Interview with Free Flight Trainer Chris BiroOctober 8, 2008
(Updated Oct. 18) It’s my pleasure to post another in my ongoing series of interviews with well-known “parrot people”. Today’s interview is with Chris Biro, best known for his educational program The Pirate’s Parrot Show and the amazing YouTube videos of free flying macaws in the Moab Desert.
Chris Biro has been doing his The Pirate’s Parrot show at state and county fairs, parks, libraries, schools, etc. for 18 years. Today, the show includes several “pirates” and dozens of birds, focused on safe hands-on interaction.
Biro also founded the Freeflight list at Yahoo Groups in 1999 when he had trouble finding resources devoted to the topic. His group currently has members from all over the world.
He personally has 8 macaws and 14 conures that fly outdoors (including Snicket, the cute sun conure from last week’s post).
Prior to becoming a well-known parrot trainer, he studied Electrical Engineering and spent 10 years in the US Army and Army Reserves. Chris enjoys flying radio controlled airplanes and helicopters, and photographing and video taping flying parrots.
Big fat disclaimer: All the answers in this interview are the opinions of the interviewee Chris Biro. Just because I’m featuring an interview about free flying on this blog does not mean I advocate free flight for your birds — in fact, it scares the living bejeezus out of me. I can’t stress enough though: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME! If you’re interested in learning how to free flying parrots, please research the subject extensively.
So, without further ado (although I reserve the right to throw a few more don’t-do-this-yourself disclaimers in there), here’s the Q&A with Chris:
Q: You have a particular interest in free flight — in other words, allowing your birds to fly outside without restraint. How did you get started in this area?
Chris Biro: In 1993 I had an Umbrella Cockatoo that several days in a row kept escaping from the aviary I had just built. Before I could figure out how she was getting out, I discovered I could get her back down to me each night pretty easily. So I started letting her out on purpose and bringing her in at night. This prompted me to begin searching for information about flight training. Not finding any information in books or magazines about flight training I started experimenting with several of my macaws and conures with different ways to train flight.
Once I discovered how naturally and quickly a baby bird learns to fly, there was no turning back for me. I discovered internet email lists in about 1998. I had a lot more to learn about flight training than just training methods. My queries searching for other people keeping flighted birds on various email lists promptly resulted in me being unsubbed. The topic of keeping flighted birds it turned out was quite a volatile subject so in April of 1999, I started the Freeflight email list so we could have a “safe” place to discuss the issues related to living with and training flighted birds.
Q: Can you describe your training methods and philosophy?
Chris Biro: The methods I use are derived from the scientific principles of Operant Conditioning. I train using positive reinforcement.
I use a clicker and favorite treat rewards for most of my training because I believe most behavior is trained faster with precise timing. I have always presented mostly natural behaviors in my show so my training methods and style rely heavily on use of the animal’s natural tendencies. I pay close attention to their natural interactions and observable interests and use those to help with setting them up to succeed. Using their natural tendencies in combination with positive reinforcement methods makes my training really efficient and fun for both myself and the birds. This approach is well suited for flight training.
Since flying parrots outdoors does involve elements of risk and danger I believe strongly in selecting the bird, the trainer, the methods, and the environment for maximum success potential. I am not in favor of pairing inexperienced trainers with high risk flight students and less than ideal training environments.
My recommended approach to flight training, as found on my website, is intended for everyday bird owners, not just skilled professionals. Even though it does require owners to learn some new skills before attempting this, these skills are within the ability of most bird owners.
Hand feeding skills and basic clicker training, including shaping skills, should all be well understood before attempting to flight train a bird following my approach.
I usually start with a baby bird at the same age it would learn to fly in the wild: prior to weaning. A pre-flighted bird cannot leave the nest to get to the food sources. I let the young bird fledge in the house and learn to master basic flight control. Once it is flying indoors it soon is flying to be with me. I then capture this “flying to me” and put it on cue, called recall. This then is turned into a fun game of “flying back and forth to a perch or cage top.” We will expand this to include flying through doors and from different rooms, becoming a form of hide and seek. In this way the bird is expanding its basic flight skills and it learns to come when called, even when it cannot see me. The goal here is for the bird to master all the skills available to it in the indoor environment.
During this time I am also letting the bird spend some time in an outdoor cage so it is becoming comfortable and relaxed being outdoors. When I take the bird to fly outdoors for the first time, I want everything possible to be familiar to the bird, including the behavior I will ask of it and the elements of the location. I do not want to ask it to do something it has never done before nor do I want it to be frightened by being outdoors. A bird that is spooked will not respond to recall in a predictable manner.
