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A Word About Information Sources

This page is intended to be a caution against relying on internet information available from internet marketers claiming to be professional trainers.

First off let me mention some legitimate trainers and information sources that we do endorse: Bob Bailey, Sid Price of Avian Ambassadors, Barbara Heidenreich of Good Bird Magazine, Steve Martin of NEI and Dr. Susan Friedman of Utah State University. We do not always agree with them or they us but we feel their overall level of knowledge and experience make them good resources for all parrot owners. Please read the information here before reading further. This is another link about the same group. I highly encourage you to look over these links. It is my opinion that Birdtricks.com is a similar internet marketing group. And based on the comments I have heard from other professional trainers and from numerous bird owners, they are well known in the bird community for copying information and presenting it as their own as well as engaging in other questionable marketing practices. Many people have expressed concern to me over the advice given in the DVDs they sell as educational material. Three articles from Sid Price you should read: Bird Tricks to Avoid and Best In Flock article, The Real Secrets of Training And Where To Find Them. I highly encourage you to read these articles. If you have read these articles you will know to carefully check any bird related website to see if the links to the recommended "bird training videos" lead you to a website with birdtricks or Chet Womach. If it does, it is my opinion the site is probably one of dozens of such websites owned and/or created by Chet Womach of birdtricks or is one of their paid affiliate websites, each designed to make it look like unbiased people think their worthless videos are worth spending money on. It is my recommendation that when you find such a website, immediately close the window and do not return to it again.

We made the mistake of allowing Dave and Jamie Womach of birdtricks to join us here in Moab Utah to help them fly their young African Grey in April of 2008. We picked them up and dropped them off at the airport, let them stay in our home and all for free. While here Dave and Jamie told us this was their first venture into freeflying parrots. 18 months later they have expanded their business to include selling their "expert advice" on freefight training. For $5000 they will provide personal instruction on flying parrots, including personal training with the person's bird here in Moab, at the very locations we took them. We recently ran into them at two of those locations. The first encounter we were polite and agreed to fly our birds with them. But after listening to their birds begging for food due to their hunger level we chose not to fly with them the next day when we encountered them again. Though we instead selected a spot to fly several hundred yards away from them, we could still hear their birds crying for food. It was painful to hear and really emphasized for us why we set up this website - because inexperienced bird owners like the birdtricks people should not be training others about freeflight.

I encourage you to also read what Sid Price said about the use of hunger in response to a blog article from Dave and Jamie Womach of birdtricks. Visit Sid's blog and search for the entry entitled "The Misuse of Weight Management, August 20th, 2009". The original blog post in question was entitled "Are Pet Shop Birds Trainable?" Posted by: Jamieleigh on: August 10, 2009. Read these two articles about our position on the use of hunger. Unfortunately because many professional trainers proclaim how difficult it is to train flight, the Womach videos of flying their parrots at locations in Moab make them look highly skilled. But the truth is that if you approach flight training correctly, as we outline on this website, nature's built in flight training system does most of the work for you and it is fairly simple to do.

Dave and Chet Womach are internet marketers and entertainers presenting themselves as professional bird trainers. At the time of writing this, they had very little actual experience training or flying parrots. I guess it should be no surprise they are known to have deceptive practices when you consider Dave makes his living as a magician, an occupation designed around becoming skilled at deceiving people (normally in a fun and harmless way). So what happens when you apply that mentality to internet marketing parrot training videos? You get birdtricks.

 

From an academic stand point a huge reason to avoid any birdtricks material is that they use non standard terminology. By doing this they can appear to create a new term or name and then claim they invented the idea. Their term "the power pause" is commonly known as a "time out". Many scientific terms of operant conditioning are also renamed and claimed as their new discovery. Beside the unethical nature of renaming known terms to claim them as their own invention, it also puts the student at a significant disadvantage when communicating with credible animal trainers, when learning from credible written papers, websites and textbooks.

Please be careful following information and instruction from such people who are so new to training and freeflight. Especially be careful of relying on information from ethically challenged people. The Freeflight concept is a great experience for both bird and owner. Freeflying in any style is great fun, but it is also very serious since birds can easily be lost or killed, especially when Sport Flying.

To be clear here, we do not endorse birdtricks or the Womachs and do not wish to be associated with them in any way. We recommend that you not purchase any training material or courses from birdtricks or anyone who in any way promotes or sells their materials.  

Another similar site is parrotsecrets.com. It is another one of those 'pay for training' websites run by a nice bird trainer who has owned birds for the past 12 years; her name is Nathalie Roberts or so they would have you think. Nathalie Roberts is Sumatra Roy, a 23 year old (when first set up) "internet entrepreneur" who lives in India; he doesn't even own birds nor has he ever. Read here for more info.

www.birdtricked.com or www.birdtricksters.com will bring people to this page. Please help new bird people avoid birdtricks by sending new bird owners a link to this page.

