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The Difference Age Makes

Why Age Can Be A Important Issue For Training Flight

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 2008.

Here are the main factors that make training a bird at the natural age of fledgling (prior to weaning) to your advantage:

  1. Highest Learning Rate
  2. Peak Physical Fitness
  3. Parental Bond
  4. Motivated to Fly
  5. Lack of Fear
  6. Fewer bad habits

Highest Learning Rate – As a baby parrot grows and develops it reaches a point in its life when nature has it ready to learn to fly. We call this time Fledging. At the natural age of fledging there are various physical and mental aspects to its life that are especially in its favor for quickly learning to fly. A bird that learns slowly in the wild is at greater risk of predation since most predators are keen to locate individuals that display signs of being handicapped by decreased skill or ability; usually the very young, the old or the ill. The fledgling aged birds that I have flight trained learned the vast majority of their flight skills in just a few days or weeks, as compared to many adult birds that take months or years to learn a similar set of skills.

Peak Physical Fitness – The fledgling aged bird is primed by nature to be a peak athlete as soon as it leaves the nest. I have seen fledgling conures make first flights that were far longer than the flights I see from my physically fit adults who make frequent long flights out doors almost everyday. The fledging aged bird has a significant advantage if quickly allowed to fly outdoors and build on that high physical fitness level it starts out with at the natural fledging age.

In contrast, adult birds living indoors simply lack the opportunity to be in good physical condition. I have yet to see an adult bird, even living in a 3000 sqr ft aviary have much stamina worth mentioning.

Parental Bond – The baby bird at the fledging age is especially bonded to mom. The baby bird is naturally determined to stay close to parent/food source. Since flying away or getting lost is a big issue with new flyers, So anything that helps the bird stick close to you during this phase of learning is especially valuable and helpful.

Some people misrepresent the value of the parental bond during flight training. So let me try to make this clear here.

The primary goal at this stage is getting the bird to master its basic mechanical flight skills without it getting lost or facing some other critical problem. The faster the bird can master these skills, the safer it will be. The bird should already have mastered how to control its basic flight functions indoors and should already have good recall response indoors. Now it has a host of new basic skills to master once introduced to flying outdoors. It needs to learn how to cope with greater speeds, increased height issues, potential obstacles and factors that limit visibility to handler, land in swaying tree branches, select suitable landing sites, fly in wide open spaces, compensate for windy conditions, navigate around the immediate area without losing contact with the handler, do all this at the same time, etc.

These each can cause the bird significant problems and can be factors to cause the bird to be stressed. A stressed bird will not respond predictably. Increasing any element that can reduce the negative effects of facing such new challenges is to your advantage.

This is where learning at the natural age of fledging is so helpful since the parental bond helps keep the bird near you as the bird masters these various skills. It is important to note that the parental bond has characteristics that make it particularly helpful for flight training but this is not the same as the social bond or the bond with a mate. People should not be confused into thinking that the social bond they have with their adult bird will function for flight training the same as the parental bond developed with a hand feeding baby. Of course at some point that parental bond will fade and you will have to keep the bird close through the same methods someone would use if they had an adult bird. But if you have done this correctly, then all of these various skills have been mastered by the time the parental bond fades and all you have left to do is motivate the bird to do what it knows how to do, come when called and stay nearby. That is very different than trying to motivate the bird to come when called and stay nearby AT THE SAME TIME the bird is learning to master those outdoor flight skills. Add to this for older birds a decreased speed in learning these skills and it just becomes that much harder and more risky project.

Motivated to Fly – Every baby parrot will reach a point that it really just wants to fly. Sometimes it can be difficult to prevent flight at this age. By contrast often the older bird will be reluctant to fly, at least in the beginning – a real bummer if it is being reluctant while sitting in a tree as you wait for it to come down to you. Training a bird that is eager to fly is a very different experience than training a reluctant flyer.

Accepts Change – First time events are a normal thing for a fledging bird since at this stage so much of its life is about first time events. The older bird can more easily be overwhelmed with new things or at least react fearfully when exposed to new things. Of course this will not always be the case but it has been my experience that few adult birds easily accept new things.

Fewer Bad Habits – The baby bird comes with a clear slate, ready to learn new things and ready to adapt to the life you will provide it. The adult bird comes with many previously learned ideas about what life is like, maybe not even the life style you will be providing it. Often these previously learned ideas result in troubling habits that must be broken before reliable flying outdoors is possible. That makes the fledgling aged bird a far easier bird to flight train.

However, as helpful as this age factor is, it should be understood that this age advantage is not a substitute for good training. As the bird matures, the bond of the baby bird to “mom” will decline. That is normal and ok. But during the strong parental bond period, if those good behaviors are reinforced correctly, then they should continue even after the parental bond has diminished. The parental bond can give you a significant head start in training these behaviors.

Someone on the Freeflight list asked How do I train my 5 month old African Gray? Is there a difference between training a baby and an adult?”

5 months old is hardly what I would call an adult but it is also no longer at the natural age for fledging.

