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Flight Training for the Clumsy Parrot

Written by Pho, PhoenixK

An Illustrated Guide to Teaching Your Bird to Fly. Special thanks to Lee-Anne B. (Birdmad Girl) for her assistance when I was teaching Pokey to fly. You rock!

Birds fly. It's what they do. And they can do it naturally, without needing to be taught. Right?

Not necessarily. In the wild, baby parrots go through a stage during which they learn how to fly. Their feathers all seem to grow in at once, and before they even know how to use them, off they go into the sky, into the clouds, into... a tree? Yes, even wild parrots have their clumsy moments, especially during this ever important fledging period. And yes, even wild parrots crash.

In a domestic setting, the issue of flight in parrots is even more precarious. Birds especially large birds are not made to fly in the contained, boxy area we call a house. However, an adult bird who's learned how to fly should be able to travel without crashing into walls. So how come it still seems to happen so often with our pet birds?

The answer is simple. Many breeders choose to clip their young birds' wings before they get a chance to properly fledge, or learn how to fly. Sometimes it's done to ship the birds off to a pet store setting at an early age. Or sometimes breeders believe erroneously that if a bird is physically capable of flying, he has fully fledged. However, this is not the case. It takes more than just a few days for a young bird to learn to use his wings and navigate his surroundings. If your bird's wings have been clipped before he or she has been fully fledged, then these skills still need to be learned. It only takes one time for a bird to get spooked and take off. Birds who crash into walls or windows can suffer from bruised nares or a concussion if they're lucky. If the crash is hard enough, they could break their necks.

But that's why you're reading this article! As someone who's been there, I can help. I've been through the crashes and falls and at least one flight accident that involved blood. Pokey, my timneh African grey, had been clipped before she was allowed to fledge. But with a little patience and training, she is now an expert flier who can get around my house faster and more efficiently than I can. And with these tips, you too can keep your flighted bird safe in your home.

Birds in flight are beautiful,
but an unprepared home is the ultimate in ugly.

Step 1: Preparing Your Household

This is by far the most important step towards flight training. Your house needs to be safe for a flighted bird. I will assume that you have already weighed the pros and cons regarding whether to clip your bird's wings; however, even if you plan to keep your bird's wings clipped, he or she can benefit from this kind of flight training. Having these expert navigational skills will boost your bird's confidence, which can be especially helpful with shy birds or "second-hand" birds who've been through a lot.

The following tips on safeguarding your home are also important whether or not your bird is flighted. Both flighted and clipped birds face the same perils in a household setting. Check out this list of things to do before beginning your bird's flight training:

  1. Talk to your family members. If you live with other humans, they all need to be aware that they will soon be living with a flighted bird, and they all need to contribute to keeping the house safe.
  2. Invest in some curtains. Sheer fabric will still let light in, without creating a dangerous illusion of a clear exit for a fast-flying bird. If you can't afford (or don't want) curtains, stick a few Post-it notes on your windows. It may look tacky, but once again it breaks the illusion, and it could literally save your bird's neck.
  3. Block access to any large mirrors. Just like windows, mirrors create the illusion of a continuous open space. If the large mirror is in a bathroom, make a habit of closing the bathroom door before you let your bird out of the cage.
  4. Watch your windows. Open windows are an obvious hazard, and both flighted and clipped birds have been known to get lost for good through an opened window. Write yourself reminder notes, invest in screens, do whatever it takes to make sure no one in your family will ever forget to close a window.
  5. The same goes for open doors that lead outside. If you're expecting someone to come home soon, be proactive and move your bird to a safe area. If your doorbell rings, get in the habit of putting your birds in their cage or in another safe area before going to answer it. Make sure your family is as dedicated to these safety procedures as you are.
  6. Beware of drowning risks. Many an unfortunate bird has drowned in a toilet. Get in the habit of lowering both the seat and the lid of the toilet after using it. This is not a feminist issue; it's a matter of bird safety! But it doesn't end there. If you're like me, you let the sink pile up with dishes before washing them. However, be careful to avoid letting any dishes fill up with standing water. This, too, could lead to drowning.
  7. Have a ceiling fan? Don't use it. For that matter, most fans pose a threat, because a bird's toes are skinny enough to reach past the outer wire and into the spinning parts below. Make sure all fans are off before letting birds out of their cages.
  8. Close more doors. Not all rooms in your house are bird-proofed. Furthermore, a scared bird can take off in any direction and fly through any number of doorways, and hunting him down in a large house is no small task. Before letting your birds roam free, close any doors leading to unsafe rooms or rooms where a bird can hide.
  9. Move fragile items. A bird who's learning to fly may land anywhere, including the rim of your great grandmother's crystal vase. Imagine the weight of a medium to large parrot on the edge of that vase, and you can bet it'll tip over and shatter.
  10. Watch for hot surfaces. Like I said, a learning parrot will land anywhere and everywhere. Make sure your birds are in a cage or safe area if you are cooking. Also, if you have any bare lamps, pick up some lampshades and go crazy. A bird landing on a hot lamp is not something you want to deal with.