Dave

Empowerment vs. Coercion

Written by Chris Biro, Copyright 2-13-2009

A freeflight list member wrote "I am reading all these messages about the benefit of empowering parrots. This sounds like something I need for my birds as food training is starting to bore them. Can someone please explain what empowering is and simple training examples? Thanks." I think the concept of empowering is about helping the bird figure out it can control elements of its environment, namely us. The trick to good bird training is helping them see that through their actions they can cause us to do things they want us to do. Training with positive reinforcement sends exactly that message. The trouble is in how to communicate this concept to the bird. Since we do not speak their language it is all about communication through body language. We use body language in the sense that we communicate through motions, sounds, inflections and timing - by sounds I am talking about sounds that do not already have dictionary definitions associated with them (like words do) 😀 . We use a bridging signal (the click) to mark the moment in time the bird did that special something that triggered you to give the bird something it wanted (the seed or nut). In this way the bird can learn to recognize what behavior it does that influences you. For the bird to feel empowered, we have to do our part in the above process. The bird cannot influence us if we do not play the game in a consistent manner. So by empowering, we make it possible for the bird to feel it has some control by actually volunteering some responsibility to comply with its requests. These requests are not just about it choosing to do what we ask, but also allowing it the choice not to do some things we ask. WIthout the freedom to choose not to comply, there is in fact no actual choice involved. Empowering is creating a training environment where the bird truly does have choices that do influence your behavior in ways the bird wants. When we use a clicker we are using a unique sound precisely timed to make the communication process more clear and more accurate. If you don't think the clicker makes that much difference, I would say try training a chicken to peck a spot without the clicker and this will become more clear. A freeflight list member wrote "Everyone seems to keep thinking that empowering the bird is actually giving them full control. I don't think that is what it is. I think it is allowing them to BELIEVE they have full control." I agree, empowering does not mean they have full control of their lives. Empowering grants them certain control of various aspects of their lives and the ability to recognize what they have control over and what they do not. The later part is often hard to keep clear both for the trainer and the bird. "It doesn't necessarily mean they do but they believe they do." I think this is a dangerous slippery slope you are on. It is not easy to keep up this appearance unless it is real. There is a dishonest component to this way of thinking that I believe the birds will quickly see through. When I am using a clicker to work with a bird, the bird does not just think it has control to get me to click and treat. It truly does. But only because I have agreed to this rule and faithfully honor it. The control the bird feels must be real. It is made real by my level of commitment to keeping it real through my actions. This is not about faking the bird out often enough that it stays willing to participate. It is about setting clear rules and boundaries so both of us are on the same page. Those rules are defined so that I get what I want and the bird gets what it wants. It just so happens I want the bird to be happy and mentally healthy so I expand the bird's choices in all areas I think will let us harmoniously live together. In some situations that does not grant the bird very many choices. In other situations the bird has lots of choices. And both of us understand these rules. That is certainly not granting total control. But this seems to be a workable solution for my birds in my situation. A freeflight member writes "I believe that most of us that have flighted birds indoors do a lot of manipulation, or just quietly lure them back into their cages before things get out of hand." Manipulation I think is another word for control. Control is part of everyday life and is absolutely ok in many instances. It is not ok when it becomes coercive. No one complains when they are controlled by positive reinforcement methods. It is when the control takes on coercive components that we dislike it. Even if it involves being set up to face situations that involve removing something we wish to avoid (negative reinforcement). Control is not bad. Coercive control is bad. Knowing what the difference is is good <grin>. "What is coercive manipulation and why is it bad?" Great question. Coercive manipulation or coercive control is the use of aversives or the threat of aversives to get an animal to do as we would like. It also includes our practice of rewarding them by allowing them to escape our use of aversives or our threat of aversives. So if you look carefully at this definition you would see this includes three of the four quadrants of operant conditioning. Positive Punishment, Negative Punishment and Negative Reinforcement. The first two are pretty obviously coercive. The Negative Reinforcement though can confuse people into thinking it is not coercive just because it contains the concept of reinforcement in the name. But lets not forget that to set the animal up to be able to remove an undesirable factor first requires you to provide that negative factor and at such a rate that the animal truly desires to be free of it. That is setting up a coercive situation. I see Coercion as the exact opposite of Empowerment. As such it is not possible to empower through coercive methods. So why is this bad? Aside from ethical issues, from a practical position, the negative side effects are often worse than the original problem. There are many reasons we turn to use of aversives and coercion. Primarily because it often works in the short term and thus is reinforcing for us. Thus we tend to use it again (as is what happens to any behavior that is reinforced). But those two words "short term" that create the problem. Coercive methods may bring about short term results but the long term effects accumulate to create serious problems. One of the problems is that successful use of punishment encourages additional use of punishment. Use of aversives can quickly become the norm rather than the exception. Another serious side effect is the secondary punisher effect. When a neutral stimulus becomes associated with an aversive the neutral stimulus also then takes on the punishing qualities of the original aversive