The main difference will be the need to build a more solid behavior history for recall. The more the bird loses the parental bond, the more you have a bird that will be independent and willing to go take care of itself. To compensate for this greater independence, you need to establish rock solid recall responses and may need to use a bit more hunger to keep the motivation high to comply with cue requests. You still need to get the bird comfortable and calm being in the intended outdoor environment, you still need to practice flying the bird to and from a perch so the behavior you will ask the bird to do once outdoors will already be very familiar to the bird. And of course you do need to be able to easily handle the bird so a good relationship is still important. I should note though that it is possible to flight train parrots to fly outdoors that cannot be handled but I think that only makes the entire process just that much more difficult. I do not recommend pet owners attempt to flight train birds they cannot easily and comfortably handle. I am sure your 5 month old will be easy for you to handle. Hopefully the bird at 5 months old is already flying well indoors.

There is a reason most of the articles here are about training a fledging aged bird and not about training older birds. The difference in the responses of the bird are quite extreme with the fledgling aged bird being very easy and quick and the older bird being much slower. A 6 month old macaw will still be fairly quick to pick up flight skills, much more so than a 6 year old. But I am uncomfortable coaching novice trainers through the internet on freeflight training any bird not at the fledgling age. The more the bird is out of that natural window of time in which they would learn to fly in the wild, the greater the risks. The process is essentially the same but the trainer will NOT be able to rely on the social bond as much with the older bird – the personal bond between trainer and bird will not prevent the bird from flying off accidentally. With an older bird the bond is not the key people often think it is, solid response history is the key. In other words, with the older bird you two should do hundreds of repetitions getting correct responses to get the bird into good physical shape and to solidify a solid recall response in each of a variety of locations indoors before going outdoors. So as a rule, I don’t counsel people on line who want to flight train adult birds. The adult bird is possible to flight train, as many professional trainers have proven. I believe training an adult bird to fly outdoors is a fairly advanced endeavor that requires fairly advanced training skills and is not appropriately taught to novice trainers via on line coaching. Due to the ease and speed at which a fledgling aged bird will learn to fly, I am comfortable offering advice to new trainers who are ready to follow my instructions with a fledgling aged bird.

Parrots: more than pets, friends for life.
Chris Biro

6 Responses to “The Difference Age Makes”

  1. Chris, I am really enjoying your blog. My ekkie IS an adult rescue. He is a very skilled flyer though b/c he came from an aviary setting. However, he was clipped at the rescue. He was very fearful when I got him, he did not know how to step up and he was a biter. I did tame him (he beaks, but does not bite me, my husband or my three children). He loves to fly, though clipped. He is awesome to watch fly even though he can only fly short distances. He is very precise and very confident. But he is completely undisciplined. He will however, stay on my forearm when I take him out for walks. I am really hoping to teach him to fly to me. I would like to teach him indoor recall. Outdoor recall is not really on my list right now b/c I realize that could be an overly challenging endeavor, but I really, really want to teach him indoor recall since he such a good flyer and so he can exercise and get his ya-ya’s out. This article is very helpful. Thank you.

  2. I would encourage you to do some trick training. Learning how to learn is half the battle. Training a few simple tricks will help you both learn how to communicate via clicker or formal training sessions. That will help you with your indoor recall training. Chris

  3. hi Chris, I just want to ask if it is advisable to train a cockatiel for free flight. I wanted my cockatiel to be trained for that, so please give me some advise on how to train him. Thanks

  4. Hello Charlie, Cockatiels are not one of the birds I usually recommend for out door flight. They can be great indoor flyers though. Some people have trained cockatiels for outdoor flight so it is possible but they are not going to be the best species of parrot to make the training the easiest and safest. They are small, not very bright colored and somewhat nomadic in the wild. My personal preference for selecting a species to fly is large, loud and colorful. And I prefer the species to have demonstrated a good social bond to humans as pets. I also prefer “n” strategy birds over “k” strategy birds – “n” strategy rely on high breeding numbers and “k” strategy relies on knowledge instead of high breeding numbers. Cockatiels are “n” strategy birds.

    Cockatiels are cute and wonderful pets and can be great indoor flyers. Be careful though because any bird that can fly needs as much training as possible since it could find itself outdoors by accident. If you have done basic flight training, including recall practice, then you have a much better chance of getting them back again. Chris

  5. Hi Chris how are you. Your Articles a really great.
    I have a new fledgling baby Congo grey parrot who is almost 11 weeks old but not
    Wean yet have tried short distance flight indoor and and has a good
    Control over his flying I want to train him For free flight In near by park
    Can you suggest me some good ideas how to wean him and when to start free flight
    With him. Today I tried some recalls from his perch and he come to my hand but after perching on my hand he wants to perch in my shoulder is it okay if he do this?
    Please tell me how to start free flight training with my grey parrot.

  6. For me it is ok if they perch on my shoulder. At first all I care about is that they are flying to me. They can fly to me for any reason, at any time and land where ever they want on me. The first step is getting them to be eager to fly to me. Later I will start reinforcing landing on my hand and not reinforcing landing on my head or shoulder. They will still do so sometimes but it will become much more rare.

    As to when to start the training, you are starting the training as soon as you bring the bird home. It is learning what is normal just by being with you. It will start flying in the house once it is ready and soon will be coming to sit with you every chance it gets. This is when I start reinforcing cued recall responses, come when called. I don’t discourage the non cued flights to me but I don’t offer them as much attention or treats for those flights. Once the bird has mastered flying to me from different rooms in the house and is flying to and from a perch on cue, then I consider taking outdoors to repeat the to and from a perch game.