Benni, Blue and Gold Macaw, took his first flight in March 14th, 2015. He was around 28 weeks old. His flights now number over 2500. For fun, for nostalgia and because I’m a note taker, for training purposes for internet forums, I’ve logged every session when the Parrots were out of doors, unrestrained by either harness, travel cage or by my thumb over claw.
This technique was not permitted when I attended training workshops at Natural Encounters Ranch in Florida because the professional trainers there judge it a negative reinforcement.
That hasn’t been the case with my own pet Parrots. I’ve been able to carry them (Cockatoos, Greys, Macaws and Amazons) from house to aviary or and car on my hand with my thumb over their right claw. What I wanted to train was Parrots that would fly down to me at first signal.
Just like you see them at bird shows. That hasn’t quite how my free fight adventures have turned out. Since that cold March day four years ago, I’ve learned more than Benni and now Mina because they were born knowing how to fly and I had to learn how accommodate their skills and wishes to fit in with my lifestyle.
This morning a sunny cool September morning both Macaws had a flight session. As soon as they are released, they take off with shrieks (I like to imagine of joy but who knows?) and disappear over the trees that fringe Greenacres.
I live adjoining Abberton reservoir in Essex - a rural area, plenty of full-sized oaks, arable fields and few houses. The village is 500 metres away down a lane. This has been a great help in free flying because however high the Macaws fly the reservoir - in sight from our garden - provides them with a visual signal where their home is.
Benni stayed outside this morning until 9am. Both Macaws landed on the gate ready for their reward. As soon as they come down, they’re offered a chicken bone which they don’t get until safely in the aviary. Benni jumped on my shoulder and was inside the aviary in seconds.
There he stays until dusk with the two pet African Greys, Artha and Casper and the flock of 15 mixed Parakeets, a couple of quail and a small flock of Bantam hens. Mina decided she didn’t want to come in and flew off the gate into the Rowan tree. A green Macaw in a green tree is almost impossible to spot.
Fortunately, she responds with a caw when I whistle so I know where she is. Whether she wants to fly more than Benni is because of her breed - she is a Military Macaw – or her age - she will be three in October. Benni was five last August. Although they’re not a bonded pair, once he’s flown down, she follows within ten minutes or so.
For most of this summer, the Macaws have been outside for an early morning flight and then I let them out of the aviary around tea time and they come indoors around sunset. That was their routine. However, last week, Mina did not come in at supper time!
One minute both Macaws were foraging in the tree, next minute Benni was on my shoulder and Mina had disappeared. As the sky darkened, my anxiety increased. I have no fear that she’d fly down to a stranger. I fear owls. I’ve heard stories of at least two free fliers being taken by owls.
As you can imagine I slept poorly. At 7.30 am next morning, Mina was perched in the Rowan tree. Sadly, she cannot tell me where she spent the night. Once again - hard as I try - so much of Parrot behaviour remains a mystery.
What you want isn’t always what you get
Benni’s early flights were just what I’d hoped for. He already knew the area from frequent walks on harness. Professional trainers don’t use harnesses which were invaluable in my case. I took Benni (as I take all my pet Parrots) on desensitisation walks to habituate them to strange objects, sights and sounds.
They have been to our local town Colchester, to parks, to visit friends and to walks up to 8km around our area. Benni got used to planes flying overhead, to windy conditions, tractors and lorries.
Later on with Mina I used the same strategy, this has meant that neither Macaw spooks at strange objects. Outdoor flight is increasing in UK (when I first became interested years ago, I barely knew of more than a dozen, now many more).
Through personal introductions and via the internet, I’ve made new friends. Some of these use GPS transmitters and follow their bird’s flight on their mobile phones - rather as falconers do. I’ve never gone down this route for two reasons: the cost of the equipment and my doubts that Benni would accept a transmitter attached to tail feathers or leg.
For the first few months, my confidence was justified, Benni flew in circles and returned to my contact whistle or to a despairing yell of ‘Benni, where are you?’
As weeks and months passed, Benni took longer flights and stayed out of sight and I never stopped fretting. Free flighted Parrots do get lost and they aren’t always found. At liberty birds choose their flights and come back when they’ve had enough.
Around Greenacres, local bird watchers are always amazed to see a Macaw at liberty.
It’s generally accepted that free flying is safer with a companion or a small flock. Flying a sole bird is considered to carry more risks than flying in a group. When Benni was over a year old, I bought another blue and gold Macaw. Mino was adorable at 3 months old.
Over the 5 months I kept Mino, Benni never accepted him and in spite of all my efforts it seemed the young Macaw was unhappy. I rehomed him. Now Mino lives with Natalie Spencer who free flies him with her Scarlet Macaw Bruno.
A year later, I tried again to reintroduce a second Macaw. This time a female. My reasoning here has no backing from any scientific research. For free flying itself no research has been done (as far as I know) in techniques and safety issues. Why would I choose a female?
I’d noticed Benni behaved much better towards hen birds of any species. After careful introductions, Benni accepted Mina as a flock member. While I spoon fed her during the weaning period, Benni would perch nearby with his own spoon and bowl of formula.
Mina’s training went faster than Benni’s and at 6 months she began to fly outside. At first small garden flights on her own with two handlers.
Parrot and Pets
Should they mix or shouldn’t they? An ongoing controversy. Free flying Parrots have been killed by dogs. In Greenacres, Benni grew up with dogs - mine and our tenants, Richard and Nathan, who were living in a mobile home in our field at that time.