stimulus. This pairing process is how the person who applies punishment to control behavior also becomes viewed as an aversive stimulus. If the bird connects you with the punishment, then you will become an aversive. If this intelligent animal comes to see you as the withholder of all the fun things it wants, it will come to see you as an aversive. If it feels coerced by you to perform against its will then you can become an aversive. Just like there are primary and secondary reinforcers, there are also primary and secondary punishers. The difference between primary (unconditioned) and secondary (conditioned) is the primary is inherently punishing while the secondary gains its punitive qualities through association with another punisher. Often the difference is described as the secondary is learned. This is generally true but not entirely accurate since there are learned components to many primary punishers (as well as primary reinforcers). I personally see the above two problems with coercion as the two most serious and most likely to be encountered by animal trainers. There are many others undesirable potential side effects such as learned helplessness, depression, displaced aggression, escape, avoidance, loss of creativity, loss of motivation, phobias, compulsive behavior, etc. I suspect that many of the behavioral disorders we see in parrots are directly related to the amount of coercion in the animal's life. Most live in coercive enclosures that remove by force nearly all choice and action from their lives. We do not need to add to this by intentionally using coercive methods when positive alternatives exist. With that said, we should also not swing the pendulum in the opposite direction and pretend aversives are not part of life or tools in our training tool box. We need to strive for using positive methods whenever possible and always be aware that as our skill with positive methods increases, so will our ability to find positive solutions increase. Setting boundaries is a critically important element to living with parrots. The ability to do so with positive reinforcement and minimal coercion is both an art and a goal. A freeflight member wrote "I'm confused at how we are using the word manipulation and missing the fact that if a bird chooses to do something, regardless of if we set it up that way, it is somehow implying they don't have choice or that it is demeaning. It is entirely how life works for all of us. If the consequence for doing a behavior is desired, I choose that. If a bird learns that doing xxx behavior gives it something more worthwhile than yyy behavior what was manipulated? Don't lose sight of the fact that it is only the one doing the behavior that decides if a consequence is reinforcing." I think the problem here is that the word "manipulation" and the word "control" have gained negative connotations due to how they are often misused. We manipulate our food as we eat it. We control our cars as we drive. It is only when that control or manipulation is done through a coercive method that there is a negative component to either. Control by itself is normal and neutral. The method of control is what makes all the difference. A bird may have been set up to choose between two bad options of avoiding two things it does not like, and may choose the lesser of the evils. The fact that it did make a choice, then did the behavior and that it was "reinforced" by its own perception does not mean the control/manipulation was good. There was still a coercive component. The one doing the behavior does define if a stimulus is reinforcing or not by its future behavior but I as the trainer also can detect coercive methods and avoid them when possible. Setting the animal up to face choices to avoid something only so that I can remove it, thus I am using reinforcement, is still a coercive approach. That distinction needs to be understood. Positive reinforcement is always preferred over negative reinforcement or either punishment (positive or negative) because it is the only quadrant that does not contain a coercive element. A freeflight list member wrote "I believe a bird can get empowered without me in the formula, as I know a child can be empowered if we let her be creative." There is a difference in meaning between the two words, POWER and EMPOWER. As you can see both have a common root of power. But the later, empower, implies the assistance of an outsider rather than inherent power. I cannot empower a wild bird because it has all its natural power in its unrestricted freedom and full compliment of natural behaviors and skills. But the pet bird does not have that same set of conditions. In fact it has very few natural powers available to it since I control its cage time, food, toys, and every other aspect I wish to control due to my position of superior physical strength. On the other hand though, I can choose to grant it back some of that power through my voluntarily not using all my physical constraint options and allow the bird to actually have some control over various elements of its life. That not only grants the bird some actual control but it also eases the stresses and negative fall out associated with coercive control, especially from learned helplessness. "So, are you telling that you just can empower a bird IF you are involved?! I mean, empowering it's not only having influence on your actions BUT have influence on the environment and you are just a part of that environment." There is more to it than just me being involved. It comes down to how I am involved. The concept of contingency is important. "A very good example is foraging. Foraging does empower a bird and you probably aren't there!" Foraging is an example of empowerment but maybe not a good example for this discussion. The animal does certain things that have a contingent relationship to finding certain food items. When our birds are loose outdoors in Moab they use us as foraging sources of goodies. They choose to come interact with us, knowing they can cause us to give them peanuts. They also first thing in the morning go forage on wild juniper berries. But this only works because I have enabled them to do this by giving them the freedom to go do these things. I could just as easily keep them caged or on a tight mental leash and not allow them to go do these things. So this is an example of foraging as empowerment but on a much different scale then most people will offer their birds. This example may actually confuse people about what empowerment is because our birds do have the power to feed on juniper berries but this only happens because have given them freedom and skills needed to be out doing so. "If you left some hidden items in the cage and your bird is able to find them, then he will perceive that he can get something from