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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Commentary on Free Flight: Part One

RV in Flight

In the minds of most people, watching a free flying bird of any species command the sky summons up feelings of freedom, independence, awe, and flights of fantasy (pun intended). When people are asked what special skill they would like to have, many answer… the ability to fly. Who wouldn’t? Swooping and soaring a sky that holds no boundaries or limits does offer ultimate freedom and control.

The Realities of Free Flight

I wish the reality of flying companion parrots outdoors replicated these romantic notions. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The open environment of the sky has many speed bumps and obstacles that flying birds must navigate. The list is as long and complicated as a peacock’s tail and includes things such as weather conditions, wind, predators, buildings, cars, hunters, and neighbors. Nevertheless, many parrot owners dream about offering their beloved companion the experience of flying the open sky.

S.Macaw.M.Major.CDRetreat
Photo by Marinka Major

There’s much to consider before offering a companion parrot outdoor flight or, as it is commonly called, free flight. Free flight, along with indoor flight, is a complicated and training-dense activity. Compared to indoor flight, free flying a parrot comes with an extra layer of consequences that can endanger the parrot’s life. With that in mind, let’s examine what I expect a competent free flight candidate to look like.

The Caretaker Trainer

The first element in determining whether a parrot is to be a successful flight candidate is not the parrot. Wait, what? In fact, it’s the parrot’s human partner that determines whether the bird fails or succeeds. A close look reveals the following facts:

  • All flying bird species are excellent candidates for flight. Bird species meant to fly come equipped with the proper flight paraphernalia and mental acuity to do so.
  • Captive parrots are also born with everything they need to successfully fly.
  • Companion parrots are more often than not thwarted from learning to fly properly when humans clip the wings of fledglings or do not provide an environment conducive to learning all their flight skills.
  • The training skills possessed by the average parrot caretaker typically do not reach the minimum requirements needed to produce a truly successful and safe free flyer.
Hillary Hankey
Free flight expert Hillary Hankey

It is the human component of the free flight equation that holds the key to a successful experience. It is essential that the parrot caretaker must be skilled in using positive reinforcement training. “But wait!” you say. “I’ve heard that if I hand raise a parrot, he will naturally bond to me and won’t want to fly away.” Sadly, this popular belief is fundamentally flawed.

 

Isn’t Our Bond Enough?

It’s true that by hand raising a parrot, a bond is normally created between caretaker and parrot. Unfortunately, some people believe this is all that is necessary for free flight and consequently, do little if any training. It’s like thinking your puppy will automatically come when called as an adult because she’s “bonded” to you. We all know that usually doesn’t happen.

Without a strong foundation of training, the bond that is created from hand rearing can and does break down as the parrot matures. Even if the bond does grows stronger, it won’t ensure the free flight parrot will be safe or competent in his flying.Scale Training

The parrot must be taught the basic behaviors all parrots should learn. These include stepping up and down on cue, recalling, entering a carrier, and acceptance of husbandry procedures such as stepping voluntarily onto a scale to be weighed. Not only does this training help develop a confident bird, it goes hand in wing with creating a trusting working relationship between caretaker and parrot.

Necessary Factors

My intent is not to inform readers about how to train a parrot for free flight. I will, however, provide a short list of some of the factors that are involved.

Along with the behaviors mentioned above, the parrot must be taught to fly up from low places and down from high places while developing the physical strength to do so. He must be desensitized to the outdoors by becoming familiar and comfortable with his outside surroundings. He must be given the opportunity to fly in the wind, rain, heat and cold. He must respond to an outdoor recall cue from his caretaker. The list goes on and on.

The human partner to the free flying parrot must have a working knowledge of how to train with positive reinforcement, force-free techniques. Since the use of positive reinforcement and training in general are still not in daily practice by the majority of caregivers, it is likely that the “typical” parrot owner is not well-skilled in training, let alone training for free flight. 

"Topper", Goffin's cockatoo, Cacatua goffiniana

Because of this, I highly recommend that the caretaker seek the in-person coaching of an experienced parrot free flight trainer; someone who will guide and support the parrot owner through the process of training.

Online Courses vs. Direct Mentoring

There are trainers online who offer courses in free flight. They offer little more than an outline to follow. Even if they provide help by critiquing videos of their customers training their parrots, it’s just not the same as  having an experienced mentor there by your side. Parrots and their people are individuals who have nuances, personality traits, and physical aspects that don’t translate fully via a video or even through discussion. The training mentor simply must be involved in person for the parrot owner to gain the knowledge that is needed to fly a parrot outdoors.

