Natural Fledging & Recall: Comments

Posted by Raz on Aug 1st, 2009
Aug 1

The following are comments regarding my post about training flight skills vs recall skills. Jim Dawson is an avian biologist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tuscon. He states that “a trainer overly focused on ‘recall’ will never let a bird truly explore its wings.” He also points out that birds naturally fledge with a type of A-B recall, gradually increasing their flight skills along with their confidence, under the supervision of their parents. It is that type of supervised, controlled skill-building that I prefer to use with my own birds, and which is typically used by professional trainers (ask around).

UPDATE: This discussion originated with someone’s assertion that a new trainer with an adult bird who was just being introduced to outdoor flying had to choose between focusing on allowing the bird to learn flight skills and training recall. My position applies to any bird who was raised by humans indoors, whether newly weaned or adult. I do not condone anyone inexperienced in hand-rearing and weaning baby birds to experiment with replacing a bird’s natural parents or a qualified breeder. Please see the guest post by Wendy Craig for details.

Nicely written — We find ourselves bounded by the ways that we think about flight. Our birds thus end up equally constrained. This blog touches on some of the false labels we put on behaviors.

Instead we need to think about how wild birds fledge and learn to fly competently. With all the written resources and video out there about wild birds, there really is no excuse any longer for not understanding natural fledging (all the way to strong skilled flight outside).

Recall is part of fledging naturally — babies don’t leave the cavity until parents refuse to go to cavity to feed them. Babies’ first flights are to the parents to get food. It’s parallel to recall to a person. It has to be done right away and without much food restriction. They are out for supervised, short periods and are not left at liberty ever. I am very much against any form of at liberty flying, even though people like Chris Shank do it very well.

The youngsters develop quickly and their skills keep pace with the final growth and hard-penning of their sails. Panic flights happen when a bird has the hardware (developed wings and some muscle) to fly high and far but is lacking the software (confidence and learned skills) to handle flight. A young bird fledging doesn’t have the hardware yet to go far. By the time they do, they’ve flown quite a bit and have the mental skills in place.

I agree with you that recall and skills have to happen simultaneously. I don’t agree with a sink-or-swim idea about flight. I don’t agree that putting a bird outside without a solid recall is the way to do it.

A to B recall is only the very start of the process. The point is to increase the skill level of the flights as the bird develops physically and mentally. The practice A-B flights are shaped into loops, and the loops are shaped into larger loops, then higher. Eventually the bird starts exploring dives and other maneuvers, and flights become longer and and require a great deal of stamina. But the goal at all times is to maintain a balance of control and freedom with the bird, so that they can explore their own limits without excessive risk. When dealing with an indoor, human-raised bird, we are the only ones who can provide that balance and allow time for mental growth (confidence outdoors, “thinking on the wing”) as well as physical growth (flight skills).

Note: Chris Shank is a long-time trainer who started out in the marine mammal world, and conducts week long workshops on training and flight at Cockatoo Downs in Oregon. Chris recently stated about at-liberty flying:

I have flown cockatoos in this manner. However, I do NOT promote that form of flying in any way now. It is an unsafe and reckless way to fly one’s companion parrot. (29 July 2009)

When we are dealing with a bird who is going outdoors for the first time, whether as a youngster or an adult, it is a good recall that enables us to maintain control over the pace and difficulty of the skills being practiced.

Regarding a suggestion from a “recall optional” proponent that the method of early training I advocate needs to undergo “peer review”… well … if there even were such a thing for publications in the bird training world, in this case it would kind of be reinventing the wheel. This type of flight/recall training is the industry standard. Descriptions of the process I used with Carly for early flight training can also be found in two articles in Good Bird Magazine (links here), a publication reviewed and edited by Barbara Heidenreich. (Not the same as peer review, but in the companion parrot world it’s the best we have at the moment. Barbara is a past president of IAATE, and training consultant with many zoos, as well as an active advocate for companion parrot training.) Most all of my training strategies that are not routine practice are discussed with one or more professional trainers/behaviorists before and during the process, and well before writing about them. I strongly encourage others to do the same and not rely on internet chat groups as a sole source of information.

