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.


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.