Benni completed 12 months as a free flight bird and had flown his 500th session in mid -March. By July 2016, he‘d flown 565 sessions out of doors. So what have we both learned and how successful has it been?
As a learning process - 100% successful. Benni and I have both learned the process. And Benni has never flown so faraway that he has got lost. Flying a sole Macaw in semi-rural location at liberty has been successful up to now but there are no guarantees that it will remain so. Benni has mapped out his territory, he knows where he lives.
Since free flying has interested me for over 30 years, I’ve amassed a lot of information. Early book knowledge came from King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz. In 1954, The Duke of Bedford described his magnificent collection - Parrots and Parrot-like Birds. Most of the Duke’s breeding stock were wild caught. I’m glad that practice has been eliminated in Europe, Australia and USA, sadly not everywhere else.
However well you train, the practice is risky and for most Parrot owners not feasible. Here is what Janet Jean Pierre who has flown birds outside for 16 years says.
While most lost Parrots are recovered by someone, some will die. I think there is a fairly high death rate for free flying Parrots per hour flown. That is not something to take lightly. I have no problem with a person prepared to lose Parrots free flying as long as they do everything possible to mitigate the risk of loss, but I don't think many of you understand how horrible it is to lose a beloved pet free flying. Few are prepared for that grief, even if they think they can accept it. The not knowing just kills you.
I know various people who fly Parrots outside. And there’ve been losses - some of unbearable poignancy. Carly Lu, an African Grey, after 6 years of flying in San Diego was lost and although she may have been sighted, has never been found. Isabel Sampiao in Portugal, flew two Amazons for several years.
Flying two years ago in a strange environment, chased by a buzzard, they flew away and were lost. In Essex, a breeder with extensive aviaries allowed a pair of bonded Greys their liberty. Both birds were shot by a farmer.
And Chris Shank in USA, the leading proponent of free flight for Cockatoos, has also had one bird shot. (The neighbour objected to its noise.) In these tragic situations, birds were lost both in home territory as well as from strange locations.
These are numerous anecdotes about lost birds which generally imply that flying outside is too dangerous to attempt. But consider further. No statistics exist that compare length of life of free flight birds with cage or aviary birds.
Cage birds die and suffer from various complaints that I don’t believe outdoor birds share. For example, free flighted birds almost never pluck or suffer respiratory problems.
We know that birds who escape while flying outside are frequently lost to predators, both human and otherwise. I’ve had the sad experience of fledging a Rock Pebbler indoors, a door opened inadvertently by a dog, the 8-week old chick flew down a corridor and into the garden where a sparrow hawk caught her within five minutes.
However, an adult bird that is trained to recall to its handler, familiar with its immediate outdoor environment is not at an unacceptable level of risk; that is the belief of dedicated free flight practitioners.
Benni’s positive reinforcement training is underpinned by the belief Parrots don’t want to fly away from home (their flock, food and emotional security.) Several times a week for 3 months, Benni starting at 20 weeks old, flew in a barn, so he learned to fly down from a height. I took him wearing harness for frequent walks around my property and the nearby fields and common.
Training was fun. I had help from internet friends in USA and from Ryan Wyatt in UK who came for several weekend and stiffened my resolve. At 8 months old, Benni started flying outside, starting with 10 minutes and working up to 30 minutes, nowadays generally an hour or more.
Last summer, Benni flew circuits each morning round our bungalow and garden. In the warm afternoons, I realised a long held dream of mine. I sat in the garden, enjoying the company of a young Macaw who hung out with me. As the weather grew colder, afternoon sessions stopped.
Credit: Della Collins
Free flight comprises different styles. Show birds fly a predetermined and taught circuit.
This is the safest way to free fly with the least risk. Hobbyists’ birds will fly circuits around them either at home or in various locations.
There are groups of enthusiasts in bird clubs, who meet and fly birds a huge group. I’ve only watched these flight clubs on the internet. Check out YouTube for their clips. Do all the birds return to the handlers? I don’t know. If they don’t, it is not shown.
At liberty birds, that is birds who when outside can choose their flight, fly in another manner. Kim Strong has a ranch in Oklahoma where she keeps various captive species. Her two Greenwings, Blackbeard and Ruby, have been free flying at liberty for more than two years.
They were trained using positive reinforcement methods. What Kim and the Duke of Bedford had in common was vast open spaces under their control. You need nerves of steel to allow your bird out of sight and expect it home in some hours. .
Clare Budgen has flown the magnificent Greenwing Macaw Mambo for three years around her home in semi-rural Surrey. Clare, who trains horses and riders, doesn’t think the actual training involved is that difficult. Of course, she’s a professional animal trainer. What worries her is people’s attitude and possible behaviour. Mambo, like Benni, is sociable and has been known to land on walkers. Might someone steal him? It is a possibility.
Credit: Neena MacNulty
Credit: Claire Bugden
Benni is at liberty in that he chooses where to fly. I’ve kept notes of all his flights. From those early ones of 5 to 15 minutes they now last 60-90. And I’ve experienced difficulties with the neighbours, who are living 800 metres away. Benni used to enjoy whizzing over there, perching and observing. The longest he’s stayed away - 40 minutes. I whistle from the adjacent field and he whooshes back. But they vociferously object to Benni’s presence. The wife has a phobia about flying birds. But how do you stop an at liberty bird? You cannot really.
The bird-phobic neighbour shot off his gun several times when Benni flew there which brought him back home very fast. This is only a partial deterrent. Our solution has been for myself and Wal, my husband to walk in the opposite direction. A series of bridle paths lead to the church. The reservoir is on our left so it is a marvellous birdwatching occasion every time. .
Benni follows us from on high. In high winds he flies figure eights. Rooks, crows and seagulls do not bother him. I’ve never seen a hawk in his vicinity. He occasionally lands on the long suffering Honey, the aged German Shepherd’s back.
Along the route to the church is a beautiful old house. Graham and Yvonne act the opposite to the bird-hating neighbours. They simply adore Benni’s visits. I have a nervous disposition. Watching Graham sitting astride his roof mending a tile with Benni perched beside him caused no accidents but still ….
Rachel, who keeps four horses in the next door stables equally enjoys being visited by a curious Macaw. He sits on her wheelbarrow while she mucks out.
So in our efforts to avoid Benni visiting the bird phobic neighbours, since Christmas Wal and I have taken an almost daily walk to the church. All this walking has improved my health enormously and Benni is fit as fiddle. I guesstimate if we walk 3 km he must fly 15 – 20 km in the same period.
Clare Budgen and I have discussed what advice we might give to anyone thinking of free flying. Is it feasible? Yes and no.
I’ve made a major error which other free fliers have avoided. Benni is too friendly to strangers. If you intend to fly a bird outside you have to train it not to be sociable with strangers or land on anyone else.
Ryan Wyatt flies Kovu, Benni’s younger brother and Zazu his Amazon in his local park. But he cannot fly his African Grey because the Grey likes people and will land on them.
Clare stresses the commitment in both time spent in training and time spent flying the bird. And you may have to stop if neighbours object. Neena McNulty now flying siblings Emma and Otto, Blue and Golds in rural California relocated from Chicago because her Blue Throat Ingrid was too sociable.
Not everyone appreciates the presence of a free flying Macaw in close proximity. Will free flight ever become more than a fringe activity? Perhaps. There are no statistics. On an anecdotal level of the hundreds of Parrot owning people I know, apart from professional bird show people, I number less than a dozen who practise free flight.
Help your Parrot to fly safely with a harness. .
Read more about Benni's progress here.
Credit: Dellla Collins
Credit: Neena MacNulty