I recently had the great opportunity to chat with Chris Shank of Cockatoo Downs, one of the founders in promoting the free flight of parrots. We started this phone discussion because of better recognition and increased concern for the health and welfare of our companion parrots. Research studies presented at ExoticsCon and other conferences point to the need for our parrots to fly or at least flap more and exercise more.
While feeding our birds a good and wholesome diet is important, that alone will not keep them healthy. Just like us, exercise is critically important. Exercise allows parrots to retain bone strength and keeps joints working properly, it may help to reduce fat deposits in blood vessels and it has shown to improve heart performance. Along with that, it promotes proper perfusion of organs, particularly the kidney and liver.
Chris and I started this discussion many years ago when I had the opportunity to visit Cockatoo Downs in Dallas, Oregon, and experience the wonder of watching her free flying cockatoos! And with the ExoticsCon conference offering a lab, many vets, vet techs and others got to see a glimpse of her unique perspective on flying birds. Since I unfortunately could not attend, I thought that I would give her a call and we could chat about flight for the parrot owner and some things to get them started.
Chris noted that, “Many hand-raised companion parrots are typically not fledged by their breeders when the birds are weaned. The window of opportunity to learn how to fly for all parrots is just at weaning. If not given the chance to learn at that time, it can be difficult for the parrot to learn to fly later as an adult. Flying takes lots of mental and physical ability and this is where training by the caretaker comes into play to help the parrot learn how to use her wings.”
For birds that have missed that fledging opportunity, it appears harder to get larger birds to fly compared to smaller birds. While it can be very frustrating to get them to move, owners can get them to at least do some walking, flapping and movement, particularly in outside aviaries.
Chris indicated that at the heart of flying your bird is positive reinforcement training. She suggested that one could look at recall and positive reinforcement training information (available at: http://www.goodbirdinc.com) by Barbara Heidenreich, a professional animal trainer and co-presenter with Chris at the lab for ExoticsCon. Chris suggested that owners could start with recall training using that bird’s favorite treat! The idea it that you treat the bird when you ask it to walk toward you on a countertop: when the bird steps in your direction, give a small treat with a word of encouragement. Then you should ask for the same task several times to reinforce the behavior of “come.”
As these sessions continue and the distance lengthens between you and your bird, you will then want to have the bird repeat this from a perch. They need to step to your hand and both of you need to be comfortable with this. Still remember to treat the bird when you ask them to step or come. Then as you gradually move your hand away from the perch and they have to stretch, they may give up. Alternatively, that magical moment will happen where the bird flicks its wings in anticipation of flight to your hand. In that brief moment, they will collect air under the air foil of their wings before alighting to your hand. That action takes lots of reinforcement and time, and she said that owners will get discouraged, but they need to persevere! The bird will have to jump with uplifted wings and use the air to get to you. Once they get the idea, the owner should gradually increase the distance so that they will fly to your hand.
That process will vary with the species of parrot and the individual and its past experiences. Again, it seems easier for smaller, more aerodynamic birds that have longer tails and a more narrow shape to their body.
For those birds that can’t fly due to injuries or other medical conditions, there are other activities that can provide exercise for your bird. Playing on a “boing” (a large rope spiral) particularly when doing flapping upside down to get at a toy, is a great tool to get them flapping. With that we discussed enrichment to motivate activity. Foraging with a variety of toys that are appropriate for your species of bird is important. Cockatoos are masters at turning large wing nuts to, say, open a box, while Amazons just don’t figure that out — so that toy would not be appropriate for Amazons. Boxes with part of their daily food stuffed into them is one form of foraging and it may take a series of steps to get there. Then once they master that, position the foraging toys in the cage so that they have to approach them upside down. This will help your birds to learn balance and to use the muscles of their wings.
When doing foraging, Chris suggested that you might have to change how you feed your parrot. She might supply only the pellets for the morning feeding and they might be part of the foraging box or toy. To get them motivated, it might be the favorite foods or the treats that helps them learn how to forage to receive their daily food requirement. There are a number of good references on foraging but remember that you need to work and observe your bird to understand what is right for them.
Create Flight Space
Over the winter, as your bird is more able to fly in small spaces or distances, you might design a flight safe room for them. Hanging boings in key locations is a great idea, along with providing curved shower curtain rods in corners so that they have something to land on and not hit the wall. Those places that you want them to fly will be key foraging spots, and will allow them to fly from place to place with a safe landing spot. And those spots will also be where they can spend time chewing toys and taking advantage of foraging opportunities, not chewing furniture or woodwork!
Chris has given many workshops and had an advanced course this past summer but will let us know her upcoming schedule for next year. She is a great teacher and builds confidence for those that learn from her. And she is a very wonderful parrot lover … and I hope to get to watch her in action again soon.