Parrots are birds and birds fly. Allowing parrots to fly free in our homes is exhilarating but also poses some challenges. Without going into too much detail about other important things about flight safety (these are covered in my book), I want to focus on the training element.
Teaching a parrot to fly to you actually covers two different dilemmas. The first is teaching a parrot to fly controlled within our home at all in the first place and the second is actually about coming to you. What you must realize is that the bird has to actually learn how to fly to you as much as teaching it to want to.
The two best tools for teaching this controlled form of flight are a pair of Training Perches and a target stick. Luckily the Parrot Training Perch Kit I offer includes a clicker and target stick in addition to two perches so you'd be ready to begin the flight training out of the box!
If you haven't already done basic clicker and target training with a walking parrot on a perch, go back and do that first. Flying is harder so without understanding what you are asking and a high level of motivation, there is no way the parrot will break ground for just a stick. Begin the flight training process with a reminder of the walking target training. Set up the two training perches in parallel but so close together that the parrot can step and target from one perch to the other.
Continue to practice targeting the parrots between the two training perches until you start to build up a rhythm. The parrot will begin to foresee that you will target one way and the other and maybe even jump the gun a little and go before targeted. This isn't really what we are after but it will show good motivation to continue. Begin to spread the gap between the two training perches ever so slightly. Continue targeting the parrot between the perches without letting it realize that the gap grows after subsequent targeting attempts.
Eventually the gap will be big enough that the bird will have to jump or fly to get across. Hopefully the bird is a capable enough of a flyer to be able to realize to do this on its own. If it does not, you may need to trick the timid bird that won't fly into walking across but then spreading the gap enroute to cause the first flight to happen. A way to do this is to set the two training perches just slightly too far apart to walk. Then tip the remote perch toward the bird and target for it to walk. Just as the bird reaches the gap, return the distant perch to its original position. This will cause the bird to flap reflexively to catch its balance and make it across the gap. With sufficient rewards and motivation, after a few such attempts, the bird will begin to make the effort to fly across.
Progress will be slow at first but then pick up. At first the bird does not know what you want but also doesn't know how to control itself to make such a flight. Furthermore, the flight muscles may be atrophied or inadequately exercised. It will take time for the bird to regain the strength and motor skills before progress can be made. Continue spreading the gap between the two training perches and target the bird to fly bigger distances. The bird will develop skills and strength after a few days of these exercises. Adjust the height of the training perches to teach the parrot to fly up and down as well. Eventually replace the second training perch with your hand or arm. Phase out the target stick but continue giving treats for successful flight recalls. Instead of targeting, you can call your bird's name as a command to fly to you. Keep increasing the distance and challenging your bird and you will develop an excellent and reliable flight recall.
Keep in mind that very high levels of training motivation are required for flight training. You can use a combination of food management, trick training, and other techniques to achieve it. This is covered in great detail in my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots.
Now get a Parrot Training Perch Kit and follow these steps and you will be on your way to flight recall training your parrot. More videos and information about this flight training method are available on the Training Perch site.
So it's been 6 months since I adopted Santina; but it's also been a few months since the macaw was introduced to the other two. I'd like to take a little time to talk about the flock dynamics that are emerging.
Initially, Kili had been an only bird. Then for a short time she shared the household with a budgie and eventually with Truman. The dynamic between Kili and Truman had always been where Kili was boss. Kili could take any perch from Truman at any moment. Truman got used to being the "little bird." Now things changed yet again with the addition of another bird.
Whenever considering the addition of another bird it is absolutely essential to consider how this bird will fit into the existing flock structure. You can't just simply say "I want this kind" and disregard whether existing birds will agree or not. When it comes to Kili, I know that she will bully any bird that is smaller or several times her size. This is why when I got Truman, I was only considering birds that were bigger than her that could handle the aggression. Even at triple her weight and 1.3x her size, Truman tends to lose most fights to her.