The location itself will also be carefully selected so that there are minimal restrictions of view or hearing to the bird and minimal restrictions of movement. It is important to be able to see the bird where ever it goes. Actually this is one of the most important factors in recovering a loose bird, knowing where the bird is located at all times. It is also important to be able to easily follow the bird where ever it should go.
Sometimes you have to move quickly to follow a flying bird because a bird is not slowed by obstacles that can restrict your movement. Selecting a location with fewer restrictions of movement can prevent
you from losing sight of the bird. Wide open fields with no tall buildings, fences or busy roads nearby are good choices for first outdoor flying practice. Restrictions from private or government property also should be considered.
The main point here is that every element that we can control should be carefully selected for maximum success potential before we take the bird outdoors. Too often people just step outside with any bird and say “You’re a bird, go fly.” Birds in the wild do not learn this way. The process of natural selection has configured them to be ready to learn in the environment their specific species lives and at the most opportune mental and physical state. We are not able to follow the baby bird where ever it goes as the parents can, so we need to be a bit more methodical in our approach. If done correctly, training parrots to fly outdoors can be done with a high degree of safety and can be a lot of fun. This kind of interaction between bird and owner can be very rewarding for both the trainer and the bird.
Recently a parrot owner named Andrew lost his African Grey Tui because he underestimated the dangers of free flying a bird who hadn’t been trained under those conditions. He thought Tui’s bond with him was so strong that she’d never fly away from him. Do you have any thoughts on that unfortunate incident?
Chris Biro: Andrew is an unfortunate example of what can happen if people are not properly prepared for flight training. It is clear in Andrew’s other videos that Andrew clearly loved his bird and Tui clearly loved Andrew.
But having a fully flighted untrained bird in an non-secure location is a very common way people lose birds. To expect the bird to automatically understand all it needs to know about flying so it won’t get lost if accidentally getting into the air, is failing to consider important information.
It is natural for a bird to be able to fly, just as it is natural for us humans to be able to walk. But we had to learn how to walk, just like birds have to learn how to fly. If the bird grows up in a cage, when does it have the opportunity to learn how to fly? Often it never has that opportunity.
This is why I have put much of my training theory on my website. It is my goal to help people avoid such mistakes by offering the basics of how I train flight. Hopefully after someone reads the various articles on flight training, they will have a better idea of what is involved with flight training and be able to avoid most of the mistakes that [cause inexperienced people to lose their birds].
What’s the worst advice you’ve ever seen regarding training a flighted bird?
Chris Biro: The worst advice I have ever seen regarding training a flighted bird has been “The best bird to flight train is the bird in front of you.”
Not every pet bird is a good candidate for flight training. Some have fears and bad habits that make them especially unsuitable for flight training. And not every person is ready for this level of focus and dedication. Some people have no experience or knowledge of training methods or are highly anxious personality types.
[That advice] potentially pairs the worst candidate and the worst trainer. That is asking for accidents. I cannot control the skill level of the trainer. I can only recommend that they learn about Operant Conditioning and practice clicker training with other animals before they attempt to flight train a bird. I cannot control what bird they select as their student to train to fly. I can only recommend they select what I know to be the easiest and safest student available. The baby bird at the natural age of fledging has no phobias or bad habits to overcome. Every baby bird I have trained has been an eager and willing student who learns to fly in a fraction of the time even the best suited adult birds will learn.
Can you clarify the importance of the “baby bond” between a parrot and his owner with regard to free flight training?
Chris Biro: I use the parental bond as part of my approach to training flight. I do a lot of clicker training with the birds and do not rely solely on that bond. There is also a social bond that flock members form and also a pair bond that forms between mates. All three are different.
There is a short period in a baby bird’s life during which it is programmed to stay close to mom.
The social bond and pair bond do not invoke this same level of “stay close.” It would be unwise to expect social or pair bonding to produce the same kind of stay-close response as the parental bond.
The issue of encouraging people to select a baby bird instead of an adult bird for flight training is not without controversy. Some feel the average bird owner is not capable of learning to hand feed a baby bird.