June 2017 (from my notes)
I bring Benni out of aviary around 4 pm. Sweltering hot day. He plays with Chester the cocker and Milo the Jack Russell. The game’s fascinating. Benni on the ground. Beak open, dogs retreating and coming forward. Body language of all three is relaxed.
What puzzles me most is that Benni waddles after the dogs rather than fly. After about 10 minutes, Chester finds a lump of brown bread left out for the magpies and pigeons. Benni decides he wants it. Takes it away from Chester and flies to my shoulder. The dogs get fed up and go back to their mobile home.
Nathan and Richard have moved. The present tenants keep ducks and one dog with whom Benni never plays. He will however perch on the paddock rail and quack at the ducks.
Playing dead Session 750 from 4pm. To 5.15 pm
Benni totally confuses me. I wish I could understand his behaviour. Generally, in the afternoon he flies circuits around the house but not this afternoon. He stays away for 20 minutes. Returns and thumps down onto shoulder but as soon as I walk towards the kitchen door he flies off.
After 10 minutes I find him in the big field on telephone wire. I start to walk home he follows.
Another 15 minutes before he flies down to me. So, to trick him, I lie down on the grass in dead position with head buried under arms. Benni does not like this and comes down and sticks his head under my arm and says ‘Hello, Benni.’ I can catch him easily.
This morning on the bridle path, Benni chooses to be trained Parrot. He flies from fence post to fence post for nut slivers. His feathers shimmer in the sun light. His body language shows that he’s on guard.
Either a low flying plane I cannot hear or predators that I cannot see. There are three buzzards about. There is something so inexpressibly wonderful about walking with a companion Macaw – if only the little so-and-so would stay in sight.
He stays with me for about 15 minutes. He is in my view, a second later in that vast panorama several km in each direction, he is no longer visible. He has certain trees that I spot him in at times. Being deaf doesn’t help. When I go for a walk with Nathan and Richard they can hear Benni saying ‘Hello,’ way out of my sight.
After one hour I turn for home and Benni reappears. On the way home he performs a strange behaviour. Flies to the ground several times, lands in hollows made by horse shoes and starts gnawing lumps of earth and bits of grass, his beak becomes covered in mud. Is he looking for minerals? Is this like the clay lick behaviour of Macaws in Peru?
He leaves me again for 15 minutes; I find him waiting on the homeward path in a beech tree. A horse rider who dislikes Benni says waspishly, ‘your Macaw is in that tree.’
‘Yes, I know. I’m whistling him down.’
For once, Benni does not humiliate me. Flies the 100 metres towards me lands on my shoulder.
I was (and still am) still stuck trying to understand what made Benni tick. Sometimes as above he was the model companion bird. Sometimes if in a sunny mood he perches and does a sort of prrrrt sound.
Early days with Mina 2017
Mina comes in garden now unleashed but I hold her. She still is not performing a reliable recall. Benni has understood that if both Macaws are on my knees and he beaks at her I will scold him. He starts and then desists.
I spoke to 2 breeders re weaning on how soon to wean Mina. One said feed her for up to a year; the other said wean her now.
On Mina’s first day of free flight she had two sessions of a few minutes each; she was just over 6 months old.
From my notes the next day:
Saturday March 18
If I don’t try again this weekend I will lose my nerve. 9am. Mina’s 1st flight today, 5 perfect 20 metre recalls between me and Wal . Out again one hour later with Nathan and three perfect recalls.
Sunday March 19
Benni out for an hour’ walk with me.
At home, I find Mina evidently keen to interact. Nathan and I take her for the second time outside into the garden.
4th time out. She does 10 recalls between us about 10 metres apart. In a strong wind she has trouble landing. She never spooks or flies high. Nathan and I are jumping for joy. As well as pine nuts, her favourite reward is to lick my lips; it looks gross.
Last year 2018 and this year, the Macaws are flown together. Benni takes Mina to visit friendly neighbours who live by the church one km away. They’re always kind and will text me when the Macaws are visiting.
Our neighbours in the either direction unfortunately dislike being overflown and have fired a shotgun at them. The law is clear. It is illegal to let exotic birds loose to nest in UK. Since the Macaws are indoors at night, I am not breaking any laws.
Benni stayed out once for 30 hours. He returned the next day. Had someone taken him indoors? I’ve never found out. Stranger-danger - a risk a handler has to take. I allowed Benni to be friendly with strangers. I have not done this with Mina.
Bad weather is another hazard. Benni was once literally blown away in a gale. He returned 30 minutes later and seemed as shocked as I was.
Predator birds are another hazard especially if the free flying pet is a small bird. A risk some are prepared to take. I’m not one of them.
If I what to think of Benni as a trained recall bird – he is a disaster! If I consider him a partner or a friend on our walks who is more agile and adventurous, he is absolutely fine.
He shows awareness of where we are but also intention to do his own thing.
One of the sweetest is to perch above us on the telephone wires and hang on one leg and flap his wings in response to our cries of admiration. Mina’s development has followed the same path as Benni’s.
Advice to newcomers who want to free fly
Unless you can accept some pretty harsh time-consuming conditions – DON’T.
Not every bird is suitable for free fight and not every owner is either.
Not every single one of these conditions is essential but you’ll need to fulfil most of them, or the risks be greater than the thrill a free flyer gets when their bird soars into in the sky and returns to their call.
Are your nerves strong enough?
Are you prepared to risk losing a bird?
Are you prepared to do the research necessary to train?
Will you harness train?
Can you afford a GPS?
Have you got mentors on the ground?
Have you got enough time?
Have you got a suitable terrain to free fly?
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