Dot Schwarz looks at the pros and cons of free flight
Let’s look at benefits as well as problems and dangers.
For the handler the delight you feel as the bird soars into the air and returns to your hand when you ask him to recall is hard to describe; it must be experienced. It is self-evident that free flighted birds are fulfilling their main function which has evolved over millions of years which is fight.
Free flighted birds are more confident, healthier and usually have far less behaviour problems like biting and screaming to which clipped birds more easily succumb.
How did free flight begin?
The practice of flying birds who return to their trainers/ handlers has been practiced by falconers for thousands of years, predator birds like eagles, owls, falcons, used for hunting and nowadays mostly for display and sport. Using prey species like Parrots and Macaws is a comparatively recent practice.
At bird parks, zoos and some heritage sites the public has marvelled and thrilled at the brilliantly coloured birds circling and coming down to land at their handlers’ request. Performing behaviours like accepting a dollar bill and returning it back to the handler and similar taught behaviours.
If you have seen one of Steve Martin’s shows at Disney world, you’ll never forget the choreographed performance. Steve Martin started his Parrot show in 1976 and has taught hundreds of professionals and amateurs at his ranch Natural Encounters in Florida.
I have attended 4 of his workshops and learned most of what I know from him and his trainers. He taught a group of students how to free fly novice birds but has never advocated or enthused about amateurs adopting the practice. It took me seven years after that workshop that I gained enough confidence to free fly Benni my Macaw.
The best training method
Twenty-five years ago to see a pet bird in the sky trained by a non-professional was extremely rare. It still is but less so.
Before the Parrot is taken outside, there’s a lot of work to be done indoors or in any large, enclosed space.
Teaching a baby bird the recall
This is Chris Biro’s advice. I would highly encourage you to work on teaching the bird to fly to a perch and then back to you. In most baby birds that I have raised and trained the ‘fly to me’ part was super easy to get started. It was the fly to a perch that took slightly more work. At this stage the bird is probably starting to eat solid foods though may still be eating hand feeding formula also.
Find a solid food the bird really likes and then offer that to them when they fly to you and then send them back a short distance to the perch to eat the item. This way they learn that flying to you gets them goodies and then they have a reason to fly back to the perch, to eat the goody.
Build this into a fun game starting a short distance (whatever it will do initially) and expand that distance as the bird is capable until you fully using the indoor space you have available. Then start calling the bird when you are just visible partially around a corner. Do this a few times then try it when you are completely behind the corner where the bird cannot see you. Expand this concept until the bird is finding you in various places in the house.
Basically it hide and seek with a food or other reward given to the bird. In doing all this you are teaching the bird to come to the sound of your voice so should you have a problem with the bird when it gets outside it will already know how to find you even if it cannot see you.
Since free flight is such a relatively new practice there are no books or an easily recognized way to learn it. General agreement of positive reinforcement and a reliable recall are principles agreed.
After all you cannot ‘punish ’a free flying bird. He simply won’t return to you. But there can still be a wide variation in methods. Many amateurs use GR/ telemetry. Fun to track the bird on your iPhone. The cost is high and not every bird accepts the constraints.
Here are a few difficult decisions you need to make before embarking on free flight practice for your companion bird. No one keeps statistics. Do more of our birds get lost and never retrieved?
A Parrot trained in recall when she escapes from her home has a far greater chance of being retrieved that and untrained one. Some proponents of free flight band in door clubs and practice flying there. Before I flew Benni outside, I borrowed a barn from a kind farmer for 5 months and practised twice weekly.
Suitability of student
Suitability of handler
Environment – predators – human and avian
Cost and time
Suitability of student. For a novice to attempt to fly an older Parrot or a previously clipped one is generally too difficult. (it has been done.)
The most popular candidates are young Macaws or Cockatoos. Conures make good free fliers. Cockatiels and Lovebirds have been free flown. So have many other species.
Suitability of handler. You need a calm temperament. That said, I don’t have one and have been flying Benni and Mina and now Mina and Solo since March 2014 on most days depending on weather, etc. and other commitments.
Environment Few of us will be flying Parrots in forests or savannahs. The easiest place to start is wide open level fields without trees. In such an environment the novice bird will generally fly in a circle and home back to the handler.
Many novice handlers start with flying on harnesses with long leads. Some handlers will only fly around their homes if it is suitable. Others will take the Parrots to somewhere else. This adds the risk if the bird spooks and flies out of sight she may not be able to find her way back to you.
