Part Two: The Benefits to Them

Suggested Ground Rules

Before I begin my exploration of the many benefits of flight for companion parrots, I want to suggest something. My last episode on this topic has generated animated debate, especially on one site to which it was shared. A total of 55 messages (and still counting) illustrate perfectly what I have said before – that radical bias and lack of information play much too large a role in this discussion.

One of the reasons why we have not achieved more progress on this issue is that many people advise others, using information they are merely repeating after having read it elsewhere. Moreover, they have become inexplicably committed to this second-hand information. In addition, many who are knowledgeable in general about parrots feel compelled to also offer advice in areas in which they are not – such as this topic.

I suggest, going forward, that if you do not have years of experience living with flighted parrots in your home, then in this conversation you are a learner. Only by approaching with intellectual humility subjects such as this, will we create the more functional and truly informative discussion that is needed.

Let’s Get Straight About Definitions

For the purposes of this discussion, a fully flighted parrot is an unclipped bird who chooses to fly frequently as his primary means of locomotion inside the home. It does not refer to parrots with unclipped wings who do not choose to fly.

A free flighted parrot is one who is allowed to fly outdoors at liberty. That activity is not within the scope of this discussion. While I have trained companion parrots for free flight, this is not an activity that I advocate except for the rare few. For those of you interested in free flight, trainer Hillary Hankey has written an excellent article about this practice.

The Fledging Process and Brain Development

Fledging is the process through which young parrots learn to fly. The urge to fly is instinctive – every young parrot will at some point launch himself into the air if given the opportunity. However, flight skills must be learned through much practice.

Twenty years ago, it was common to read the statement: “African Greys are nervous, clumsy birds.” At the time I began breeding, I thought this was about the stupidest thing I had ever heard. How could this be? How could they survive in the wild with these qualities?

The truth? An African Grey parrot who was fully fledged is an entirely different adult parrot than one who did not. It is no different for any other species of parrot. Learning to fly impacts all aspects of the young parrot’s development.

“The fledging process itself contributes in many ways to long-term success for psittacine companions because during fledging, early behaviors culminate in a fully active animal totally engaged in and interactive with its environment, including human caretakers.” Further, fledging babies “does not result in cookie-cutter companions but the reverse. When raised in environments tailored to their growth, psittacine companions develop individual personalities, preferences and propensities.” (Linden, P. 2006)

The benefits of learning to fly, however, may extend beyond the coordination, confidence, and autonomy that result from the physical experience.

Development of the Senses

Steve Hartman of The Parrot University writes: “Babies learn best when multiple senses are stimulated simultaneously (i.e.; sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell). The best opportunity for a parrot to learn is when a combination of senses are experienced at the same time. The senses of sight, sound and touch take on a very different nature during flight. When a particular skill is being developed or experienced by different senses at the same time a different neuropathway is reinforced for each sense creating a much stronger neurocircuitry for that skill or knowledge being learned.”

“Each one of the senses, as well as mental and physical skills develop over a period of time, but not at the same time. Some of the development phases are symbiotic, meaning they need information being developed in another area of the brain for their own optimal development. For example, vision develops best when the baby can move around and see things from different angles and distances. Conversely, coordination develops best when the visual cortex can provide information on distance and perspective. Without this symbiotic relationship of vision and coordination, it is difficult to develop three-dimensional vision.” (Hartman, S. 2007)

“The faster he flies, the faster the visual ability needs to be and the faster the brain learns to process the information, and the faster he will be able to fly. Teaching the brain to process information faster and on higher levels, promotes faster decision-making and fewer mistakes in all areas of mental, physical and social competence.” (Hartman, S. 2007)

In Hartman’s piece, no research sources are listed. Such investigation through controlled studies has been absent to date. After all, why research the benefits of flight to companion parrots if we are dedicated to preventing this as a group of caregivers, as we have been previously?

However, evidence does exist for humans, as documented by the authors in The Role of Locomotion in Psychological Development: “The psychological revolution that follows the onset of independent locomotion in the latter half of the infant’s first year provides one of the best illustrations of the intimate connection between action and psychological processes. In this paper, we document some of the dramatic changes in perception-action coupling, spatial cognition, memory, and social and emotional development that follow the acquisition of independent locomotion.” (Anderson, D et al. 2013)

Were we to research further, we would find it true for all animals. The timely acquisition of a creature’s natural means of locomotion fosters more complete brain and personality development.

Benefits of Flight for the Adult Parrot

The fully flighted parrot enjoys physical, social, and psychological benefits far in excess of his wing clipped compatriot.