Santina is obviously much bigger than the other two but her personality also plays a big factor. She's not aggressive, she's slow, hulking, lazy. These qualities make her a lesser threat to the existing smaller birds. In fact, she would not go after them and they could out fly her any time, even if she could fly. So that's one side of the issue eliminated. On the flip side, the biggest danger is if the little guys put themselves in the way.
Initial introductions were to build favorable first impressions, start peacefully, and get the birds used to being around each other without causing trouble. However, beyond this early acceptance, the rest they have to work out on their own. This happens little by little through experimentation as the birds cross each others paths (whether intentionally or inadvertently).
The only trouble I ran into was that Santina finished her hazelnut quickly and started to pry Truman's nut out of his beak and scared him. The trick is to keep them busy with more nuts or to separate the birds before any trouble can erupt. This gives them a chance to get used to being around each other and not have aggressive thoughts. As sitting near each other begins to work, trick training the parrots on the same perch is also a great idea to teach cooperation.
Another thing that greatly improves the flock dynamic is taking the parrots outside together. Even if enemies at home, they tend to stick together outdoors against all the other mayhem. This socialization experience builds better bonds between the parrots that you bring home with you (with time). I've been taking the parrots out two and sometimes even three at a time. I put them down on fences or benches in close proximity to each other and keep them busy with training and food. They behave very well together in this type of setting.
Interestingly, Truman was never scared of Santina (more than triple his weight and size) from the very beginning. Kili, the bird that fearlessly bullies Truman, stays away from Santina. Kili is a true bully, she'll only pick fights she knows she can win. Truman on the other hand is the bumbling dodo. Truman will cross Santina's path thoughtlessly. And I want to reiterate that he's doing this in a non-aggressive way. When Kili goes after Truman, you can tell it is with malicious intentions. Truman on the other hand, doesn't actually go after Santina but he walks by her entirely focused on whatever he is after. Truman does not notice the far bigger macaw perched there and brushes right by her. His behavior comes off as bold. But his boldness is not in him thinking that he can take on the bigger bird but him not thinking at all. This is how Truman lands himself in trouble all the time.
This is exactly what happens between Truman and Santina. They have potential together as they are both non-aggressive birds but Truman is a bit of a dummy and puts himself in her way. Half the time this happens too quickly for Santina to react. Other times she runs away not knowing how this little bird can be coming right at her. Sometimes she puts her beak out defensively though. She does not attack or bite but simply tries to defend herself. Truman has been known to try to land on her and she needs to send him a reminder that her head is not a landing pad. Here's a video that perfectly illustrates the sort of character that Truman is:
First a word about each parrot's personality and the role it plays in the flock. Kili is the oldest (at least in my mind because I got her first, in hers as well I'm sure!) and for sure the most aggressive. As a Senegal Parrot, it's just in her nature. But I have trained almost all of that aggression out of her so she is super well-behaved. But there is no guarantee that she won't try to attack Santina and start a dangerous war. Truman is an easy going Cape Parrot. He has been bullied by Kili all his life and has become accustomed to having to yield his perch. He is absolutely non-aggressive and doesn't start fights. He is, however, stubborn and provoking. Until Kili gives him a good bite, he doesn't want to yield. Santina, being a green-winged macaw, is the biggest parrot. She is also a rescue with not a fully known history. She is extremely friendly and non-aggressive with me but she has been known to bite others. I have to be careful with her because she has the potential to hurt any of the other birds. But on the flip side I also know that she doesn't hurt anyone she likes. It will be important to get everyone to be on her good side.
The very first step in the introduction process has been to not do anything and just let the birds see each other through the bars from a distance. I did not want to overwhelm anyone by forcing an interaction prematurely. The next portion of the process is to begin the introduction in safe foolproof ways. There absolutely cannot be a fight or provocation. The birds must only get used to being near each other but without resorting to fighting. Since I am limited in being able to control what my parrots do, I have to shape the environment and interactions for success. The essential thing to prevent for now, is for two parrots to end up in close enough proximity to be able to start a fight for any reason. Thus the challenge is to bring the parrots closer together while keeping them apart.
