training skills while working with an in-person mentor for assistance in developing a free flying parrot. Without these two important factors, any parrot, young or old, should not be considered as a free flight candidate.

Watching your parrot explore the open sky using his skills to tackle the wind or fly to the tip top of a tall tree is exhilarating. It’s a dream come true for many parrot owners. I sincerely hope, however, that the considerations addressed in this blog and in my previous commentary (Part One) about free flying be taken earnestly to heart.

As much as I would like it to be, free flight is not an activity for the uninitiated parrot or caretaker. Please regard it as an extreme sport that offers an ecstatic adrenaline rush as well as heartbreak. If you are considering this experience, please proceed with caution.

The Latest News!

38 days oldBaby Bare-eyed (BBE) is busy growing into a beautiful representation of her species. She’s a Bare-eyed in miniature. Her pin cushion body is now covered with smooth white feathers, she can raise her not-so tiny crest, and her eye patches are turning a lovely gun-metal grey. Her parents are doing a noble job raising up their kid. As of this writing, she is forty-four days old. I expect her to fledge in another 4 to 5 weeks. Excitement awaits us all!

Just for Fun!

EllieThis is Ellie. Miss Ellie came to live at Cockatoo Downs almost two weeks ago. I adopted her from a local rescue organization, Exotic Bird Rescue, located in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. It is a fine group of people who have a series of foster homes set up to accept relinquished parrots.

I decided to add another Bare-eyed Cockatoo to the family after my dear Asta Bare-eyed died some months ago from cancer. Asta was a free flyer and lived in the aviary with her friends.

While she was ill, she lived in the house with me. I’ve rarely lived with a “house” bird and Asta showed me how much fun I had been missing. After her passing, the house seemed tomb-like, which prompted me to search for a Bare-eyed Cockatoo in honor of Asta.

What an adventure and learning experience it is getting to know a new cockatoo! Ellie is learning about me and I her. After a week, she has decided I will be an OK roommate and I know I made the right choice in inviting her into the family.

Ellie is a confident little soul, not much afraid of anything. She’s learning the layout of the house and is flying more and more on her own. She flies to ropes and a giant orbit I’ve hung for her. She’s learned to target to a chop stick. She steps up politely, often indicating she’s ready by lifting her foot.Ellie in Aviary(2)

I erected an aviary on the front deck and connected it to the front window so she has access to it at her choosing. The size is 10 feet long by 7 feet high by 5 feet wide.

For materials, I used electrical conduit pipe that can be found at Home Depot. Canopy attachments were used for the four corners. These are found at canopy supply websites. The wire is 1/2 by 1/2-inch galvanized wire, which I found at another home improvement store. This wire is suitable for an aviary that is for day-time use only. The cost was approximately $150.00 and took five days to erect, working on it for a couple of hours a day by myself.

Ellie in AviaryToday, I showed her the open window for the first time and she slowly and cautiously made her way onto the aviary perch. She carefully examined the whole aviary, deemed it to her liking, and even added her own decorating touches by chewing on one of the perches. 

Even though Ellie is in good health and feather, I imagine both will improve by her exposure to sunshine and fresh air that the aviary offers. My aviary is a simple home-made affair—nothing fancy, but does supply all the fresh air and sunshine needed to make for a healthy parrot. Consider putting one up for your companion parrots. They will thank you for it.

A great resource for ideas can be found on the Facebook page “Home Aviary Design.” This is a closed group, but anyone can ask to join. 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!