This brings up yet another factor in the making of a capable human flight partner  – truly understanding the dangers involved in flying the parrot outdoors. This is another area in which having an experienced trainer by your side is essential.

And to this end, the trainer caretaker must examine whether she has the inner fortitude to accept that her parrot, no matter the proficiency of training, could be lost, injured, or killed at any time during flight. This understanding and acceptance are perhaps the most difficult things to acknowledge and internalize before undertaking the flight training of a parrot.

I am a realist when it comes to free flying parrots and after forty years of flying my cockatoos, I still, to this day, heave a sigh of relief when everyone is put away safely after flying. No matter how much we love our parrots and wish for them a life as close as possible to that of their wild relatives, launching them into the open sky unprepared or partially prepared is a recipe for disaster for both the parrot and her person. There is a steep learning curve for all involved.

So, please, if you are considering free flight for your bird, do a conscientious examination of your personal attributes, talents, deficiencies, personality, and your motives when it comes to wanting your bird to free fly. If you’re honest, the answers will influence whether you proceed with flying or not.

The Latest News!

We recently held a training workshop here at Cockatoo Downs. We invited Susan Friedman and Peggy Hogan to head the weekend and dispense their knowledge about training and behavior to an eager group of trainers. The enthusiasm from the people who attended was palpable and infectious.2019 Retreat

Susan Friedman, PhD gave a fascinating presentation about the fact that control is a primary reinforcer, as important to the animal as food. As she stated, “Control is a biological necessity.” Any behavior offered moves the environment – much like a stone tossed into a river. It creates ripples; behavior does as well.  All animals behave in order to control their outcomes – access reinforcers or avoid aversives. The reason that animals and birds love training so much is because they are offered the chance to control reinforcers through their behavior.

And, in fact, she stated her belief that a lack of control for a parrot is a risk factor for feather damaging behavior. “Control is the nucleus of behavioral health.” This is one reason that Pam and I lobby so strongly for allowing indoor flight whenever possible for companion parrots.

Susan contrasted training theory held as gospel 20 years ago to the new concepts some trainers are learning to embrace today. Two decades ago, trainers believed that all behavior needed to be under cue control. In other words, the animal should not offer a behavior unless a cue had been given.

A more modern training approach offers the animal more control, in the form of start buttons and request cues. Training is seen as a dialogue between the trainer and the parrot.

This information was kind of a mind blower for me and I’m still digesting the information she shared.

Peggy Hogan
Peggy Hogan

Peggy Hogan presented on start buttons, otherwise known as “yes” or “consent” signals. These allow the animal to communicate when it is ready to proceed with the training task or behavior. Peggy is a zealous campaigner for using start buttons in our training, as this gives the animal control and establishes a dialogue between learner and teacher. Powerful stuff!

Discussions carried on while attendees were coached in working with the cockatoos and equines. Ann Dahlen brought her adorable (is there any other kind?) mini horses and generously allowed people to work with them. Violet, my donkey who easily shows fear reactions, nonetheless sought out any human who was willing to partner up. She’s learned over the last two years of living here that people mean good things. She’s trying hard to be braver each day and it’s paying off.

Flash and Bebe, the Bare-eyed parents, participated in their own way. They have continued to “ask” to go out flying each morning. When I let them out to fly, I seized the opportunity to show off their chick to the training group. The parents accommodated by flying up and away and out of sight. As I brought the chick out of the box she dazzled everyone with her cuteness! In the photo she is 21 days old.me, BBE 6_15_19

Once the parents were safely back in their aviary, it was easy to see that they were nonplussed by the ten or so people moving about during training sessions. Pam even went into the parents’ aviary at one point and Flash flew to his perch for a quick targeting session while Bebe manned, um, womanned, the nest box watching the action from the entrance hole. 

It was a weekend not to be forgotten anytime soon and we were all grateful for the extraordinary learning opportunity we received from Peggy and Susan.

Just For Fun

The free flyers are enjoying time at the creek at Cockatoo Downs. It’s always fascinating to me to watch their interactions with the environment.

 

In this case, I was sitting on the footbridge while the cockatoos explored the creek. The creek offered an opportunity to practice what comes naturally to a wild cockatoo and that is finding and drinking water. In this video clip the cockatoos learn that drinking water is not always in a bowl. What a concept!

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.