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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
The 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!
Baby 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!
This 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.
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.
Today, 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.