the environment on his own.... try to rise the difficulty of finding those items and he will try harder... and will feel even more empowered than before. Don't you agree?" Yes I do agree but I don't think this really fits into what people mean when they talk about empowering in training discussions. "I found this can be a good technique to "no hands" birds. Or with birds that are afraid of you. You can even build the confidence of the bird without being present... even so, the bird will be empowered, thinking he can rule his environment." It is not really about ruling the bird's environment, because the bird does not rule it. I think it should not feel it does rule when in fact it does not. That to me is asking for problems that do not need to exist. I think it needs to understand it has some things it can influence through its actions and others it cannot. This is simply how life works for all of us. It also needs to recognize the contingency element, the cause and effect element. As per my understanding of what "spoiled means - getting things without respect to any actions. A spoiled child is not empowered by thinking it can do whatever it wants or that it rules everyone. Empowerment involves an element of having power. Power is the ability to make things happen. The spoiled child does not actually make anything happen. It gets what it wants without a contingent element connecting its behavior to what it gets. It acts with out concern for the contingent consequences. Empowerment is helping the bird have actual power and then helping it recognize what power it has. Birds who live in a cage do not really have much power unless we give them some through our voluntary effort. It is kind of like the cursor on your computer. You do have control of it but only in as much as the mouse enables you to move it around. If the mouse fails to comply, you lose your power over the cursor. You as the trainer are the mouse that enables the parrot to move the cursor. As such this becomes a team effort. You become codependents. Empowering implies a reliance on you to fulfill certain commitments and duties so that the bird can come to feel it has real power. Empowerment also is commonly used to indicate someone who offers support to another person. This is true with our birds too. But since we do keep them in cages, and control most aspects of their lives, it takes on a slightly more active role for us than simply offering support. It requires us to give back a certain amount of the freedom we are able to keep from them. As the controllers of their freedom, the more freedom we are able return, the more we are empowering them. A freeflight list member wrote "Could have sworn that is what I said when I explained...to learn from the consequences of those choices. Past consequences form future antecedents. Consequences come in all forms. Remember, its what behavior is all about. I learn that if I do xxx I don't like the consequence so given the same situation again, I will make a different choice." Not exactly, but close. My point was to distinguish good decision making from just making decisions. There is a skill to this that can be learned with practice and guidance. Learning to make choices based on consequences starts very early in life. But learning to consistently make good choices is a little different because in this case the "good" is defined by us, the handler. Therefore we have to be consistent in our rules, how we apply them and our methods. This takes teamwork between us and the bird if it is going to be successful in the sense of empowering the bird. No matter how we look at this it always involves more than just offering choices for empowerment to work. It takes an active role on our part to help make those choices effective and in the animal's and our best interests. So actually we both must learn to help make good choices, not just choices. A freeflight member wrote "I watched Biro's birds at liberty in Moab last October and they are truly empowered. I cannot see how it apples to our captive birds whom we are constantly manipulating." Yes when our at liberty birds are loose outdoors they are empowered in ways most bird owners cannot even imagine. In their indoor cages, they are still the same wonderful birds even though they have far fewer options while caged. So in some ways they are living with the two extremes - near total control and nearly no control. It is one of the reasons we love to go to Moab and I believe also why they appear so happy while there. I cannot build large enough cages and have come to recognize this as part of the lifestyle changes that come with keeping flighted parrots. It is much more like keeping horses in that we need the right location and set up to do it "right". Empowerment by itself does not equate to high quality of life. It is only a part of developing quality of life. Empowering a bird in a cage to have control of various bits of its caged life can help but may still leave the owner feeling their bird has insufficient quality of life. My point here is to suggest people not confuse the two issues. This brings up yet another aspect of empowerment. It is not enough to just be faced with a choice. It is not enough to also have the option to choose not to take the handler's preferred choice. It is not enough to have several elements that the bird has control over in its life. There is also the necessary component of developing the ability to make effective choices. There is power in being able to think through an issue and make a good choice. To teach them this ability though involves their meeting both with results they like and results they might wish to avoid. In other words, they need not only to experience the spoils of doing things you want but also the effects of facing boundaries. Boundaries are terribly important and actually help empower the bird. But setting boundaries and maintaining them can be a really tricky line to establish without being coercive. It is easy to go past boundary setting into coercive manipulation. Being able to make effective choices can help the bird learn to coexist with us in our world. Their natural tendencies were designed for a completely different environment. But that does not mean they cannot learn to adapt to the environment we keep them. Flight is certainly one way we help them fit into both worlds. But the key for flight to work in this respect is effective decision making. Effective decision making is equally important for non flighted birds. Teaching what the boundaries are and how to make good choices to effectively work within those boundaries expands the level of freedom you can give the bird. This then is empowering since it grants them greater power over their lives.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Best In Flock Interview