This is an opinion I disagree with so long as the person finds a suitable mentor to help train and coach them. It should also be noted that anytime a person selects a less than ideal flight candidate (like an adult never flighted pet parrot), they are at the same time choosing not to select a baby bird, meaning some baby bird out there will now spend its life as a clipped bird instead of as their fabulous flyer. If I can help people who are already getting a baby bird to select their bird for the purpose of flight training, give them the tools needed to train the bird, and offer them the moral support they need, then I think I can help prevent a lot of lost adult birds and help many young birds become great flyers. There are lots of baby birds being sold into peoples homes and those are the birds I think are best suited to become flighted birds. This of course means people need to stress to their breeders, NOT to clip the baby birds’ wings. It is sad to me to walk through a pet store and see all the clipped baby birds. All that eager potential so casually stripped from them just breaks my heart.
My focus is not so much on helping people train their current pet birds. Instead I think we will have the highest degree of success if I can reach some of those people who are getting a new bird.
So you don’t think free flying is an option appropriate for most pet parrots?
Chris Biro: No. I believe most pet parrots that are currently in people’s homes are poor candidates for flight training. Most have grown up and learned to live a life style that is not conducive to being good flight students. Some may be able to learn to fly indoors, and I think that is great, so long as the owner understands that they need to be training for the day the bird will get loose outdoors.
But for most pet parrots currently in people’s homes, I recommend clipping their wings. Some will be suitable to indoor flight training but most will not. I have always recommended either clipping or fully flight training pet parrots. There are many stories of indoor flyers getting outdoors without proper training so even the indoor flyer needs to learn good recall responses and be conditioned to being in the potential outdoor environment.
A third option is a large aviary, though most pet parrot owners lack the space or resources to construct an aviary large enough for their bird to get much actual flying in.
[But] I believe most pet owners are capable of doing this training if they have the right bird and methods.
Is there a single most important thing to understand about parrots and their ability to fly?
Chris Biro: Flight training is not something to take lightly. It often involves lifestyle changes. I liken it to keeping horses. If you don’t have the right set up, it may not be right for you. One serious difference though is that the birds can become lost or killed more easily through trainer error. Only people who are dedicated to doing the homework, locating and selecting the right conditions, and devoting adequate time and resources should consider taking on the freeflight experience with their own birds. Everything comes down to setting the birds up to succeed. If you have done your job right in selecting the right candidate, the right location, the right method (positive reinforcement) and have honed your own training skills through practice, then everything should go smoothly and quickly.
To wrap up, what’s your favorite thing about training parrots?
My favorite thing about training birds is watching the birds master new skill levels. It is an amazing experience to watch them fly, playing in the wind over a 2000 foot tall cliff or flying from tree to tree or rock outcropping along a canyon as we hike up the canyon trail.
These are all very natural activities for wild parrots and to get to watch my birds enjoying similar activities and similar skill levels does something for me I cannot easily explain. I know there are risks involved but for me the benefits greatly out weigh the risks. With proper training the risks are reduced to what I think are manageable levels. Figuring out exactly what that proper training involves is something I think the engineering part of me really enjoys.
I also enjoy the reaction people have when seeing the birds flying free. I can always tell who the bird people are in my audience by the way they react to seeing the birds flying loose. The non bird person points at the birds and tells their friends “Thats cool!” The bird person though is standing there with mouth wide open in total amazement.
You can see them go through a stage of total fear, thinking someone’s bird got loose, to total amazement once they realize the birds are loose on purpose and are eagerly flying back to me on the stage. The fact that people don’t think this is possible but yet see it happening with their own eyes is very rewarding to me. I get to expand their world a bit and maybe even the world of a few birds out there. People who get into flying parrots will always wind up learning about better training methods. They just have to or the birds will destroy their homes and become a complete nuisance.
Learning more about the science of training ultimately results in enriched and improved lives for all of their pets, not just their flying birds. I cannot help feel that people who see our birds flying come away more open to the ideas science has to offer us about learning and training.
Where should people go to learn more about training their birds to fly outside?
I have posted several articles about flight training at my website www.wingsatliberty.com. I would also recommend a few books, even if none are devoted to flight training, since any improvement in training skill in general will help with flight training. I highly recommend as a good getting started in training book “Don’t Shoot the Dog“, by Karen Pryor.
For those interested in learning more about the science behind training and how we learn “Learning and Behavior” by Paul Chance. And if you want to go into more depth “Learning and Behavior” by James E. Mazur.
If you can make it though my articles and the material in these books, you should be pretty well prepared.
Reminder: All the parrots shown in the photos and videos above are extensively and specifically trained on outdoor recall – DO NOT TAKE THIS CASUALLY: AN UNTRAINED PARROT SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED OUTSIDE WITHOUT RESTRAINT ON A WHIM. Okay, I’m done shouting. Just need to be as clear as I can be about this.
A big thanks to Chris for his time to do this interview!