Obedience Training for Flighted Birds



by Greg Glendell
of the Pet Parrot Consultancy, UK


The decision to clip a bird's wings or keep it fully flighted can be a difficult one for many pet bird owners to take. Many would like to keep their birds full-winged, but are apprehensive about being able to control a flying bird while it is out of its cage. This article explains how to train companion birds to obey further commands including flight commands.

Why let your bird fly? Captive birds have to lead very different lives from their wild counterparts. However, it is a basic tenet of good animal husbandry that all creatures in captivity should be given the opportunity to carry out as many of their natural daily activities in captivity as they would in the wild. While we may not be able to allow our birds to do all the things they would do in the wild, the more they can perform their natural behaviors, the better they will adapt to captivity.

It is worth remembering that a bird's whole 'design' and biology are aimed at ensuring it is a highly active flying creature. As John Sparks and Tony Soper say in their excellent book Parrots; a Natural History most parrots are "Ace aeronauts… having the capacity for sustained swift and powerful flight". And most parrots will cover hundreds of miles every week of their lives as they fly between roosting sites, feeding areas and their nests. If you have had the chance to see these birds in the wild, you will know how active they are. Perhaps because we are grounded mammals, we tend to underestimate the importance of flight to a bird. Now many people would certainly like to keep their birds full-winged but feel they would not be able to control a flying bird. However, I have taught all my companion birds (Amazons, African and Timneh greys and Meyer's) and many clients' birds basic flight commands. In my experience I have found most full-winged birds remain as compliant as clipped birds, provided they are properly schooled in obedience. And the birds certainly get much more out of life if they can fly. I am often asked for advice on how to overcome aggression in flying parrots. Usually, these birds have not been taught flight commands. Now some behaviorists would immediately suggest the quick-fix 'solution' of having the bird's wings clipped. However, I always favor giving the bird the benefit of doubt and suggest first teaching the flight commands as explained below, before considering wing-clipping. I often have up to four flying birds out at the same time (three of my own plus a client's bird staying for training lessons). Unless they were all trained and accepted me as 'flock leader' this would of course be a hopeless situation. However, the training allows you to have all the control needed.

The advantages of maintaining flying birds. For any animal -including ourselves- to be properly fit and healthy requires us to take regular, even vigorous exercise on most days. Most mammals can do this simply by running. Birds however, cannot get adequate exercise -exercise which really puts some demand on the bird's heart, wing muscles and breathing abilities- unless they can fly. Many parrots naturally have a heartbeat of around 1000 beats per minute while airborne and, unlike most mammals, they are designed to be able to sustain this level of activity as part of their normal means of getting about. Indeed, when comparing a bird's metabolism with a mammals, you can think of mammals as rather slow and "steam powered" while birds have evolved the necessary turbo-charged rocket technology needed for sustained flight.

Educated parrot owners are well aware of the need to train their pet birds in basic obedience, but even then most birds are only taught two commands; to step on and off the hand. These I feel are but the minimum of commands that birds need to taught. All pet parrots (whether they can fly or not) should also be taught to refrain from walking onto the owner without 'permission' (you can use the command "Stay" for this purpose). Since parrots are very intelligent birds, most are happy to learn many more commands if the owner is prepared to teach these over a period of a few days. So, where owners wish to maintain their birds full-winged I explain how, in addition to step up/step down commands, to teach the following commands:

1. Step on & off a stick (Optional)
2. Stay (do not walk onto my hand)
3. Stay (don't fly to me)
4. Go (leave me by flying from me)
5. Off there (leave your present perch by flying to another)

Using a training room.
My methods are based on Sally Blanchard's nurturing guidance technique and I normally advocate the use of a neutral room for the first few lessons. However, if the bird is already very obedient with regard to stepping up and down, you can often teach the extra commands in the same room as the cage. Where a training room is used, this should be fairly small and unfamiliar to the bird. A spare bedroom is usually okay. This should be carpeted and sparsely furnished with a couple of chairs. You should be able to walk around the chairs, so place these away from the wall. Any large-pane windows should have net curtains hung at them to prevent the bird flying into the glass. There should be no mirrors in the room. You should ensure there are no places the bird could perch on that are higher than your shoulder. Keep the door closed throughout the training session.

Teaching the commands.
The training methods are based on the accepted trust-building relationship that owners should already have acquired with the bird through teaching basic step up/step down commands. The bird should also be reasonably proficient at flying (either because it is recently fledged or has re-grown new flight feathers following an earlier wing-clip). Training sessions should not last more than 4 minutes and the commands should be taught in the order suggested below. Always reward good behavior with plenty of enthusiastic verbal praise for the bird, but never any food.

