Parrots, Flight, and Play Behavior

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

Kids were on the school playground as I rode by on my bike recently. Seeing them run and jump and hearing their screams of excitement made me happy. I remember vividly the days of my youth when running, chasing, playing tether ball, and other physical play activities were paramount in my life. Is it so in our parrots’ lives?

It certainly seems to be, as I’ve watched two generations of parent-raised cockatoos grow up at Cockatoo Downs. As the fledglings did before her, Star Bare-eyed Cockatoo (17 weeks old) zooms around the aviary, catches a boing on the fly and twirls with great glee. Her parents sometimes shed their serious demeanor and join her in brief flights of joy.

The Functions of Play Behavior

Why is it that humans and non-human animals, especially young ones, partake in physical play activities? I don’t have specific answers to that question. Even with extensive research on play, it is not yet completely understood by scientists.

However, the majority of findings conclude that play behavior apparently promotes the ability to handle unexpected circumstances, helps recover from stressful situations, and aids in the development and training of physical and motor skills.

There are different types of play such as social play and object play, and I will be focusing on physical play. Physical play is a combination of activities that gives young animals, including humans, the chance to develop gross motor skills, learn and practice physical abilities, promote and develop strength and coordination, all while happily expending large amounts of energy.

Flighted Fledgling and the Adult Parrot

Parrots were not built to sit still. In the wild, they spend most of the day flying from place to place in search of food, nesting opportunities, and partaking in social interactions.

Supplying toys to young companion parrots to engage and play with can help expend energy to take the place of wild activities. However, creating an environment for the young parrot to play and fly affords the youngster the ultimate in energy expansion while promoting coordination, skill, exploration, and confidence.

Physical exercise for our adult companion parrots is very important for their health and welfare. Giving a fledgling parrot the opportunity for vigorous physical play sets the stage for the continuation of energetic exercise into the youngster’s adulthood.

Feeling comfortable and safe are key ingredients in promoting play activities in animals. The type of play activity that takes place is influenced by what the animal can physically do.

Regrettably, most hand-raised parrots are clipped as fledglings. A clipped youngster may experience a loss of balance and fear of falling which certainly hinders the parrot’s motivation to physically play, which can limit the parrot’s development.

Play behavior apparently promotes the ability to handle unexpected situations and allows versatility of emotional responses to help recover from averse situations. Because clipping fledglings limits their play opportunities, as adults they may have less proficiency in dealing with situations such as changing or stressful environments or handling successfully social interactions.

I am always dismayed when I learn that some breeders clip the wings of their fledglings before the birds take their first flight or soon thereafter. To be transparent, I, too, practiced that when I started breeding cockatoos. That was what was preached back in the day.

I finally did see the light and I let my fledglings fly. With that came displays of the exuberance that is inherently contained in a young cockatoo. The babies would develop their physical skills by energetically flying back and forth in the house as they learned to navigate and land on ropes strung across the ceiling. Play vocalizations such as loud screams echoed throughout the house as the fledglings’ confidence and skills grew each day.

Ropes were invaluable in advancing their motor skills. Losing their balance on a wobbly rope didn’t dissuade them because all they had to do was open their wings and fly off. Falling wasn’t a concern as it is for clipped parrots. I often wonder if flying birds even have a human concept of falling. To me, falling means loss of control and eventual pain as I hit the dirt. With a flighted bird, there is no loss of control when “falling” as she just opens her wings to fly.

It’s obvious to spot adult parrots who were clipped when young and did not have access to robust play exercise using their wings. Generally, as there are exceptions, they turn into perch potatoes with little to no motivation to move around or explore. They show dependency on their human caretakers to move them from place to place. They may be more sensitive in stressful situations and they can be more fearful of changes in their environment. And the list goes on.

I believe allowing parrot fledglings to keep their fully functioning wings is a welfare issue. Young parrots play if they are healthy, well-fed, and safe; but not if they are under stressful conditions or in a stressful mental state which a clipped fledgling may very well experience.

Watching a newly fledged parrot try to fly for the first time with clipped wings is truly a heartbreaking vision. A vastly important part of avian physical play has now been shut off for the youngster. An open door that would entitle the young companion parrot to a healthy mental and physical development has been rudely slammed in her face.

Even though scientists have yet to completely understand play behavior, we shouldn’t let our parrots be deprived of physical play; if for nothing else, it seems to be just plain fun for parrots to do. Just ask Star!

Star Update

Star is expanding her social circle and skills. Avian trainer and good friend, Kathryne Thorpe, came to visit Star recently. She spent time in the aviary feeding Star’s parents yummies. Star came down to the perch after giving Kathryne the once-over and preceded to eat from the treat bowl with Kathryne continuing to feed a parent. Comfortably accepting a new person in her aviary was a big step forward for Star.

Morning Coffee with Ellie

Ellie, my adopted Bare-eyed Cockatoo, is making great strides with the new behaviors she is learning. The newest is learning to fly to my hand. In the video, you will see the steps I took over several days to get to our goal behavior of flying to my hand. The important thing to remember is to make small steps towards any goal behavior. (The video has been shortened because of length.)

References:

Play Behavior in the Nonhuman Animal and the Welfare Issue, Ana Flora Sarti Oliveira et al; published online, June 10, 2009, Japan Ethological Society and Springer, 2009.

Social Play Behavior, Marc Bekoff, The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, Animal Studies Repository, 1984.

So You Think You Know Why Animals Play, Linda Sharpe, Scientific American, May 17, 2011.

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.