The Sunset Roost

Written by Chris Biro, Copyright 8-23-2008

A freeflight list member wrote: “Chris can give you his thoughts on this, but I have to agree with what he said to me. He felt there was a biological imperative to roost and my birds sure acted like they were driven to find someplace. They flew by my house high in the sky in the light from the setting sun while I stood in the darker area on the ground.” Parrots have excellent vision during the daylight hours - actually they see more colors than we do. That is why they can at high speeds fly through dense trees and still have their eyes intact as they come out the other side, they can see all those little branches. But their night vision is not that different than ours, at least it is not anything like an owls. So when they have to fly at night and thus land in a tree in the dark, they run the risk of poking out their eyes. Obviously they do not want this. Thus they do not do much flying at night. Near the equator where many species of parrots come from, the sun sets very quickly. There are no lingering sunsets like we have here in the northern part of the US. Near the equator if you want to catch a photo of the sunset you need to have your camera ready because you don't have much time. So when it starts to get dusk, parrots understand they need to get to where they are going to spend the night, like right now. I am sure they do not wish to get caught still flying once it starts getting dark. This is a very strong inherent interest of theirs, to get to roost prior to dark. From what I have seen the cut off signal seems to be the sun setting. At our place in Moab, we have a huge cliff behind the house which the sun sets behind about two hours before normal sunset time. The calicos have repeatedly demonstrated that if I fail to call them inside before the sun drops over that cliff, and the shadow reaches our house, they will NOT come down. Even though there is still many hours of daylight left, they are not coming down once the sun disappears from their sight. Even if they sit in a tree and can still see the sun but I on the ground cannot, they are not flying down to me in the shadow. This has been a very odd thing to get used to. I have a few times missed this cut off time by just a few minutes and been grumpy because they would not come down. Their recall during the day is fantastic, but after the sun drops over that cliff their recall is horrible, actually pretty much does not exist. So if you are looking for a loose bird, just know that even if you find them, if it is close to dusk, they may not come down. Not because they don't want to but because they have very good reasons to feel safe right where they are, at least until after sun up. A list member asked “One question, could this 'natural behavior' be somehow changed by our city schedules?! I mean, if you have a loose bird on the city, could the city lights influence this somehow?! Add on this formula our home schedules, the ones our birds are more used to. I thought on this while Inca and Darwin were out...” Parrots can learn to fly at night and sometimes can be spooked to fly at night even if they are not comfortable doing so. I too have several times seen one of my birds fly in both near darkness and total darkness. But this is not their normal habit. When I lived in Morton Washington, back when I first started this list, I actively worked to teach my Mitreds to fly to the front door from the aviary in the dark. I started flying them later and later as it got darker and darker. They were willing to make this flight even on very dark nights. But I never saw them fly in the dark at any other time. It seemed to me that they learned to fly in the dark at that particular route, start near aviary to destination front porch but did not generalize this for other conditions. I have always assumed the reason was due to their lack of vision. It is just too dangerous to go flying around in unknown areas after dark. If a loose parrot is flying after dark, something exceptional is involved and they are doing so because they feel compelled by some greater fear.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Hand Feeding Baby Parrots

Hand-Feeding Baby Parrots For Flight Training

Written by Chris Biro, Copyright 8-23-2008

There have been some questions about what my position is regarding hand feeding baby birds for freeflight training purposes. So let me go over this here. We have discussed various aspects of this but I thought a post specifically about this subject might help clarify things more. First off, I do believe the absolute best freeflight student is a bird that is fledging at the natural age. I also believe it is best if the bird has been with the current hand feeder for some time prior to fledging. Exactly what time is needed depends on the duration of the birds various development stages. For the first few weeks of the baby birds life it is mostly in sleep/grow/eat/poop mode with very little energy or ability to observe the world around them. But at about the time the baby bird is mostly covered in feathers, the bird starts perking up, becoming more active and interested in looking around at things going on around it. It is my understanding their brain is developing in stages. It seems it takes a while after they hatch to be ready to start imputing information about the outside world. It makes sense that the brain would reach this stage at about the same time as the birds body is nearing fledging age. Obviously the brain needs to be processing information about the world outside the nest prior to fledging and again it makes sense to me that this stage would coincide with the body becoming nearly fully feathered. This time frame then between fully flighted and the body being mostly covered in feathers is when the bird is mentally preparing for those first flights from the nest. I think during this time frame it is important for the trainer to be involved with the baby bird if the trainer is after maximum training potential. I am not saying that parrots raised by someone else during this stage cannot be trained to fly outdoors. But that is not the most ideal way to approach this training. So if I am interested in setting up the most ideal training situation for training a flighted bird, then I want to get it at about the age it is getting most of its feathers. Fully covered in pin feathers is what I usually suggest when I am talking to a breeder. This lets us get the hand feeding process well established prior to the bird starting to take note of details in its environment. If we are talking about a bird being pulled from the nest box, then I will also consider the ease of transitioning to a hand feeder instead of the natural parents. I have had good luck with having easy transition to me feeding the baby after pulling it from the parents at between 4 and 6 weeks of age. Longer than 6 weeks and the baby bird can be resistant to accept the new feeder and it may take several days to get the baby to accept feeding. I am assuming this distinction is related to the brain development mentioned above and the birds starting to internalize information about its world. If we are talking about a baby bird that has been hand fed by the breeder from a much earlier age, then the transition to a new feeder is fairly easy, even at older ages. So in this case, I am looking at the feathering as the primary factor in determining the age to get the bird. So now I have a target age to acquire the baby bird for maximum training effect and that age corresponds to becoming mostly covered in feathers. This means that the trainer must already be prepared to feed and care for this baby bird when it arrives. Being familiar with hand feeding methods for a baby bird at this age is very important. Being familiar with signs of problems so you'll know when to seek outside help is also important. And though hand feeding a baby bird at this age is not nearly as difficult as hand feeding much younger birds, I am not suggesting people with no hand feeding experience should attempt to do this without significant assistance from a person who has experience with hand feeding. My point is that this is the proper age to start this process if you want the maximum effect for training, that is in no way recommending everyone should do this on their own without assistance or without experience. It is obviously not in the trainers' interests to lose their new bird before it ever gets to fly due to lack of hand feeding experience. As with any complex behavior, the trainer needs to make sure they are adequately prepared for the task at hand, in this case hand feeding a baby bird. And though hand feeding is not very difficult there are numerous things that can go wrong and there are numerous details that make a big difference. It is important for the trainer to have either their own experience with hand feeding or have a person experienced in hand feeding baby birds involved who can coach and oversee the trainer in this process. There are various methods of approaching hand feeding and each have their own advantages and disadvantages. For maximum safety, the use of a small spoon to deliver the formula is a great method. It is a bit slow and messy, thus many breeders do not use it. But if you are only raising one baby bird, then this would be a good approach. The paper cup method is also fairly safe. In this method the formula is delivered using a couple paper cups nested together for additional strength. You do not want the plastic cups as they break and can cut the baby. But the paper cups can be squeezed to create a V or U shape that pours the food into the babies open beak similar to how the parents' beaks interact with the baby. This approach can be messy also but is quicker than the spoon method. Syringes can be used to deliver the formula and are very convenient but do increase the ease of aspirating the baby. With proper instruction syringe feeding is a good method if used carefully. Tube feeding or gavage feeding is the fastest, least likely to aspirate during the feeding process but overfeeding is easier which can also cause aspiration. Tube feeding is the most technically demanding. I do not prefer tube feeding since the baby bird does not learn how to use its mouth and throat to swallow the food. I do not recommend this method for the purposes of raising a flighted bird. I like the baby to have already learned to use its mouth to swallow the food when I get it. This is not a critical point for me but if it comes down to choosing between a baby that has been tube fed or syringe or paper cup fed, I would select the syringe or paper cup fed bird over the tube fed baby. Also tube feeding is typically done so quickly but breeders with lots of babies that the individual baby bird only gets a few seconds of physical contact with each feeding. I am not sure this is as mentally healthy for the baby as some of the other methods where there is more time and physical contact involved. The main details that must be fully understood and monitored include hand feeding formula temperature and consistency, amount fed, schedule of feeding, weight gain, cleanliness of instruments, and the brooder temperature and humidity. With appropriate instruction, these all are easily mastered within a short time. The younger the age, the more critical these details are. I believe that with proper supervision and coaching the average person can learn to hand feed a baby bird at the age we are discussing here for flight training. For more information about hand feeding baby parrots for freeflight, see the article by Ray Varella.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

