Benni at Liberty – The Free Flying Parrot

Benni at Liberty – The Free Flying Parrot by Dorothy Schwarz

macaws free flyingSo my dream of a free flying parrot has materialised. Will it continue to be a success? Benni was hatched next to my aviaries. I let Ben Duffrin erect an aviary next to mine to house his pair of breeding Blue and Gold macaws.  He was being force to move them as a neighbour had made complaints to the Police of their noise. We are lucky that we live down a lane with no direct neighbours. As thanks, the owner offered me the choice of a chick from the next clutch.  I chose the largest of three – just over 4 weeks old. Ben and I both believe it is better for chicks and parents not to pull them too early. Handfeeding went well. I have hand fed parakeets and I had kind friends willing to give advice on handling something as large as a macaw. Although one friend snapped a bit after yet another call. ‘Do you want me to finish the hand rearing for you?’ Of course I didn’t.

According to the book `The Large Macaws` which became my nightly Bible reading, Benni weaned at the right age, kept within the normal weight chart and fledged at the right age too.  A routine of training him every evening before the last feeding developed, followed by cuddle time. A 6 pm bedtime was rigorously adhered to. I trained following the precepts of Positive Reinforcement.

I kept daily notes which are essential whether you are professional, novice or something in between like myself.

I intended Benni to socialise with other people and birds and this has succeeded. His parents who have never been socialised are aloof, impossible to handle. Benni enjoys meeting new people. And as I have grandkids he is used to them also.

Anguel Iordanov (Parrots Essential) and Wayne Cathey, who are regular parrot friends, visit us a few times a year. Both excellent handlers. I‘m sure that if they had more space at home, they’d have a macaw.

blue and gold macaw step upAnguel and Wayne visited or the weekend of October 11th with their three pet Greys. They put their Greys in aviary for fresh air and playtime.  Anguel is a confident handler. In the conservatory, Benni was playing on a play stand.  ‘Step up?’  Anguel asked Benni, who put one claw on his hand. ‘Step up’, repeated Anguel. Benni put both claws on his hand.  Benni performed his first step up on cue.  He was ten weeks old. Then he repeated the action with me which he hadn’t done before.

I’d accustomed Benni to the Aviator harness since he was  six weeks old by putting it on before the midday feed,  leaving it for  a few minutes  then taking off.  Baby parrots are not opinionated and let you handle their wings and so forth. Benni soon realised that the harness heralded a tasty lunch.

Anguel, that same afternoon, having seen how easily Benni accepted the harness, slipped it on and took him outside in the garden for a walk around. Benni appeared relaxed, perched on the arm of someone he already knew and liked. After Anguel had initiated the first outdoor excursion, I continued daily taking Benni for a short walk in a harness. We also walked down the road and he quickly got used to tractors and passing cars.

Serious flight training began before Christmas in a friendly farmer’s huge barn, I took Benni there a few times a week.  Immediately I ran into problems. Sometimes Benni would recall from the 10 metre high straw stacks; sometimes he’d simply stay up there.  And he’d start to play with straw stalks.  On one occasion my eleven year old granddaughter vanished into the straw and re-emerged 10 metres high with Benni on her arm. As there are no free fliers in Essex where I live, my expert advice came from internet friends. I had also completed four workshops at Natural Encounters Ranch in Florida where Steve Martin a world renowned trainer shows his students how to get a parrot flying outside. However he does not advise the practise for non-professionals. After my course and flying macaws with Chris Biro in Moab, I decided I did not have enough skills to train my African Greys to free fly. Also the danger of raptors was a serious consideration.

To have a macaw and start from a baby however seemed doable. Advice given me was contradictory.  When I described on internet forums how Benni reacted in the barn, I received opinions that contradicted one another. Some said an inconsistent recall is terrible training for a flier. Others said Benni was learning to fly and play like a puppy in the park. I followed the latter advice.  At home in evening training sessions, Benni would make perfect recalls for slivers of nuts before bedtime. After three months of barn training several times a week, daily recall indoors at home and also some recalls in our large outside aviary it became a now or never situation.  Dare I try outside?

