Is there an ideal way to care for captive Parrots? Is Parrot husbandry a science, or an art which relies on science to develop the best methods and techniques? There are issues that do not give an easy answer. How should you feed, train, nurture or fly your Parrot?
As soon as you begin to examine the various issues, you will find different points of view, often violently disagreeing with one another. None more so than in the contentious issue of should a captive Parrot be allowed to fly. I believe that it should because of the way it has evolved over millions of years and for their physical and mental health.
I only keep full-winged Parrots. When a clipped bird joins the aviary flock he must be kept apart until his flight feathers have regrown or the flighted birds will bully him. Flight impinges on a Parrot’s physical health and mental stimulation. We are mammals. We are designed to walk run and swim as do our mammalian pets.
Modern day birds evolved in order to fly. Even the handful of species that are flightless such as penguins and ostriches evolved from ancestors who could fly. So why is it acceptable to prevent Parrots from flying when it’s not acceptable to prevent children, puppies or horses from running?
We keep animals for pleasure, (domestic pets) and profit (farming.) The distinction gets blurred in many activities. Is breeding animals as pets an activity for pleasure or profit? A bit of both for caring breeders.
Let’s look at the order Aves, the order of birds, and concentrate on Parrots.
Dinosaurs became extinct. Before they did so, certain dinosaurs were developing bird-like features.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
Not all the birds that lived during the Mesozoic, the Age of Large Dinosaurs, may have looked as unfamiliar as Archaeopteryx,Confuciusornis, and Hesperornis. The early representatives of today's lineages of birds can also be traced back to this remote era of our geological past.
In several continents, rocks from the last part of the Cretaceous period have started to provide the remains of early shore-birds, ducks, and other more familiar birds. Their descendants are the true heirs of the magnificent dinosaurs that ruled the Earth tens of millions of years ago.
One mammal in particular became the most influential for the survival of all the other species. Homo sapiens, our species, now controls most of the planet’s space and is trying to alter the last wildernesses and is the main cause of the extinction of so many other species.
Parrots were relatively safe from our predatory instincts until the last century. When first kept as pets only the rich could afford them. By the twentieth century, transport had improved; many people enjoyed improved living conditions and a taste for exotic pets developed.
Parrots with their attractive often exotic plumage and the ability to mimic human speech were much sought after. As well as the vast number of Parrots harvested for the pet trade, habitats were (and still are) increasingly degraded by logging and farming adding to wild Parrots’ difficulties.
In addition to their woes, climate change driven storms and natural disasters occur predominantly in the southern hemisphere where Parrots live. Ideas of what is acceptable are not static.
The majority of bird owners are in agreement that there are sufficient Parrots are living in captivity, the majority breed well, the non- dimorphic species can be sexed by DNA analysis and the consensus is importing wild caught birds is no longer necessary. There is legislation banning capture and export of Parrots from their native haunts in most countries. But illegal trade continues threatening species such as the African Grey.
Now that we have plenty of captive bred birds what is best way to provide them with a long healthy life to enable them to give us the pleasure we expect from these unique companions?
The basis - provide a suitable environment, good food and flight. Parrots have evolved over millions of years to fly. Their skeleton with its light bones, their complex breathing system, which allows oxygen to air to constantly circulate and provide birds with seemingly boundless energy and flying power.
Their visual acuity, their feathers and their wings are all adaptations to being airborne. The fastest animal at 200 miles an hour is a peregrine falcon, the highest-flying animals are vultures and geese that fly over Mount Everest, the animal that travels the greatest distance around the globe, from one pole to the other is the Arctic Tern. So why would anyone want to curtail this freedom, put all heaven in rage to paraphrase William Blake and clip the wings of a bird?
There is also the health aspect of not allowing birds to fly. The most energetic thing a bird does is take to the airwaves. In doing so it burns up more calories than any other activity a bird indulges in. The reason migrating birds store fat is to supply them with energy when they’re on a migratory flight.
But this also means birds have a tendency to store fat in veins and elsewhere when they are given a high carbohydrate diet combined with limited exercise. This is the reason the biggest killer in captive birds is atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries.
And Parrots are one of the orders of birds highly susceptible to this disease. A Parrot that can’t fly is doubly susceptible to the disease because unlike birds like chickens that can run, clipped, caged Parrots can’t get much alternative exercise.
Pro clipping arguments and my responses.
The owner of a clipped African Grey says. “I like sitting in the garden with my Parrot. He stays on his perch and keeps me company. If he could fly away, I ‘d lose him.”