To Harness or Not

Written by Chris Biro, Copyright 2008

The Question: "I saw in this last post the mention of the use of a harness for restraining the movements of a parrot. Is it common? Is there a site I could see such a device?" I do not like the idea of anything attached to a bird that could become entangled in a tree. A leash to me is far more dangerous than it is of value. If training a baby bird it is my belief that such tools are simply not necessary, even for new trainers. Using a leash on a bird also can limit how much the trainer learns about flight training. Some never seem to be able to get on with real training and stop using the leash "crutch". But my main concern for them comes from people's unbelievable ability to be careless. Should a bird wearing a harness and a leash get loose and find itself in one of those really tall trees, way out on a small branch, in one of those locations no truck could ever get near, then you potentially will watch the bird die there. And I have seen people with birds on a leash let them sit on a perch with the leash just dangling over the perch or on the ground. I have had enough accidents where a bird got loose from my own hand to know how easy this can happen. Adding a leash to this could be really bad. (Note: recently this very thing happened to someone who staunchly claimed he always kept the anchor end attached to his belt. He was lucky the bird did eventually get loose and was found a few days later.) In my early days of exploring flight training methods I tried using a leash with a dog run kind of set up. The birds would have a short leash attached to one leg and then they would fly to me along a 100 ft route with the other end of the leash sliding down a tight string (100 ft long). After they got good at this I started lengthening the leash part so that they had more room to vary from the direct route. At some point they were no longer tugging at the end of the leash and flew just like they did not have a leash on. The leash was extended to be about 30 feet long at some point. It was going well and the leash was a valuable tool for me. Then one day I had an adult Scarlet named Jezebel who I was trying to train to fly who was eager to launch herself toward me but had no clue how to slow her flight. Anything longer than about 6 feet and she was in trouble for landings. Anyway, one day she flew right past me with the long leash on and wound up landing in the tree behind me. I had not realized she could reach it with the leash on. I had a heck of a time getting her out of that tree. She was high enough that I used a tall ladder on the roof of my truck to reach her and then getting her untangled made the situation just that much more difficult. Since then I have been very leery of putting them into situations where they could wind up flying with a dangling string attached them. The fledgling aged bird comes with a kind of built in mental leash already installed. That parental bond does exactly that, it helps keep the bird focused on staying close to “mom”/hand-feeder. I am interested in exploring ways to use a harness that I could find acceptable. It has been pointed out to me how many more people are getting their birds outdoors and doing some flying due to using a harness. I can see the benefit to that. And though I still believe that there are significant risks involved with the use of a harness, I am willing to concede that the benefit gained by so many people getting birds outdoors may make it worth taking those risks. But I am not yet sure how to define what I would consider acceptable. I am not sure I think putting a harness on a pet bird for non training purposes is acceptable. But possibly as a training tool, and then at some point no longer needed. That, I think, I maybe could find acceptable. I am very interested in hearing people's thoughts on this. Email me your comments.
Parrots more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Introducing New Flyers

