Parrots, Flight, and Play Behavior

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

Kids were on the school playground as I rode by on my bike recently. Seeing them run and jump and hearing their screams of excitement made me happy. I remember vividly the days of my youth when running, chasing, playing tether ball, and other physical play activities were paramount in my life. Is it so in our parrots’ lives?

It certainly seems to be, as I’ve watched two generations of parent-raised cockatoos grow up at Cockatoo Downs. As the fledglings did before her, Star Bare-eyed Cockatoo (17 weeks old) zooms around the aviary, catches a boing on the fly and twirls with great glee. Her parents sometimes shed their serious demeanor and join her in brief flights of joy.

The Functions of Play Behavior

Why is it that humans and non-human animals, especially young ones, partake in physical play activities? I don’t have specific answers to that question. Even with extensive research on play, it is not yet completely understood by scientists.

However, the majority of findings conclude that play behavior apparently promotes the ability to handle unexpected circumstances, helps recover from stressful situations, and aids in the development and training of physical and motor skills.

There are different types of play such as social play and object play, and I will be focusing on physical play. Physical play is a combination of activities that gives young animals, including humans, the chance to develop gross motor skills, learn and practice physical abilities, promote and develop strength and coordination, all while happily expending large amounts of energy.

Flighted Fledgling and the Adult Parrot

Parrots were not built to sit still. In the wild, they spend most of the day flying from place to place in search of food, nesting opportunities, and partaking in social interactions.

Supplying toys to young companion parrots to engage and play with can help expend energy to take the place of wild activities. However, creating an environment for the young parrot to play and fly affords the youngster the ultimate in energy expansion while promoting coordination, skill, exploration, and confidence.

Physical exercise for our adult companion parrots is very important for their health and welfare. Giving a fledgling parrot the opportunity for vigorous physical play sets the stage for the continuation of energetic exercise into the youngster’s adulthood.

Feeling comfortable and safe are key ingredients in promoting play activities in animals. The type of play activity that takes place is influenced by what the animal can physically do.

Regrettably, most hand-raised parrots are clipped as fledglings. A clipped youngster may experience a loss of balance and fear of falling which certainly hinders the parrot’s motivation to physically play, which can limit the parrot’s development.

Play behavior apparently promotes the ability to handle unexpected situations and allows versatility of emotional responses to help recover from averse situations. Because clipping fledglings limits their play opportunities, as adults they may have less proficiency in dealing with situations such as changing or stressful environments or handling successfully social interactions.

I am always dismayed when I learn that some breeders clip the wings of their fledglings before the birds take their first flight or soon thereafter. To be transparent, I, too, practiced that when I started breeding cockatoos. That was what was preached back in the day.

I finally did see the light and I let my fledglings fly. With that came displays of the exuberance that is inherently contained in a young cockatoo. The babies would develop their physical skills by energetically flying back and forth in the house as they learned to navigate and land on ropes strung across the ceiling. Play vocalizations such as loud screams echoed throughout the house as the fledglings’ confidence and skills grew each day.

Ropes were invaluable in advancing their motor skills. Losing their balance on a wobbly rope didn’t dissuade them because all they had to do was open their wings and fly off. Falling wasn’t a concern as it is for clipped parrots. I often wonder if flying birds even have a human concept of falling. To me, falling means loss of control and eventual pain as I hit the dirt. With a flighted bird, there is no loss of control when “falling” as she just opens her wings to fly.

It’s obvious to spot adult parrots who were clipped when young and did not have access to robust play exercise using their wings. Generally, as there are exceptions, they turn into perch potatoes with little to no motivation to move around or explore. They show dependency on their human caretakers to move them from place to place. They may be more sensitive in stressful situations and they can be more fearful of changes in their environment. And the list goes on.

I believe allowing parrot fledglings to keep their fully functioning wings is a welfare issue. Young parrots play if they are healthy, well-fed, and safe; but not if they are under stressful conditions or in a stressful mental state which a clipped fledgling may very well experience.

Watching a newly fledged parrot try to fly for the first time with clipped wings is truly a heartbreaking vision. A vastly important part of avian physical play has now been shut off for the youngster. An open door that would entitle the young companion parrot to a healthy mental and physical development has been rudely slammed in her face.

Even though scientists have yet to completely understand play behavior, we shouldn’t let our parrots be deprived of physical play; if for nothing else, it seems to be just plain fun for parrots to do. Just ask Star!

Star Update

Star is expanding her social circle and skills. Avian trainer and good friend, Kathryne Thorpe, came to visit Star recently. She spent time in the aviary feeding Star’s parents yummies. Star came down to the perch after giving Kathryne the once-over and preceded to eat from the treat bowl with Kathryne continuing to feed a parent. Comfortably accepting a new person in her aviary was a big step forward for Star.

Morning Coffee with Ellie

Ellie, my adopted Bare-eyed Cockatoo, is making great strides with the new behaviors she is learning. The newest is learning to fly to my hand. In the video, you will see the steps I took over several days to get to our goal behavior of flying to my hand. The important thing to remember is to make small steps towards any goal behavior. (The video has been shortened because of length.)

References:

Play Behavior in the Nonhuman Animal and the Welfare Issue, Ana Flora Sarti Oliveira et al; published online, June 10, 2009, Japan Ethological Society and Springer, 2009.

Social Play Behavior, Marc Bekoff, The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, Animal Studies Repository, 1984.

So You Think You Know Why Animals Play, Linda Sharpe, Scientific American, May 17, 2011.

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.