To bring the parrots closer together without potential physical contact, what I have been doing is getting Kili or Truman in a grab (they like being grabbed so it's no problem) and holding them near Santina. I kept them out of biting range for sure. At first I kept them at some distance but progressively approached closer. This is a way to directly control the first interactions and helps me establish the relationship for both birds simultaneously. What I don't want is for them to establish relationships on their own terms because I don't know what those terms might be. I would rather take it slowly and ensure tolerance and ideally friendship between everybody. While holding one of the old world parrots in my grab, I would use my free hand to give scratches to both. I'd alternate between giving Truman a head scratch and then Santina.
By alternating my attention between the two birds, I deter jealousy and encourage mutual cooperation. You may recall that I encouraged cooperation between Kili & Truman by using the prisoner's dilemma in making them have to work together to get mega-treats. I would recall the birds to fly to me together and unless both came, neither would get the treats. They learned to work together for mutual success. Likewise, by requiring both Santina and Truman to be calm in each other's presence to earn head scratched, I am able to build a similar experience. Both birds were earning welcome head scratches that they would not have been getting otherwise at that time.
While holding Kili or Truman in a grab near Santina, I was carefully assessing each bird's body language. I was careful not to evoke any aggression while promoting responses most closely associated to contentedness. Nothing bad was happening to any bird but only good things. Interestingly, Santina was very calm. Although she showed some modest interest, she did not show the aggressive body language I have come to recognize that she makes when she ultimately ends up biting people. With Truman's approach, Santina simply turned her head around backwards and proceeded preening. This is definitely a sign of calm and trust. Likewise, Kili & Truman showed no aggression and enjoyed extra scratches.
By keeping the guest parrots in my grab, I was able to get Santina to associate some of the happiness she feels in seeing me toward seeing these other birds. They were a sort of extension of my reach. Santina's trust of the fact that anything I present to her is good, also helped. I repeated this grabbed showing exercise a few times.
The next step was to introduce some closer interaction with greater freedom without letting the parrots cross paths. I began working on flight recalls in the bird room with Kili & Truman. With Santina on a stand at the far end of the room, I gave Kili & Truman the freedom to fly in the same room as her. So even though they could fly up to her and start a fight, they didn't. They know how to focus on a training session and ignore all else during this time. This is where a focused training approach comes in really handy when introducing birds. The birds don't even have to know how to fly or do complex tricks. Just getting each bird to focus on some sort of known positively reinforced behavior (such as target) is a great starting point. The training creates sufficient distraction while also inadvertently reinforcing the parrots for being in proximity without contact. Santina wasn't neglected during this training time either. While Kili & Truman would be eating their treats, I would continue training with Santina as well.
By using pellets as treats for all birds, I was able to buy sufficient consumption time that I never had more than one unoccupied bird at a time. While the parrots were occupied eating their treats at distant ends of the room, there was no opportunity for aggression. With time and progress, I would have the birds end up closer to each other. I had Kili or Truman buzz right by Santina in flight to recall to me. They would ignore her presence and focus on flying to me instead. Since Santina was preoccupied eating her own treat during that time, she had little reason for concern either. Interestingly, Santina was not bothered or surprised to see these flying birds despite being clipped and living around clipped birds.
To take things even further, I began finding reasons to give a nut to each bird and putting them near each other to eat it. A nut is a really big deal for all of my birds and it keeps them so occupied that they notice little else while consuming it. I would have each bird do something to earn a nut and then put each on adjacent perches. None of the perches were in stepping distance of each other but the flighted parrots could easily hop or fly the gap if they really wanted to. But since all birds were preoccupied enjoying their nuts, nobody went anywhere and the all of the parrots had practice being in each other's proximity without doing anything undesirable.