Additional notes:

  1. Keep your avian vet's phone number on hand. If you follow these guidelines, you should not end up with an injured bird, but accidents can happen any time. Even if your bird is a perfect flier, it's a good idea to have your vet's number and an emergency vet number posted on your refrigerator.
  2. Buy some paperweights. This isn't so much a safety issue as it is one of convenience. But trust me, once you have birds in your home who are confident in their flying abilities especially the big honkers every time they take off, your papers will fly off the table.
  3. How long will it take for your bird to learn how to fly? This largely varies from bird to bird. A parrot who's well into his adult years may take up to a year and a half before becoming a safe and comfortable flier. On the other hand, it took me only a few months to teach Pokey how to fly, since she was only a year old. The most important thing to remember is to pace yourself. Spend as much time as you need on each step of the process, making sure you aren't overworking your bird. Don't turn these steps into heavy-duty "training sessions." Instead, use them at varying intervals and incorporate them into your everyday life.

Step 2: Clipping Your Bird's Wings

It seems backward, doesn't it? To teach your bird to fly, you need to clip his wings? Has Pho been spending too much time around paint fumes?

Even the most skilled fliers may ocasionally have an accident.
Ebo left this perfect dust imprint on my window after a crash.
Thank goodness he had a flight clip!

I swear I'm quite sane. Let me explain why wing-clipping is an essential step to flight training. First off, when I say "clip," I don't mean "hack" or "chop" or "shave." I mean, give your bird a very conservative, minimally invasive clip. The purpose of your run-of-the-mill wing clip is to keep a flying bird from gaining height, so he has no choice but to glide (theoretically) gracefully to the floor. However, the purpose of my minimally invasive clip, which I call the "flight clip," is not to remove your bird's ability to fly, but rather to keep him from reaching those window-shattering, concussion-causing speeds we fear so much. As mentioned before, a learning bird will have accidents, but if you give your bird a "flight clip," he's far less likely to injure himself in any of these crashes.

What does a flight clip look like? It can take on a few different forms. For birds who are likely to chew on any untidy feather ends, I recommend the following clip, which I use on Ebo, my cockatiel.

What I did was simply clip the three outermost flight feathers on each wing all the way up to the bare shaft, using a pair of cat nail scissors. (Nail scissors have a much smaller blade than regular scissors, so you're less likely to clip off more than you want to clip.) Depending on how strong your particular bird is, and how aerodynamic the bird species in question is, you may need to clip more or less. Cockatiels are quite aerodynamic and require more feathers to be clipped, while an African grey, for example, is far heavier in the air and requires a more conservative clip. After clipping a feather from each wing, give your bird a test run. See if he can still pick up speed. If so, clip one more from each wing and test again. (Remember to always keep the wings even.) Do this until your bird actually has to exert effort to stay in the air for any length of time.

Here's another option for a flight clip. I use this one on Pokey, my African grey. It's especially handy because I don't even need to extend her wings in order to do this clip. All I do is let her hide her face in my stomach, and I snip away at her feathers without her ever knowing.

In this clip, I cut about three inches off the ends of her outermost flight feathers, or just enough that these flight feathers barely show when the wings are folded. Again, start by clipping just a little off the ends and go for a test run. Gradually cut off another half inch or so (depending on the size of the bird) until he or she has to exert effort in order to fly.

