Why I started this blog: I started my blog initially to answer a lot of questions I got when I was flying Carly outside, so that I could compile the many good resources I have used into one place, and also describe the training I was doing with Carly (and later Piper). I have also posted here about training methods I take issue with, primarily those that are ill-informed and have demonstrated poor/rough handling of birds; those that do not believe a well-trained recall is important for freeflying (e.g., Biro); those that rush the process of flying birds outdoors due to impatience; and those that rely on keeping birds hungry and underweight. Although it’s about Carly’s freeflight experiences, it is really geared toward the idea of activity and enrichment for our birds. It is not a “how-to” or promotion for outdoor flying.

Isn’t this irresponsible? I did not take the process of outdoor flying lightly. Carly trained indoors or on a harness for longer than any bird I’ve ever heard of. When she first began flying off-leash, I had to encourage her to fly larger loops because she would only do circles of about 10 feet. I studied from the best trainers I could find — not Skype courses, but the actual science of applied behavior analysis which is the basis for all animal (and human) training. I work at UCSD, and have also been fortunate to be able to sit in on weekly seminars with Edmund Fantino (Prof. Edmund Fantino – AILUN Personal Page one of the pioneers in Applied Behavior Analysis who works extensively with birds as well as humans (he was a student in B.F. Skinner’s original pigeon lab at Harvard). This is not to claim that I know all the answers — far from it, as any trainer in their right mind would admit — but hopefully you get a sense that this is not something I just decided to try one day.

For those of you that haven’t checked it out, the “About Us”, “Training Resources”, and “Recall Training” pages on my blog have more detail on Carly and I, and the training methods I’ve used. You’ll also see sections there with strong cautions about free-flying and the kind of preparation and diligence required.

Should all parrots be allowed to fly outdoors? Should parrots never be clipped? I don’t want to get into a long discussion here of pro vs con; I firmly believe it is something that has to be decided for each unique parrot-person combination. I didn’t fly Piper outdoors for even longer than Carly, even though he was never clipped and had good recall. His temperament is different and he took much longer to develop confidence in different environments. I did not even set out with a firm goal to free fly Carly. My goal was to go at her own pace, as far as her level of comfort and skill allowed. I have a cockatiel who is clipped because he seems much happier being about to putter about the yard with me, fly up onto things table height, and be part of the action that he couldn’t be otherwise because of his size. I’m all about birds having autonomy, exercise and interaction. In one home a flighted bird might be kept caged all the time to keep it under control. In another a clipped bird might have amazing jungle gyms and swings and the run of the house.

What happened when Carly was lost: Carly went missing after we were finished flying for the evening. She was with a friend who is often at the bay at the same time with his dog, and he was supposed to keep her with him until I brought my car over. She likes him and often sits on his shoulder after flying. This person has seen me dozens of times say I need to get the birds back in because it’s getting dark and one more flight risks them deciding suddenly that it’s time to roost for the night (at which point they are silent and virtually impossible to find if you don’t see exactly where they have flown in to perch). We’ve specifically talked about that. Big Mistake #1 was not appreciating the extent to which this person doesn’t always think things through. Big Mistake #2 was that our routine had become so routine that I got used to not putting a leash on her when we were done flying. Because she doesn’t normally fly after dark. Big Mistake #3 was that friend holding Carly wanted to try out his new bike, and tried to take her with him, on the bike, in the dark, when I was not there. (She rides with me, during the day, on a leash.) So of course she flew, circled around some and then roosted somewhere. This has happened before when I let her and Piper fly too close to dark, which is why I know that I need to get them back in. I couldn’t find her the next morning.

Why I thought she had been stolen: Piper knows where home is like a homing pigeon. Carly can get distracted by visiting people. She’s very friendly. I spent a lot of training effort working on this so she wouldn’t just drop down and go visiting out of my sight. Even though she no longer does this, I keep a tag on her band with my phone number just in case. The most likely scenario when I couldn’t find her was that she’d found someone to visit, and I wasn’t getting a call.

