Jul 9

I’d like to address the topic of freeflight training for pet birds in a bit broader context than “how to.” After thinking about this for some time, I want to elaborate on a stance that seems contradictory to this blog, even hypocritical. And that is that I don’t advocate it except under very rare circumstances. I have been saying since the beginning of this blog that I feel it’s necessary to have a professional mentor one on one, in person, before attempting outdoor training, even though I didn’t have that kind of mentoring before I started flying Carly outside. But I think I need to clarify why that is my position.

In brief, what it boils down to is that it is much, much more complicated than it first appears, and it is almost impossible for someone to evaluate a trainer’s level of skill, or the bird’s level of skill, without being there in person and having a lot of interaction with both.

As well as the challenges of starting out (making the indoor-outdoor transition is a BIG one), there are continuing challenges when freeflying, especially when dealing with a very uncontrolled environment where the bird is not doing strictly cued A-B type flying. My goal has always been to let Carly fly as long as I can do it without excessive risk. That means having an excellent recall, so she can be called back if she gets too far away or if I see a predator or other danger before she does. (Yes, sometimes I do see it first, and she can be called back.)

These challenges have required using different training concepts, many of which I was completely unaware when I started out. Freeflight requires taking the training mindset into every single daily behavior, not just during recall practice. Flying to you – instead of sitting in a tree, flying somewhere else, exploring, etc. – is one of the most basic trust-requiring behaviors. Without that background of trust and self-empowerment in all daily interactions, it’s much more likely you will have a bird literally avoiding you when outdoors, either by taking “unapproved” excursions, sitting in trees and refusing to come down, or having actual flyoffs. You have to be THE most positive thing in their environment, every time you go outside, no matter what you encounter. Building this trust involves everything from seemingly tiny things (not compelling a bird to step up in your home) to much more obvious ones (not tossing the bird or refusing to let it land when outdoors.)

Here are some of the things I think were critical in allowing me to begin and continue to freefly, so far. And I say “so far” because there are always new challenges that can present themselves, or unexpected dangers that occur. And they will be different for every single bird.

This is long, and I’m not going to try to pare it down, because the point is, this is not simple!

