WARNING: The following information is not intended to teach, instruct or encourage the attempt of freeflight with pet parrots without the help of a professional parrot trainer consulting you and your bird in person. 

Part One – The Beginning – January 30, 2008

I purchased Cressi (born on October 31, 2007), on January 30, 2008 in Las Vegas, Nevada. I was there attending a convention, and searching for the perfect parrot to start my journey of outdoor free flight with. I wanted to find a parrot who was still hand feeding, had never flown before, and didn’t have her wings clipped. As you may know this isn’t always an easy task. To my great surprise, Cressi fit all of these requirements, and she was only two months old, the perfect age to start training for outdoor free flight.

Most responsible parrot breeders will not allow the bird to leave the shop if it is still hand feeding, let alone fully flighted.

I explained to the breeder that I have a lot of experience hand feeding parrots, as well as flight training them (indoors only). She had me sign a release and away I went. My brother, Chet, and I went back to the Mandalay Bay, where we had to sneak her into the room.

I set her down on the bed for a while and got to know her. I gently pet her and allowed her to explore the room a bit. Shortly after hand feeding her, she got all excited and made her first “desperation” flight back to her cage. I could see that she wasn’t going to make it, so I stuck my hand out to assist her. She made a very awkward landing on my hand, but it was her first flight, so I can’t be too picky.

I flew back home to Orlando, where I continued to train her daily. She was still being hand fed two to three times per day and wasn’t on a full pellet and vegetable diet yet, so I slowly started to introduce sunflower seeds to her throughout the day.

Within the first week of having her back she started to eat sunflower seeds. This plays a vital part in the training process for me, as it will soon become a reinforcement/treat for her.

In addition, I introduced her to the great outdoors by keeping her cage outside throughout the day to start getting her used to outside.

Part Two – The Early Flights

The next stage was to begin flying her in short distances. Once I realized that she liked sunflower seeds, and she knew that I was the only source to get them, the flights began. At first she’d only fly to me from a distance of about one to two feet.

I pushed a little harder until soon she was flying to me from about four feet.

I continued to reinforce this so she learned that I was the only place she’d get sunflower seeds, and that every time she flew to me, she’d get one, and occasionally she’d get a random jackpot of several seeds.

At first, her landings were very sloppy, but as time went on they became more and more controlled. The first several days of flights were indoors, and from the T-Stand, in my dining room. As a couple days of this started to become boring, I’d switch up the starting positions for her so that she could fly from the kitchen facet, the couch, chair, top of her cage, floor, railing, other people and anything else that I could think of.

When she had all of these locations down, I switched to having her fly from person to person. It’s very important with a young African grey parrot to socialize them a lot with many different people, as well as other birds.

Since she was still undergoing vet checks, and a 30 day in-home quarantine in a completely separate air space from the rest of the birds, it was impossible for me to socialize her with the other birds, so I really focused on exposing her to multiple people. I’d invite the neighbors over and fly her to them, then I’d invite other friends to come over, and so on.

Part Three – Ascending

After mastering the skill of flying from anyone and anything, two anyone on cue, I moved on to the first basic flight skill; the ascent.

First thing in the morning before she had breakfast (still hand feeding), I’d open up her cage, and run up to the first flight of stairs in my house, and cue her to fly.

The first railing is eight feet off the ground. Our stairs continue to wind around to go up to the second floor, but this railing was a good starting point. I did this for about a week; open the cage, fly her up.

Put her back on the cage, open it again, then fly her up to the railing; over and over.

Pretty soon she became curious about flight, and decided to fly up to the top level, 13 feet high. Once I realized she was comfortable with that, I moved on to flying her up to the top. Again, opening the cage in the morning and cuing her to fly up to me at the top level.

Part Four – Descending

This was a much more difficult behavior to teach her. She wasn’t very comfortable with flying down, which is (from my experience) one of the more difficult behaviors to train in indoor flight training. This is such a critical skill to teach your African grey parrot; most parrots that escape on accident find themselves circling higher and higher because they don’t know how to descend, then they eventually get tired and fall.

I started this training on the eight foot high railing, and called her until she came. The first flight was a bit scary for her, so I made sure to give a jackpot reward of many seeds to her. After that, she was very anxious to come back to me again, and again. Of course, I refrained from always giving her jackpots for descending, however I do still give her a treat every time she recalls, with the occasional jackpot for added suspense.

Pretty soon I was able to throw her like a football, and she go up to the top railing. Then, all it would take is a call or a whistle and she’d return.

Part Five – Hide & Seek

Next, we played hide and seek. At this point, she was about 2 months and 3 weeks old. I'd put her somewhere, and recall her while out of sight.

It was an interesting behavior to watch, because she'd know where I was, but would be afraid to fly there without seeing me first. So I got into a rhythm of tossing her to the railing, then poking my head out from inside the kitchen.

She'd start to fly to me and I'd duck back into the kitchen and out of sight. Pretty soon she realized where I was and would come as soon as I invited her. Of course, this was all highly rewarded with lots of praise and treats.