Why I realized she had not been stolen: Lots of sightings once I started getting flyers up and news reports went out.

Why I think she is “OK out there”: Close up sightings of an OK bird, not going to people, not begging for food. There are wild Amazon flocks here and lots of trees now with fruit and seeds that they are feasting on. She’s been seen in the same places. Under a spot where she was hanging out for a couple days there was parrot poop that was berry-red. There is also water all over — ponds, fountains, puddles from sprinklers — though the berries are probably enough. She’s really comfortable outdoors, very fit, and not timid. However, this doesn’t mean *I’m* OK with her being out there.

Why can’t I find her? She is also often seen with another parrot. This, and that she’s not interested AT ALL in people (even when they’ve tried to call her down) tells me something unusual is going on. She is prime breeding age, older than Piper, has always been a vigorous nest builder at home, and goes absolutely gaga over baby parrots. I don’t know for sure that this is what’s going on, but something has replaced her obsession with people with something else. This makes it very difficult to find her. It’s like they have the Do Not Disturb sign on the tree. When there are sightings it’s always been a day or two later when someone sees my signs or the news reports, or she is in flight, or I’m 20 minutes or more away and she’s no longer there.

Carly has always had a fierce maternal/breeding instinct. She fed the newly weaned Piper for about a month when he arrived. She goes gaga if she sees baby grey parrots at the bird store (pounds her beak on the glass and strains to get to them). She’s been doing Grey breeding behaviors since she was 3 years old, 2-3 years earlier than most.

Will she come to me when I find her? I don’t know, given that this is all very unusual. Normally yes, no problem. That’s what all the training is about.

I’m strongly inclined to think this is related to reproductive behavior, and that’s something that can trump all else. Would she rather just be an outdoor feral bird now? I just don’t know, nor am I sure how I would deal with that. My main goal now is to just catch up with her and see what’s going on, if there’s another parrot involved, or what. Then I can decide how to proceed. It sounds like it’s probably one of the wild Mexican Red-headed Amazons she’s been seen with, but could possibly be an escaped pet. If she has become extremely bonded to another bird, whether it is escaped or wild (and whether owners can be found or not) will be important in deciding what to do.

What about hawks? The area we fly in occasionally has a red-tailed or red-shouldered hawk. They have mildly harassed the parrots before, but quickly lose interest. The greys are fast and agile flyers and too much work. Some areas where she’s been spotted get an occasional falcon, which are more dangerous, especially when they dive. She’s outflown a Peregrine before, after it dove at her (in an area I no longer fly her, for that very reason). But she hasn’t been spotted sitting out in the open, which is the most vulnerable. She has good instincts and flight skills, so I’m not overly worried. There are many easier targets around. But certainly if a Peregrine showed up when we were out together she would get the “GET DOWN HERE NOW” call, which she responds to really well.

How can I give my bird the best chance if gets outdoors? A second Grey was lost — escaped — a week before Carly, in the same neighborhood. The bird had never been clipped, but also never let out of his cage. So in pretty poor physical condition (aerobically, muscularly). He was found dead just short of two weeks outside, in a yard only a few houses away from his home, with no visible injuries. Probably stressed, scared, not eating, fatigued. Escaped clipped birds often meet the same fate, though often with injuries from cats or other predators. Whatever you choose, make sure you train a good recall and a contact call, practice crawling down through tree branches (indoor birds do NOT know how to fly *down*), and keep your buddy exercised. Accidents happen. It takes very little wing to create lift in the right conditions.

Other reading & resources:

  • Hillary Hankey got started in parrot freeflight training her pet birds and continued on to make it a profession. She has an excellent article on the subject on her blog LearningParrots:
    “So you want to train your pet parrot for freeflight…”
  • Learning to train for freeflight is not where one starts. The starting point is learning about behavior, operant conditioning, and basic training methods, then putting it into action with your animals. It is also the following step, the middle step, the next step, and every step in between. The links on my Training Resources page are some of the sources I have found most useful.