  • Time I was fortunate to have a bird that was not already fledged. This may seem counterintuitive, but in my case it gave me time to get my training and behavior skills up to speed. I spent 9 months training Carly before her flight feathers had grown in enough for outdoor flight to be safe. (Note: her lack of fledging was more than compensated for by an eagerness to learn new skills, something that may not be true for all birds.)
  • Repetition During those 9 months we practiced recall twice daily, every day, for about 10-20 minutes per session. Talk about repetition! By the time we went outside she was a recall machine.
  • Confidence The repetitions from 9 months of training gave us a lot of mutual confidence, so much that Carly has really never done a panic flight from being startled. At most, it is just up a short distance and back to me. The same applies to when she has been involved in bad chases, such as the one with a huge flock of ravens. She did not fly away, she flew fast and evasively, and got back to me as soon as she possibly could.
  • Food management, not food deprivation All Carly’s indoor training was done with scheduled meals, with no weight reduction. When we transitioned outdoors I brought her weight down very slightly (2-3%) for a short time. I usually now fly within a small range of her at-lib weight (455-462 g). There are those who advocate no food or weight management, and those who advocate overly extreme food/weight management. I was fortunate to find information about how to use it intelligently and appropriately.
  • Applied Behavior Analysis Dr. Susan Friedman’s Living and Learning with Parrots class and other writings have been incredibly valuable, even more so than I could have imagined when I started. I didn’t take LLP until the summer when I was first training Carly outdoors, and frankly much of it didn’t seem “new” or all that important to that training at first. But with each passing month, and the more I learned about ABA, the more I have used it. I credit that knowledge with single-handedly enabling me to continue to free fly Carly despite some very tough training challenges.
  • Behavior is Science! See above. There is a right and wrong way to train and interact with our birds, if our goal is well-adjusted, confident animals.
  • Input from mentors & experts I did not have the luxury of a local professional for advice and evaluation, but I made use of every contact I could, every group, blog, seminar, workshop, or even just the chance to observe expert trainers in action (as I’ve been taking ample advantage of with NEI at the San Diego Zoo recently). It’s not just at the beginning, but continuously, and not just reading or watching, but thinking and asking “how does this apply to situations I’ve encountered?” These are worth mentioning by name:
    • Dr Susan Friedman, Utah State University. Always asks the hard questions and teaches that what we do with our birds every minute of every day is training. It is important to understand behavior and work with it on that level for our relationship with our birds, and with outdoor flight it’s critical. Web site: BehaviorWorks.org
    • Barbara Heidenreich, of Good Bird Inc. Seeing her work with birds at a seminar concurrent with taking Susan’s LLP class was like seeing a live demonstration of ABA in action. A pivotal moment for me. Her Good Bird Magazine is a storehouse of good training info.
    • Sid Price, of Avian Ambassadors. Sid has become a good friend and his input and observations on training questions has been insightful. He has also taken an interest in the companion parrot world, which he advises through his Bird Behavior Blog with thoughtful posts on a variety of topics.
    • Steve Martin & Natural Encounters Inc. I have not had much direct interaction with Steve, but his talks and articles, and those of the other NEI trainers, have been an invaluable resource. Articles are posted on the NEI web site that are must-reads for understanding parrot-human interaction, as well as training techniques. What’s in It For Me is something we should all be asking ourselves (on behalf of our parrots) all the time. Watching training for their current show is also like a live ABA demo.
    • Various friends who freefly well: Hillary Hankey, Wendy Craig, and Ellen Aparacio were all influences for the better, just by watching how sensitively they interact with their birds and how they think through behavioral issues.
  • The right bird for the job Although Carly was clipped as a baby, she has always been assertive and calm, which are two wonderful qualities in an outdoor freeflyer. I always think of the word “unflappable” which seems odd to use with a bird. I don’t know if it is an innate personality trait, or if her early upbringing played a role too. I made sure to keep her well socialized and always used to encountering new things, well before we flew outdoors.
  • Keeping records It’s important not to rely just on memory for details like daily weights, training outcomes and other things that might be influencing behavior each day. Sometimes it’s only by writing things down that you can see patterns evolve. –> sample logs
  • Harness training I believe part of her calm outdoors is from being taken outside daily from the age of 4 months onward. By the time we started freeflying, she had been exposed to just about everything she ever would be: traffic, people, noise, crowds, construction, blimps, planes, helicopters, paragliders, kids, dogs. The one exception was other birds (seagulls, ravens, falcons) and she reacted calmly thanks to lots of practice with new things, and lots of repetition of our training. –> harness training
  • Tree practice I trained her to target by crawling through and down trees. This was a very useful skill when she first started learning to fly down from large trees because she could use a combination of crawling, swinging, dropping and flying if she got up too high, and it allowed her to learn flying down at her own pace. Many birds who are lost during the indoor/outdoor transition are lost because they can’t fly down and panic.
  • Emergency recall Training a super reliable and fast recall for situations where there is danger or the bird is flying fast and getting too far away. It employs “super bonus” treats, which makes it more strongly motivated than a normal recall in the face of distractions, and to be effective it can’t be overused.–>emergency recall
  • Luck When we first encountered our biggest training challenge, her tendency to go visit other people while flying, we were extremely lucky that the people she chose were honest and made an effort to find her owner. When she flew behind some trees and was attacked by a hawk we were very lucky that it was only a shallow talon wound.
  • Not relying on luck Any time we had a challenge with freeflying I tried to think through it using the tools I’d learned in ABA. Just a sampling of what some of the solutions involved:
    • recognizing very subtle “forcing” of behavior and applying positive reinforcement in more of our daily interactions
    • stopping freeflying to develop and implement a new training routine when her behavior regressed (more difficult than you might think to stop these outings)
    • watching her body language more carefully for signs of potential problem behavior outdoors
    • using bonuses strategically
    • using a “heirarchy” of treats
    • recognizing when food or weight is not the problem
    • “changing the antecedent” by not flying if I saw any warning sign that it was not a good day (also harder than you can imagine)
    • generalizing behavior so it is maintained in the face of distractions
    • “super-generalizing” behavior so it is maintained in the face of competing external reinforcers. –>generalizing
    • using small approximations to train flying in the dark
    • recognizing the “study of one” principle and taking much smaller approximations in outdoor acclimation with new flyer Piper –>acclimation
    • recognizing that every time I make a mistake outdoors (usually by setting up antecedents wrong) I am training Carly to do the wrong thing, and there are no “do-overs”.