1. Step on & off a stick. This command is optional. However, it can be useful to teach your bird to step on and off a stick (in addition to on and off your hand) particularly if you wish the bird to fly in rooms with high ceilings and high perches. So, if the bird lands on any high perch, out of reach of your hand, you can then tell it to step onto a stick that is long enough to reach it. The stick should be very similar to a perch in the bird's cage. The diameter should be small enough to allow the bird to wrap its toes right around the stick to give a good grip. The stick should always be presented to the bird as a perch i.e. never pointed at the bird, but held cross-ways for the bird to step onto. Some birds are nervous of stepping onto a stick-perch. To help overcome this, you can introduce the stick in the same room as the bird's cage, allowing the bird to touch and test the stick while it is merely lying around with the bird's other toys out of the cage. Once the bird appears to accept the presence of the stick, you can then commence asking it to step on and off it using the normal step up/step down commands.

2. Stay. If you have been allowing your bird to walk onto your hand whenever it wants to, you should teach it to obey your request to stay and not just casually walk onto you whenever it wants to. This 'Stay' command is not intended to mean that the bird should stay where it is; but to mean 'Don't come onto me for now'. This command is taught by giving the bird a stop signal with your hand held up palm towards the bird (as though you were stopping traffic) while you say "Stay". The bird should learn that this means it cannot step onto you for the moment. Conversely, if the bird appears about to step onto your hand and you do want it to, then confirm this to the bird by saying "Step up" clearly.

3. Stay, don't fly to me. Bonded flying birds will naturally be inclined to fly to you and land on you, generally on your shoulder. This is fine on most occasions but the shoulder should be a landing place only; the bird should not be allowed to remain there at all. So always transfer the bird from your shoulder to your hand immediately by giving the step up command. You will also need to let the bird know that it cannot always just fly and land on you whenever it wants to, for example you may want to leave the room without the bird flying to you. So, for example, if you wish to leave the room without the bird, make eye contact, put your hand up, again in the 'stopping traffic' gesture and say "Stay". If the bird disobeys and flies towards you, keep your hand held up in front of it as it approaches and repeat the command to "Stay" while you prevent it from landing on you using your raised hand as a barrier. The bird will soon learn to turn around and land elsewhere. You should then leave the room immediately and close the door behind you.

4. Go; fly off me. This command tells the bird to fly from your hand whenever you don't want it on you. Initially, teach this command by standing with the bird on your hand, a couple of feet from its cage or another very familiar perch. Turn your hand so that the bird is facing away from you. Then say "Go, go" and swing your hand firmly but gently in the direction of the cage or perch. The bird should leave you by flying. When the bird is happy to do this from a couple of feet away, gradually increase the distance. Then, practice this command in other locations, encouraging the bird to land on other familiar perches and places until you can tell the bird to leave you wherever it and you happen to be.

5. Off there. This is a safety command to be used if ever the bird lands on any potentially dangerous perch such as any electrical device (TV or a light fitting etc.) or any banned high perch. It can be difficult to teach some birds this command, and it has to be taught when the opportunity arises. When the bird does land on such a 'banned perch' approach him and wave one hand at him while saying "Off there". While teaching this command, you can also try waving an unfamiliar but harmless object such as a handkerchief near the bird. The bird should leave the perch and fly to another place, but not to you or any other person. If the bird attempts to land on you after having been told to leave a banned perch, use the "Stay" command to prevent this. You cannot plan to teach this command, but will need to await the 'right' opportunity, when your bird does land mistakenly on a banned perch. You must be 100% consistent with regard to banned perches. Once the bird has been taught that a certain place is out of bounds, it must always be so. For safety reasons birds should be taught that the top of any open door is also a banned perch, in case this is accidentally closed while the bird is perched there.

The effect of the extra commands. The effect of teaching these commands to a flying bird often has a result that may seem counter-intuitive. Although the commands 'Stay', 'Go' and 'Off there' are pushing the bird away from you, the result is actually to encourage the bird to bond to you more strongly yet in a deferential manner. Thus, these commands tend to increase the degree to which a bird is compliant. The reason for the bird's compliance I believe, is due to the fact that although the bird can fly, it acknowledges you as a superior but friendly 'flock member' who should be obeyed. In this situation the bird's default mode of operation is to comply with your requests.

Other 'informal' commands. It is worth teaching your bird several other 'informal' commands; many people do this already, perhaps unaware of the fact that they are teaching commands. When I would like to offer a bird something such as a toy or a tidbit, I always make a point of approaching the bird with my hand at or just below beak level (not near its feet) and say "Take this". Sometimes it helps to let the bird touch the object a few times before giving the command.

