Pet parrots and flight

To me, flight has always been a big part of why I love birds. Since I was a little kid, I was obsessed with flying, and made birds (with corrects wing shapes for each type of bird, even!) out of paper that I played with. A friend and I even made plans for our very own human “flying suit”, though I’m glad we never got to test that one out…

Fully functioning vs. clipped is one of those hot topics in the parrot community, and I realize many people clip their parrots with the best of intentions there is: i have no doubt it is often done with the bird’s best in mind. This article is written as a way of expressing some of my own concerns about the practice of clipping wings, and why it might in fact not be a very good idea.

Flying macaws! Photo by Inge Norberg

Flying macaws! Photo by Inge Norberg

The case for flight
Ethology is the study of animal behavior. We look at how animals behave naturally, why that might be so from an evolutionary standpoint, as well as what behaviors are actually important for the animals themselves. This is how we know foraging enrichment is important to parrots and increase their well-being for instance: even though they don’t need to work for their food in captivity where food is free and plentiful, it is a very important behaviour to them since they have evolved to do so.
From an Ethological and animal welfare point of view, it turns out that what is known as “Vigilance behaviors” are super important to animals, especially prey species like our parrots. Vigilance behaviors are basically different strategies and behaviors developed by animals to avoid predators, which in turn enables them to avoid being killed or injured. For parrots, like most flighted animals, flying is one very important vigilance strategy.

You might be thinking “sure, this might be important in the wild, but there are no hawks in my living room”. This is true indeed, but that actually doesn’t make these kinds of vigilance behaviors less important to captive parrots, or any other prey species for that matter.
We can all become startled sometimes, even us humans that aren’t a prey species in the same way. If that happens, being able to get away from that scary thing/situation is extremely important for our psychological well-being. Being denied the ability to do this can actually be a source of chronic stress, which in turn leads to a suppressed immune system and sometimes effect things such as learning ability negatively. It can also lead to parrots being even more scared of even more things/scenarios that they wouldn’t have reacted to if they knew they were capable of removing themselves from scary situations. Sometimes, it all turns into a bad cycle of being scared -> not being able to get away -> being more vigilant and scared of even more things. This can also lead to parrots being less inquisitive than they would have been if they were flighted. Why risk investigating stuff if they might be dangerous and you can’t get away from them effectively?
Another downside is that when flight is not an option, when cornered, they often take to the only other option they have in the face of a potential danger; fight. A bird that is frightened and knows it can’t get away may very well lash out as a preventative measure when startled because of this, and an “unpredictable biter” is born.-

Senegal parrot in flight

Senegal parrot in flight

Another very important thing for parrots is control, like in the case of vigilance behaviors above. Lack of control is one thing we know has a very negative effect on welfare. In fact, providing animals with as much choice and control as possible is one of the main strategies of increasing welfare, and is one of the reasons why practicing force free management strategies is so important. If you’re familiar with training terminology, control is also a primary reinforcer: something animals are naturally willing to work hard to gain, just like food, water or safety as described above. Animals are even willing to put themselves through unpleasant experiences just to feel in control, and to feel as if they can affect their situation by behaving.
To us, being able to move about freely and go where we want to go is such an everyday thing that it might be easy to overlook how frustrating and stressful not being able to do so might be. Often, we can even observe this stress in the form of stereotypical behavior or displacement activities. The “I wanna go there-dance” is very common to see in parrots, where they stand in place, rocking back and forth, often with wings kept slightly out from the body, with a very “horizontal” posture, as if they were just about to take flight. This is sometimes accompanied by vocalizations, and, if we’re not careful, it can lead to comfort behaviors such as preening being performed excessively to cope with the stress; i.e feather destructive behavior.
Some parrots show this behavior so often we don’t even think about it, some people even think it is a “dance” or random cute behavior, but it is actually a pretty serious indicator of stress, and one that parrots with limited/no flight abilities show way more often than a skilled flier that can choose where to go on his/her own.

Timneh african grey in flight

Timneh african grey in flight

Flight is of course also very important to birds physically. Obesity is on the rise in humans, and the same thing sadly goes for parrots as well. Flying costs a lot of energy and there is just no way of a bird getting the same amount of quality exercise from climbing or flapping alone. As for building muscle, the same goes there. The pectoral muscles in birds make up a big part of their total body weight (at least they should!) and helps protect the breast bone from fractures and other injuries.
Flying also helps prevent cardiovascular diseases, helps strengthen bones, and has all the same health benefits that regular exercise has for us humans. Exercise also helps release different “feel good-hormones” and can contribute to us feeling more content and less anxious.
I very often use regular flight training as a preventative measure: letting a bird get a bit tired under controlled conditions by doing recalls, A-B flights and doing tricks/behaviors where flight is involved is a great way to decrease the chance of unwanted behaviors like screaming, chewing furniture and having a rambunctious bird climbing all over the place. Just like a dog needs regular, daily exercise to do well in a home setting, I believe the same thing goes for all animals that would naturally spend a lot of time on the move.

