As Tom Petty sings in Learning to Fly, “coming down is the hardest thing.” For birds who have escaped or are just learning outdoor flight, this can be a major sticking point. Few companion parrots have ever been 20, 30, 50 feet above the ground, but when flying outdoors — whether by choice or chance — it inevitably happens that a parrot lands in a tall tree. Especially if a bird has escaped and is frightened or excited, the normal response is to fly UP. But, as Carly would say, “NOW what?” This is why many birds are never retrieved.
Flying is no more “natural” to a bird than walking is to us. During fledging, birds learn to lift off, turn left, turn right, put on the tail-feather brakes, and land without crashing. All of these can be learned and practiced in smaller spaces like aviaries or living rooms. But imagine being in the top of a 50 ft eucalyptus tree, seeing someone below saying “Come here!”, and pointing yourself toward the ground for the first time. Wings or not, it’s a long drop. You’re going to gain speed, have to make a sharp upward turn before the ground, and put on the brakes hard and quickly. I sometimes compare it to a kid being on a high-dive at the pool for the first time, but there are a lot more skills involved for a bird flying down without injury.
When I was recall training Carly, I knew if we ever did outdoor flying we’d encounter this moment. So I decided to train an alternative to flying down, the Tree-crawl. Instead of having to point her nose at the ground and go for it, I hoped she’d realize she could just crawl down through the branches. Tree-crawls are bascially “targeting” (touching a target stick with the beak) in a tree, working up to increasingly tricky paths. Not only is it a good skill to learn in case of an escape or spook flight, my birds think it’s a great game too.
Carly goofing during treecrawl practice.
So did it work? When Carly did her first big outdoor flight that ended in a treetop, it was a 50+ foot tall eucalyptus tree. I thought, OK, now we’ll see… She sat there for a minute, then started crawling through the branches. They were spaced a lot more widely than the little pine we trained in, so she’d run out of places to go. Then she’d hang upside down and drop like a monkey to another branch and continue crawling. She did this until she was about 15 feet from the ground, then flew down to me. As she got more experienced she flew down from greater heights. Her favorite method though was always the “parrottrooper drop” — not gliding down and circling in for a landing, but dropping straight down using her wings like a flappy parachute.
Carly in mid- parrottrooper drop. [Photo by Hillary Hankey]
Before you start
First you have to have trained targeting with a stick. Your bird must also be comfortable outdoors, either on a harness (preferable) or in a carrier. You don’t want this to be the first time your bird has ever been out of the house.
- Target Training. Learn from the best: Right on Target, article at Susan Friedman’s Behaviorworks.org, or Clicker Training for Birds, book by Melinda Johnson.
- Harness Training and Outdoor Acclimation*. Harness training posts, article and video links here. Just like harness training, outdoor .acclimation should also be taken slowly if the bird is fearful. Keep it positive: short excursions, start with the familiar!
Once your bird can be safely taken outdoors
- Find a suitable tree: no taller than you can reach/climb, with lots of branches. Dense or arching foliage can provide a semi-protected area free of distractions. I found a small, thick pine tree worked well. It should be in a place your bird already knows.
- Find a comfortable branch. Your bird should be on a harness with a long-ish leash (but make sure it can’t get tangled in a place you can’t reach).
- Ask the bird to touch the target stick a short distance away on the branch. Repeat a few times with nearby targeting to get him comfortable with the new location.
- Gradually move the target stick to locations that are further away and harder to reach, so your bird has to climb along a branch to reach it, then climb up onto another branch, hang upside down, etc.
- Move the bird and target up as high as possible in the tree, and then have him work back down. Place the target nearby at first, then practice placing it a greater distance below.
- The goal: Your bird is sitting well up inside the tree, you ask him to touch the target stick near you down below, and he navigates down through the branches to get it.
You obviously can’t practice this with a 20-50 ft tree. But the skill of crawling down through branches will be learned, and if your bird does find himself waayyy up high it’s much more likely he’ll try to work his way down to where you can reach him.
*Because I know you’re out there: If your bird is clipped and you don’t use a harness outdoors, your bird should be VERY well Recall Trained, and very comfortable being outdoors. Clipped birds can fly a long way, and even gain altitude with just a little breeze. Don’t lose a bird by rushing to teach a technique intended to prevent losing a bird.