Many people are too quick to use "No" to stop all sorts of unwanted behavior. If this is said in too dramatic a way, the bird may actually be stimulated to carry on with misbehaving. A much less confrontational approach is needed. I use the phrase "Be careful" to check some misbehavior just before a bird is about to transgress. So if you see your bird about to do something, perhaps throw some valuable item on the floor, make eye contact and give the command in a firm but calm tone of voice. Initially, it is just the mere fact of hearing your voice with an authoritative tone which usually checks the bird's behavior. You can also tell your bird to drop an item which it should not have picked up. If a bird picks up something that may not be safe for it, such as a pen, trying to remove the object may stimulate the bird to hang on to it all the more aggressively. Therefore, instead of actually challenging the bird, you can try standing over it and saying "Drop it", again in a calm but authoritative tone.

Other training hints.
As mentioned before, I would not recommend a bird be carried around on your shoulder. So, when you wish to take the bird to another place, even just a few paces away, always carry it on your hand, not your shoulder or arm. Since I am right handed, I usually carry a bird on my left hand and can still use my other hand to do other things. Reward the bird's compliance with staying on your hand by giving it plenty of verbal praise and some head-scratching if it has bonded to you. If the bird has the habit of walking up your arm onto your shoulder, you should ensure this is dispensed with. You can either use the "Stay" command (telling the bird to stay on your hand) or, tell the bird to "Step up" onto your other hand if it tries to walk along your arm. If you keep your elbow lower than your wrist while the bird is perched on your hand this will reduces the bird's inclination to walk along your arm.

Safety of flying birds. All birds in the home, whether full-winged or clipped, are subject to some dangers. Flying birds are subject to different dangers from clipped birds and sensible precautions must be taken for the safety of the bird. All birds must of course be supervised while out of their cages but the following guidelines apply to flying birds. All doors (at least all external doors and windows) must of course be kept shut while the bird is out of its cage. Rooms to which the birds have access should not have any ceiling fans or any large mirrors; these should be removed. All large-pane windows should have net curtains fitted, or have transfers stuck onto the windows, to remind the bird of this invisible barrier. You can also teach your bird about glass windows. To do this, have the bird on your hand and walk up to the window until the bird's beak taps gently against it and allow the bird to feel the glass with its beak and tongue. Repeat this several times while you are with the bird. Also, allow the bird to perch on the window ledge, so that it can touch and feel the glass.

Many people say their birds are clumsy when learning to fly. This, to a certain extent is inevitable. A child is clumsy as it learns to walk instead of crawl and occasionally there will be accidents. The urge to fly, especially in young in birds is both innate and very strong. In the wild, skilled strong flyers are likely to be very successful, high-ranking birds. But the skills to fly well, such as braking, turning, hovering etc. are learnt behaviors. Novice flyers always fly at near stall-speed, lacking confidence and with the tail dropped. Skilled flyers are quite different: they fly with great precision and confidence. Birds do need the space and time to develop these skills properly. The risk of birds crash landing can be greatly reduced by introducing the bird to all the safe places to land before it attempts to fly there. To do this, you should show the bird good places for it to go to by setting it down and taking it up from such places many times using the step up/step down commands. Once the bird has spent some time on these places you can then use the "Go" command to tell the bird to fly onto these, by now familiar perches.

If you are not familiar with the speed and degree of mobility that flying birds naturally have, this may take some getting used to. You will find that there is nowhere that is more than a second or two away from a flying bird if it wants to go there. Small birds such as conures, cockatiels and poicephalus parrots can fly (and brake) very rapidly. Even Greys and Amazons can be surprisingly maneuverable, though indoors they lack the speed of the smaller species. They can all learn to hover over a new perch, checking it out before actually landing on it. Flying birds tend to spend less time on the ground, since they do not have to walk to get where they want to be. This of course improves things from a safety aspect, since birds are very vulnerable to accidental trampling while on the floor. If your bird does escape through an open door or window it may fly a considerable distance away. If this does ever happen, your chances of recovering the bird are very good if you can get close to it and you have trained it in obedience and included the flight commands. Trained birds will still obey commands whether indoors or out. Indeed, if they do find themselves in an unfamiliar place, they are often only too pleased to find you and be back with you. I have had a few incidents of escaped birds. In most cases, I have recovered the bird by climbing up to the bird and giving the step up command.

Giving your bird the option of daily periods of flight will certainly be a great advantage to it, allowing it to behave in a more natural way. Provided you have done the necessary obedience training to include flight commands you should find that this adds a new dimension for both you and your bird to enjoy.


Greg Glendell runs the Pet Parrot Consultancy based in Shropshire, England. He is a founder trustee of BirdsFirst in Birdkeeping. He can be contacted on Greg@petparrot.freeserve.co.uk or phone 0(1)630 685518.

Copyright by Greg Glendell

The above article was reprinted with the kind permission of Greg Glendell.


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Copyright 2004 [Southeast Texas Avian Rescue, Inc.]. All rights reserved. Revised: 12/10/11