In reply I would say, “taking a clipped bird outside is dangerous. Clipped feathers regrow. A sudden gust of wind can toss the bird in the air and it can be blown away. Even clipped birds can glide some distance travelling in the air out of sight.
With no flying or landing skills, such a Parrot is a prey to hawks, cats or dogs if he or she lands on the ground. Or even to a human predator who picks up a lost bird and does not think to find the distraught owner. It is a sad fact that I have known of clipped birds destroyed or stolen in that way.
Predators can dive bomb and kill a static bird. It has happened. Clipped birds - unless brutally clipped - can still fly but with no ability to evade pursuers or land safely.
Indoors. The clipped bird’s owner says, “My bird is safe and cannot fly into windows or into ceiling fans. She cannot fall into the toilet or land on the hot stove.”
My answer: such accidents are completely avoidable. Indoor flighted birds can be taught about glass windows. Either streak them with visible window cleaner until the bird knows where the windows are or pull blinds down or tap the bird’s beak against glass windows and mirrors.
To teach a flighted bird to avoid ‘hot’ is not difficult. I’ve used two methods safely. The preferable one if to teach the ‘off there’ command. Less preferable is to let the bird land on a hot surface and say NO. My Artha has landed once on the wood burning stove but not again in 20 years.
As for toilet seats - keep the lid closed.
The clipped bird - especially poorly clipped - often still attempts to fly then crash lands and in numerous cases breaks the keel bone on the sternum. A bird that is clipped early in life even when its feathers have regrown is often a reluctant flyer, and rarely regains its confidence if it has violently ‘crash landed.’
The clipped bird’s owner says, “My Parrot poops on her play stand. I cannot stand Parrot poop everywhere.”
My answer: “either toilet train the Parrot – not hard to do - or put a sheet of newspaper where she perches or easiest of all simply wipe up fresh poop before it hardens.
The clipping advocate says “I cannot let my bird fly in the house, he chews too much. When I put him on his play tree he stays there and plays.”
I’d say: “then a Parrot isn’t the most agreeable pet for the overly house proud. They are messy. I have ropes stretched across the room when the Parrots are out. They prefer to play on the ropes than chew the furniture. But they do chew the tops of doors, or at least they did so until I put metal strips over the doors like draught excluders.
Valuable objects like cameras, mobile phone, remote controls are a magnet for a flighted bird. My solution isn’t to prevent flight but keep the phones, etc. in a closed bag and not take the Parrots into any room where I use the computer.”
Tip from Grey Parrot carer Bill Naylor. In a room with a minimum of objects thick towels can be used to cover them. The Parrot will land on the towels but is reluctantly to try to bite the hidden items. If he or she does start to bite at objects through the towels, the towels will prevent damage being done and give you time to issue a stern “No.” to check his behaviour.
To counter the viewpoint that the clipped bird is safer indoors, consider the following situation where a clipped bird on the floor was injured fatally by a visitor’s dog.
The clipped bird’s owner says, “I bought this bird with my own money. It is nobody else’s business what I do with it. I love it a lot and care for it properly.”
I answer: “your first point is correct; the bird IS your property. But it’s a living creature and as such is due a certain respect and attention to its welfare. By depriving it of one of its essential qualities - fight - you’re not giving it the right respect .”
Morality of clipping
Pro- clippers say it’s their right to clip, and safer for the bird anyway. Anti-clippers say whether it is their right or not, a flighted bird is healthier and happier than a clipped one.
What often happens, a flighted bird who is untrained is harder to control and catch and thus remains caged most of the time so is clipped for ease of handling. But if a carer trains a bird using positive reinforcement methods, she will not only be easier to handle but also an enormous pleasure to watch as she flies.
Where to Fly
No one would advocate free flight to any Parrot owner unless they have time, energy and knowledge to ensure the bird’s safety and ability to return. However, free flight is gaining in popularity world-wide. Parrots can and do get lost. But it’s a rewarding activity if you feel you can fulfil the necessary requirements.
Another solution is to take the Parrot out in a harness and fly short distances to and from a perch and your hand.
Building an aviary is worthwhile. One friend of mine with a tiny garden has netted the whole enclosure.
Flight clubs where people take flighted birds and fly in disused factories or in riding schools are a marvellous chance to socialise with like-minded owners and adorable birds.
There are not many of such clubs around. Have you ever thought of starting one up? I live in the country and a friendly farmer has let me use his barn from time to time.
Smaller species like Cockatiels, Budgies and Conures can get a lot of flying exercise in an average-sized home.
I say to the advocate of clipping that your arguments about personal property, freedom to take bird outside, easier to train, safety in the house - none of these are really supported by personal observation or scientific research.
Find lots of safe harnesses here.
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