Selecting The Species To Fly

Selecting The Species of Parrot To Fly

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 20 November 2010

Not all species of parrots are equally good flight candidates. Some have physical features that make them better (large, loud and colorful) and some have mental features that make them better (highly social with strong roosting site fidelity). No doubt other species that don’t have these qualities can also be flown, but I would consider them only for trainers with some experience. In my mind, Greys, Senegals Cockatiels fit into that class. That is why I have not spent money to buy and fly an African Grey. If someone gave me a baby Grey I would of course fly it. But I won’t spend money to buy a bird that does not match my criteria for best flight candidate.

There are two main factors I consider when selecting a parrot species to fly outdoors: recoverability and hawk avoidance.

Without any doubt a large, loud and colorful bird is easier to find in a tree or see or hear at a distance. That makes large macaws and large cockatoos good flyers from a recovery stand point.

The smaller parrots are more susceptible to hawk attack simply because there are more hawks around that eat smaller birds. Larger birds like macaws have fewer hawk species to worry about than does smaller or medium size bird like a conure or a grey. To fly these smaller birds we prefer to fly them in flocks for greater protection from hawks.

A Freeflight list member wrote: “I am amazed at how close he stays to me when flying. He never goes more than 100 yards out or 15 yards up even if he has miles of space. I imagine this is because Sun Conures are flock birds and don’t feel comfortable away from the trusted crowd. I have several questions:’

Your observations match ours in that sun conures do not appear to like to fly solo out in the open. If you think of them as little yellow targets, then it would make sense with such bright coloration, they must have some other method of protecting themselves. Such an alternate method may be numbers. Ours seem to be quite happy to fly out in the open, leaving the trees in a flash to fly out over the valley as a gyrating mass of up to 22 birds (11 of our flock are sun conures). With more birds, you have more eyes watching for predators, means earlier detection. Early detection is the key to evading a hunter that relies on surprise to catch its prey. Once up to speed and out in the open sky, most prey birds can actually out fly the larger predator birds. But that takes peak physical fitness and adequate warning to reach top speed prior to the predator making contact. Perches with good height and adequate space to take off in all directions is one element. But having a group of equally alert buddies is probably the most helpful.

“What birds do best?”

I am not quite sure what you are asking here. Do best at what? If you mean do best at being outdoor flyers, I would say we really do not have enough data to make such comparisons. But we can report what birds thus far have seemed to do well and which have shown some potential problems. Macaws, and conures seem to respond eagerly to flight training with positive reinforcement methods (as should most species) including from beginner level trainers. Large birds seem to do better against predators when flown solo. Colorful birds seem to be easier to spot in trees. Loud birds seem easier locate if lost. My usual recommendation for which species of parrot to select as a pet freeflyer involves large, loud and colorful birds since they are generally the safest to fly and the easiest to locate if things go wrong. Based on this criteria and our experience so far, large macaws and cockatoos are probably the most suited as pet flyers.

“Which are most difficult?”

I personally have found Indian Ringnecks to be less social and thus do not respond to social interaction as well as most other species of parrots. This means my reliance on social interaction is not effective as a training tool for young ringnecks. Makes flight training ringnecks dependent on weight management, which I don’t like using.

African Greys seem to be like really intelligent cats, smart but kind of aloof. Training dogs can be easier than training cats so maybe that would mean greys are not the easiest birds to train. Some will probably disagree or dislike this idea. Greys also look a lot like pigeons so some raptors may more easily “recognize” them as prey they are willing to go after.

Senegals are reported to have uncontrolled spook responses, though that has not been my experience with the Senegals I have raised. It may have something to do with how they are raised, I really do not know. But Senegals are small parrots that are not very noisy, that makes them difficult to locate.

Cockatiels are not large, loud or colorful, making them difficult to locate. They also are somewhat nomadic in the wild which means they may tend to wander as flighted pets. They are also “n” strategy survivors, rather than “k” strategy survivors. This means that the species relies more heavily on having lots of babies rather than being smart enough to deal with predators. “K” strategy birds rely more on intelligence and have few babies. This means that “n” strategy birds are probably not the smartest birds in the sky. That makes cockatiels and other “n” strategy birds less ideal flight students than other species of parrots.

I have known people who flew african greys, senegals and cockatiels so it is possible, just not ideal. These are birds I would recommend only for people with experience flying parrots already.

“Is there much difference in training methods between species?”

Most of our training methods are based on the principles of operant conditioning and developmental sequences. This means that for the most part the training is very similar between species. There are some differences between species so a study of ethology can help understand how a particular species might respond differently than another species. There are other factors though that can have far greater impact on the behavior of your bird than the species selection. Issues like the age it was first exposed to flying, its social interests in people or other birds, its comfort in facing new situations or locations, or how much of its natural developmental processes were completed, to name just a few.

“Has anyone trained a parakeet to free fly outdoors?”

I don’t think we have any one on the list currently but there are records of people who have. The Duke of Bedford is one such person; he flew a large flock. Anyone wanting to increase the safety of flying their current larger parrot outdoors but does not feel they have room for several more large birds might consider training up a flock of budgies to act as additional eyes. We are doing it with sun conures but I don’t see any reason it would not also work with budgies. There is of course the risk of sharp shined hawks to consider and each person would have to weigh the benefits and risks for themselves.

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