In addition, because of such a need for training information to be somehow “vetted,” the newly formed IAATE Companion Parrot Committee was set up for just that purpose. Articles posted at the site will have undergone peer review by members of the committee as well as the IAATE board of directors.

For more information:


3rd Fledge Day Anniversary

Posted by Raz on Jul 26th, 2009
Jul 26

It was exactly 3 years ago today that Carly did her first jump-flap off the counter onto my arm. Even with all our other flying adventures, it’s still the most memorable event. I don’t know who was more excited, me or her!

Here she is a couple weeks later (and a few cell phone cameras ago!) practicing. You can barely see here, but she has only 2 or 3 flight feathers on each side.

carly indoors

She was so eager to practice every day that when we were finished she’d often leave her dinner to come back and do more. Contrafreeloading in action!

I think she likes this stuff.

carly paratrooper

Carly doing a vertical “paratrooper drop” landing at the beach. Photo © Hillary Hankey 2009.

Of course we’re celebrating this afternoon by…. going to the beach.

For an article on techniques to try to help previously clipped birds take this first step, see the current issue (Summer 2009) of Good Bird Magazine where Mandy Andrea has an article on teaching the mature bird.


Fledge Day Anniversary

Posted by Raz on Jul 26th, 2008
Jul 26

Today we are celebrating the 2nd Anniversary of Carly’s first official fledging. Since she was clipped as a young baby, she only really did startle flights until we started to train for recall. We started recall with walking, but the first part of flight training involved learning to take off — by jumping off a countertop onto my arm. It took almost 2 weeks from the time we started for her to work up the courage to voluntarily jump through the air that short 12 inches or so. Lots of strrreetching and plotting to find, other ways around it to get to me. But she always tried. And when we didn’t get the jump, we’d end with some long stretching step-ups to keep things positive. But on July 26, 2006, at 18 months and 6 days old, she finally made the big breakthrough! After that there was no stopping her and she became a jumping and flapping fool — even with only a few flight feathers grown in. She clearly liked the activity, and would even leave her dinner after training to come do some more jumps.

The process we followed and resources we used are described in the Indoor Recall Training article on the Recall Training page.

Here are some shots from today, at age 3 yrs 6 months & 6 days. Lots of diving and screaming. But her enthusiasm was just as great on those first hops.

With Gizmo….
CarlySassy, Fledge Day Anniversary
Continue Reading »

Jun 5

I have been curious what difference a top-rate trainer would see in training a pre-weaned baby, and training an older bird who is already weaned and fledged. If both are trained well with positive reinforcement and small increments, is there a difference in the outcome? The following is from a post by Barbara Heidenreich, used by permission from her Good Bird forum.


Flying in open fields with no perching options and relying on a “baby
bond” are in my opinion are unreliable crutches for outdoor flight
behaviors. To me it signals some important training steps are being

Question from forum:

May I ask why “baby bond” isn’t good to BUILD a +R history with the bird?
How can you say you don’t like to hear about training fledging birds
because “it signals some important training steps are being missed”?

Barbara Heidenreich:

I am not a big fan of teaching flight on the Internet, which is why I don’t participate in those discussions anymore. Although I am still a member of a few lists and check in to read posts periodically. As you know the discussions get quite heated and getting into arguments on flight training do not accomplish much towards my teaching goals. Kinda just sucks up lots of time.

With that in mind I will share a response to your questions….but I will not be sharing all my thoughts, philosophies and teachings on flight training here. Even my two days teaching at Chris shank’s is not enough to send someone off to free fly safely in my opinion without additional guidance.

So here is the deal…… Continue Reading »


Guest Post: Unweaned Baby Birds

Posted by Raz on Jun 3rd, 2008
Jun 3

The following is a post I requested from Wendy Craig, of Wendy’s Parrots about the requirements for hand-feeding and weaning baby parrots. Wendy has been raising a wide variety of parrots for over a decade. Her flock is composed of African Greys, Amazons, Alexandrines & Macaws, including the highly endangered Blue-throated Macaws and Red-fronted Macaws of Bolivia, which she specializes in. She is widely regarded as one of best breeders in the country, with babies that are renowned for their excellent health and sociability. Wendy is also a trainer, and has several free-flighted Red-fronted Macaws who were trained as adults, and one Scarlet Macaw that was trained after weaning.