These early introductions have been very successful. I will continue training the parrots near each other while maintaining separation. With time the separation will be reduced. I will also take the parrots places together. I have found that travel and socialization really brings parrots together in their familiarity with each other but not the new places. Lastly, at some eventual times the parrots will inadvertently come in each others immediate proximity and I will be evaluating the outcomes and whether or not they can be let together for any extended or unsupervised spans of time.
This is not an absolute approach to parrot introductions but it works well for me. This is the method by which I originally introduced Kili & Truman to each other and it worked. Now I am using the same for Santina. Having a good training background and well-behaved parrot in the first places are important requisites to having success with this introduction approach. So if you haven't already, check out my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots to help you get to a point where applying this kind of training, being able to grab your parrots, etc are all possible in order to take advantage of these introduction techniques.
A very common question parrot owners ask is how much time should my parrot spend out of the cage? Or they ask what are the minimum number of hours my ________ (fill in the species) needs to spend outside of the cage every day? The problem with this question is that it asks for a quantitative answer to a qualitative question. Here's my answer. It doesn't matter how long your parrot spends outside of the cage every day! What matters is how it spends its time out of the cage!
Too many parrots get their wings clipped and placed on a tree for hours at a time. The tree thus serves as nothing more than another cage! The bird cannot leave the tree and do what it truly wants (at least within the confines of the house). I'm not saying it's bad to put your bird into different “cages” throughout the day for variety but if the bird isn't free, this isn't “out of cage” time.
In the case of social companion parrots, the parrot wants to spend time with you do and do what you do. Putting the parrot down on a stand while you check email is no less boring to the bird than sitting in the cage. Out of cage time needs to serve as interactive time between you and your parrot for it to really count. The parrot needs to be part of what you are doing and you must be part of what your parrot is doing. No quantity of hours sitting out can replace this.
Parrots want to be in the middle of everything, the center of attention, and do what you do. They cannot be content being a passive part of your life.
Cage vs tree
Is the tree not just another cage if the parrot isn't free to go elsewhere by flight? You wouldn't realize how much your parrot likes or doesn't like its tree unless you can observe it choosing to go there or choosing to leave. Despite how awesome I thought this tree is, it took Truman less time to get bored of it than it took me to build it!
The other issue is that some parrots don't really want to be out. In that case, forcing out of cage time only harms your relationship. Grabbing a parrot out of the cage with a towel to make it serve it's mandated “out of cage time” only makes the relationship even worse. It will only cause stress and distrust. The parrot will not enjoy that time and even though it received out of cage time, it entirely missed the purpose of that time. To achieve a great relationship, the parrot should want to come out and to spend time with you. When you use some of the out of cage time to serve positive interactive purposes such as trick training, it sets real goals for your parrot and reasons to want to be out.
If the parrot isn't enjoying being out, out of cage time is actually doing more harm than good!
Use target training to teach parrots to enjoy coming out of the cage
Parrots enjoying meaningful out of cage time (playing with toys) while exhibiting acceptable behavior. I want to encourage as much out of cage time like this as possible but put them away before they can get bored of toys and engage in nuisance behavior
Actually, I don't think there is a minimum amount of out of cage time. Rather there is a minimum amount of daily interaction, minimum amount of positive reinforcement, minimum amount of flying exercise, and minimum amount of a love that a parrot must have. These minimums aren't known so it is best to give as much as possible that your parrot wants to ensure you are not below minimum (as we all know parrots that don't get enough of these may resort to behavioral problems such as plucking).