New Beginnings

Dear Readers: For the next several months, this blog will be published every week. I am bringing to you an experience you can find no where else. Every other week, my friend Chris Shank will be sharing the extraordinary story of current events at her aviary, Cockatoo Downs, as a guest blogger. On the off weeks, I will be bringing you my own thoughts, as I have been for over a year now. The following is from Chris:

I was down by the creek, clearing some brush with my free flight companion, Tyke, a Bare-eyed Cockatoo. Ritzie, another Bare-eyed, was off on one of his many flight adventures. Tyke and I were among the trees so, when I heard Ritzie give repetitive contact calls from afar, I figured he didn’t know where we were.

I had him in my sights, though, and yelled out our recall cue. Immediately, he made a beeline towards the direction of my call. I watched as he swerved through the trees and made a soft landing on the creek bridge where Tyke and I were working. I marveled at his skills and willingness to respond to my call. You see, Ritzie is a parent-raised free flying cockatoo, unlike Tyke who was hand-raised.

Controversy: Hand-raising vs. Parent-Reared?

Current prevailing “wisdom” recommends that companion parrots destined for free flight must be hand-raised, thereby making it easier to create a stronger bond with their caretakers. This human-parrot bond, so the theory goes, is the foundation for achieving success at flying a parrot outdoors. Countering that theory, parent-raised Ritzie and his brother, Flash, have achieved masterful free flight skills and positive human-cockatoo relationships through positive reinforcement training alone. From that training a trusting partnership has developed between us.

These siblings were raised by their cockatoo parents through fledging. When Ritzie and Flash left the nest, they learned from their parents (who were also competent and confident outdoor flyers) what free flying was all about. While their parents taught them flight skills, I taught them people skills such as recalling to my hand, stepping up when cued, stationing on a perch, and touching a target stick.

We accomplished all of that and more. Now, nine years later, the brothers are consummate flyers and eager participants in training sessions, not only with me, but with people who come here to participate in our many training workshops. This proves to me that parrots need not be hand raised to become willing partners, learners and skilled free flyers.

In Honor of Asta

There’s a free flight project in the making at Cockatoo Downs and it’s all because of Asta, my Bare-eyed Cockatoo. You can see her in the masthead of this blog and in the photo below. She was a super free flyer along with being a best friend to me and her pal, Rebbie, a Philippine Cockatoo. I lost her due to cancer in April 2019.

Pam and I thought the best way to honor her memory and her incredible self was to add more magnificent Bare-eyes (is there any other kind?) to the flock. I’m sure she would approve. So here’s to you, Asta! Wish us luck.

The Project

Flash has paired up with another trained Bare-eyed Cockatoo free flyer, Bebe. Both birds were parent-reared. They are very bonded and are sure to make good parents. I will be journaling the progress of this cockatoo couple from their nest box preparations to brooding, to raising their chicks, to watching them fledge, and onwards through training and flying outside. I’ll be sharing this sure-to-be fascinating  journey with you as it progresses.

The Aviary

Bebe and Flash live in a spacious 20 ft. x 40 ft. outdoor aviary. The aviary is planted in grass and has a variety of plants growing seasonally, on which the birds regularly forage. The aviary is connected to the bird barn. A window in the barn wall allows the cockatoos to enter and exit their indoor barn cage (which is 10 ft. by 10 ft.) where their food and water are kept.

The Nestbox

The nest box is made of plywood and was erected on April 18. It’s anchored securely on the barn wall at the back of the aviary. The access hole was purposely kept small to allow the birds to enlarge the hole themselves. In the box, I placed medium-sized chunks of wood for them to chew up, rearrange, or simply toss out the hole. All of this remodeling gets them into breeding mode and facilitates a team effort. Both birds worked on the access hole either together or separately; and, after three days they were able to enter the box.

Brooding

I have purposely chosen not to look in the nest box at any time so as not to disturb the couple. After about a week after entering the box, I saw signs that eggs had been laid. Now, there was always one bird in the box while the other was outside. I also observed another clue. When Bebe emerged from the box and came to the front of the aviary for a treat, I noticed there was a small bare brood patch in the middle of her chest. Flash had one also. If my calculations are correct, eggs should be hatching the week of May 20.

Training

At Cockatoo Downs we practice positive reinforcement and force-free training. I have worked with Bebe and Flash throughout their lives. Training is not on a schedule, but I do try to work with them a couple of times a week either in their aviary or while they are out flying. In their aviary, I have perches set up where they have learned to station, target, and recall to me. They have also readily worked for Pam and people who come to our training events.

Because Bebe and Flash are willing and enthusiastic participants in their training, they will be excellent role models for their youngsters. The newly fledged little ones should find nothing bizarre about this strange looking creature (me) working with their parents. My hope is that they will participate as well.

Going Forward

I am grateful to Pam for allowing me to share the adventures of our new free flight family. If the stars align the way they should, there will be chicks to write about in the next episode. I can hardly wait to hear the soft peep, peep, peeping coming from the nest box. Stay tuned!

Disclaimer: I do not recommend nor promote that companion parrots be flown outside without the owner having a solid knowledge of training and behavior and also being assisted in person by an expert parrot trainer with extensive experience in free flight.

Chris Shank’s love of parrots began with a wild little budgie named Tampiki. Chris’ natural talents at training created over time a trusting relationship with what she calls that “tiny puff of turquoise feathers.” Years later, Chris graduated from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California. Her internship was done at Busch Gardens where she became part of the parrot show. She next worked as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara. From there, she continued her work with dolphins in Hasslock, 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!

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 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.