You cannot insure against theft or mishap. ExoticDirect one of UK’s most reliable insurers for exotic animals does not insure Parrots for free flight. They say: We recommend Parrots are safely exercised and given engagement opportunities to keep them entertained whilst remaining safe and secure.
Weather. Wind and rainfall. In UK sudden storms can play havoc with a free flying session. I once watched Benni being flown backwards by a sudden gale, I feared he would be lost forever. But somehow, he righted himself and returned 30 minutes later. The gale was still so strong that I was clinging to a tree. We were both shell shocked.
Avian predators are another risk. Seagulls will chase smaller birds. Crows and ravens can be a menace. And of course falcons, hawks and even eagles. This is the benefit of the larger species. They can outfly a predator bird. The habit of tossing a bird off your hand is to be avoided. A Parrot may spot a predator high up that you never saw.
Human predators may not be so easily dealt with. Savvy owners will teach their birds NOT to be friendly to strangers. I have done this with Mina and Solo. Benni was raised to be a great friend to everyone . Here is an example of what can happen from my notes.
Session 489 on April 18th, 2015, from 1.30 – 5 pm A too friendly Macaw
Benni stayed with me and Mina for 30 minutes then he flew away. He did not come home. I grew anxious as always when he is out of sight for more than a few minutes.
2 hours later I was sent a Facebook message. An acquaintance had seen a message with a photo put up by a local dog trainer of a Macaw he had found, taken home and put in a crate. It was Benni.
Benni had been in the next-door field (presumably on his way home) when he said “hello” and the man said back, ‘hello.’ Benni landed on his shoulder, was grabbed and put in a crate and taken home.
The dog trainer lived on the main road in our village. Benni had given gave him warning nips so he could not handle him. The dog trainer had NO wish to steal the bird simply thought he was lost.
To cut a long story short it took couple of hours for me to get in touch with the dog trainer, who wasn’t yet home. I fetched Benni at 6. pm. He was quite ‘shocked,’ although not as shocked as I was. The dog trainer says that maybe him seizing him will be a negative experience. And so it turned out to be. Benni STOPPED landing on random passers-by.
Time An outdoor bird needs a disproportionate amount of time spent on him. Have you got enough time? Can you keep a training log? It’s so easy to forget what the aims are for a particular period of time.
Mentors Most novices who learn the techniques of free flying will tell you that having a mentor who helps on the ground is of inestimable value. That being the case how easy is it to find someone? Without being discouraging – not easy.
Professionals are busy and their time may be costly to hire. If you are lucky enough to have free flying friends who are successful ask for their help. There are online courses. Chris Biro’s Liberty Wings is extremely popular. Biro has been one of the instigators of free flight for non-professionals during his decades long career as a professional trainer.
Trainers like Arian Paans in the Netherlands give Parrot training workshops where you can bring your own bird. Hobby owners now practice free flight practically world-wide. However there is no central body with any sort of regulations.
Nor any idea of how many birds. Nimal Fernando and his partner Claire Atallah, they are both widely known in the UK Parrot fraternity estimate that know of at least 80 amateur free fliers. There may be more. Anyone can claim to be a Parrot trainer, and some unfortunately do. Internet lists and bird groups appear to have a limited lifespan. An authoritative primer on free flight hasn’t yet been written.
The internet will give you plenty (often too much?) information. Use online advice cautiously much of the advice is sound; some is it is designed to spend your money; some of it is quite wrong. Nothing beats watching an established practitioner and how they handle their birds and even better if such a person will help you.
Goodluck! Happy Flying !
King Solomon’s Ring – New Light on Animal
Ways by Konrad Z Lorenz 1952 Thomas Crowell
Parrots and Parrot like Birds by the Duke of Bedford – All-Pets Books Inc. 1954
Bird People by Letitia L Moffitt – Cantraip 2019
www.cockatoodowns.com Chris Shanks
http://blogpamelaclarkonline.com Pamela Clark blogs on Parrot training issues not specifically free flights but her insights are valuable for Parrot behaviour.
Hillary Hankey offers valuable insights into the process of free flight training
• Parrot Free Flight Training
• Parrot Harness and Free Flight UK
Liberty Wings Skype course taught by Chris Biro
There are other online courses but not having personal knowledge I cannot vouch for them.
I urge caution when using forums and YouTube as learning resources because while they concentrate on the positive, joyful aspects of free flight, they rarely post on the negative aspects of lost birds.