Physical Health

The parrot who flies to get around the home enjoys far greater health benefits, including stronger musculature, greater resistance to disease due to improved immune function, and better function of cardiac and respiratory systems. There is simply no way that clipped birds can achieve the same level of exercise through walking, climbing, and flapping exercises. (Glendell, G. 2017)

“Birds were made to fly and when they don’t, they develop problems similar to humans who do not exercise; they are more prone to obesity as well as liver, kidney, and heart disease. More over, studies of the bones of the wings and legs of our companion birds are currently being investigated under the lead of Dr. Scott Echols at University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City. The bone density comparisons of birds that are “perch potatoes” are very poor in comparison to wild birds. This metabolic bone disease may contribute to other medical conditions, but the extent is not known yet.” (Orosz, S. 2014)

Improved vision

Hartman suggests that parrots who live with clipped wings may have poorer vision. “Flying birds quickly learn to process visual inputs faster as they develop and reinforce new and improved pathways for routing visual stimulus at high speeds in a three dimensional manner. This educational process cannot take place without flight. Parrots with poor visual skills take longer to assess visual stimulus which may cause the bird to need to react aggressively until the information is processed. For instance, a new person entering the room or someone reaching out to touch may provoke ‘a bite first ask later’ response while the circumstances are being processed.” (Hartman, S. 2007)

Dr. Kenneth Welle concurs: “The use of flight for mental stimulation is very important — birds were designed to fly and the scenery rushing past them stimulates the optic cortex of their brain.” (Orosz, S. 2016)

physical safety

While much has been written about the risks that exist in the home for flighted parrots, these are quite easily managed through both training and careful environmental arrangement. In reality, the flighted parrot may enjoy greater physical safety due to his ability to escape unsafe situations.

If a flighted parrot finds himself on the floor with other family pets, he is easily able to fly upward to escape unwanted interaction. If he discovers he is heading toward the stove or other unsafe surface, he can hover and change direction. (A clipped bird who launches himself into uncontrolled flight has no such ability.) If he lands on another parrot’s cage, he can simply fly off before he loses a toe or two.

social functionality

Companion parrots who fly are in general more socially adept than those who do not. They quite naturally maintain their autonomy, better able to make choices about when and where to interact with members of the “family flock.”

“The social interactions of clipped birds often land on the side of “overdependent” because, lacking their own resources for exploration, they depend upon human caregivers for entertainment, transportation, and to save them from less-favored persons.” (Linden, P. 2006)

Flighted parrots also are able to make that age-old choice between flight and fight. If able, a parrot who doesn’t like what’s going on will simply fly off. As Linden explains: “Flighted birds flee from unsolicited interest and so find biting largely unnecessary, but clipped birds, lacking escape, often bite to drive away perceived intruders and other annoyances.”

psychological benefits

Flighted birds are better able to exercise their own autonomy, making a stream of choices throughout the day and expressing their natural behaviors. For example, my flighted parrots will engage in foraging for hours throughout the day, since I have food placed in several locations around my home.

Parrots who fly are at less risk for developing fear-based behaviors. They are better able to cope with stressful situations and recover more quickly due to the generalized feelings of safety that they experience as a result of being able to use flight for escape.

Quality of life is directly tied to the number of choices that a captive animal is able to make. Flighted parrots are able to make an abundance of choices when out of their cages, since they can perch where they want, eat where they want, and interact with whom they want.

The Obvious Action Step

The benefits of flight to both developing and adult companion parrots are irreplaceable and undeniable. No matter how diligent a caregiver might be, there is no way to fully compensate for a lack of flight ability. I do not believe that it is possible for a clipped parrot to enjoy the same physical, emotional, and psychological health that the flighted parrot enjoys.

As Matt Smith states: “What parrots want is flight and flock – the two things they’re denied as pets in most homes.” In my experience, the one guarantees the other.

A discussion such as this does little to advance quality of life for companion parrots. What we need are action steps that will create the greatest impact.

No one should adopt a baby parrot from a breeder or pet store if that bird has not been fully fledged for a number of weeks. Not all adult parrots can regain flight ability after being deprived of the opportunity during that natural developmental stage for learning. This one single step would have a significant impact on quality of life for parrots going forward. Voting with our dollars creates change.

In my next blog post, I will explore the many benefits to the caregiver of keeping flighted parrots. Until then!

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:

Anderson, D. I., Campos, J. J., Witherington, D. C., Dahl, A., Rivera, M., He, M., Uchiyama, I., … Barbu-Roth, M. (2013). The role of locomotion in psychological development. Frontiers in psychology4, 440. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00440 Accessed 03/19/2019.

Bergman, Charles. 2013. No Fly Zone: Denied their natural habits, millions of pet parrots lead bleak, lonely lives. The Humane Society of the United States. https://www.humanesociety.org/news/no-fly-zone. Accessed 03/26/2019.

Glendell, G. 2017. Birds Need to Fly. The IAABC Journal. http://spring2017.iaabcjournal.org/birds-need-fly. Accessed 03/24/2019.

Hartman, Steve. 2007. Thinking on the Wing.The Parrot University. https://theparrotuniversity.com/flight. Accessed 03/26/2019.

Linden, Phoebe Greene with Leuscher, Andrew. 2006. The Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ames, Iowa: Blackwell Publishing. Pages 93-111.

Moser, Dean. 2004. Parrot and Flight: Flight and the Companion Parrot.AFA Watchbird: Journal of the American Federation of Aviculture. https://journals.tdl.org/watchbird/index.php/watchbird/article/view/1841/1815. Accessed 03/27/2019.

Orosz, Susan PhD, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian). 2014. Is Your Bird Ready to Fly? Avian Expert Articles. https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/bird-ready-fly. Accessed 03/22/2019.

Orosz, Susan PhD, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian). 2016. Free Flight: Lessons from ExoticsCon. Avian Expert Articles. https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/free-flight-lessons-exoticscon. Accessed 03/22/2019.

Proctor, Noble and Lynch, Patrick. 1993. Manual of Ornithology: Avian Structure & Function. Ann Arbor, MI:Yale University. Pg. 214.

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.