Another common issue with clipped birds is broken blood feathers. I’ve overheard people saying this is “normal”, especially in young birds, which it is NOT. It is painful and potentially very dangerous. This happens more in clipped birds since, unlike unclipped birds, the new blood feathers growing in do not have the support of other, fully developed feathers. This renders them very vulnerable and prone to breaking.
Further, the sense of balance and coordination in clipped bird fades in comparison with that of a skilled flyer. It takes more than most people realize to travel by wing, and this is something a clipped bird will never get the chance to practice in the same way. This often also leads to birds with a much poorer sense of balance, which in some individuals leads to them becoming more “skittish” and showing more fear responses as they are afraid of losing their balance, being unable to brace the fall if they should lose their footing. In many instances I have seen parrots that actually bite when they are being moved, especially when perched on an unfamiliar person, because they are scared of falling or losing their balance.
Parrots also use their wings as an aid when climbing, and to communicate with each other, as well as many other things.

Grey parrots safely enjoying the outdoors in an enclosed balcony

Grey parrots safely enjoying the outdoors in an enclosed balcony

So why clip?
The most common reasons for clipping are:
Taking a bird outdoors
To protect it from household dangers
Being able to control the bird more easily
Preventing a bird from escaping
Taming and reducing aggression

Clipping to take a bird outdoors
This is not recommended under any circumstances, for the simple reason that clipped birds can fly. No matter how bad the clip, if the wind is right it can carry a bird longer than you’d ever think. Sadly, many people have lost their birds this way, and there is often an even smaller chance of getting a clipped bird back than a fully flighted one, since a clipped bird has no way of escaping the many dangers outdoors, or navigating its way back to you even if it wanted to. If taking a bird outside, please make sure it is properly restrained in a harness, travel carrier or outdoor aviary.

Protecting parrots from household dangers
A hot stove with boiling pots, toilets, windows, mirrors, ceiling fans… The list goes on, and these are of course dangers that should be taken seriously. I do however not think that clipping is the answer. For one thing, I personally would not feel right taking on an animal and placing it in an environment with many known dangers, if altering the animal physically was the only way of keeping it safe. Being a behaviour and welfare nerd, that just doesn’t rock my boat. Instead I advocate doing it the other way around – making the environment safer for the bird, both through altering the environment itself where possible, as well as through some well thought out management strategies. For one thing: no birds in the kitchen when we are cooking. Simple, yet effective. Should a bird for some reason end up in the kitchen when a pot is on the stove, they have been taught to land- and stay on the play area in that room, to minimize the risk of injury until they can be removed.
Any items that might be toxic or harmful are put away, and as a safety measure the birds are taught cues such as “drop” for emergencies. Any water that might pose a risk for drowning is covered, and the bathroom door remains shut, as well as the lid put down, unless we are in there.
Windows and mirrors is generally only a problem for the young fledgling or for a previously non-flighted bird learning how to fly. We can teach birds about these weird things by allowing them to investigate them while not in flight, letting them tap the surfaces with their beak while on our hand for example. We can also avoid crashes in to windows by teaching them where to land through positive reinforcement. When my birds fly, they have a number of spots in each room where they know it is safe and fun to be, and they therefore aim for these places, even if it is a startle flight and they take off in panic. If flying to these designated perches/places is practiced enough, they will generally aim for them even when startled. Providing a window-perch can also be an idea, as the parrot will probably land on the perch instead of hitting the window, if it is a skilled flyer.
Having had birds for almost 15 years now, I’ve only had one adult bird crash into a window or mirror, and that was a previously clipped cockatiel with terrible flight skills at the time.
To sum it up, there are tonnes of strategies for making our homes a safer place for parrots. We can never keep them completely safe as accidents can happen to anyone. By being proactive, arranging the environment as much as we can, as well as training our birds, we can drastically increase their safety without having to handicap them. It should also be noted that a clipped bird is not even near safe from harm, as there are multiple instances where a clipped bird has fallen into a pot of boiling water, drowned, been stepped/sat on, or killed by other household pets. I would argue that a clipped bird is not safer, but simply exposed to a lot of other kinds of dangers.

Protecting parrots from household dangers (or our things from them!) isn't always easy, but clipping is far from the only- or best option

Protecting parrots from household dangers (or our things from them!) isn’t always easy, but clipping is far from the only- or best option!

