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.
I have been writing this book for the last half year but more importantly it is the culmination of five very intense years of parrot education, training, consulting, and performing. I've taken everything that I have learned, applied it, and then wrote down for you the essentials that you can apply to your bird. This book isn't there to teach you how to teach a million tricks or become a performer. It's about how to achieve a well-behaved parrot and ultimately a mutual relationship!
It's not that I think I know better than others, but I just was never very pleased with the other books I've read about parrot keeping. Many of them are obsolete and don't recommend best practices. But even some of the books I agree with, I just found terribly boring. They are written by experts for experts and really leave the common parrot owner in the dust. Parrot owners don't need the nitty gritty technical stuff, they need something accessible that they can apply and that will work! I understand this because I'm a pet parrot owner and it wasn't long ago that I was desperately seeking help on the most basic things.
Instead of teaching you how to do absurdly complicated tricks with your parrot, my book is there to teach you all the essential stuff from merely approaching your parrot's cage without it freaking out to being able to grab it. A lot of emphasis is placed on taming, health, safety, and other things that are essential elements of keeping a pet parrot. Also the first chapter is entirely about how to choose a parrot in the first place for folks who do not yet have one and attempts to answer the classic question, "what kind of parrot should I get?"
In my book, I tell it how it is. I don't try to sugar coat things or make a parrot owner out of everybody. The purpose is to help those who want the help and to get them to achieve a good relationship with their parrot. The book takes a very balanced approach keeping both the parrot's well-being but also the parrot owner's sanity in mind. I realize that people are busy, have other commitments, may not have the means to buy fancy stuff. That is why my book is down to earth and really about finding a way that anyone can make it work rather than a professional approach to training performing parrots.
Unlike any other parrot book I've ever come across, mine presumes that parrots are flying creatures and takes an approach to keeping them as such. Despite the recommendation of keeping them flighted, the book presents countless ways to get more out of your parrot than if it were clipped! Flight safety, flight recall training, flight trick training, and managing flighted parrots are key themes throughout the book. Even if your parrot is clipped you will find this book extremely helpful and I think it will convince you that you can still have a relationship with your parrot by allowing it to fly. Better yet, you will have a better behaved, healthier, safer, and more fun parrot than it could ever be while clipped!
Problem solving receives an entire chapter in the book. Solving problems such as biting, screaming, plucking, and even flighted related issues are extensively covered. However, the main purpose of the book is to present an approach to follow from day 1 to ensure that those problems don't arise in the first place. This information is all based on problems I have solved in my own parrots or have helped others solve with theirs.
You'll find it interesting that I barely wrote any of this book at home. It has bits written all over the world on planes, trains, and automobiles. I've been writing it on the go during my travels. Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia are some of the places I was in while writing the books. During those trips I got to observe parrots in their natural habitats so it was especially encouraging to me to help owners find the best compromise between a parrot's nature and desirable household pet qualities.
Having done two years of extensive flight training with Truman, I was ready to take this chance to further his flightducation. Just to be sure he'd come down to me if he did end up in an unreachable place, I brought his weight down to his training minimum weight. Kili on the other hand, I took down no further than typical training weight because I was comfortable and certain that she would do just fine. I've already taken chances flying her in irrecoverable indoor locations (such as TV studios) and knew what to expect from her.
What I mean by an irrecoverable indoor flying location is basically a location where the bird could land in such places that it would be impossible for the owner to recover the bird (except by the bird returning on its own). This is the closest thing to outdoor freeflight but without the risk of permanent loss or predation.
Note, I do not encourage anyone to attempt to fly their parrot (or for that matter have it unrestrained) in an irrecoverable indoor flying location without extensive flight training experience. Although it may not result in the death or escape of your parrot, it may cause extensive problems for the bird and disruptions to the facility. Instead, I encourage you to find recoverable large indoor flying locations first. This is not only to practice but also to test how your parrot would behave flying in a novel location. You don't want to be finding out that your parrot will fly right up to a 60ft ceiling, land, and be incapable or unwilling to come down the first time you are trying this! For the recoverable locations, I have designed a parrot recovery perch for getting parrots down from places up to 20ft high. If you are interested in one, please contact me directly. Only after you are confident that while flying in recoverable locations, your parrot has reliably returned to you even after landing in high places, then can you attempt flying the bird in a place with unreachable ceilings.
I started out with Kili & Truman on their training perches in the center of the gym. I had them fly short recalls to get the hang of flying in this new place and then progressively increased the distance until I was able to have them fly across hundreds of feet to reach me. I had them fly short boomerang flights to remind them how to return to me which proved useful when they would overshoot me. You see, parrots that are used to flying in confined spaces may develop too much speed flying in the open to slow down in time to land on you. Boomerang flying is a great skill to develop so that they would have the practice to turn around instead of just flying away.
It definitely helps to have two birds instead of one. One motivates the other. When Truman would recall first, Kili would eagerly follow when called. And vice versa. If one bird were to land and not come down from somewhere, giving a lot of attention, recalls, and treats to the other bird can sometimes drive it out and back to you. So while on one hand flying two parrots is more work and more to keep track of, it also helps improve the motivation of both birds at the same time!