Purchasing unweaned baby birds is a recent fad among a minority of flight trainers, who believe it is necessary to have a “baby bond” when beginning outdoor flying, rather than patient training. In addition to birds inevitably outgrowing any baby bond, the dangers of inexperienced owners hand-feeding babies is well-known enough that the sale of unweaned birds is illegal in the state of California. For more on the baby bond being unnecessary with good training, see the guest post by Barbara Heidenreich.

So You Want To Buy An Unweaned Baby Bird?

by Wendy Craig

With all the knowledge out there these days I’m still surprised at the number of phone calls I get from people wanting to purchase an unweaned baby parrot as well as all of the information I read on the internet supporting it. So let’s take a look at it.

Why would you want to by an unweaned baby and why would someone want to sell one? Exactly who benefits from the sale of these unweaned babies? Is it the baby? The buyer? The seller?

I’ve heard it said that handfeeding a baby bird is an art. I’m not so sure I’d call it an art but it is a learned skill. And not all baby birds are the same. So you can’t really learn to hand feed properly from feeding only a few babies. Macaws, Grey, Cockatoos, Eclectus all feed differently. They like it at different consistencies, different temperatures, different rates of delivery etc. And then there are variances with each individual bird. Sound confusing? It can be! You can feed the formula too cold and get a bacterial infection or too hot and burn the crop. Then there is slow crop and what to do about that? Would a novice even know what constituted a slow crop? The number one injury from hand feeding is aspiration. One veterinarian even suggested that 79% of all hand feed baby birds aspirate to some degree. Did you know there were different degrees of aspiration? The one that is readily apparent is the immediate aspiration of a baby. That is when it dies right as you are feeding it or right after. Then there is a second degree aspiration where the baby becomes ill after a few days. Symptoms vary but a dose of antibiotics in time can sometimes solve the problem. Then there is the third degree aspiration or the sneaky kind. The one that isn’t apparent for months or years after it happens but ultimately leads to an early death, sometimes after a lengthy illness and sometimes quite suddenly. Still want to buy an unweaned baby bird?

Continue Reading »


Unweaned Babies for Flight Training

Posted by Raz on May 5th, 2008
May 5

There have been advocates recently of training parrots for freeflight by relying on the “baby bond” rather than a solid foundation of positive reinforcement training at an appropriate age. This style encourages novices with little to no parrot care experience to purchase unweaned babies to feed and start flying before the weaning period is finished. The May 2008 World Parrot Trust newsletter features this column by Jim McKendry of the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary in Australia, where he works with free-flighted birds and parrot behavior (Experts & Answers). In this section he is responding to a question about a newly adopted 17-week old Congo African Grey parrot who was not fully weaned:

I noticed that Dr. Brian Speer has responded to another question you submitted concerning an appropriate diet for an unweaned African Grey. It is important that we continue to reinforce to the parrot owning community just how completely inappropriate it is to purchase a parrot as young as this. This is perhaps the most critical stage of development in a parrot’s life. A time where it needs to be socialised with other parrots, provided opportunities to forage, explore its environment, develop its flight skills, muscle tone and coordination, and given time to properly develop its independence. Breeders need to be challenged to ensure that each of these absolutely essential experiences have been catered for prior to being sold.

The sale of unweaned baby birds by stores and bird marts is also illegal in the state of California, with strict guidelines for ensuring a proper age and weight before adoption. A good breeder can provide the social environment needed with other birds, the space to develop and practice flight, as well as the feeding care required for a healthy transition to independence. If a breeder you select will not allow a bird to fledge naturally, keep looking!

Many well-trained free-flighted parrots have started well past the weaning age, or even as older adults. For some examples, see the Colorado Fly Week gallery. All of the birds at this event started training no younger than 6 months, with the exception of one cockatoo who was weaned by her trainer, an experienced hand feeder, when she could not be kept with the breeder. Training is the key, not the false security of the temporary baby bond.