Star Earns Her Wings

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

“Wow! There she goes!” I exclaimed as I watched Star, six-month-old parent-raised, Bare-eyed Cockatoo, take to the sky for the first time. It thrilled me and racked my nerves all at once.

I needn’t have worried. Thanks to her parents, and the flight ability that nature has bestowed upon her, and, humbly, a pinch of training from me, she enthusiastically put on her big girl wings to give that great big sky a go.

Star’s Preparation

Star comes from a line of trained, parent-raised free flying cockatoos. Her grandparents, parents, and cousins fly at Cockatoo Downs. It is only natural that Star carries on the tradition. To do so, though, she needed preparation.

Waiting for the teacher.

Her education started as a fledgling. She grew up in an outdoor aviary, exposed to all that the outside world has to offer. She learned to trust people. She learned to forage. She learned flight skills. She learned proper cockatoo socialization manners. In short, she learned to be a cockatoo living in captivity.

At six months of age, I felt Star was ready to free fly. Part of that feeling was intuitive, and the rest was from the confidence I had in her training; training not just from me, but more importantly, from her parents. It is they who provided her the educational foundation that helped her grow into a confident, assured cockatoo.

Star learns to recall to a perch.

From me, and other friends I invited to work with Star, she learned people socialization. She learned that we are entertaining and sometimes amusing creatures who often come equipped with treats. She learned to take goodies from our hands. She learned to target and station on her training perch. She’s an A+ student and eagerly looks forward to her classes.

Star (on the left) and family meet a new friend.

Star developed into a bold youngster as she improved her flight skills daily, swooshing around her aviary landing on orbits, twirling on boings, hanging upside down like a bat, and playing high-speed tag with her parents. She needed, though, one final step before facing the big release.

Learning the In’s and Out’s

Star needed to learn where the flight exit and entry door in the aviary is located. I decided on using the food station for that purpose. The station is located in the front of the aviary and has a handy door that opens to allow placement of food bowls inside. Star had watched her parents come down to the station daily as I serviced it so it wasn’t a big stretch for her to eventually join them when I was there. When she did, I’d offer everyone an almond, their favorite munchie.

Soon Star was the first to fly to the station when she saw me. I incorporated a verbal recall cue when I was at the station. It’s a cue I use with all the flying cockatoos, letting them know it’s time to go inside their aviaries.

The most important preparation for ensuring success for Star’s first flight came from her parents, Bebe and Flash. Kindergarten through high school took place in her aviary with them as her teachers. Now it was time to head off to college. I knew beyond a doubt that Bebe and Flash’s devoted care for Star would transfer to the big sky. They would accompany her and keep her safe.

Star’s First Free Flight

The flight day was cloudy with a spritz of light rain that showed signs of vanishing soon. An internal voice, along with the preparatory practical steps the cockatoo family and I had taken, told me this was the day.

Ready for take off.

The family sat at the food station as I slowly opened the door. It opens downward and is held in a ramp position by a chain. Bebe and Flash walked cautiously out on it. They waited for Star to join them. After some hesitation she snuggled in between them.

Star chooses to take off.

The parents waited patiently for Star to take it all in. She spent a minute or two assessing the new environment. Suddenly, Star took off on her own and a split second later Bebe and Flash joined her.

I couldn’t have asked for a better take off, as it was Star’s choice to fly. She was not startled to fly nor did her parents leave before she was ready. She had decided on her own to spread her wings. Off they went, flying in a tight threesome. Star could be heard vocalizing with her distinct chirp as she flew. It was easy to see that she was a bit wobbly in her new element, with no aviary to restrict her journey through the air. Her unsteady flight grew more certain the longer she flew.

The amount of care and concern the parents took looking after Star and guiding her was, quite honestly, an emotional experience for me. They never, ever let her out of their sight. They didn’t abandon her for any reason nor take her off into the wilderness.

Instead they circled above the aviaries and nearby trees showing her the landmarks from this new perspective of her home. Their attentive behavior was an example of the close bond parrot parents have with their chicks. It brings me much distress that most of those who hand raise parrots seem not to acknowledge the importance of this.

Unexpected Challenges

After about four minutes of flight, Flash and Bebe landed on the top of a nearby tree. “Oh, oh, now what?” I could imagine Star thinking. After two tries she landed somewhat ungainly on a skinny branch, but land she did. A minute or two later they took off again, expanding their flight perimeter.

One comical episode occured when the parents landed on top of their aviary. Star had no idea how to do that. Landing on perches inside the aviary was a breeze. But landing on it? She made several passes, chirping in confusion, trying to figure out a landing strategy. Her parents waited. At last she worked it out and made a successful two-point touchdown.

After an hour of flying and landing on various trees, Bebe and Flash once again landed on the aviary with Star. I was standing near the food door ramp and asked Bebe if they were ready to go in. She and Flash answered by flying down to the ramp.

Star had not been paying attention and was totally bewildered as to how her parents got there. She did short flights near the door vocalizing her frustration to which the parents took off and then returned to the door showing her how it’s done. “Ah, ha! That’s how you do it,” thinks Star…and so she did.