Part Six – Outdoor Free Flight Day 1 – February 26, 2008

Now that she was responding so well to hide and seek inside, I decided it was time to free fly her outside. I was back in Las Vegas for a gig, and took Cressi with me. We found a big open field and went for a hike. I was very mindful to not just go find hundreds of vacant acres, as that would leave her nowhere to land if she spooked. Instead, I decided to find a large outdoor area, with trees pretty close to where we were. That way, if something happened, hopefully she’d land in a tree where I could retrieve her, instead of miles away in the middle of the desert.

I set her cage there on a rock for about 15 minutes so that she could experience her current surroundings from a safe location, then we took her out and flew her. As you may have guessed, her first flight was successful!

The first outdoor flight was like starting over at a solid previous training session from inside the house; "the person to person flight" (see part two - the early flights.)

Jamieleigh took Cressi out of the cage, allowed her to perch on her hand, and I called her to fly to me; she came straight to me at a distance of about eight feet. There was a new challenge introduced at this moment, and that challenge was wind.

Up to this point she had never flown in wind. It was only a slight breeze, but it made her first flight a bit rocky, and her landing a bit rough.

The second flight was about the same distance, but this time she flew from me to Jamieleigh. I wanted to make sure that she didn’t only return to me outside, thus the reason for the game of catch with her. Again, the slight breeze played a bit with her landing abilities.

Part Seven – Outdoor Freeflight Day 2 – Feb 29, 2008

I returned home from Vegas late the night before, fed Cressi a small dinner (still hand feeding), and went to bed. About 10AM the following morning I went to an empty school yard as I prepared for a second day of flight. The day started with back and forth flights between me and Jamieleigh, which continued for about 15 minutes.

We then moved on to flights from her travel cage, to me, then repeat that again so she’d fly to Jamieleigh.

In Florida, as well as many other parts of the world, I had to be very mindful of predators such as hawks. While preparing for these flights, many vultures came and went. It’s good to get into the habit of constantly checking the sky prior to each flight, to make sure there are no hawks in sight.

I understand that there’s always a risk when you’re flying birds in an area where there are hawks, but I make sure to do everything I can to help avoid them.

One tip that I believe in very strongly, is to not fly my parrots outdoors just after a rain storm, as the hawks and other predators will be anxiously searching for their next meal.

Until you have experienced it, it’s hard to relate to, but there’s something so magical about freeflight. It’s almost as if you are at total piece with nature. The bird has the choice to fly away if it chooses to, but the fact that it comes back to you time and time again is just an amazing feeling.

If you get the opportunity to raise a baby bird in the near future, I highly suggest training it to be a freeflight bird!

The following video footage is an entertaining montage of Cressi’s second day of freeflight outdoors. There’s a pretty funny section in the video of where Cressi gets blown away by and wind gust.

As you can see, that first "wind gusted" flight was pretty freaky, but once she returned, we continued to fly her for a few more repetitions to reinforce the correct behavior. I'm pretty sure that most birds will have the initial "learn on the fly" situation with wind, but only time will tell as I continue to fly more parrots outdoors.

Check out this picture of me looking dumbfounded as she flies off! I think it's a pretty funny picture...

Part Eight – Outdoor Free Flight Day 3 – March 1, 2008

It was much hotter, but not as windy as the day before. Cressi started out the day by flying from her cage, to me.

I then played catch with her while going to and from Jamieleigh and me.

After just a few flights into the day, she decided to take some exploratory flights to check the area out.

She recalled just perfectly though, and my nerves were much more prepared for it today. Yesterday’s wind was a bit more exciting that I’d hoped for.

The whole experience has been great, to say the least. I still have not set her in a tree and cued her fly back to me, but I suppose that will happen soon.

I’m concerned that she will start to land in trees instead of coming back to me. Her recall is great, but it’s always a bit scary to throw a $1,500 African Grey in the air and hope it comes back.

I continue to work on her recall daily, both indoors and out, to best prepare her for her next venture; the tree!

The following video below shows off some of her exploratory flights. Notice how she’s starting to dart around now quite a bit.

She’ll go to land on me, then dart the other way and play around for a short while. Also, try to pay attention to her landings, they are becoming much more controlled and skillful.

Part Nine – Outdoor Freeflight Day 4 – March 2, 2008

This was a much better day than the day before. Cressi had much more enthusiasm, and energy. I suppose it had a lot to do with the temperature outside, as it was much cooler than yesterday. I decided to fly her a couple hours earlier than I had previously so that it wouldn’t be as hot. It seemed like she got over heated yesterday and decided to call it quits early.

Also, we had other people with us, which may have had something to do with her desire to not fly much. However, today was great!

It was difficult to find a safe place to fly her. We tried switching it up a little bit today, however it seemed like everywhere we went there were dangers. The first dangers we ran into were actually model airplanes and helicopters.

Also, we had other people with us, which may have had something to do with her desire to not fly much. However, today was great!

It was difficult to find a safe place to fly her. We tried switching it up a little bit today, however it seemed like everywhere we went there were dangers. The first dangers we ran into were actually model airplanes and helicopters.