Finally, when I was comfortable that Kili & Truman had no trouble finding me to land on, I sent them off to freefly around the gym to their hearts' content. I was curious if they would end up flock flying together or independently and it appeared to be more of the latter but really they were just all over the place. Kili enjoyed flying extensive figure eights around the gym at high speed and I was surprised to find that her stamina was better than Truman's! Don't forget that Kili is permanently missing some flight feathers, was not fledged as a baby, and has always been the weaker flyer. This made me realize that I had always worked her harder to compensate for this and as a result she ended up outflying Truman who is the natural born flyer!
In the span of over an hour the birds flew over a mile of heart pumping exercise flights both on command and of their will. They stayed on their perches until called and flew around when I offered them to. Overall I was very pleased with the session and my brother helped me record some of the highlights to share with you.
This is the 2nd video with footage of the birds' 3rd gym flight training session which also features Kili's newest trick.
On the sixth flight training session in the school, the third session in the theater, we introduced a major distractor that would exist during the high school show and any other stage shows thereafter. This was of course the stage lights. Luckily the parrots have already had prior experience under the hot light back at my apartment for videos. I've used as many as three hot lights in close proximity to the parrots while making training videos at home so they already knew not to fly into them. However, they had never experienced a few dozen lights all at once so it definitely did keep them stunned for a bit of time.
I had Kili and Truman do some tricks to train them under a bit of pressure (from the unfamiliarity of the lights). It is a way to test motivation and see how likely the birds are to flight recall. If they can't even handle the basic tricks, there is no way that I could expect them to flight recall. When I am uncertain about Truman's likelihood to flight recall, I may work on return to perch flights instead. I let Truman fly back to his perch from short range and he did fine. I either run up to reward him as quickly as possible or I have my brother stand at the perch to give him a reward upon landing. However, on the second return flight Truman totally missed the landing spot and flew right up into the window curtains. We left him there for a little while until he got bored. I tried recalling him multiple times but did not persist too much if he didn't show signs of coming down. I continued training Kili to make him more jealous and eventually I got him to recall down. I try to get him to feel that he is missing out by being up there but it doesn't work so great because he likes being high.
After I got Truman back, we decided to attempt a flight recall from the balcony. Originally I thought Truman would be coming down from the balcony and Kili from somewhere closer because of Truman's superior flight skills and feathers. However, it turned out that Kili could do it no problem but Truman was unreliable and could end up flying off. Right from the first attempt Kili knew exactly what to do. My brother took her up to the balcony and let her perch on his finger. When I called her name she flew right down to me. Positive reinforcement of course played an important part in her eagerness to fly to me, but so did negative reinforcement. Kili does not like my brother that much and the balcony was not too great a place to be either. So the opportunity to come to me and eliminate those other factors was in itself rewarding. The ability to fly down to me from a high place like this gives me confidence that I could get Kili down in the event of a fly off. However, she never flies off like Truman so her skills are never tested.
I used Kili's excellent recall skills as motivation for Truman. I put him far back on a training perch and let him see Kili recall to me to earn treats. Since Truman is so young, watching other birds in the flock and doing what they do is almost more rewarding than the treat itself. So whenever he'd see Kili fly to me, he would be much more eager and likely to come to me as well. We continued practicing balcony flight recalls followed by Truman self recalls several more times. Truman ended up in the curtains several more times that day. While he was busy not coming down, I practiced Kili saying hello into a microphone. She was mainly scared of the device itself rather than the volume of her new found voice.
At one point Truman tried to fly down from the curtains when I wasn't ready to get him. He was heading for the training perch but missed his landing. At that point he went through his typical freak out routine and flew around seeking a higher place. However, he misjudged his landing on top of the curtains and had to continue circling. Eventually he crashed somewhere in the back of the room into the curtains and came to a rest on a seat. Since this is all happening in a controlled environment, usually I just leave him and call him again later. This makes for better training than running over to help him unless he is truly hurt.
Truman was becoming more and more unreliable as the training session was reaching the end and at one point he flew onto a ledge above the stage curtain. This is actually a terrible place to try to flight recall him down from because the angle down to the stage is too steep but recalling him away from the stage into blinding lights would be impossible. So instead I put my Parrot Recovery Perch to use. This is a special 20ft extendable perch that I invented prior to risking flying the parrots in the theater in the event that they land in a place they can't come down from. Since Truman's flight motivation had substantially dwindled, I preferred to take him down rather than wait for him to fly himself. So I extended the perch and placed it above his feet and unquestioningly he stepped up onto it and rode down like an elevator. Of course I always reward him for coming down to prevent him from avoiding the stick in the future.
