Do we admire birds so much because they can fly; I think so. My ambition for almost two decades now has been to have a free flier in my flock. I could not train Artha and Casper my Greys well enough to trust them outside. Have I succeeded with Benni, the nine month old Blue and Gold Macaw? Time will give the answer.
Benni has been flying outside since March 14th (he was 28 weeks old) and here’s how Benni’s behaviour developed and my nerves withstood the strain.
Most experts are against free flying for the obvious reason that the bird can fly away, can be stolen, starved, eaten by a predator or catch a disease. They also consider that usually only professionals can train to this level. Steve Martin, with whom I have undertaken four workshops says: ‘I believe with the increasing interest in free-flying Parrots, many people will attempt to fly their birds outside with or without proper guidance. As you know, the information we deliver in our workshop strongly recommends not flying Parrots outside.’
An alternative view comes from Chris Biro who has free flown Parrots for 25 years. Chris believes anyone with enough commitment, proper teaching and a suitable young bird can fly outside.
Steve Martin’s birds are trained to perform in bird shows. Chris Biro’s Parrots do that but also do sport flying where the birds are taken to different locations of increasing complexity and flown.
This extreme version of free flying is becoming popular with a few bird keepers in USA and also in other places like Singapore, where many Parrots and Macaws are released together and fly enormous circles. They may be dots on the horizon or even out of sight before returning to their handlers. You can access clips of this sort of flying via YouTube.
But to return to Benni - sport flying isn’t my ambition. I simply want Benni to fly around our home and if possible socialise with us outdoors in warm weather and to have a tame Parrot at liberty in my garden.
I was lucky to make friends with Ryan Wyatt, a young tennis coach, who’s been flying his Grey Zazou and his Amazon Zira for more than two years. He came for the weekend to help with the first flight.
Would I have taken Benni outdoors without the support of this confident young mentor? We’ll never know because he did come.
Benni has undergone daily training since he was 4 weeks of age. Before our first sortie, he’s flown in a large barn several times a week for the previous 3 months. The time commitment is onerous. Recall training is quite simple. You call the bird to you. As soon as he lands on the outstretched arm, the handler gives the bridge word or uses a clicker; the bird’s given a treat and often sent back to the perch to eat the treat. Recall training in my view is essential for all flighted Parrots in the home or the aviary or if they inadvertently get loose outside. .
From my notes:
Session 1. Saturday March 14th 7.30am. a bright, cold sunny morning. Benni has been in his cage with a few pellets since 6pm. the previous night. [This is to ensure he is hungry for treats] Took him into the garden in his harness and placed him on the same perch used in the barn. He seemed tense; I was, too, I removed his Aviator harness. He stayed on perch for a few minutes, flapping his wings vigorously. He held them outstretched. I called him; he stayed put.
Ryan called and he flew 5 metres to Ryan. Back to perch. Flew twice to me. 10 metres back to perch. On each landing he received his treat.
About the 6th flight, he flew onto the aviary roof. I whistled and he flew straight down to me. I was mindful of mentors’ advice not to overdo early sessions. The exercise lasted 15 minutes. Most nervous was me, Benni, too perhaps. Ryan was calm. He decided that we’ll fly again later today. Benni was put back in his cage with toys and a few pellets. Normally, he’d be in the aviary which is full of food.
11.25 am -11.50 am. Benni’s 2nd flight outside was more successful than the first. I felt less in a panic. He flew about 15 times. He flew onto aviary roof and perched. He flew onto his parents’ aviary. He flew a large circle round the house and flew down to the ground. He recalled to me and Ryan several times and overshot us; he could not brake in time. I was jumping inside with joy because Benni appeared to be enjoying himself so much. I kept the treats small - just slivers of nuts.
All good things come to an end. On Sunday Ryan went home and I had to manage on my own.
From my notes:
Monday, March 16th 8.45 am. 5th session
Benni made 10 flights. The recalls between my husband Wal and I were 5 to 10 metres. When Benni circled, he flew 50 metre circles. He flew quite low to ground, common with inexperienced birds.