In terms of good behavior, less is more. It is actually easier to set a maximum value for out of cage time for parrots than minimums. Although the parrot may wish to be out to interact and play as much as possible, if we let the parrot stay out too long, inevitably undesirable behavior will ensue. Almost no companion parrot can spend all day out of the cage without resorting to doing things that annoy us. Whether it's chewing up furniture, screaming, flying to us endlessly, nipping/biting people, or getting in fights with the rest of the flock, these are all the results of boredom from being out too long. To make the most of your parrot's out of cage time, perform parrot training and keep interactions direct and focused. However, put the parrot back in the cage before it has the opportunity to turn to nuisance behavior. If the parrot becomes accustomed to spending too much time out of the cage, it will be less inclined to be well-behaved and more likely turn to nuisance behavior to seek attention or entertain itself. You must use preemptive measures to keep the parrot trained or occupied. However, eventually these run out. The parrot is no longer hungry for training rewards, the parrot has had its fill of attention, etc. This is when the parrot turns to nipping the owner for fun or attention, chewing the curtains, attacking others, etc. Worse yet, whatever you end up doing in response to such undesired behavior (hurt parrot, put parrot away, yell at parrot, say 'no', etc), will only make things worse. The bad behavior is already learned and the parrot becomes reinforced to seek your attention with it.
Put the parrot back into its cage before the onset of bad behavior. Work on increasing duration with time
Thus the parrot must be put away into the cage while things are still good. Leave some desire for next time to enjoy being out. Keeping out of cage time short but well-behaved is far better than long and chaotic (the parrot will hurt itself or the owner will burn out before you know it). As the parrot develops good habits during short but guided out of cage sessions, it will become more accustomed to behave that way whenever out. You can progressively have the parrot out for longer durations but the habitual good behavior will persist for longer spans of out of cage time!
For new parrot owners or owners with problematic parrots, doing short target training sessions for spans of 5-10 minutes and then putting the parrot away for a meal in the cage is a great way to start building up good behavior. You can progressively expand durations of time and introduce more play/interaction with time. Before you know it the parrot can be spending hours out where the parrot behaves in an acceptable manner to people and the parrot gets to enjoy the things it wants while out.
Out of cage time provides room for flying
One of the top benefits of out of cage time to a bird is the space to fly. The cage almost never provides room to fly and even most outdoor aviaries are inadequate. However, in the space of your living room, the parrot has the space to stretch its wings and exercise. The parrot does not need to be flying all day long to get exercise but to make up for all the time on its legs in the cage, getting to fly while out is essential.
The other type of out of cage time we must seek to offer is out of [house] cage time. Taking your parrot outdoors is very enriching. The sights, sounds, smells, etc are all something different for the parrot to take in. Also the bird requires outdoor time for its health (vitamin D and calcium production). Use a harness to take your parrot outdoors as much as possible. Inevitably this turns into focused together time and is a top way to provide valuable out of cage time.
Outdoor time provides some of the best benefits of out of cage time: fresh air, exercise, sunshine, enrichment
It is good to have a fair amount of predictable routine for your parrot when it comes to the out of cage time schedule. Give your parrot something to look forward to every day. But once in a while, break it up. Some days take your parrot out for longer, take your parrot some place outdoors, or leave it in its cage entirely. This helps the parrot adjust to a more varied lifestyle and prepare it for any changes. The parrot should enjoy out of cage time but it shouldn't be helpless without it.
So rather than imposing silly minimums like "A budgie should get at least 30 minutes a day of out of cage time, a conure should spend an hour outside of the cage, an African grey should get at least 3 hours of out of cage time, and a cockatoo needs to spend all day with you," you should put far more focus on the quality of time the parrot spends outside the cage instead. This is the out of cage time that truly matters. That said, try to provide as much out of cage time as you are able but instead of stressing about the exact amount, focus on making it more interactive, exercising, and stimulating for your parrot.
The out of cage time should be both enjoyable to the parrot but also to the owner. There must be balance such that both owner and parrot are happy for this long term arrangement to last. Keep early out of cage times short and sweet but stretch your parrot's endurance. Practice having the parrot out longer and longer but be sure to put the bird away before things can get bad. Having a well-behaved parrot that enjoys its out of cage time is a win/win for everybody.