Moab April 2008

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 2008

Here are some of the details of what we did on our April 2008 trip to Moab. Mostly this is what happened: We picked up Dave and Jamie from the Moab airport about 3:30 p.m. on the 4th of April though by the time we finished stopping to eat, do a little grocery shopping, and drive back to the Ranch, the day was pretty much done. On the 5th of April we went to Fisher Towers and flew our macaws and their grey Cressi (Sorry if I am spelling the name different then Dave and Jamie do). Cressi did just grand. We went to Red Cliffs Lodge for lunch. Then went to the base camp under Castle Rock to do our favorite short hike up this small canyon. But after we got all the birds out of the truck and before we could actually get started on the hike a raven flew over and spooked the macaws. All seven took flight and circled high then split into two groups. The raven kept circling in the area, seeming to be checking out these punk rock colored birds. But this did not make the macaws happy and soon they were all out of sight either behind the mountain or off in the distance. Dave and I headed to the top of the mountain, not a long hike but for the sea level creatures Dave and I both are, such a hike at 5000 feet is still a good hike <grin>. Before we reached the top of the hill six of the macaws had returned to the girls at the pickup. Siren (Calico) was nowhere to be seen or heard. It was near dark before we finally found Siren again. We had stayed in the area we had last seen her up to this point. But at some point needed to change our tactics. We went home to get different vehicles and to get ready for me spending the night there at the base camp with the birds in the motor-home. But I managed to break an air line on the motor-home by driving over a large rock as I pulled the motor-home onto the driveway - it is not designed for off road use <grin>. And Susan and Dave had already driven our pickup and jeep to the base camp and were waiting for me. I grabbed a bicycle and headed their way - our 2.5 mile drive way is quite the bike ride but the paved road to the base camp is all down hill. Before I reached them, I heard what might have been a macaw call. I stopped and listened and yes it was. About this time Susan in the pickup met me on the road and here comes Siren. It is hard to say if it was her intention to fly back to the ranch but she might have been. You never know when a wild bird will come along and give your bird the hairy eyeball look. I believe how you train for this is simply by exposure to such birds in normal conditions and good recovery practices for those experiences that push them beyond their skill level. Good physical fitness and good navigation skills are very helpful for such events. With practice they learn to deal with such events as our other birds demonstrated by returning to us after their scare. Siren has not been flying outside as long as the others and is simply not as advanced in her skill level as the others are so, to some degree, such responses are not unexpected. A very strong, to the point of automatic response, recall MIGHT bring the bird back to you before the scare takes their minds over. However, it probably won't because of how dangerous they perceive the situation so you'll need to have plan B (recovery) ready. It was awesome to stand on that mountain and watch them fly below us. One thing that was clear from this experience was how well they can see the area. It seems hard to imagine them actually getting lost with such a view of the terrain. I am willing to bet that had we not found Siren that evening, she would have shown up at the house in the morning. This experience has changed how I look at their likeliness to get lost and has firmed up my view that they will likely find their way back to the last place you both saw each other. In this case she could easily have found her way to either the base camp again or to our ranch. On the 6th of April we went back and flew Fisher Towers again and Cressi did great again. This time we added a small canyon to fly over and Cressi handled it like it was no big deal, flying mostly over the canyon area but not down into it. Cressi also flew with our macaws a little. We then headed back to Red Cliffs Lodge for lunch - discovered a wonderful Sunday brunch buffet. The next stop was Fisher Overlook, which is at the top end of the valley that Fisher Towers is at the bottom end of. There was a lot more snow this trip than I expected with areas of the road still covered in places. It was fun showing Dave and Jamie some of the dinosaur tracks here. It was pretty windy but it was doable, i.e. well within our macaw's wind and vertical skill range. The birds did a fairly large amount of flying before we got to the intended location and at first seemed reluctant to fly over the edge of the cliff like they have done before. But it is an awesome view and we did get to see them do some flying over the edge, over course usually when we did not have cameras ready. It seemed they were on their schedule, not ours this time. The next destination was back to the Castle Rock area and flew at an overlook with a large expanse of canyon area - Janet's birds flew here after the Moab Seminar last year. We decided it was a bit too windy for Cressi so only flew the macaws, who loved it. We then returned to our property and flew the birds on a ridge top, with short trees everywhere. Cressi flew nicely and even did some mild diving down, flying out of sight, and returning very nicely. We then attempted to drive the 2.5 mile driveway home with the macaws flying along with us. Instead they all took off together and went straight home, except Siren who broke off and landed on a far off ridge. We continued home to verify the group had gone home, which they had. Then we returned to round up Siren. Some of the birds went with us to help contact call with Siren (I cannot actually remember who went and who stayed). We quickly found Siren who came and joined us while we were still driving back up the driveway. This was not a big deal though I would have preferred her to stay with the group rather than wait behind us. She is still new at doing the driveway thing since this is only her second time flying here with us. She followed along very