Flight Number Two

With the first successful flight tucked under her wings, I offered a second one a few days later. The difference in Star’s attitude, confidence, and skill was remarkable. Her parents eased off of the close formation, flying and landed in trees while Star kept flying. It’s as if they gave Star the keys to the car and said, “Have at it!” She separated from them many times in the air while swooping, dipping her wings, and throwing in an occasional tail wag for good measure. Was she having fun? You bet!

It’s hard for me to conjure up what Star must have been feeling in her new environment. Is it just another day in the life of a cockatoo or is she exhilarating in this new world that has been introduced to her? Probably it’s a bit of both. I’m looking forward to watching her enjoy what it means to be a cockatoo in the sky—the environment she was meant to be in.

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.


Environmental Enrichment and Learning

A pair of wild cockatoos going to nest encompasses a lot of work. They must find a nest cavity, prepare it, defend it, and after a bit of romance, eggs are made and laid. They then take turns brooding the eggs, feeding and caring for the chicks, which all leads, hopefully, to the successful fledging of the babies.

I let my pair of Bare-eyed Cockatoos go to nest in May so the chicks could be trained for free flight. Mr. and Mrs. Flash and Bebe Bare-eyed Cockatoo accomplished all of the prerequisites with success.

Their chick, Star, fledged at 9 weeks of age. With relief, I thought the hard parts were over for the couple. But, I was wrong. From what I observed from the parents’ behavior, having a youngster out of the nest can be stressful for them—at least it seemed so for Bebe, the mom.

While Flash was handing out cigars at the chick’s successful emergence from the nest box, Bebe fretted over Star. The first few days she stayed close at Star’s side as if to reassure her about her new world.  She persistently preened Star and touched her beak to keep her at ease. Star didn’t go exploring much and that seemed fine with Bebe.

Parenting and Contrary Behavior

Though Flash and Bebe appeared to me to be excellent parents, I noticed a behavior that I didn’t understand. It took the form of a power struggle before fledging over who was allowed access to the nest box to brood the eggs.

For example, if Bebe wanted to enter the box, sometimes Flash would chase her away, or vice versa. Once either of them claimed the box there was no more strife, meaning the “winner” was never made to relinquish the nest box once he or she was inside. It wasn’t a frequent occurrence, but it happened enough to catch my attention and cause concern.

Why would this behavior take place? This didn’t make sense. Do wild Bare-eyed Cockatoos do this in nature? To me it didn’t seem to be conducive to successful chick raising. Was this just a behavior imposed by captivity? I don’t have the answers.

One way I thought to modify or change this antagonistic behavior was to let one or both birds out to free fly when I saw the clashes happening. Since flying uses lots of energy, it did seem to help calm them down upon returning to the aviary after their fly-abouts.

Flash and Bebe Out for a Fly About

Typically, when they left the aviary giving each other the hairy eyeball, they almost immediately paired up and flew together in synchronicity, which helped them re-establish a compatible pair bond. However, with one especially hostile encounter in the aviary, I let them out to fly and they even argued while flying. That changed when they spotted a hawk in a nearby tree. They put their differences aside to band together to harass the hawk and all was well.

Star Talk

Let’s talk about baby Star. I admit that the morning Star made her appearance I was momentarily confused. I saw three birds instead of two sitting together on a perch. Did one of the neighbor cockatoos find a way into Bebe and Flash’s aviary? No, my slow witted brain figured out the third cockatoo was the baby!

After silently shouting for joy, I watched in amazement the little one taking in her new environment. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking, after growing up looking at four walls and not much else. When I first saw her, Star had already flown to the front of the aviary. Bebe was sitting securely by her side and she was not letting Flash close to Star.

Star was adorable. Her feathers were perfect. Her tail had yet to reach full length so she appeared smaller than her parents. (As of this writing, her tail has reached full length and she looks almost to be the same size as her folks.) She didn’t do much exploring the first few days and seemed content to stay by her mom’s side.

Flight Skills

Gradually, Star started taking control of her new surroundings. When I observed Star’s first flights, it was like watching a butterfly. She was kind of wobbly and there was not much umph in her propeller. Her directional flying was suspect. She’d pick out a destination, but sometimes didn’t accomplished her goal. That didn’t deter her as she would gather her determination and try again.

Star Practices Flying and Landing on Perches that Move

Of course, with each new effort she was more frequently successful in landing where she wanted. Behavior is a function of its consequences and Star was showing me exactly how that worked. Successfully landing on her goal perch was positively reinforcing for her so, of course, she’d attempt it again all the while becoming more competent in her landing skills.

From ten days onward her flight mastery greatly improved. Her progress was impeded by aviary living, however, and I’m sure if she were in the wild, her flight development would proceed more rapidly. During this time, the parents were acutely conscious of her movements and one or both would follow her everywhere in the aviary.

Learning in Action

One of the fascinating things about watching Star grow is the marvel of seeing learning in action. We sometimes take for granted or don’t even think about how we and our fellow animal friends learn. Of course, we learn every single day; and, watching someone, in this case, Star, learn about what works and what doesn’t work is thrilling to me. And, boy, she has lots to assimilate.