The field was a beautiful field to fly in, which is probably why we weren’t the only ones there. I’m curious to find out if those guys fly every weekend at that location.

It appeared that it was a ritual for them, as they seemed quite comfortable parking on the grass, and displaying their model air-crafts all across the ground. There are no hard feelings though, it looked like they were having a blast!

The second place we visited was a new park that our GPS pointed us towards. The park looked great, however I think it was a breeding ground for hawks. Tons and tons of them filled the sky, leaving us no option other than leaving and searching for a new place to fly.

Today’s outdoor experience was unique in the fact that Cressi immediately started exploring. She’s really enjoying her time outside more and more. Like most feelings, this one is equally as hard to really explain, but I can tell you that it’s a wonderful feeling and that she’s really having a great time!

One of the skills that we continued to work on today was a long distance recall. I’d set Cressi on this very high-end looking tire that happened to be sticking out of the ground, and I’d run far away and recall her with a verbal call and whistle. She got up to controlled distances of about 100 yards.

I’m pretty impressed with how quickly she is developing her skills and adapting to changing situations. This is all the stuff that we never get to see happening in the wild, which is probably why it’s so exciting to experience live. Here is a video that shows today's freeflight experience:

Flying in the Rain & Snow – Seattle, WA – March 28, 2008

This was Cressi’s first attempt to fly in rain and snow. We kept the flights short since she wasn’t used to the cold climate. Also, you notice that person to the left ducking out of the way. This was part of her training to keep her from landing on strangers. I understand that in the future she may need to land on strangers, or may choose to, however I want to enforce strong habits from the beginning.

Desert Flying – Moab, UT – April 4-8, 2008

Our African Grey had some great flights in Moab. It was her first time moving on to another level in her outdoor skills. She went from flying big open fields, to flying above canyons, hillsides, and even in the canyons while going on a walk with her. It was an experience to remember. I wrote a great article about the whole experience, which can be read in our Parrot Magic Newsletter.

[Editor's note: Jamieleigh and I want to give a huge shout out to Chris Biro and Susan Hilliard for introducing us to the beautiful and magical world of freeflight; and although our training methods have since varied since those used by Chris Biro, we are still extremely grateful for those experiences.]

Seagull Encounter – Cocoa Beach, FL – April 17, 2008

This was a frightening experience! After much thought, we decided to give this a go. I took all the precautions I could, and obviously it ended safely. Here’s my thought process:

We took Bondi (female, rose breasted cockatoo/galah) in a travel cage, and Cressi, to the beach. I packed a lunch and we sat there and ate for about 30 minutes. The section of the beach that I was on was about 100 or more feet away from people in all directions.

I gave her plenty of time to check out the area and become familiar with it. After feeling like she was familiar with the surroundings, we took her out and did the typical A to B recall flights. This is how we always start the day.

I’ve also noticed that when she doesn’t want to fly, she won’t do the A to B. We’ve had that happen on days where she saw a hawk, and we didn’t see it… until it was flying overhead. Which made us believe that she knows when it’s safe to fly or not… better than we seem to sometimes! Cressi decided to do her regular circle flights around us, when about 40 seconds into the flight, she was engaged by a seagull. That seagull chased her over the water, where she jinked and evaded. It was quite amazing to watch, although it was also quite scary.

As soon as she evaded the first seagull, three more were on her. Then eight seagulls went after her, then eleven! She tried evading over and over, then tried to slow down to land on us, but knew if she slowed down she’d be toast! So up and over the pier she went. I sprinted after her (as she was now just out of sight), and as I approached the underside of the pier, I blew the whistle, she saw me, and came to me for protection.

So here’s my final thoughts on the day. First of all, was she ready? Many non-flyers would say no, however she did survive and she did come back.

From my experience, and from the advice of professionals who have been consulting me on this, I do feel she was ready.

She successfully evaded 11 seagulls, and returned, thus reinforcing me as a safe spot even more than before.

We did everything by the book, and it all ended well.

It’s a false hope to think that your freeflighted parrot will never encounter a chase. Everyone who free-flies their parrots outside has had their birds chased at one point or another.

The whistle I got is from a scuba shop, designed to carry for miles. While being chased by seagulls, I continued to blow the whistle. When frantically trying to evade a chase, I quickly realized that she should not have to focus on where I was, and instead she should focus on escaping.

I’ve even seen some remarkable pictures of a macaw out-maneuvering a peregrine falcon!

So my point is, that when this “chase” happens, your parrot better be ready. Fortunately all of Cressi’s practice in Moab prepared her for that chase, which she was victorious in dealing with. And one last thing: I always fly her with a whistle.

By me blowing the whistle she never once had to worry about finding me, as she knew the entire time where I was by that sound.

Note: Cressi's freeflight adventures have continued over the years, which you can view through numerous videos on YouTube as well as our Freedom of Flight documentary on freeflighted parrots.

Dave Womach has been performing professionally with birds since the age of 13. He has produced shows for cruise ships, theme parks, fairs, dinner theaters and has been featured internationally on television.