Luckily, a confident and experienced friend Ryan Wyatt was prepared to drive a couple of hours and help. Without his hands-on support, I might never have conquered both my rational and my irrational fears of losing a young bird to predators or human thieves.

benny free flying parrotOn a clear cold windless March morning, Benni flew two outdoor sessions flying from between Ryan and myself.  The first was 15 minutes at 7.30 am, the second was 15 minutes at 11.30 am. Every day since then, unless strong winds or rain, Wal my husband and I took Benni outside. Wal insouciant, me nervous, and placed Benni on the same rusty blue perch he’d used for training in the barn.  Sometimes he’d fly to us; sometimes he’d fly to an anchor point: bungalow roof, the well strut or the aviary roof.  These were short flights never more than 50 – 80 metres and not high in the air.

Ryan came for another weekend with his two free fliers, Zazu Grey and Kira Amazon. The three birds were released together. Ryan’s seasoned fliers zoomed above the tops of the oak trees. Benni followed but as they turned to swoop away from us, he flew down to my arm. I gulped in relief.

As the number of Bennis flights increased, (I take notes each time he flies; the number stands at 160 as of July 7th) my anxiety lessened considerably.  The overnighters that free fliers describe were a real worry. I took precautions like never letting Benni fly near bed time.

Birds who perform in shows are often trained using food or weight management. This does not suit my way of training. Benni is given supper at 6pm and has a pre-flight snack. I find that if he flies after a 14 hour fast he will station himself on the aviary roof, forage for oak mast and ignore me. On occasion I’ve waited 30 minutes for him to come down. So I now make sure that as well as the supper in his cage, but there’s something for him to nibble in the morning like carrot or an apple.

I started to take him out of the aviary in the afternoons. I was nervous as hell. We only stayed out for half an hour. Then as the weather improved and Benni grew older these afternoon sessions turned into playtime.

We play Hide and seek with me hiding. Benni’s favourite game is ‘hold your hands’.  I sit on the grass .Benni flies beside me rolls over onto his back. He clasps his claws together on cue to rapturous applause of whoever is watching.

2 macaws at libertyThe feared fly off has sort of happened.  In June, Benni was on the aviary roof; he disappeared into the oak leaves.  After couple of minutes I went outside to check the back of the aviary and BENNI WAS NOT THERE.  In which direction should I start searching? I told myself deep breaths – don’t panic.  I heard the beating of wings and Benni landed on my shoulder.  A couple of minutes, later my anxious husband arrived. He’d been walking on the bridle path behind our stable with our dogs when Benni landed on him. Wal immediately turned for home. But Benni flew off into an adjoining field. He must then have changed direction to land back with me. So Wal doesn’t walk the dogs when Benni’s outside. The incident cannot have lasted more than 6 minutes.

Part of positive reinforcement training as I understand it, is giving the parrot the possibility of choice. This becomes apparent in our afternoon outside sessions.  Today at 3pm, I brought Benni out of the aviary and asked him to step up onto his perch.

‘I’m going to watch Wal mending the ladder. Want to come?’ I asked. Benni ignored me, took off on a long circuit and returned to the aviary roof. ‘Want to come?’ I asked again.

He didn’t. His choice.

It started to rain and I’m nervous of letting him fly with wet wings so I tricked him.  I fetched a cleaning sponge, one of his favourite toys and waved it over my head. Benni waddled across the roof (so strange that a blue angel in the air should be a clown on the ground) and stepped up. If he really doesn’t want to come inside, at this point he’ll fly off. But the lure of the sponge in front of his beak kept him on my arm. I edged into the aviary and gave him the sponge.

Benni finds his aviary time more exciting than usual because Kovu, Kira and Zazu are staying here for ten days while Ryan’s human family are on holiday.

The adventure continues…

Parrots In The Kitchen – Bird Safe Cooking Pans

cooking pots


Teflon pans and parrotsHi, Could you please help……….

I have an African Grey and want to make sure the new pan set i buy is safe. I wont use any non stick or Teflon as I know they are toxic and can kill but do you know if the new aluminium coated saucepans with ceramic interior are safe? Any help would be great. Many Thanks Katie & Rocky x


Hi Katie & Rocky,

My opinion on the subject of parrots in the kitchen whilst cooking a meal is:
Don’t do it – Better be safe than sorry.
There are far too many dangers to mention but I think parrots should not be allowed in the kitchen whilst their owners are busy cooking a meal (I mean hot meal).
It really doesn’t matter how big or well ventilated your kitchen is or what type of cooking pots you use.
Here are a few reasons while I don’t recommend having birds in the kitchen whilst cooking.