What if I'm afraid to clip my bird's wings by myself?
That's absolutely understandable, especially if it's your first time. Take your bird to an avian vet or a well-trusted professional and explain exactly how you want your bird's wings to be clipped. Explain that you need a clip that will slow your bird down without taking away his or her flight capabilities.

What if my bird's wings are already clipped? or
What if I accidentally clip too much?
Don't panic! There are plenty of exercises to do, and there's plenty of progress to be made, even if your bird has a regular or even a severe clip. Keep reading to find out.

So is your bird all clipped and ready to go? If so, you're ready for the next step.

Some birds are happy to do flappies on their own.
Others need a bit of convincing.

Step 3: Flappies

Do we all know what flappies are? If not, never fear! I didn't know at first either, because Ebo refused to do them.

Flappies involve bouncing your bird just enough to make him start flapping his wings without taking off from your hand. Some birds enjoy flappies; some don't. Some will go on a big flappy spree and start flapping for long periods of time while clinging to your arm, until every paper on every desk in your house has been blown to the floor. Other birds will stubbornly refuse to do a single full-scale flappy; as soon as they regain their balance, they'll pin their wings tightly to their sides and give you a little birdie glare, daring you to even consider trying it again.

Come on, now, who wouldn't want to poke that
nice healthy chest?

But try again you must. It's important to be persistent, especially with the stubborn ones. Flappies are the first step to building up needed strength in a bird's chest muscles. These muscles are necessary in order to fly in any kind of controlled, accurate fashion. Not to mention that the birds with the biggest chest muscles are the most fun to poke!

Even if your bird's wings have been clipped, he or she can still do this exercise successfully. And even if your bird insists on launching off your hand every time you attempt a flappy, you're still working those muscles. When Pokey was in her flappy stage, just about every time I set her off, she'd fly from my hand straight to my chest, a mere two feet away. But remember, at this point grace and style are less important than building up some big birdie chest muscles.

When is it time to move onto the next step? If your bird clearly wants to go somewhere whenever you start doing flappies, it may be time to move on. Or, if your bird has been flying for awhile but is simply clumsy at it, chances are his chest muscles are strong enough as is, and what he needs to work on is his coordination. Either way, feel free to move on. Many of these steps can be done concurrently. For example, even an expert flier can still benefit from flappies. And even a beginning flier or a clipped bird can take part in flight simulation. And remember that during every step, give your bird lots and lots of praise. Praise him for his flappies. Praise him for his launching. Praise him for being such a smart birdie (even if you have to lie)!

If you're ever in doubt about when to move on, simply give the next step a try. If your bird blindly takes off from your hand and flies into the middle of nowhere, you probably need to spend a bit more time in your current step.

Step 4: Flight Simulation

This is the stage in the game that can make even the most dedicated bird parents feel like dopes. So once again, I recommend investing in some curtains for your windows!

What does flight simulation involve? It involves letting your bird sit on your outstretched arm or hand while you carry him from location to location, letting your arm follow a smooth, fairly swift motion that mimicks the pattern and speed of a bird's natural flight. Take your bird out of his cage, then simulate flight all the way up to his play gym, until he's close enough to step onto one of the branches.

I know what you're thinking. This step doesn't do anything useful. Pho just takes pleasure in making people act like dopes. But I swear, there's a purpose! This gets your bird accustomed to the grand idea of "going places." Many new fliers need to learn that while flying for the sake of flying is fun, it's a good idea to have a path and a destination in mind. This will also get your bird used to the feeling of moving through the air towards an intended target.

So when are you ready to move on? If your bird seems eager to jump off your hand at the end of a trip, or seems to know where you're going before you actually get there and make him step up, then go ahead and give the next stage a try. The only birds who may have trouble going further are those whose wings have been fully clipped. For these birds, continue with the flappies and flight simulation until the next molt rolls around, and you can be sure that your bird will be super strong and healthy when it's time to move on!

Step 5: Launching

See, I told you all that flight simulation was leading somewhere. What does launching involve? Simply, it involves launching your bird from your hand to another location that is very nearby. And how does one launch a bird? It's the same motion used to do flappies, only more drastic. Just flick your wrist and nudge your bird into the air.

