Avian Expert Articles

Is Your Bird Ready To Fly?

African grey parrot; African grayBirds are the ultimate flying machines, with truly remarkable aerial feats. Part of what draws us to birds is the fact that they can fly; it is part of a bird’s unique makeup. While parrots can fly, there are certainly differences in the way they fly, and not all parrots are equally adept at flying.

Structures For Bird Flight

Form has been often described as following function. Flight imposes strict limitations on the size, shape, and the structure of the flying “machine.” Aerodynamic efficiency and power have to be combined with structural and muscular strength while keeping weight to a minimum. For birds, that has resulted in a basic uniformity of design. A bird’s smooth, sweeping body shape reduces turbulence and reduces air resistance. Within that framework you can understand that parrots with long wings and tails like macaws, conures, and cockatiels are more aerodynamic than parrots with a more blunted wing-shape, like Amazons and African greys. Amazons and greys are short-flap fliers and, in the wild, they most likely fly from a tree to tree in their territory compared to the macaws, which fly to various longer locations.

The most striking features of birds is their ability to perform very rigorous functions in harsh environments such as diving deeply in cold water, flying at high altitudes, and running in hot deserts. This requires that their cardiovascular system (CVS) must be able to meet the demands of providing adequate delivery of oxygen to vascular beds that are taxed by extreme metabolic demands. The CVS must also efficiently remove metabolic byproducts to maintain function and hence performance.

Because of the unique physiologic demands associated with flight, the structure and function of the respiratory system in birds is significantly different from that of mammals. For example, birds have an extremely efficient mechanism for oxygen extraction, which enables them to maintain their high metabolic rates (necessary to cope with the physical stresses associated with flight) and to fly at high altitudes, where oxygen is reduced).

To Fly or Not To Fly

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “To be, or not to be which is the opening phrase of the soliloquy in the “Nunnery Scene” of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. In the speech, a despondent or feigning Prince Hamlet contemplates death. He bemoans the pains and unfairness of life but acknowledges the alternative might be still worse. In a similar way, pet bird enthusiasts are faced with the dilemma, “To trim or not to trim” when it comes their birds’ feathers.

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.

Yet flight maneuver inside a home can present some serious hazards. Many pet birds have been severely injured as a result of flying straight into a window, wall or ceiling fan or crash landing in an open toilet or pot of hot water. And fully flighted companion birds have accidentally flown away due to an open window/door or when taken outdoors.

Some pet bird owners choose to limit their birds’ flight via a wing-feather trim, which is oftentimes the case with a new bird to make handling easier or before taking a bird on a trip or outdoors to prevent accidental escape. But you can’t just go cutting random feathers. To do so can cause a bird to go into a tailspin, and the result can be a devastating injury due to the bird landing like a brick straight down onto the floor.

The wing and tail configuration influences how many feathers need to be trimmed should a companion bird’s flight ability need to be restricted. This matters based on the aerodynamics of that species and then of that individual. So the numbers of feathers trimmed is based on the aerodynamics of the bird. The other important component is what feathers to clip. That is also based on the anatomy of birds and flight characteristics. The primary flight feathers are those that extend from the carpus or wrist to the end of the wing. The barbs that come from the feather shaft are asymmetrical with the leading edge shorter than the trailing edge. This anatomic arrangement reduces turbulence. And the primary flight feathers are involved with producing lift, which is why these feathers should be clipped appropriately to temporarily reduce flight.

The secondary remiges, or the secondary feathers, produce thrust. When extended, birds’ wings have the airfoil like that of an airplane and has been described as the perfect airfoil. The bones of the leading edge along with the long, thick tendon called the propatagial ligament, makes the cranial edge of the wing rigid and rounded, while the flight feathers make the trailing edge taper to a point. The wing is hollow on the underside so that the wind rushing across the surface of the wing due to that anatomy produces the lift.

In-Flight Training

The health benefits of allowing a bird to do what he or she is built to do — fly! —  is well worth integrating safety protocols inside the home. As bird owners, if we want to get our birds flying we think. “Well, let’s just let them fly!” But we soon realize that is a problem because, much to our amazement, they can’t – well, at first they can’t. The problem is some pet birds do not know how to fly or at least fly well. That has to be learned. And the other component to flight is just the opposite and that gets them into real trouble — they have to learn how to land! Those are things that their bird parents teach them and so those are things that you will have to teach. Maneuvering requires a significant learning curve as well as learning to land. You have to start slow so that the bird almost hops from a stable perch to another perch, and gradually increase the distance so that the bird learns to land. Maneuvering comes next, as the bird learns to first fly straight and then through hoops to tuck wings for an instant and then learn to go around corners. Flapping sessions — where you perch your bird on your hand or arm and move it downward so that the bird has to flap his wings to stay on — improves cardiovascular performance, which will help with short flights. These should be gradually lengthened so that the bird can build up fitness, which translates to improved cardiovascular performance.

While it takes time and patience to teach flying, maneuvering and landing, it is well worth the reward for most birds. Each bird and situation is different, so some home setups will better accommodate flight than others. Birds with medical or other problems, for example, may not be able to fly. Contact your avian veterinarian to discuss options for your feathered friend. And if you are able to safely allow flight, take a moment to marvel at all those components to make it happen!

2 thoughts on “Is Your Bird Ready To Fly?

  1. Would weight gain cause my parrot, a Lesser Sulfur Crested Cockatoo become less interested in flying? He was such a good flyer in previous years. What happened? Thank you for your time and articles.

    1. birds that are overweight tend not to fly or fly well. However other problems may contribute including but not limited to heart disease, arthritis and failing eye sight. It is best to have your bird examined by your avian veterinarian.
      – Dr. Orosz

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