Teflon pans & parrots is a big no no.

Teflon poisoning, polytetrafluoroethlyene (PTFE) occurs when the cookware is overheated. Teflon poisoning is silent and deadly to all birds. Humans can also suffer from this type of poisoning.

Cooking oil poisoning

Irrelevant of your cookware all cooking oils will produce toxic fumes and hazardous substances called free radicals. In odition each type of cooking oil can produce some specific toxins based on the ingredients used. These toxic fumes are just as dangerous as teflon poisoning.

Other hazards for your parrots in the kitchen

Teflon and cooking oil poisoningt are not the only dangers to consider when cooking. Your feathered friend can fly into a cooking pot, frying pan or step onto a hot stove. It can can pick up and eat something dangerous and before you know it….
When the meal is ready your parrot can join you at the table, on its stand, or where you like and to stop them from eating your food just served them a healthy mix of their own favourite food.
To mention a few: steamed vegetables, pomegranate, boiled potato, sweet corn, sprouted seeds.

I hope this helps.


How to keep birds happy

Cockatoo on the arm

How to keep birds happy by Dorothy Schwarz

You can keep birds happy when you give them what they need. Now who is to say what a bird needs? Here are some official guidelines for the United Kingdom

DEFRA (Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs) states these guidelines. A bird’s welfare needs include

  • The need for a suitable environment
  • The need for a suitable diet
  • The need to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • Any need to be with, or apart from, other animals
  • The need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

These needs are included in The Animal Welfare Act of 2006.  You can be prosecuted or face fines of up to £20,000 for failure to comply.

Fortunately most pet parrot keepers are not at risk. However we need to be vigilant and report abuses where we find them.  We can also examine these carefully thought out guidelines and improve our own practice where necessary.

Let us examine these needs one by one and decide they fit into a captive bird’s life in our homes.

The need for a suitable environment

Apart from budgerigars and canaries, a few generations back, the forbears of your parrot were living wild and free  in forests. Parrots are not domesticated animals like cats or dogs but  even these will demonstrate on occasion that they are not that far away from their cousins the wolf or tiger.
african greyYou are unlikely to be able to provide a mini rain forest in your sitting room. However a bird room furnished with branches and ropes, an aviary where the birds can fly are not impossible for many people. And I do not agree with the cage size often considered appropriate for a large bird.  There are birds in cages most of the day who cannot open up their wings fully. This is wrong.

I have heard owners say, ‘ I cannot build an aviary because my garden is too small.’ I don’t buy that. You can wire in a patio or a balcony and replace some of the pleasure of seeing flowers with seeing birds in flight. There are also plenty of plants that can grow unmolested in an aviary. Most conifers will succeed so will most succulents. So will bamboo if you keep young bamboo protected with a net for a couple of years. I now have the pleasure of seeing pet parrots bathing in the rain in the bamboo leaves.

The need for a suitable diet

If your parrot came from a caring knowledgeable breeder rather than a pet shop the young bird will already have a proper diet after weaning and you will receive instructions how to continue.

Two Parrots Eat HamIf you have older birds who may well have been fed on too rich or inadequate diets you will have to gradually change to more healthy options.  What they are to be is up to you. Whatever you choose, please include a proportion of fresh vegetables and fruit. Try to avoid all the sugary fatty food like crisps, chocolate, biscuits, pizzas that birds relish but are proven to be bad for their health. Sunflower seeds are a rich source of protein but heavy in fat. So a diet that includes too much sunflower may well shorten your bird’s life by furring up the arteries leading to the heart. Two of my rescue birds, a Grey and an Amazon died of heart problems. We had necropsies carried out and in both cases the vet thought that years of poor diet had been the main cause of death.

The need to exhibit normal behaviour patterns

Blue and Gold Macaw first flightsThis is hard to fulfil. In the wild our parrots would be flying kilometres to find food, choosing a mate, nesting, bringing up their young. They will have great choice over what they do and when they do it. Young wild parrots play a lot. They will have either their mate or their flock with them for twenty-four hours, seven days a week. Wild parrots are never alone.

