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.


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.