Star needs to learn flight, of course, but also proper Bare-eyed Cockatoo vocalizations, fine motor skills, foraging, social skills, and much more. Because there are so many things that affect Star’s learning progress, I’ll be focusing on only one influence in this article. I’ll start off with the importance of environment enrichment and its effect on learning.

Environmental Enrichment

As described by the website Why Animals Do the Thing, “Environmental enrichment is the process of enhancing an animal’s environment to increase their physical activity, fulfill their psychological needs, and encourage engagement in species-typical behavior.” This is exactly what Star needs to develop into a competent, resilient, and confident adult.

To that end, I have equipped Star and her parents’ aviary with a wide variety of enrichment. Let’s take the availability to forage, for example. I allow different weeds and grasses to grow in the aviary. These serve as foraging opportunities for the cockatoos.

I also harvest and install a variety of plant matter such as mustard seed pods, blackberry stems with berries, hawthorn berry branches with berries, ash tree branches with seed pods, barnyard grass, millet spray, crab apple branches with apples, and anything else that might be of interest to the birds.

Bebe Teaches Perseverance to Star

All of these foraging opportunities are everyday occurrences for Star’s parents who take full advantage of them. But to Star they are important learning opportunities. The parents are skilled and eager foragers and Star follows their foraging behavior by learning how to manipulate and eat the offerings.

Star Forages Up High on Mustard Seed

It was touching to watch Star learn to forage. While mom easily snapped a small stem of browse off a mustard plant and held it steadily in her foot while opening the seed pod to eat the seeds, it wasn’t so easy for baby Star.

This Isn’t As Easy as It Looks!

It would take her a while to zero in on a piece of the plant, get it in her beak, and snap it off. Then she’d take several attempts to hold it with her foot to munch on. In the beginning, she’d sometimes drop the plant stem and have to start all over. That didn’t deter her, however. She kept at it and kept getting better.

Perching is another environmental enrichment that gives Star chances to learn and practice motor skills. I have furnished the aviary with boings, orbits, rope perches, 2×4 wood perches, and natural branch perches. There’s even a small live birch tree available to perch in. Each helps Star develop skills such as balancing, landing, playing, all while developing her strength and confidence.

Look Hard to See Baby Star

Yet another environmental enrichment for Star is simply living outdoors in her aviary. Star learns all about the weather, the sun, the wind, the rain, the cold, the horse and donkey who walk by her aviary each day, her cockatoo neighbors and the cockatoos who free fly over her aviary, the vultures who soar above, the swallows swooping and swerving catching insects, the bats who come out in the evening to hunt those same insects, the bellowing of the cows at night, as well as the songs of the coyotes. These and many other wonders and surprises are available for Star to learn about while living outdoors.

I remember one instance when only a few days after fledging, we had a very strong late afternoon wind. Star had been sitting on the front perch of the aviary when the wind picked up. It got so strong that it made her wobble on the perch. She was very reluctant to fly to the back perch, which was out of the wind. Instead, with her mom by her side, she held on tight to the perch leaning into the wind and learning about balancing in the blustery air. Although it was a bit distressing to watch her seesaw about, I’m happy she had this important learning experience.

I found this quote while reading, Learning and Behavior, by Paul Chance: “Our environment exerts control over our behavior [by stimulus control or cues]. Paradoxically, that can increase control we have over our lives.” In other words, the more variety of learning options that stimulate Star to explore and learn what works and doesn’t work, the more control she has over which options with which to engage.

Providing Star with an enriched positive environment will build her behavioral repertoire that will aid her during difficulties or opposition. I look forward to watching her behavioral education expand her ability to function successfully in her new world and look forward to sharing that with you.

Latest News!

Ellie Bare-Eyed Cockatoo came to live with me over a month ago. In my last blog I described how we are learning about each other’s quirks, both good and bad.

I described how Ellie has the unfortunate alter ego that I call, The Flying Dragon Lady. The Flying Dragon Lady’s (FDL) job is to drive me from my home by flying at my head with her scary beak wide open, ready for the attack.

I told FDL that this behavior is not conducive to a friendly, safe home environment. She refused to listen. So I went about changing the environment to make it harder for FDL to function, which I explained in the last blog.

As Ellie’s and my time together continues, FDL has made minimum appearances, but she still exists. What is really cool is that I’ve worked everyday to have Ellie touch a target and get a pine nut for doing so. This is a miraculous training tool and I’ll give an example why.

FDL showed herself the other day. I took out the target and while FDL was sitting on her cage thinking about her next attack, I had her target the chop stick and then gave her a pine nut. Before my very eyes, FDL vanished and sweet, calm Ellie emerged. It truly was astounding. This episode shows the power of using a well-learned and consistently positively reinforced behavior to change an emotion. FDL is capable only of being harsh and discordant, so away she went allowing sweet Ellie to return.

Just for Fun!

I want Ellie to grow comfortable with the free flyers, so that she won’t be startled when they come to visit her aviary. So, I have been practicing her targeting in the aviary while another cockatoo remains outside.

The delivery of reinforcers to them both teaches them that good things happen when in the proximity of the other!

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.