And they will have very many dangers to confront. Our birds don’t have to worry where the next meal is coming from or whether that speck in the sky is a sparrow hawk or that wriggling object a snake coming to eat their eggs. Our birds will not be subject to torrential downpours or droughts or men with guns.

aviary to keep birds happyHowever, the captive bird’s behaviour partners in many aspects still reflects what situations they would confront in the wild. So they scream for their flock mates. They jealously guard their mate and attack anyone who approaches. When they behave in ways that to them seems normal they are banished to a cage and called aggressive or vicious or noisy.

We need to set up a parrot’s  home environment so that there is not too much daylight, too much rich food, too much petting  to stimulate birds into breeding behaviour.

Another way to increase beneficial behaviour patterns that fit in with our lives is to train the parrots using positive reinforcement techniques. A bird who knows how to play on his own, how to step up, how to recall is far less likely to develop unpleasant patterns of plucking, biting and screaming.

Any need to be with, or apart from, other animals

Cockatoo on the armIt is not generally considered cruel to leave an animal whose natural behaviour is to be one of a flock, alone for many hours in a day whilst the owners are away working.  A friend who rehabilitates birds who are often impossible to handle, believes much of their aggressive behaviour has come from solitude in small cages and then punishment when the bird has lunged or bitten someone.

It is not illegal to keep a parrot alone for most of its waking life; but if you consider it carefully, you will realise that this is not the way to keep birds happy as it is unnatural and thus unkind at the least.  At NEI (Natural Encounters Incorporated) ranch in Florida where world renowned trainer Steve Martin keeps over 400 birds of many species, raptors and parrots, birds are never alone. Each one will have a buddy either same or opposite sex.

The need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease

Cockatoo on a cageParrots are well known for hiding signs of illness. This relates to wild bird behaviour. A weak seeming bird attracts a predator more easily.  It is not uncommon in homes or aviaries to see a bird appear perfectly well one day and find it lying on the cage floor the next morning

If you decide to keep a parrot you must know where the nearest avian vet is. I have taken in a rescue Timneh African Grey, lame for 12 years because his broken leg was never properly set by a vet.

Last, but not least – microchip your bird. It is amazing how many people don’t avail themselves of this relatively inexpensive way of checking that a found bird is yours.  I know of one sad case where a bird flew off. The owner is convinced that she knows where the bird is being kept but as it has neither ring nor microchip the person who has the bird claims it is hers.

Two Animal Training Tools I Can’t Live Without

syringe touch web

When it comes to animal training you often hear people sing the praises of positive reinforcement. Me too! I love it. But there are two other tools that I can’t live without, systematic desensitization and classical conditioning. Try saying those three times fast! They sound like a mouthful, but they really are very important tools, especially when it comes to introducing your pet to new things or new situations.

Animal Training Tool #1 – Systematic Desensitization

animal training syringe touch parrotSystematic desensitization is exposing your animal to something in a gradual way without evoking a fear response. For example if I want my parrot to get used to a syringe that I would like to use to deliver oral medications, instead of just presenting it in front of his beak, I will have it far enough away that he can see if but shows very little response to it. What I would like to see is mild curiosity or indifference. What I definitely don’t want to see is any body language that indicates a fear response. If I see fear responses, that means I failed at my use of systematic desensitization.  If I use this approach correctly, over time I will be able to gradually bring the syringe closer to my bird and no fear response will be presented.

This same strategy can be used to introduce many different types of objects including stethoscopes, new toys, travel crates, even people. In some of my parrot training workshops I have had participants successfully wrap a towel around a parrot using this technique. It requires very slow movements and excellent observation of parrot body language.

Animal Training Tool #2 – Classical Conditioning

animal training parrot towel trainingSystematic desensitization becomes an even more powerful tool when paired with classical conditioning. This means at the same time I am gradually getting closer with this new object or experience, I am pairing it with something I know the animal likes, usually preferred food items. In other words new things are introduced at a pace the animal can handle and good things happen at the same time. This is a powerful way to help an animal accept new things. And it can happen quite fast. Using this approach I can usually get a syringe, stethoscope or towel very close to a parrot in just a few minutes. This allows me to then transition to using positive reinforcement training strategies in which the animal makes choices to engage with the object to earn desired goodies.


These two tools are great for training behaviours that facilitate medical care and they can also be used to help get your parrot engaged with new toys, new people or just about any new object or circumstance you think might be uncomfortable for your parrot.  Next time you see your parrot or any other pet in your household hesitate around a new object or circumstance, think about pulling these two important but often overlooked tools out of the tool box.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.