My parrots do what I want. This is contrary to most people's parrots that do what they don't want and don't do what they do want. My parrots step up for me whenever I ask them to. They come out of their cages and go back into their cages when expected. They fly to me when called and allow me to touch, hold, handle, and grab them. They never bite me and they don't bite other people either. They voluntarily put on their harnesses and travel with me. They even freefly outside without restraint and come back to me. My parrots do what I want them to do! But why do they do that? I will attempt to explain that in this article.
Note in this article I use examples of my freeflight experiences with Kili & Truman as the ultimate demonstration of my parrots doing what I want with full freedom. I am not recommending that anyone try this with their parrot. I am only hoping to convince you of the extent of the effectiveness of my approaches and to encourage you to use them with your parrot in your home. It is best that you do not attempt outdoor freeflight.
It comes down to training, motivation, challenging, patience, and realistic expectations. Without all of these components, it is unlikely that your parrot will do what you want. Let's start with realistic expectations. In part this means understanding and accepting the wild side of a parrot and that it may never change. On the other hand it's about having expectations that are achievable and relative to the parrot's current level of training. In other words when I work with a less trained parrot, I don't expect it to do what a more highly trained parrot can. If what I want the parrot to do is relative to what it can do, then I am more likely to be pleased that the parrot is doing what I want.
But wanting the parrot to do what I expect it to be capable of doing isn't enough. I also want the parrot to learn to do better and this is where challenging the parrot comes in. I challenge my parrots and other parrots that I train to do better. This is a perpetual process. Even when my parrots are good at what they do, I challenge them to do better still or to move onto tougher challenges that will continue to challenge them. By raising the bar of their capabilities - as well as my expectations - it assures that the easier things will remain while newer challenges will be achieved as well.
Patience is the bridge between expectations and achieving actual challenges. These things may take time. But what's the rush? The bird will live a very long time and it's a fun road for us to share together through the behavior improvement process. But expectations, challenges, and patience simply aren't enough. An infinite amount of these will still keep you exactly where you're at if you don't apply training. Training teaches the parrot how to do the things that we wish to challenge them with. I'm not going to get into how to train parrots because that is the subject of this blog and my book, but it is undeniable that training is a key component.
Yet, even people who apply the training approach end up failing to achieve desired behavior from their parrots. One more component is irreplaceable: motivation. The parrot has to want what you want or at least want what you can do for it in return for doing what you want. Parrots may be highly intelligent but they are also highly selfish. As are we. We want our parrots to do what we want; likewise our parrots want us to do what they want! Having an outstanding relationship and well-behaved parrot lies on the intersection of those two desires! There must be compromise on both sides in order for it to work.
The secret to getting your parrot to do what you want is to make it so that the parrot wants to do that. We can call this motivation. Forcing the parrot to do what you want may work at times. But the down side in most cases is that if the parrot doesn't genuinely want to do that, then at the first opportunity to bail it will. For example, I take my parrots to freefly at the park. On the way to and from the park I have them wear their aviator harnesses just to be safe. However, at the park they are given the freedom to fly. If the only reason they wore harnesses was because at home I forced them to wear the harness, then at the park they could easily fly away from me to avoid having it put on. You see, the difference now between a parrot that WANTS to put the harness on from the parrot that HAS to put the harness on?
Another element that I find to be crucial to success with parrots is not clipping their wings!. I think wing clipping is to a large extent responsible for parrot owners' failure to teach the parrot to do what they want. And it's not the other way around, either. I do believe that people think they are clipping a bird because it does not do what they want. But in reality, they never taught it in the first place. But by clipping the bird's wings, they are actually eliminating the possibility of teaching their parrot to behave the way that it should. The parrot does not stay on its tree because it should, it does it because it has to! The parrot doesn't avoid flying over to people because it doesn't want to bite, but because it can't. Wing clipping ends up forcing a parrot to appear to do what we want (like be with us) but in actuality there is a strong chance the parrot does not want to. In that case, it is a failed application of teaching the parrot to do what we want it to do. This ultimately leads to failure and a highly misbehaved parrot.