The branches used to make this gym have bark on them.
This makes them easy to grip and not as slippery as manzanita.
This type of perch would be ideal for launching and landing.

In the beginning, make sure the landing target is extremely close no more than a few inches away. After your bird gets the hang of hopping from your hand to the target, take it back a step or two and see if your bird can still hit the target. If he loses sight of his goal and starts flying blindly, chances are you moved a bit too far away and need to continue working at a closer distance.

One fun and very beneficial way to use the launching technique is to combine it with flight simulation. Carry your bird from one location to another, simulating flight as mentioned, only this time as you reach your target, launch your bird off towards it. And remember that even though you've moved onto bigger and better things, don't abandon the early exercises like flappies and flight simulation.

For this stage of the process, it's very important that you have an area where your bird feels very comfortable being launched towards, and an area that's easy to land on and free of obstacles. I highly recommend a sturdy play gym or free-standing perch that your bird is *already accustomed to using.* As a last resort, you can launch your bird towards his cage top, but it may wind up being a pain getting him down, and he won't get the experience of landing on a round object like a perch.

One very handy way to employ the launching technique is to take advantage of anything or anyone that your bird happens to like. For example, Pokey has a crush on my father. Thus, I launched her towards him several times during these practice stages because I knew that she'd try extra hard to navigate and land on him. You can use a favorite person or a favorite food or toy as a tool in flight training the same way I shamelessly took advantage of Pokey's crush on my father.

As your bird gets better and better and being launched towards a destination, continue to increase the distance between yourself (while holding the bird, of course!) and your target. This really helps develop your bird's ability to locate and land in specific places, rather than just flying until coming to a crashing halt. And remember to praise praise praise all the way through.

This is probably the step you should spend the most time on. Make sure your bird is very good at this. If you can launch your bird in a linear path towards an object from, say, fifteen or twenty feet away, then you're ready to try the next step.

Step 6: Free Flight

Getting into the air isn't a problem for most birds.
It's knowing how, when, and where to land that requires real skill.

This one sounds scary, but it should be the easiest on your part. Free flight involves the same principle as launching meaning, you send your bird off into the air from your hand. The difference here is that you don't send the bird towards a particular target or landing area. Let your bird find the target himself.

Now, it helps to give a little bit of a hint. What I mean is, don't take your bird into an unfamiliar room and simply launch him off to fend for himself. Stay in the same area where you launched him before, only this time don't send him directly to the target. Turn and face the adjacent wall, for example. This will teach your bird to turn in the air and redirect his path.

Only one step left!

Step 7: Encouraging Flight

This is a vague step which can be used even while you're still in the launching stage. The meaning behind it is simple. You just need to interact with your bird in a way that encourages him to behave autonomously, and to be a go-getter. You no longer have to wait on your bird hand and foot. If he wants a toy but can't reach it, don't swoop in to the rescue. Tell him to get it himself!

Of course, it may take your bird a little while to come to grips with the fact that he no longer has a free servant, so you can't quit your chores cold turkey. However, do make sure whenever your bird stoops low with his wings out as if he wants to go somewhere, that you don't automatically take him to that place. Give him lots of encouragement and tell him to fly or to come by himself.

When you offer a treat, don't place it right into your bird's beak like a slave feeding grapes to a queen. Show the treat to your bird, then place it somewhere that would be easy for him to reach by flying. And if you do have to cave in and move your bird, don't just give him a free ride. Use the flight simulation combined with launching to remind him that he's still got work to do!

A confident bird is a happy bird.

We've now covered the major steps in flight training that require lots of human involvement. After you've reached this stage, it's mainly a matter of your bird gaining more confidence in his newfound abilities and becoming more eager to use them. Keep in mind that the more confident your bird gets, the more eager he'll be to fly off on his own and explore. So remember to supervise your bird at all times; this will only get more important as he becomes more independent. And if your bird tries to cop an attitude with you? Do what you'd normally do, but remember in the back of your mind that, especially if you had a shy or reserved bird, this is a step in the right direction. Your bird is no longer completely dependent on you. He may not need to follow you everywhere all the time, or scream whenever you leave the room. A confident, flighted bird will not stop loving you. He'll simply become better at loving himself.

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