Clipping to gain more control over the bird
Now, this one really bugs me, sorry to say. I understand how some parrot owners can feel desperate at times, but this is almost always out of lack of knowledge. The good news is, you do not need to limit your bird’s choices, like the choice to fly away from you or perch up high, in order to control it! As previously mentioned, providing parrots with as much choice as possible will greatly increase their welfare, and depriving them of it, as is the case when clipping, will very likely decrease it. Instead, this can easily be accomplished through the use of positive reinforcement training and force free management strategies. With positive reinforcement training, we can teach birds things like going back to their cages when we ask, flying to us or a designated perch, coming down from a spot that’s too high up for us to reach, and so much more, all without even having to touch them. We can also teach them to get along with other family members and pets. I will provide resources for information on this at the end of this article. By providing parrots with many areas that are okay for them to be, and making these areas super fun/reinforcing to the bird, we can even teach them to stay off our precious stuff and only chew what they are supposed to chew. It is definitely possible to live with flighted parrots without chaos, mayhem and a wrecked home. It just takes a bit more work than a snip with the scissors, but on the other hand: the rewards for us, and more importantly for the birds, are tremendous.

Clipping to prevent a bird from escaping
Again, it’s all about management. There are so many options, like putting netting up in our windows and balconies and much more, all depending on your living situation. It is of course always a bit more difficult when family and kids are involved, but it is definitely doable as demonstrated by hundreds of people world-wide.

We can also prevent disaster by training our birds, so that our chances of getting them back should they escape are much better. Most of the time, lost birds don’t get lost because they want to, but because they just don’t know what to do when they are suddenly flying outdoors. They might lack the flight skills necessary to fly in windy conditions, often several metres off the ground, and are not used to being in a strange environment. By letting our birds experience a lot of different environments and pairing them with good things, we can make them comfortable in unfamiliar placed and increase the chance of them not freaking out if they are suddenly loose in one. By training a solid recall, generalizing it to different environments and helping them work on their flight skills, chances of retrieving a lost bird are also improved.
Basically, my thoughts are that if we are not confident in the fact that we can keep a bird safe in a certain environment without altering it physically, with all the downsides that brings with it, maybe we should consider not bringing a bird into that environment.

Eris enjoying the great outdoors safely in her harness

Eris enjoying the great outdoors safely in her harness

Clipping a bird to tame it more easily
Again, this is sadly a decision based on ignorance. Instead I recommend reading up on training with positive reinforcement, and taming the bird by making yourself into a valued recourse, instead of something the bird just can’t get away from. After all, we want our birds to be with us because they want to and like us, so why start the relationship out with force and fear when there is no need?
The same thing goes for birds that show aggressive behaviour towards other family members or household pets.

If your bird is clipped/has poor flight skills/doesn’t want to fly, or maybe can’t because of medical reasons, here are some tips:
Of course, work on them becoming more comfortable flyers. If you have just gotten your bird and it was clipped young by a breeder, please consider having an imping procedure done on the bird for the sake of it’s health, even if you want to keep it clipped later on. Imping is a fairly simple procedure where donor feathers are fastened into the old, clipped feathers that are still attached on the bird, and should be performed by an avian vet. It is SUPER important that young birds are allowed to fledge properly, and never, ever clipped before the age of 1-2 years.

If your bird doesn’t fly for medical reasons, it is a good idea to try to increase it’s choices in every day life as much as possible. One way of doing this is by making the areas where your parrot is allowed more “handicap-accessible” through the use of ropes/perches (if placed up high they won’t be in the way for people) between different play areas, and making it possible for the bird to follow you through the house on it’s own.

If you have a bird that is perfectly capable if flying but doesn’t really want to for some reason, it might not have been encouraged to fly when young or has been previously clipped for example; positive reinforcement training is a great way to improve flight skills in a way that is fun and rewarding for the bird, which will often lead to them flying more on their own as well. Starting with short A-B flights or even jumps, gradually increasing distance, and later moving on to flying down from/up to higher places inside, flying around corners, through door frames etc is a great way to bond, build confidence and exercise. In my experience: the better the flyer, the less the risk of flight-related injuries. This is why it is so important to actively encourage your parrot to fly and practice his skills in a controlled setting, so that when for example a startle flight occurs, the chances of injury are very, very small.

One last thing
Another thing I would just like to mention before wrapping this up, is that keeping pet parrots flighted does NOT equal flying them outdoors. Even if your bird loves you and has a 100% solid recall indoors, it does not mean you can let it loose outside. Flying outdoors is vastly different and requires a whole other skill-set, both from the bird and you, and should not be attempted by most people/birds.


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