On the Internet, you may come across all manner of fun, interesting, and sometimes zany things that parrots can do. It can be funny to watch, or just interesting to learn. Kudos for continuing to research and discovering new ways to improve your birds’ lives! We always want what’s best for our animals. In the vastness of the Internet, we must bring with us a questioning eye and a grain of salt. Which things are good ideas? Which are bad ideas? What about grey areas? Where is the nugget of goodness? Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference.
Recently I found a video online of a gentleman in California being interviewed by a local news outlet about exercising outside with his two macaws. Specifically, the birds were in harnesses and the man was running with them as they flew in front of him. Here’s the video, but be warned, it shows the birds in obvious (to an informed eye, at least) distress.
This video was widely shared, with many people commenting that it seemed like a great way to get our birds some exercise, and themselves some as well! Others, however, were not so sure. Using a critical lens, I’m going to analyze what we are viewing in this video, and decipher which elements are useful, and which are harmful.
I’m going to use this video to address several points about proper handling, training, and exercise of our companion birds. What does it mean to exercise our birds? Can I combine it with my own exercise regime? How do I know if my bird is enjoying the process? What does a comfortable bird look like?
In the video clip, you can see the man is handling his two macaws while wearing large gloves. Why the gloves? It isn’t clearly expressed in the video. From the observable behaviours of the birds, I would deduce that the gloves are to protect the man’s hands. It looks like the birds are trying to avoid contact with the man, who says that when he initially goes to remove the birds from their cages, they “don’t want to come out” and “require coaxing.” Avoidance is the birds’ choice in this situation; when a bird chooses to avoid something, this can be indicative of previous stressful situations. Behavioral science tells us that these avoidance behaviors are the result of negative reinforcement: increase of behaviours in order to avoid an aversive stimulus.
Once the birds are out of their cages, they are harnessed (which was not shown). Once in a harness, the birds sit on the man’s gloves and are taken outside. It seemed to me that the body language of the birds is clearly not being observed by the man. If he had a better understanding of parrot body language, he would be able to see that his companion birds are highly stressed and not at all enjoying their experience. The body language I see is: tall posture, leaning away, slicked feathers, pinned eyes, wide stance (legs far apart), tight grip, and trying to get away. I would hazard a guess that biting no longer occurs due to the gloves making it ineffective. All of these indicate to me that these birds are far down the path to learned helplessness: Why even offer body language if no one is listening anyway?
After getting the birds outside, the man swings them around in circles on his hands. The birds are flapping and clearly not comfortable. This is the “warm up” for the man, not the birds.
Then the man launches the birds (pushes them forward, with his hands) and the birds fly forward while the man jogs behind. The birds get to the end of their tethers and slowly descend to the ground. While this may look like the best part of the video from a welfare point of view, let’s examine further. The birds are forced to fly, essentially thrown forward. They quickly come to the end of their tethers, because macaws fly between 15 and40 mph (24 to 64 km/hr). It’s not possible for a human to run at a speed the birds can fly without putting tension on their equipment. Then, when at the end of the tether, the harness will put pressure on their frames. This is not ideal; putting tension on a bird’s harness should be used in emergencies only, and harnesses should never be used for pulling.
Even at the end of the lead, the parrots are not given any options. Where are they supposed to land? Or are they supposed to keep flying? What if they land in a dangerous situation, in front of a car, bicycle, dog, cat, or something else the man doesn’t see coming? What if the tether gets tangled around a sign or tree? Not only are the birds stressed by the experience, the situation seems fraught with dangers for them.
I would question the type of exercise the parrots are getting, and even the type of exercise the man is getting. It doesn’t look effective for either.
What kinds of exercise can human and bird enjoy together?
I would like to emphasize the comfort of our parrots as our top priority. In all things, whether exercise, training, or companionship, we need to be responsible for the physical and emotional well-being of our birds. That means paying attention to the body language signals our birds are giving. It also means giving our birds a choice in participation, as well as using training methods based on good science and positive reinforcement.
Appropriate exercise for parrots:
- Indoor flight (living room a-b flights, recall down the hall, hide and seek)
- Aviary flight (in outdoor enclosed spaces of varying sizes—the larger the better!)
- Climbing and crawling (around the cage, using a play gym, indoor trees, or on branches in the aviary)
- Trained behaviors (flapping on cue, crawling on cue, dancing on cue, etc.)
Appropriate exercise for humans that parrots can accompany:
- Walking (parrot is in an appropriate carrier, backpack, or harness)
- Jogging (parrot is in an appropriate carrier in a stroller)
- Yoga (parrot is watching from their play gym)
- Working with a bird trainer who can teach all the skills needed for safe free flight
Some very experienced bird owners are able to take their parrots outdoors for flight without a tether, which is called “free flight.” Although this looks exciting, it can be very dangerous for the birds and should only be attempted if you are a professional trainer, or have the mentorship of a professional trainer. Good professional trainers have a thorough background in applied behavior analysis and training techniques. They can use multiple training strategies and work slowly toward the goal of outdoor flight. Free flight can be wonderful and magical, but is not recommended for most situations.
The take home message here is that we must teach bird owners to see the stress signals and body language of our parrots and respond appropriately. We empower our birds by listening to them. I don’t think anyone wants to harm their parrot, but they may have never been taught that things they are doing cause harm. Once we can educate the human, and demonstrate low-stress handling, playing, and interacting with our birds, then the lives of both become better. Let’s get some exercise!
(To view photo gallery, drag green scroll bar to the right)
Robin Horemans KPA CTP is a supporting IAABC member with a passion for parrots. She runs the Calgary Bird School, a training class for birds and their caregivers. With a background in ABA, she enjoys teaching science-based force-free methods to local parrots and their people. When she isn’t training, she relaxes at home with her African Grey Quentin, and two cockatiels, Monster and Lou.