. . .

I’m sure I’ve missed a lot here, but you get the idea. It isn’t just a matter of teaching recall in isolation of other behavior and the daily life of the bird.

I never like to discourage someone from a challenge, but I feel that some people who freefly minimize the work involved, and/or have lower standards for recall or safe flying. And on the other extreme some rely on weight control almost to the exclusion of other strategies. It’s always up to the individual how they want to proceed: how much latency is acceptable (sitting in trees), how much of a flyoff is acceptable, whether or not staying out overnight is acceptable, or if witholding food for one or more meals is acceptable. For me, any of those is a sign that we need to revisit and reevaluate our training routine.

I have had problems with sitting in trees during Carly’s first year flying. I have had times when Carly flew out of sight and landed on a stranger who took her home. Twice she has been out overnight (once when a huge truck pulled up its rear elevator as we were passing by right after dark and she spent the night in a tree outside my office – with me underneath it – and once when she was attacked by a hawk at sunset and hunkered down in a tree until morning. Both times she flew right down to me at the crack of dawn.) All of these were problems that could be dealt with through additional training for her (generalizing recall in the presence of competing reinforcers) or by training me (knowing when it’s not a good time to fly, and being aware of the environment). None of these has occurred this year, and I like to think I’m growing as a trainer. But I’m always ready for that next unexpected challenge because I haven’t been doing this for years and years. And from what I’ve seen, even the best, most experienced trainers are continually learning and open to input from others.

To close, here are some of my favorite pieces of writing about freeflight or training in general that I think are applicable to this discussion.
. . .

What’s in It For Me by Steve Martin of Natural Encounters Inc. Looking at things from your bird’s point of view.

Straight Talk About Behavior by Susan Friedman.

Food and Weight Management and follow-up article in Sid Price’s Bird Training Blog

The Mouse Went Down the Hole: Psychological Appetite, Nature’s Training Tool by Cassie Malina of NEI.

Strong Foundations & Adjustments: Keys to Training Success by Sid Price.

Don’t Shoot the Dog , by Karen Pryor. A bible of training and behavior for all species that can be read over and over.

Good Bird Magazine, edited by Barbara Heidenreich. A must-have subscription.

BehaviorWorks.org, Dr Susan Friedman’s website, has links to all of her articles. Her Parrot Behavior Analysis Solutions group (http://yahoo.groups.com/parrotBAS) offers free one-on-one behavior problem solving and lessons on Applied Behavior Analysis with trained tutors, and her internet or workshop course Living and Learning with Parrots (LLP) is the gold standard for parrot behavioral science.

Behavior.org, the web site of Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. The Behavior Analysis Glossary alone is worth browsing and rebrowsing.

Where to learn one-on-one about free flight training for parrots?
The Art and Science of Training Companion Parrots, level 2, at Natural Encounters. This is only an introduction to their methods so people get some experience with what is involved. (Part of the purpose of this workshop is to show people how easy it isn’t.)

Chris Shank’s Cockatoo Downs. Chris is a very experienced trainer with many different animals, and has a flock of free-flighted cockatoos in Oregon. There are annual workshops on a variety of topics, and Chris is also available for individual consulation.

There are many very qualified professional trainers, but none of them offer anything similar, generally because it is such a high-risk endeavor, and not one that can be taught in a short workshop. Some others offer freeflight instruction that I do not recommend for a variety of reasons. I do not support anything that’s offered by internet or video.

. . .

My non-professional* training models. These guys have that magic touch, and also the thirst for continued learning. (*At the time. Hillary is now an NEI trainer. Wendy has completed both levels of the NEI workshops.)

Hillary Hankey & Juice

Ellen Aparacio & Inca

Wendy Craig with Samantha, Fifer and Rubidew

UPDATE: I have been asked about people who may have been influences on my training that I do not mention here. All I will say is those I have mentioned are those whose training methods and philosophy are in keeping with the “most positive, least intrusive” principle that I believe in. I’ve been exposed to other trainers, but they use methods or strategies that I prefer not to follow, and they are aware of those differences.

Links to some other articles on freeflight training:
Recommended Articles on Freeflight Training