Parrots are born to fly. It's not just their feathered appearance that is evolved for flight. Their entire cardio-respiratory system is like a turbocharged engine that is dying for flight. Their brain is capable of processing its spatial surroundings, navigating, planning, and thinking at the speed of flight! Without flight, the muscles and the brain decay from disuse. We need that brain to stay sharp to learn to be the great pet that we desire. Eliminating flight eliminates the intelligence that we need to tap into to teach the parrot to cooperate.
The goal is to have a parrot that looks forward to seeing you and cooperating with you. If the parrot only does these things because it has to, then at the first opportunity to not have to do them, it won't. Yet if the parrot is put in the situation that it wants to do these things and chooses to, success is assured all around.
Here's a great test to figure out if the way you approach your parrot is improving or harming your relationship: if your parrot will fly away from you as a result, it is hurting. If your parrot will voluntarily fly to you to get to participate in your handling, then it is improving. The only way to find out is to have a flighted parrot. Simply guessing what your parrot would do is not enough because there is no concrete feedback. A clipped parrot that cannot fly may be stuck enduring much that it does not want. This will slowly add up and then at some point what seems like "biting for no reason" is actually quite justified because of all the things it had to do that it did not want to do. By allowing the bird to fly and using this as a gauge for what it wants/does not want to do, you can only use approaches that actually work. This reduces the fallout of doing things that the bird does not want and having revenge seemingly out of nowhere.
Most of you know that I use food management to train tricks/behavior to my parrots. It would seem that the parrot is "forced" to do what I want because otherwise it would not get to eat. But actually this isn't the case for several reasons.
First this has to do with a realization I've made some time ago. It's not my job to feed my parrots. It is their job to feed themselves. It is only my responsibility to make food available to them but it is up to them to make the feeding take place. Think about it. In the most basic case, the owner puts food in the bowl and the parrot climbs over to eat from it. The owner is making food available but the parrot is choosing to take the steps to eat the food. Likewise, in the wild, parrots fly distances from tree to tree to feed themselves. What I am doing is shifting the gap from eating from a bowl inches away to something closer to eating from a tree miles away. It is not only natural but also instinctual for parrots to search, forage, and behave in ways that get them food. Through training and soliciting good behavior ("good" is relative and in this case I mean "behavior that is desirable to me") I am directly appealing to a parrot's natural desire to do what it takes to feed itself.
Furthermore, if my parrots are failing the challenges I make for them to "feed themselves," I - in my sympathy - can reduce the challenges to something that they are known to be capable of to ensure they do manage to feed themselves. In other words, they'll still be fed. But it gets even better still. During this process we develop alternative forms of reinforcement that are not food. The birds develop habitual good behavior and maintain it even though they never receive food for it. Not biting, stepping up, coming out of the cage, touching, handling, grabbing, stepping up for other people, putting on harnesses, etc are so much practiced and habitual that my parrots continue to exhibit all these excellent behaviors without receiving any treats for them. So, yes, food was used to teach them these things initially, but as they have become habit, the parrots are no longer dependent on food to maintain these.
As I challenge my parrots to always do more behavior, better, for smaller treats, and for less frequent treats, they become adapted to just doing the behavior. They also become more in tune with very subtle conditioned reinforcers. Getting a click of the clicker or just a smile from my face can become much more effective when the parrot has been challenged to do a certain behavior for a treat once every 10 or better yet every 50 times. By employing variable ratio reinforcement schedules, I am able to make the behavior more reliable while also making the parrot less dependent on food as a reason for doing it. Also, as I challenge my parrots to do harder and harder things (such as extensive amounts of strenuous flying), it makes other things comparatively easier. My parrots perform tricks, step up, and behave well in other ways much more readily because those are far easier ways to earn attention, scratches, and other good subtle non-food things than flying. It's a piece of cake to step up for me for a head scratch rather than to fly to me for it. So step up is absolutely reliable and fool proof. Flying 50ft recalls at home is easier than flying 200ft recalls at the park, so after flying 200ft recalls at the park, the parrots are even more reliable at flying 50ft recalls at home. As I continue to challenge my parrots' ultimate behavior challenges, all easier behavior becomes near automatic.