nicely as we drove back toward the house. As we approached the house some of the birds that were hanging out in the trees near the house came out to meet us on the driveway and to help escort Siren back. So we did wind up getting to do the driveway with Dave and me standing on the tail gate of the pickup and the birds following along with us. The birds learn to do this fly along game by doing it. We start slow and build up speed and distance according to their responses. If they stray or delay it has not been a big deal and we simply back up and round them up again. Siren's ridge detour was pretty normal for her level of experience doing this. It would be fun to see this turn into a cross country event where maybe teams of owner and bird are timed cross country between points, stopping at various check points to perform some task at that location along the way to the end destination. This could happen on foot, bicycle, on ATV or via Jeep. How cool would a two or five mile cross country race be with owner traveling on bicycle or ATV with bird flying along over head, stopping to fly through a hoop at a way point, continuing to the next way point where they fly/carry an object from one perch to another perch (noted by an independent observer), etc. Seems fun to me. On the 7th of April we returned to the overlook/bowl below Castle Rock, where it had previously been too windy for Cressi. This time Cressi handled the light breeze like a pro. She flew down into the canyon area, flew with the macaws, sort of anyway, flew solo well and seemed to be having a great time of it, again an increase in her skill and everyone's confidence level. We walked to a couple different vantage points in the same area and that was really fun. The macaws did some really long flights, becoming tiny specks, too small to track with the naked eye. It was quite amazing to see how far and how long they can fly, even when I know they are not yet in truly good shape. They also are not used to 5000 ft elevation but do some serious flying anyway. We finished the day by going into town to eat at the Moab Brewery. On the 8th of April we had a slow start. We started out going to lunch at Red Cliffs Lodge again - discovered a wonderful barbecue buffet this time. When we did go flying, we were joined by Kristi and Denny from Omaha NE. We returned to do the hike from the base camp below Castle Rock. This time all went as planned. The birds hiked the trail with us, flew from the cliffs, flew down to the pickup area where I had returned to call them down to, and then flew back to the top of the hill to Susan, Dave, Jamie, Kristi and Denny. When everyone returned to the truck, Cressi did some nice flying around the area. On the way back, we did the driveway thing again with Dave, Denny and myself on the tailgate and the birds following us home. This time all of them followed along as planned except for Ariel (Scarlet) who soon took off toward home and was waiting for us there. It was a lot of fun and Dave and Denny were able to see the macaws fly and make landings on me as we drove. It is a very "live" kind of experience. The following are the learning progressions we noted: Cressi started out flying at beginner skill level at Fisher Towers. This is a very flat location with no trees, good visibility and easy access in all directions. Skill Level II was approached by flying in gentle wind and gentle canyon, also at Fisher Towers area. Skill Level III was approached by flying off ridge and out of sight at times, with trees. This was off our driveway and recovery efforts were possible but would have been slightly more difficult. Skill Level IV was approached in gusting wind over larger canyon bowl area, near Castle Rock. This is a little higher with fairly long sloping drops and large open area. The Castle Rock overlook/Bowl area. The next Skill Level would involve higher winds, or higher cliffs, out of view flying and returning, or dealing with non lethal birds such as crows or seagulls. Each of these skills should be developed to a high degree of competency. Coming here with us with a bird already making some flights outdoors and in a two week period I think we could have most such flight students to a similar skill level as our own birds. This is said with the assumption that the bird learned to fly as a baby and is not a hesitant adult learning to fly. Our evenings were spent talking about the days events, how the parrots responded, why we did things the way we did things, what we might have done differently, reviewing photos and video - Dave the magician did not even have to do a single card trick <grin>. We were for several days totally focused on what is involved with flying birds in a variety of environments. During the Moab Seminar we had a more broad based expectation of what we could show the group - we hoped to attract people here with Dr. Susan Friedman and then show the group what amazing fun could be had with flight trained parrots. Which did not really produce the results we expected. This time we focused mostly on what Cressi, Dave and Jamie needed to advance Cressi' flight skills. I think this worked out better for several reasons and in the end I think we accomplished more even though we did not fly in many of the cool places we love to fly our birds. This leaves Dave and Jamie the potential back to continue with the next level of locations and conditions, which I think is good, especially since this is exactly how we learned this ourselves, two weeks a trip, twice a year. I think this could be done faster but the time at home working the bird with what has been learned and developing additional physical fitness is probably a good thing. There were not enough hours in the day so hopefully more video reviewing of this time will get done and you will all get to see more of what we did in the days and weeks to come as videos get made and uploaded to youtube. It was a wonderful time for Susan and me and we truly hope to do this again. We hope Dave, Jamie, Kristi and Denny, will each come join us again, the sooner the better 🙂 . Watch the flightphoto list for more photos soon. And I will be working on more videos again as I get the chance. Dave is also working on more video.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

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