I have actually come up with two versions of the parrot recovery perch. One is a compact lightweight portable version for most casual trainers and at home users. This version extends to about 10ft long which is plenty in a home with even the tallest ceilings. The extra large version I used in the video to get Truman down from the stage curtains, however, is for advanced flight trainers who may be flying their parrots in gyms, theaters, arenas, or outdoors. The large version is longer and heavier but has the benefit of extending over 20ft if necessary. The familiar natural wood perch on the end is similar to my Parrot Training Perches so it does not take long for the parrots to become accustomed to stepping up onto it. Just to play it safe, I practiced at home with Truman before using it to make sure he was used to it. Whenever I would bring the perch up to him and ask him to step up, I would simply reward him with a treat. These are not yet available on my website because I am still working on perfecting the design, however, if you would really like one before they are released, contact me privately and we can work something out. Otherwise, stay tuned for a release announcement of the 10 and 20 foot Parrot Recovery Perches for getting parrots down from high places.
Here is the video from the sixth flight training session in the high school (third in the theater). This session introduced bright stage lights, balcony flight recalls, and talking into a microphone.
I have begun advanced flight training with my parrots Kili and Truman to prepare for some upcoming performances we are giving. They are generally good birds and I don't expect them to fly off their stands on stage, however, if something frightens them or they slip, they wouldn't know what to do. So the best way to make it safe to have them in a large open space is to flight train them in one so they would know what to do. In coming weeks I am going to share with you the details of our indoor flight training so that it may help you with your parrot whether you're flying it in a large building or at home.
I made an arrangement with the high school I used to go to - and which my brother currently attends - to come twice a week to fly the parrots after hours. In return I am going to give a performance in front of the students in March. Not only is this a good justification for all the training practice, but the performance itself will be a test of their capabilities in preparation for the big show coming up (can't tell you about it yet so don't even ask).
On the first day of training, my brother and I brought Kili and Truman to the school after it had already turned dark and the bustling classrooms and hallways had long been vacated. Though the night was cold, there was little more comfort from the cold that we could provide the parrots beyond a towel covering their carriers. We brought two carriers, two training perches, a box full of toys and treats, and a roll of paper towels. We set up in the wrestling room, essentially a small gym about 60ft x 30ft x 18ft. The space was not that much larger than my apartment which the parrots are accustomed to flying around at will. However, there were two notable differences aside from the novelty of the room. The ceiling was significantly higher and one wall was entirely lined with mirrors making the room appear twice as big.
I let the parrots sit on their Training Perches for a few minutes just to become accustomed to the new room but soon proceeded to cue tricks from Kili and Truman to get them focused on training. If they refuse to do tricks, then there is little hope for flight recall. However, Kili was performing tricks quite eagerly so flight recalls were in order. I started with shorter recalls and after just a few calls, she did fly to me willingly from her perch. Truman on the other hand did not want to budge and was pretty much stunned by the novelty of the room.
I continued expanding my recalls with Kili until I was able to recall her from the far end of the room. She adapted quickly to the mirrors and did not fly toward them. Truman on the other hand would refuse to do anything besides staying still and staring. In order to break the trend, I began doing forced return to perch flights with Truman. However, I gave him treats every time he went to the perch. This way he at least did some flapping in the room, learned that flying there is safe, and had a way to earn treats. Furthermore it was teaching him that if he needs a place to go, the Training Perch is the best place to return to.
However, things did not run so smoothly with Truman. On one slightly longer return flight to his perch, Truman took off. He flew laps around the room getting faster and higher. He was not showing any inclination of flying back down to me. After a few exhausting laps he landed on a high beam and stayed there for a while. There was no use calling him down because he just wouldn't do it. He did make a few attempts to fly but they would just result in doing a lap and coming back to where he started off. Although I knew he knew how to fly down, it appeared as though Truman did not know how to descend. At home, I've seen him fly down 10ft lots of times, but here the ceiling was higher and the angle required to descend was much steeper.
After a while of not being able to get him to fly back to me, I resorted to plan B. I held Truman's Training Perch as high as I could first trying to get him to fly to it but then just to step up. As I approached him with his Training Perch, he finally took a leap and flew a few feet to land on it. I slowly brought him down and rewarded him generously for allowing for his recovery. It wasn't because Truman did not want to be with me but because he was unaware of how to return.
It didn't seem that I could motivate Truman to fly to me for bits of food, so I broke out the toys and tried to get him to fly for those. It still was not working so I let Kili show him the way by flying to me for a chance to bite off a piece of wood. Finally Truman began doing recalls to me. He did several recalls of increasing length and although they weren't instantaneous, they were finally leading to him flying on his own.
Toward the end I got out almonds to give to the parrots for some good recalls. Kili was stuffed from all the nuts she earned before and did not recall for it. Truman on the other hand did - his longest recall for the day. However, instead of landing on his perch when I sent him back, he ended up flying onto the high beam again. Luckily he dropped his nut on the way up. Otherwise he would have sat up there enjoying his nut and feeling reinforced for going there. Then there wouldn't be any hope of him coming down. I picked up the nut he dropped and walked to the far end of the room with it. He had a keen eye on that nut and the moment I recalled him, he flew right down to me. This was a highly valuable lesson learned for Truman that day was that coming down to me is a very good thing. I let the parrots relax on their perches and play with toys for the remaining bit of time I had prior to packing up and taking them home. And so concluded my first advanced flight training session with Kili & Truman in an unfamiliar place.