If you challenge your parrot to go just a little further, do just a little more, with time the behavior will be better and better. First it may be a matter of walking a few inches to the food bowl to eat. Then the parrot can learn to target a greater distance to target and eat. Then you can take this even further and have the bird learn to fly some distances to you to get the same. The bird still gets to eat the full healthy portion that is suitable for it but it will just learn to do more and more for it and this will be normal. In the process the parrot will become more fit and your relationship will blossom. No matter how much we challenge our parrots, it still doesn't even come remotely close to the challenges of nature. But the more we train our parrots, the happier we will be with having a more suitable pet and the healthier the parrot will be as well.
I treat training, and particularly flight recall training, like I am a tree. In the wild, parrots will fly from tree to tree to find the ones with ripe fruit, nuts, or seeds. Some trees may not have anything while others will be more rewarding. I tell my parrots to "forage me with their good behavior." In the wild, they will be challenged to find the food and then to extract it from its natural protections. In the home, they can experience the same mental challenge but in a way that benefits our relationship at the same time. They have to try to work out the puzzle of extracting their food from me by figuring out what I want them to do and doing it to the best of their ability! This is so natural to them. It feels like more of a crime to deny them the opportunities to express these natural tendencies. They love to be challenged.
While my parrots are practicing flight in home and outside, not only are they learning to fly better, they are also building stronger muscles. As long as I keep challenging them to fly a little more or a little further each time, they get stronger and have greater endurance. This also makes it easier for them to fly small distances and makes them more reliable when I really need them to fly. Flying a short distance is easy for a stronger bird so it takes less motivation to elicit it. At the absolute best, I was able to get Truman to fly a total distance of 1.5 miles and Kili to fly 2.6 miles in a single 1 hour long flight training session at home. Considering that Kili came to me clipped as a bird that had never fledged, this amount of flying strength that we have built is colossal! Better yet, watch her flying outside with skill and ease. She will now fly to me from any part of the park, even when she can't see me. She has learned to dodge obstacles, turn, and find me by the call of my voice.
By allowing parrots to fly, we have the glorious opportunity to be that parrot's wild foraging tree. We can tap into that natural instinct to fly across distances and feed not only to exercise the parrot but also to teach them how wonderful it is spending time with us. Through the flight recall training process, you can teach your parrot to think on the fly and to do what we want it to do. As we challenge our parrots with strenuous tasks such as flight (which are otherwise perfectly natural for them), we can develop high endurance levels of motivation. That motivation can be tapped to encompass all the other good behavior that we require of our parrots in order to be good pets.
I feel that the ultimate measure of success in regards to parrot ownership is the combination of the birds' health/well-being and being able to get my parrots be the kinds of pets I want them to be. Success is that bridge of the parrot doing what we want and allowing the parrot to get what it wants from us!
Please learn more about my complete approach to achieving a great companion parrot in my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. It is the first book of its kind to provide a complete approach to parrot keeping and also to presume parrots to be the flighted animals that they are. This approach does not come with a caveat that says it will only work if the parrot has its wings clipped because it is an approach to make the bird want/choose to cooperate rather than to artificially force it. It's an approach to teach the animal to want what you want and encourage it to be a willing participant in the pet lifestyle in which it lives. With this approach, everyone benefits both human and parrot alike. You will be happier to have the pet you want but the parrot will also be happier to have ways by which to fulfill it's natural instinct for survival. Ultimately it's a more natural, mutual, and caring approach.