Posted: January 28, 2013, 12:45 p.m. PST
Flight requires a great deal of muscle, energy and power. A bird that spends most of her time in a cage or on a perch is in no condition to begin the strenuous exercise required by flight. For the majority of pet birds that have had their wing feathers trimmed, the first step of flight training requires conditioning the bird to encourage short flights and activity rather than training toward a specific flight behavior.
Coaching Your Pet Bird
How do you begin to condition your perch potato? Start with flapping behaviors, which will turn into flight behaviors. Always operate at the bird’s comfort level. Your task as coach is to persuade the bird that she really does want to fly. Never drop your bird, push your bird beyond her comfort level, or do anything that will discourage or hurt your pet bird.
If you move too fast and ask your bird to do something beyond her mental and physical capabilities, you are going to diminish the bird’s enthusiasm for this team activity as well as risk injury to your bird. You simply cannot make a flighted bird do anything she does not want to do. Once you start working with flighted birds, you need to become versed in the art of persuasion – or to put it in more exact terms, you need to become an expert at reinforcing the behaviors that you want from your bird.
First, choose a perch that is familiar and safe to your parrot. Make sure the perch is in a place where the bird feels secure and to which it is highly motivated to fly. This can be a favorite person or a secure playstand. My African grey parrot’s first “fly-to perch” was the top of her cage – a good choice because it did not wobble when she landed, she was comfortable climbing and flying on it, and she was very motivated to fly toward her food dishes.
Second, start out with short hops to the chosen target perch. Practice this once or twice a day. Three important considerations are really key to success:
Congo African grey by Gina Cioli/BowTie Studio/Courtesy Jennifer Ketchersid
Before you begin flight target training, work with your bird to prepare it for the upcoming flight behaviors.
Choose a time of day to train when your bird is highly motivated to fly to the target perch. This is almost always right before feeding time. If you have trouble getting your bird to hop to the target perch, step back and ask yourself, “Why would the bird want to fly to this perch?” If there isn’t a good reason, create one. The best reason in the bird’s estimation usually is food, but other things work, such as praise, security, a favorite bird or person, or even the opportunity to see her surroundings.
Be persistent. At this stage of the game you are just trying to improve the bird’s confidence and its physical ability to fly. Like every physical activity, the key is practice, practice, practice.
Work at the bird’s pace. Gently coax and encourage it to fly. Some birds might not need to go through this exercise, but for other birds, this stage takes a long time. The slower birds, like good wine, often get better as they age.
As the bird becomes more fluent and confident with the hops, gradually increase the distance. Watch your parrot’s body language and work at the bird’s comfort level. If it is comfortable with a 6-inch hop, gradually increase this to a foot-long hop.
Pay attention to what your parrot communicates to you about her enthusiasm for this endeavor. One important clue is the bird’s grip on your arm. A loose grip and a hop initiated by the bird might mean you are both ready to go on to the next step. A bird that clings to you and is unwilling to hop probably means that you need to take a step back, shorten the distance, and check your reinforcers, the time of day and/or perch choice, and/or go back to working with flapping exercises.
Once your bird initiates the hops, turn this into a cued behavior. The first time the bird hops to the perch, praise her and offer a treat. It doesn’t take long for the bird to figure out that she is going to get rewarded for these little exercises. When that happens, you can decide on a cue and start training the cue.
If my target perch is the cage, I point to the cage and say, “Fly to your cage.” I do believe that birds are visual creatures and respond best to visual cues, but I also like to add the verbal cue. As your parrot becomes more accustomed to this exercise, offer a reward only when she flies to the cage on your cue.
At this point, work on building stamina, flexibility and confidence. Think of this as sending your bird out on the beginning slopes at the ski resort. Your bird is not necessarily going to be a proficient flier at this stage – and you would not want her skiing on the experienced slopes. You and your bird are just beginning this adventure, but in the meantime, your bird is getting good exercise and learning that actively working with you can be fun and rewarding. The bottom line is practice, practice, practice – and have fun.
Vary this exercise by increasing flight distance and trying different perches. As your bird becomes more and more proficient, begin to use smaller perches to increase the challenge. Anything that helps build landing skills and requires the bird to “think on the wing” is good.
Another good motivator for flight is another flying bird in the house. In my experience, a bird that watches another bird fly learns these skills exponentially faster than a bird being “coached” from the ground.
How can I teach my bird to fly to perches that I target? This exercise is easy to teach if your bird already understands a recall and is an eager and confident flier. Your bird also should have some practice with simple trick training: targeting objects. In other words, your bird should know to follow and touch a target on cue. There are many different methods to teach this exercise, but I have success with this one:
I place two kitchen chairs about 3 feet apart. I stand between them and perch the bird comfortably on the back of the kitchen chair to my left. I place a treat in my closed fist, and then I position my fist under the back of the chair on the right. I say to the bird, “Fly to the right.” The first time, my Senegal parrot did not understand this cue, so I lured her a little bit with my hand. The minute she flew to my hand, I placed her on the back of the chair, said “Good,” and gave her the treat.
I placed another treat in my closed fist and held the fist under the top of the chair that was on my left. I cued her, “Fly to the left.” Once she understood that treats were in my hand, she flew to my hand, which was just under the back of the chair. Because of the position of my hand, she had to land and perch on the chair – the target. I praised and rewarded her.
I repeated this exercise many times until she was fluent in it and I no longer needed to place my hand under the back of the chair. At that point, I stood halfway between the chairs but without blocking the flight pattern and changed the cue from a closed fist on the chair to pointing my finger at the chair and saying, “Fly to the left (or right).” If she did not seem to understand the cue, I went back to the beginning. Once she understood the cue and was comfortable with this exercise, I gradually placed the chairs farther apart.
When Babylon understood that I wanted her to “fly to perch” when I pointed to the perch, I was able to generalize this to other perches in the house. The key to getting good at this behavior is practice, practice, practice.
The process of learning to fly can take years for an older bird. If your bird was previously severely wing-feather trimmed, she was taught not to fly. If your bird did try to fly, she often fell to the floor, and that hard landing was punishment for attempting to fly. Your task can be very difficult if your bird has a history of such punishing attempts. Flight training a bird with this background is not an impossible task and she never may be a really proficient flier, but that is okay. Any exercise is good for the bird, and even if all this bird learns to do is fly to her cage on cue, bravo!
My timneh African grey parrot Phinney was wing-feather trimmed for the first five years of her life. It took me about three years of daily flight training in many different environments for her to get to the point where she could “think on the wing” and control long, startle flights. She does not fly as well as my Senegal parrot, who was fully flighted for most of her four years, but I am more than proud of Phinney’s hard-earned progress.
Excerpt from BIRD TALK Magazine, September 2006 issue, with permission from its publisher, BowTie Magazines, a division of BowTie Inc. To purchase digital back issues of BIRD TALK Magazine, click here.
Want to learn more pet bird excerising tips? Check out this video!
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