Friday, July 2, 2010

Question on flight

I received the following question in the comments of this post. Since my answer is likely to be long, I decided to turn it into a post instead of responding in the comments:
Speaking of negative behavior, do you have any behavioral problems allowing the birds full flight? What about poop? My CAG is clipped but does take off for short flights to the ground. I've been thinking about not clipping (cats) but he is potty trained right now and I do not want to lose that. Thoughts?
As always, thanks for the question! Personally, I am pro-flight as long as the situation is safe for the parrots and people in the house, so my response is likely to be biased in that direction! While I do recognize that each family needs to make the clip or not decision based on their individual circumstances and those of the bird, I feel that far too many make the clip decision. The article that made the biggest impact on me, and was the impetus for allowing Max's flight feathers to grow out is "Feathers, Flight, and Parrot Keeping" by Pam Clark.

So, on to some of my ramblings in answering the first question about behavioral problems due to flight. In my house, all of my current birds (except our foster bird who has only been with us 4 days and therefore hasn't grown out his flight feathers) have the ability to fly.

Max (TAG), Stella (CAG), and Beeps (BHC) are really good flyers. They most frequently choose flight at their transportation method. Calypso (BHC) almost never flies. I do toss him to his stand or cage, and he likes that, but his preferred transportation method is leaning where he wants to go and beeping until I take him there. Rocky (severe macaw) has just begun flying down to the ground, but usually walks where he wants to go. Therefore, even having a flighted bird, does not guarantee flight! However, since the grey in question is already gliding down to the ground, I'd expect him to pick up flying quite quickly.

Since you specifically mention your grey, I will mostly restrict my observations to my own greys. We had Max for around 4-5 years before we allowed her to fly. We never even considered allowing her to fly for the first few years -- clipping was just what good parrot owners do. Plus, every time her flight feathers would grow in, and she could fly a bit, her personality would change. She got snippier, harder to control. As soon as we clipped her, we got our sweet Max back.

After Max had her feather destruction issues in 2006, I did a ton of research and allowing her to fly was one of the things we decided to try to optimize her environment so she would stop plucking. It was one of the best parrot-keeping decisions we ever made.

In the article linked to above, Pam Clark makes the following statement, and I couldn't agree more:
From personal experience, I believe that flighted birds are more fun to have as companions. They are so much better able to reveal their personalities through movement of choice.
Max's relationship with us has blossomed in ways we never could have imagined when she was clipped!

That being said, having a flying bird can be much more of a challenge, especially in the beginning when you're redefining behavior expectations.

Of course, there are the safety aspects. We use a double door policy to ensure that no one escapes. We make sure no one is perched on top of an open door before we close it.

There's also the potential damage to your house, which is magnified when the bird can go wherever they want.

And the poop issue, which I will touch on more later.

I think also a major mind set change needs to take place for some people when a bird can fly. At least it did for us! When your bird is clipped, generally you can put him/her on a perch and she stays there. (This isn't true for all birds -- Rocky proves that as he just climbs down from the perch and goes where he wants.) When the bird is flighted, he can go wherever he wants. So you have to work in conjunction with your bird to make sure that appropriate perching places are where the bird wants to be. The relationship becomes much more of a partnership.

Proper training is a must! I know some people who brag they have flighted birds. However, they haven't trained their birds on acceptable flighted behavior, so the birds spend almost all of their time in their cages because they get into trouble otherwise. How is it a benefit to the bird to be able to fly if they are now cage bound?

With both of our greys, the first few weeks after they realized they could fly were quite trying. In a sense, I think of it like a child with controlling parents who goes off to college and goes wild. For so long, we controlled where our greys went, and suddenly, they realized they could go wherever they want! If we wanted them to step up, they could just fly away! We just worked through this period, and after a few weeks, after the novelty of flying wore off, things were fine. I must add, though, that our bird sitter still has problems with Max just flying away instead of going in her cage. She has to use cashews to bribe Max to go inside.

We changed our approach to the parrots -- making acceptable perching places attractive and not allowing them on unacceptable places. Teaching them recall, which is a fun game, gets them off of unacceptable places, and should hopefully help us to recover them should they, despite our best efforts, ever get loose outside.

One great benefit to flying is the exercise aspect. While it's possible for non-flighted birds to get exercise, it's far easier when they're flying. We've noticed huge behavioral improvements in our birds when they get panting several times a day. I know how squirrelly I get when I don't run for a couple of days. Imagine these natural athletes, who in the wild would be flying all of the time, denied that possibility. Flying/exercising gives them a positive outlet for their energy. Max almost never squawks in displeasure anymore -- her vocalizations are pleasant. If she's unhappy, she can move somewhere else.

Looking back on things, in the short term, allowing a previously non-flighted bird to fly can be a lot of work. There's additional training, getting used to the improved safety measures, etc. But, in the long term, I think it's actually easier to live with flighted birds. They are so much more enjoyable to be around; they show off more of their personality. In addition, when we go from the kitchen to living room, instead of making a ton of trips ferrying the parrots from perches to cages, they either follow us by themselves, or we toss them into the other room.

As for your second question, our birds are not trained to poop in one place, so I'm not sure how much help I'll be here! When our greys come out of their cages, we hold them over the trash can and they both eliminate then, but subsequent eliminations happen wherever they are. That's part of the reason we don't have any carpet in the areas of the house where they are allowed! We watch them closely and try to clean them up as soon as they happen. We also wash our floors very regularly.

However, with training, a flighted bird, especially one who is already trained, could be taught to fly to a certain perch to go.

One final thing to consider, especially with regards to greys, is the issue of heart disease. If you google "african grey heart disease" many links come up. The vet at the rescue where I volunteer is generally anti-flight for parrots, as she believes that most families are not equipped to live safely with a flighted bird. Even she recommends that people with greys allow them to fly, for health reasons.

I hope this was somewhat helpful, but if I didn't answer something completely, or if you have any other questions, as always, please feel free to ask again. I'm certainly no expert, but am always happy to share my experiences!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply. I gave it some thought and, in my case, the risks outweigh the rewards. He'll remain as is with just enough wing power to make it across the room and land safely on the ground. The vision of one of the kids closing a door with him perched on top... nuff said.

Mary said...

I should have touched on the kids aspect in my post. If there were kids in our house, our birds would most likely be clipped as I agree that the risks outweigh the rewards in that case.

The good thing is that clipping/not clipping is not a permanent decision. You can change your mind once the kids are older, should you choose to.

I think it's great that you put so much thought into this. Your bird is lucky to have you!!!