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Teaching free flight to an African Grey

Expert Question

I have a 1 year old African Grey congo male and I would like to teach him to free fly. Can you let me know how to do this or where to sign up to? His wings were cut when I got him a year ago and still not grown back but I read somewhere there if you pull out the old ones they will grow back fast. Also can you let me know when is the deadline age-wise for them to stop learning tricks like free flying?

Expert Answer

Hello Maria. You ask several interesting questions. One could write pages and pages about each of your questions but I have tried to keep the answers short and to the point. Let's take your questions one by one and see what we can come up with. I've grouped the two first sentences and the last sentence together since they are very much related.

"I have a 1 year old African Grey Congo male and I would like to teach him to free fly. Can you let me know how to do this or where to sign up to?.....Also can you let me know when is the deadline age-wise for them to stop learning tricks like free flying?"

Before we dig into your free fly question more, we need to be very clear on what you mean by free fly. Do you mean fly freely inside the home? Do you mean fly free outside at all times only returning for meals or sleep? Or, do you mean flying freely under specific circumstances where you are there to provide some supervision?

Parrots have wings. They fly. Right? Well it isn't quite that simple. Flying is not a trick,, it is a skill that is learned through shaping both in captivity and in the wild. In the wild, the environment provides the initial feedback on how to do it better. After each crash, after each ungainly landing that can include flat and bumpy, abrupt stops; a bird will adjust what he does the next time. As can be seen from the last sentence, flying involves not only flapping the wings but take-off and landing as well as learning how to position the wings in flight for optimum effect to stay aloft. To teach free flying in the outdoors requires a very skilled, and experienced, trainer who has a mentor to help them along. Even then, in most situations birds are trained indoors or in a netted enclosure before ever setting wing outside. No matter where, or if, you decide to fly your bird having a solid recall (that means coming to a specific location when signaled - whether it be an arm or a perch) is another skill that needs to have a very strong learning history before venturing outside.

Answers to each of the above questions asked in the first paragraph come with their own set of risks and rewards for both the caregiver and the parrot. It is also important to know if the parrot was fledged before its wings were clipped. That information can tell a person if the bird has already gained some experience flying for a period of time before being grounded with a wing clip. There are also other important decisions that need to be considered which can impact both the bird and the caregiver such as raptors, windmills and live electrical wires or transformers that are numerous free range.

Each caregiver has to decide the amount of time and effort they are willing to put into teaching the parrot the skills that it will need in each of the above free flying situations especially when starting with an older bird where the natural window of opportunity of learning when leaving the nest in the wild has passed. Can one parrot-proof the home so that it is safe for a flying parrot? Windows, doors, water in sinks and tubs are just a few hazards that we need to be aware of. Does one have the personal level of risk tolerance needed to fly outside where predators may attack and birds may well, and do, fly off? Some are lost forever and some are recovered. No matter the outcome, those times are always a very emotional rollercoaster experience for caregivers. Asking those questions now may well prevent heartache later on.

Rather than make the decision immediately, you might want to work on acquiring training skills first. The skills which we, as parrot caregivers, need to have in order to train any bird. First we have to understand how behavior works. The only course I recommend for that is Living and Learning with Parrots at (the Caregiver C). The reason I recommend that course is not simply because I teach it but I fully believe in the systematic way behavior is approached. Dr Susan Friedman had helped thousands of people the world over understand how parrots, and other animals, learn. For hands on experience, go to Steve Martin's Natural Encounters website and take the Caregivers Workshop. Another resource is Chris Shanks at Finally, find an experienced mentor who free flies and can guide you through the nuances if the choice is made to fly outside.

"His wings were cut when I got him a year ago and still not grown back but I read somewhere there if you pull out the old ones they will grow back fast."

Moving on to your second question, anytime now this grey should start molting out those clipped feathers and new ones will replace them. That is a natural occurrence with parrots. Old used feathers are molted and replaced with new ones.

Pulling a number of feathers can be very painful for the bird, especially flight feather and is not recommended. Think of how painful it is when someone grabs a hank of hair and yanks it out by the roots or a finger nail pulled off by accident. Both hurt and are painful. That is much what pulling out the remaining feather shafts would be like for your grey. On top of causing pain, it can also decrease the trust relationship been the bird and the caregiver as well as teach the bird to fear the caregiver. That's the very last thing that any of us want with companion birds. Trust is something that this bird will have learned after living with you over time. If only positive events and conditions surround the relationship between you and your grey, over time both sides have learned to trust one another.

Rather than run the risk of bankrupting the trust account that you have built up with this bird in the past year, one could use the time productively and start training this bird to recall on foot, to target, to perform simple tricks such as turn around, raise the wings fully and to station to a specific spot/ area. That strategy has a twofold purpose. It will teach you how to teach this bird using positive reinforcement and will teach the bird to learn from you. The overall effect will result in you making many deposits in the trust account you and you grey have while he grey gets to make many choices in his life. Choices are important since those individuals with the most choices are the most behaviorally healthy.

"Also can you let me know when is the deadline age-wise for them to stop learning tricks like free flying?"

Another great question. Parrots, like humans, learn throughout their lives. If we humans hit a finger with a hammer, then we adjust how we hold the hammer or how we use the hammer to avoid hitting the finger in future when we find ourselves using a hammer again. The same strategy applies to parrots.

Like us, parrots tend to behave in ways that give them access to the most reinforcement. Those behaviors that are reinforced will be repeated more frequently. There you have the short answer to how behavior works. Parrots and humans don't ever stop learning. A 25 year old bird can learn to pick up a cup, dunk a basket ball or to come to a specific station when called as well as a youngster. At one year of age, that is what you have with your Congo African grey, a youngster, a learning machine, who has a lifetime to develop new skills. As I said above, flying is a skill not a trick and like all skills requires practice, practice and more practice in different areas to become proficient. As countless mothers have told their children over the years -- practice is key to developing a skill.

Lee McGuire
About Lee McGuire

Lee McGuire partnered with parrots in an ongoing quest to effectively understand and communicate with them for more than 30 years. Initially her interest in behaviour modification stemmed from the arrival of a biting, screaming Mitred Conure with stereotypic repetitive behaviours. That event led to an ongoing search for behaviour modification strategies that she felt comfortable employing, and to the discovery of applied behaviour analysis (ABA).  ABA strategies and techniques were not only species respectful, but also humane; they could be used to modify existing behaviours and could enrich the lives of parrots. Philosophically, she had found a soulmate.

Lee had a special interest in good ‘psittizenship’ behaviours in the home and in the husbandry and medical applications of ABA—especially in shaping physiotherapy-related behaviours. Since 2004, Lee had the good fortune to be able to act as teaching partner to Susan Friedman, PhD, three times per year for her online course, Living and Learning with Parrots (

WPT note: Lee passed away in 2020. We will be forever grateful for her friendship.