I’ve been asked a lot about using harnesses: how I use them, what kind I use, how to train a bird to wear one, etc.
I find they’re a great way to allow our birds to go on outings with us, become acclimated to the outdoors, get some fresh air and sunshine, and generally improve their quality of life in captivity. I do not in general use harnesses for flying, except for a limited period when I’m practicing controlled A-B outdoor flights with a newly trained bird. The information here is intended for using harnesses as an alternative to carriers, or for short, controlled flights, not as an alternative for free-flight training.
Piper’s first walk to the beach, Fall 2008.
Training a bird to use a harness involves more than just training to allow it to be put on. Another important component is making sure the bird is trained to remain calm when walking with you on your hand or shoulder, training to come when called, and getting acclimated to the outdoors.
For training to wear a harness, there is a good article by Barbara Heidenreich featuring Stephanie Ernst’s African Grey Dexter. Harness Training Your Bird. Before starting your bird should be hand tame and accepting of having his wings and head touched.
Before or during harness training, you can train your bird to walk around with you calmly and stay on your hand, if he doesn’t already, and also train recall. (See the Parrot Recall Training page for more info.) These are very important skills to have in place before going outside on a leash. If a bird startles outdoors and tries to fly on the harness, he will begin to dislike it and all your hard work training will go back to square one. Training recall is important in order to deal with a startle flight if it does occur, and also for safety in case of an accidental escape. These should be practiced regularly so the bird gains confidence.
Before going outside, you should test the harness indoors and practice there if needed, doing routine things around the house. When going outdoors for the first time, if your bird is not already used to it, it’s a good idea to take it slowly and not bombard him with too much at once. A short walk around the garden, or just sitting quietly with you may be enough for the first few days. Introduce new things at a pace he can handle, and always give lots of reinforcement. Pay attention to your bird’s body language for signs of stress, and call it a day or go to a more familiar location if he seems to be getting uneasy. You want to keep this a positive experience for the bird, since that’s the whole purpose!
What kind of harness is best?
I have used the Aviator, Feather Tether and Kaylor Collar (Fredbird). Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and these will also depend on the preferences of you and your bird. The general consensus about the Aviator and Kaylor Collar is that they are easy to handle and very lightweight, but the head loop is difficult for some birds to accept. Some like the more open buckle style of the Feather Tether, but some find it’s complicated to put on and somewhat bulky. Another product that often comes up in harness discussions is the Flight Suit/Bird Diaper. These are not intended to be used as an outdoor leash system, and I would not trust them to restrain birds larger than a small cockatiel. Even though they sell leashes for them, their main function is as a poop suit for indoor use.
Features that you’ll want to consider when making a choice are
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- whether or not there is a loop you have to put over the head (as opposed to buckling it around their neck) and if your bird will allow it
- how heavy the harness is (Aviator and Kaylor are very light and have only one buckle; the Feather Tether is a bit bulkier).
- what style of buckle it uses. Some have metal slide buckles (A, KC) while some have clips (FT)The consideration here is whether your bird can unbuckle or unclip it, as well as how easy it is to put on.
- how the wings fit through it. Some require the wings to be pulled through a loop (KC, A) and some have straps that buckle around the wings (FT).
- what kind of leash is used. Most have nylon web leashes like a small dog leash (FT, KC) which are quite sturdy. The Aviator has a built in elastic leash which is nice in case of a startle flight, but I’d test out it’s sturdiness with larger parrots.
- how the leash is attached. Some parrots are very quick to unclip a dog-leash style clip if it’s nearby. A pear clip is more difficult to undo, though it can be done with a lot of fiddling. With any clip, keep a watch on what your bird is doing with it. Carly never touches any kind of clip, and Piper tries to undo everything.
Because I use these so much, and no one harness has all the features I want, I make my own using 3/8″ nylon webbing, D-rings and buckles that can be purchased online. The source I use is Creative Design Works (http://www.cdwplus.com/). They have a wide variety of buckles, clips, and webbing colors to choose from.
This is the design I’m currently using, which has a slide buckle on both the chest strap and neck strap, so there is no loop that goes over the head, and you don’t have to pull the wings through a loop either. But it is still relatively lightweight and not bulky.
A full set of photos showing how it is put on are here.
The harnesses are constructed using superglue and/or sewing machine stitching. The ends can be cut and singed with a match to prevent unraveling, and adding a bit of superglue on the end makes it even sturdier.
If you’re using metal slide buckles, they can be secured better by tying a knot in the end of the strap but you have to plan for an extra long waist strap (see photographs).
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Using harnesses for freeflight training
- Always link the leash to your body (or some other secure object like a chair if you’re staying put.) There are many types of clips that can be used for this (trigger hooks, snap hooks, caribiners). Creative Design Works has a wide variety, and you can find some at local marine supply or hardware stores. Do not rely on a leash loop held in your hand or around your wrist unless it can be tightened enough that it won’t come off without direct effort.
- It takes training to keep the harness experience a positive one. A harness is not a substitute for training. The best way to ensure the harness doesn’t become an aversive, holding the bird back if it tries to fly, is to prevent startle flights as much as possible. This includes training your bird to ride calmly on your hand in a variety of indoor environments; training a reliable recall so the bird is familiar with flying on cue, and can be retrieved more easily if there is an accidental escape; and acclimating gradually to the outdoors. As with any training, repetition and practice create confidence, so the more this is part of your regular routine the better.
- Be aware of your environment. Just as with outdoor free-flying, having a bird outdoors on a harness involves paying very close attention to your surroundings. Keep an eye open for things that might startle your bird, as well as physical dangers such as hawks or unruly dogs. Also, since you’re the anchor, be aware of things that might startle you.
- Use a short leash for the most control. If it is not used for flying, a leash doesn’t need to be any longer than a couple feet. Keeping it short gives you more control if the bird becomes agitated or startles, and prevents a severe jerk if it suddenly flies. I have also put extra loops or hooks on my leashes about a foot from the bird where I can hold on or attach it to me if I think it’s necessary.
Although I don’t fly my birds on a harness for recreation, I do use it when introducing a bird to outdoor flight. I like it for acclimating a bird to the outdoors without the barrier of a cage. Also, before free-flying, we do practice sessions of short A-B recalls on on a harness with a 10-15 foot retractable leash. This allows me to test the bird’s focus outdoors without the risk of a fly-off. Once a bird is free-flying, I use it at the very beginning of each session for a week or two to make sure all systems are go (focused, motivated, relaxed). Again, it’s not a substitute for training; it’s just an extra precaution for those first few days when everything is very new to the bird.
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Piper busy acclimating in Balboa Park,
and readying for take-off during some practice at home.
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Some people also do short A-B recalls for fun and exercise when they have their bird on outings. As a final shot, here is Barb Saunders’ Ducorp Cockatoo, Daphne, on vacation in Lake Tahoe (sporting a turquoise blue Aviator). It’s hard not to think that’s a look of joy.
Feather Tether (many online and local vendors)
Flight Suits (outdoors for tiny birds only)
Note: Freeflight Warning
Complete Harness Training Series.