When he landed on the bungalow roof, I walked out of sight and he waddled across to see where I was; he kept me in sight. Several times he flew to me then swept past. I don’t know whether this is lack of skill in landing or deliberate.
Due to the Internet, our experience has changed! We can share information half way across the world at the click of a button. I have two American cyber friends, Neena Macnulty and C Buckley. Neena flies two Blue and Gold Macaws outside everyday in California. CB flies Conures outside but in a more controlled situation from point A to B.
Both of these friends have been unstinting with help, comments, advice and criticism. Except of course each person’s situation varies. My strategy can be criticised because Benni never shows the 100% recall to the hand of a professionally trained bird. However, it can be argued that Benni is bonded both to me and his home.
As the numbers of successfully completed morning flights increased, Benni began to fly larger, higher circles but would always return to me or Wal, or land on the training perch or the wooden frame part of the well on the lawn. These became his anchor points. Wal believes that Benni’s three months of barn flying have given him the idea that outside is just a much larger barn and so he continues flying in circles. These have become larger and higher over time. He has a few times flown out of sight but returned within a minute.
Benni’s first flight into a bay tree scared him: he got tangled in the leaves. So since then he’s avoided trees and landed on the bungalow roof, the garage or his favourite, the aviary roof. His parents live in an aviary attached to mine. They belong to Ben who lives here in a mobile home and who gave Benni to me as a 4 week old chick. Benni flies at times to their aviary but there’s no contact between the pair and the young Macaw. I wonder whether they wish to join him as they watch him sweep past.
From my notes:
Session 12 - Saturday 21st March (9 am – 9.15am)
Benni in cage from 6 pm.: no food but plenty toys. Benni excited to be out. Stayed on perch a few seconds. Ignored my recall and flew around several times and recalled to me. His behaviour varied slightly from previous sessions. He flew slightly higher. He was eager for nuts but also eager for flying.
Three people Benni didn’t know were on the lawn watching, my son, his wife and their woman friend. When Wal came into the garden, Benni flew straight to him which he normally does not do. I presumed that this was because Wal is familiar. Anyway Wal was well pleased. Benni flew round the garden several times keeping us in sight us then flew to me. Flew to perch both when requested and on his own. Flew a few metres to each of new people.
After flying in the morning Benni spends the day into his aviary and comes indoors between 4pm. and 5pm and has an hour’s playtime where I try to practise recalls and teach him different behaviours. He is put in his cage to sleep at 6pm.
For the last few days Benni’s behaviour has subtly altered. Does he sense that after 15 minutes I am eager to take him inside? I don’t know. He’s flying before his breakfast but in our garden he can forage happily. He eats oak mast and moss from the aviary roof. From the bungalow roof he eats last year’s rose hips. He has discovered the fig tree growing against the side wall of our bungalow and is eagerly snacking on our summer crop.
I’ve taken him out of the aviary a few times in the afternoon when I have visitors and Benni likes to fly from one to the other. Neena warned me never to let him fly later in the day in case he decides to roost outside overnight. This has happened with her young Macaws.
April 18th was Benni’s 50th session outside. His skill, elegance and confidence were amazing. But I was also dismayed by his apparently guessing that I wished him to come inside after 15 minutes. He’d perch next to me while I was digging the flowerbed but politely walk away when asked to step up.
Keeping him hungry overnight, as a means to get a good recall, no longer works in a spring garden which is bursting with Parrot edibles. Benni snapped off a scarlet tulip head and held it in his beak when I offered a whole walnut. This was enough an inducement to take the walnut, step up and let himself be taken into the kitchen. After a few minutes vigorous play, I took him into the aviary. Thirty minutes later he was sleeping on his favourite perch.
So can I recommend this practice to Parrot keepers? Yes and no. Not unless you’re prepared to spend several hours daily training a reliable recall. And you also need mentors with you to guide in this fairly uncharted aspect of Parrot husbandry.
Chris Biro runs Skype courses and can be contacted on https://www.libertywings.com/program-info/booking-a-class/
Buy the Aviator harness that Dot is using to train Benni here.
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