Author: Gary Colvin, Behaviour Consultant

Once you have flown, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, For there you have been, and there you will long to return. Leonardo Da Vinci

One of the first things that distinguishes birds from any other animal, is its ability to fly. Physically, mentally, anatomically, evolutionary and even a birds metabolic rate are all designed with one thing in mind, and that is to fly. When we first look at birds with wonder, it is their ability to fly and utter beauty of that behaviour which draws us to them and distinguish them from other animals.

It always amazes me that in many incidents, when we first get a parrot as a companion pet, the first thing we do to it, is remove its ability to fly by clipping its wings, because it is so easy for us to do. In my opinion, this removes one of the most important and natural behaviours a parrot is intended and needs to perform. Being able to fly gives a parrot essential exercise to help build up healthy wing, chest, lung and heart muscles. It is for this reason I feel clipping a parrots wings can in many incidents, cause or at the very least contribute to many uncharacteristic and unwanted, health issues, neurosis and behaviours we see in many of our companion parrots.

Wing clipping can cause physical as well as psychological damage, and many of the obvious problems we see are caused by either bad wing clips, where a parrot is thrown off balance by only clipping one wing, or wing clips that are performed too short and give no protection to new pin feathers coming through.

Another problem can be caused if a parrot has its wings clipped before it has learnt to fly and more importantly how to land and so has no experience or expertise to draw on, and can end up doing physical damage to itself while crash landing.

Even if a parrot has had some experience in flight at the breeders and then becomes a companion parrot, flying within a smaller confined area, with many obstacles in our home, can be very different to flying in an aviary. Your companion parrot may need flying lessons at home, which I will discuss later.

Living with a flighted parrot isnt difficult, but just needs a bit more thought and preparation in the form of training so that rules can be set and an understanding by both the owner and parrot can be applied. To me these rules are nothing more than just teaching good manners. If we choose to keep an animal that can fly, then I feel it is up to us to put the extra effort in keeping this animal flighted, rather than choosing to use a quick fix to tame, or control, such as wing clipping.

Some of the rules and training I personally feel are important are:

  1. Step Up and Step Downs
  2. Come
  3. Go To, as Go To Your Perch, or Fly To A Stand
  4. Stay
  5. Give, or Drop
  6. Gentle

If a parrot will follow all of these commands reliably then it is less likely to be anxious, as it knows what, when and how, to do it. A parrot that knows what to do and has learnt by positive training has fewer decisions to make and should form a better relationship with its owner as it wants to do what is asked and knows how to do it. If a parrot is well trained, there will be less conflict in everyday handling, which should create a stronger human/ animal bond, with less anxieties. 

After a parrot is Stepping Up and Stepping Down reliably, I will start teaching it to stay. The reason I teach this next, is that it is hard for parrots to Stay, as most companion parrots want to be near or on us, and most of us encourage it. It is easy to teach a parrot to come to you, as it is so rewarding, for both of you, but Staying, has to be taught very slowly, building step by step in duration as well as distance. Always remember to set the parrot up for success. In many incidents people train their parrot not to stay, by placing it somewhere and telling it to stay, then just walking away. The parrot doesnt know what Stay means and will naturally want to be with its owner, so will fly to them. We inadvertently reward the wrong behaviour of the parrot not staying, by telling it off and giving the parrot attention, which is exactly why it flew to us!

When I teach Stay, I start off by asking the parrot to Step Down onto its stand. I will tell the parrot to Stay in a deeper drawn out tone and at the beginning I will stay close. At the beginning, all I want my parrot to learn is to not come to me. To make it easier, you can have food or favourite toys on the stand to help keep your parrot occupied. Anything to make it easier for your parrot and set it up for success. Remember to reinforce the desired behaviour and you can repeat the word Stay while you praise and reward. If you want to add a visual hand cue, you could use a stop sign, using an extended arm and upright hand, palm towards your parrot. 

As your parrot learns to Stay, you can very slowly start extending the distance you move away from your parrot and also the length of time. Remember you want your parrot to succeed and to learn what to do, not to get it incorrect and break the Stay. If at any time your parrot looks as if may becoming tense and about to try and come to you, return to your parrot quickly, before he tries to come to you. If your parrot was about to come to you, this means you were moving too fast and you will have go back a few steps and build up slowly again.

If your parrot does fly to you, it means that you were not reading its body language carefully enough and did not react fast enough. Just carry your parrot back to his stand, without giving any reaction what so ever, tell it to Stay, and then reward. Remember the old rule, Praise for desired behaviour, while ignoring unwanted behaviour.

Once your parrot is Staying, you can start teaching other rules such as Come, and Go. Teaching the Come is very easy, as usually a companion parrot finds it very rewarding to be with you. When your parrot flies to you, use the word Come and praise and treat. You can also start teaching your parrot to fly to a spot, such as a stand or to its cage. You can teach this by either using favourite treats placed where you want the parrot to fly to, as a lure, or start teaching your parrot to fly from one person to another. When your parrot performs the desired behaviour, start putting the behaviour on Cue, by saying a word such as Go and then rewarding with a treat, praise, or attention.

Depending on how well your parrot can fly, you may need to teach your parrot to fly in restricted areas, as your parrot may need to manoeuvre in tight areas within your home. Even though we take for granted that our parrots know how to fly, unless they have had the opportunity to practice flying in our home, we may need to teach our parrots and let them experience and build up their abilities.

Having a flighted parrot means that we must also safe guard its safety and you may have to teach your parrot about simple things, such as, windows which we take for granted. You may have to make sure you have the curtains drawn, hang things in front of the glass, or even use coloured tape on the glass, as a temporary way of letting your parrot realize the invisible barrier exists. While holding your parrot, take it from window to window and let your parrot feel, tongue and investigate the glass. You can set your parrots stand next to different windows, so that parrot can get used to being next to glass.

When flying your parrot inside, remember to shut all doors and windows to prevent accidental escape. When you have a flighted parrot, you become very diligent about protecting your parrot from escaping. I find more parrots escape from owners when they have clipped their parrots wings, which can lull an owner into a false sense of security. The new flight feathers regrow and suddenly a bird that an owner thought couldnt fly, has taken off. You must also remember to supervise your parrot while it is out of his cage, as there are many household dangers throughout your home, which could possibly cause serious damage, and even death.

Also having a flight aviary large enough for your parrot to practice flying is ideal way to give your parrot exercise and environmental enrichment while being unsupervised. You can also combine indoor and aviary flying with harness training, which I have discussed in earlier articles.

Having a flighted parrot is a thing of beauty to watch and will allow your parrot to practice one of the most natural behaviours it knows. Being flighted should contribute to your parrots well being both mentally and physically and a better relationship between you and your parrot.

Reference: Phoebe Greene Linden with Andrew Luescher, Behavioural Development of Psittacine Companions: Neonates,Neophytes, and Fledglings, Manual of Parrot Behaviour, Blackwell Publishing 2006