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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exciting News!

In my last episode of this blog series about life at Cockatoo Downs, I explained about our current project. As we have waited for the baby Bare-eyed eggs to hatch, I thought it only right to give you reasons why I advocate for parrots raising their own chicks, as opposed to people raising them.

Endorsing the idea that parrots raise their own chicks can cause contentious debate in the aviculture world …from large-scale breeders, to hobby breeders, to pet store owners. In addition, parrot owners have been led to believe that only a hand-raised baby parrot will bond with them.

Although this subject is worthy of debate, it is not my intention to do so in this blog. My goal instead is to share my opinion only as to why I support and encourage the parent-raising of chicks.*

Years ago, I bred and raised many cockatoos. I either pulled eggs from the parents’ nest box for incubator hatching or pulled their young chicks for hand-feeding. That was the way it was done and still is to ensure that the chicks were human-socialized for the companion parrot market.

A chick raised by a human easily creates attachments with other humans. As a breeder, that’s the kind of bird I wanted to sell; as a consumer, that’s the kind of cockatoo you wanted to buy. It was a win-win situation. Or was it?

Let’s consider the parrot in this equation. Those who live closely with parrots know that their own birds have emotions, showing us strong, intuitive states of mind. Since our companion parrots have emotions, it only makes sense then that all parrots are sentient beings. (Mama’s Last Hug, a book by Frans de Waal, is an excellent source for learning of recent research into animal emotions.)

The more often I took babies or eggs from the parents, the more uncomfortable I became. The obvious distress shown by the parent cockatoos when I raided their nest became more and more agonizing to watch. It finally dawned on me that this was an act that totally disrespected the parents’ emotional well-being and was, in my evolving view, abusive to the welfare of the parrots. To subject breeding parrots to this disruption is ethically wrong and inhumane.

I had to ask myself an uncomfortable question: Do I serve my customer who wants a snuggly, friendly cockatoo or do I serve the cockatoo who has the birthright to be a cockatoo through and through? I came to the conclusion that a parrot has the right to be a parrot and relate to the world as a parrot. That’s when my view on hand-raising changed.

Looking at hand-rearing from the baby parrot’s point of view offers yet another welfare and ethical perspective. In my opinion, people are not good parrot parents, no matter our experience or compassion in bringing up parrot chicks. There is no way we can match, both physically and psychologically, what parrot parents offer their young.

Experienced parents spend many hours a day brooding the chicks, keeping them warm and secure, preening them, vocalizing to them, feeding them, and eventually weaning them successfully when the time is right. Just as importantly, the parrot youngster grows up knowing she is a parrot. She knows how to relate to other parrots. She has learned parrot social manners and behavior from the best teachers there are: her parents. In other words, she becomes a well-adjusted parrot.

To deprive parrot chicks their birthright is, to me, ethically unsound. People may say, “Oh, they’re just birds so what’s the big deal?” As I mentioned before, parrots are sentient beings who deserve a fair shake at life; and, that shake is better if they see the world through parrot eyes instead of eyes blinded by human influence.

Hand-raising versus parent-raising psittacines is a complicated issue. Parent-rearing and hand-raising both have costs for the parent pair, the chicks, and the people who will ultimately live with them. Certainly, the opinions I offer here cover only a small part of the issue.

There are many more components to be considered. What if the parrot pair is not successful in raising their chicks? What to do about training the parent-reared youngster for the companion market? Does parent-rearing guarantee that the offspring will be well-adjusted individuals? Does the typical companion parrot owner have the skills to live with a parent-reared bird so that they both will thrive? Pros and cons of hand-raising versus parent-raising are many and they each deserve close inspection in order for people to come to their own conclusions.

I, for one, am letting my personal ethics on how animals in captivity should be treated determine my choice. I am comfortable with it and look forward to illuminating for you the world of parent-raised cockatoos and how I, Pam, Bebe and Flash, along with their little ones, will learn to live together in harmony.

*It’s worth noting that the Netherlands became the first country to outlaw the hand-rearing of parrots in 2014.

Just for Fun…and a Bit of History

I’d like to give a brief history of how I got into free flying. Almost forty years ago, Popcorn, a handsome, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo came to me as a youngster. He was my pet or, in today’s parlance, my companion. Popcorn and I had a great relationship and I thought it would be wonderful if he could learn to free fly outdoors.

I pretty much knew nothing about training for free flight and I cringe now recalling how I just sort of opened the door and said to Popcorn, “Fly! Be free!” Well, I wasn’t really that irresponsible, but it was close.

I’d take Popcorn on my hand and hang outside with him while he learned what the great outdoors was all about. I’d put him on the deck railing and ask for short recalls, which he did inconsistently. Because I was naive and ignorant about free flight training, I figured that, since he flew to me about 50% of the time when requested, that was good enough. Yikes!

That was his training, in a nutshell, and I was super darn lucky he was smart and kept his head about him and learned and managed on his own the dangers of flying outdoors. He was a successful flyer for thirty years.

Now, of course, I do things much differently. My knowledge and skills at training have improved. And, I certainly don’t take free flight as nonchalantly as I did with Popcorn.

First, I choose the right candidates for free flight, as not all parrots are suitable for such an activity. I do have cockatoos who do not fly outdoors. Most importantly, I train recall to fluency under different conditions. There are a passel of factors that go into making a competent flyer, the discussion of which I will leave for another blog.

The way I fly my birds may be different from how other people free fly their parrots. Of particular note, I don’t take them to another location to fly. They haven’t been trained for an entertainment show or for display. They instead have been trained to be competent flyers at home where they live. The birds and I have become close friends and companions – a cohesive group made up of independent individuals.

As I stand in wonder daily at their intelligence and flight capabilities, I try to imagine the world as they do. I fail miserably, short of even an inkling of what it’s like for them, because I am bound to the earth.

I will say that they seem to be just as interested in my terrestrial life as I am in their aerial one. They find my activities entertaining to watch or participate in as I dig holes, fix fences, haul hay, pull weeds, or just sit on the deck swing and relax.

Free flying my cockatoos is a natural and common activity here at Cockatoo Downs, yet I don’t ever take it for granted. For me it is an amazing experience watching them maneuver in their world of flight; to them it is just another day doing what birds are supposed to do…fly!

The Latest News!

Flash and Bebe have a chick! He/she hatched May 26. Pam was feeding the cockatoos, since I was out of town. She noticed unusual behavior from Flash and Bebe.

They were out together on a branch in front of the nest box. This was unusual in itself, since at least one of them at a time has remained in the nest box for some weeks. Both were displaying in a unique way, mirroring each others’ movements as they walked back and forth, vocalizing together.

Pam interpreted this as an announcement of their new bundle of joy and relayed this to me when I got home. We can’t really know for sure, of course, what their display meant, but I like to think the proud parents were sending out a baby pronouncement.

The next morning, I fed breakfast at the front of their aviary as usual. Both birds came out to eat, but Bebe quickly returned to the box after a few bites. Flash remained at the breakfast bar.

I went into the aviary cautiously to listen for a peep or two. I didn’t know how Flash would react, now that there was possibly a little one. He paid me no mind at all, continuing to stuff his face. I believe that this behavior is the result of all the trust that we have built between us through our long history of positive reinforcement training. Most parents with new chicks would never respond to an intrusion like that in such a calm manner. I got very close to the box and heard a few faint peeps as Bebe settled herself into the nest. For joy! Stay tuned as the adventure continues.

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 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.