Benni - Blue and Gold Macaw
Part one: Hand rearing and training a baby macaw
Part two: Benni takes to the air
Part one: Hand rearing and training a baby macaw
Benni, Blue and Gold macaw (Ara ararauna) will spend his second Christmas at our Essex home. I never imagined taking on a macaw. Benni was a gift. I let Benni's breeder erect his own flight containing his pair of noisy Blue and Gold macaws adjacent to our aviary, in return, he offered me a chick from the next clutch.
My aims were to rear Benni as a healthy chick, and integrate him into my aviary flock which consists of several pet birds and a mixed group of parakeets. And possibly fulfil a long dream - to free-fly a parrot. At the time of writing, both aims have been fulfilled.
Benni's home environment
Our bird room is a converted conservatory of 3 x 4 metres. In permanent residence are two African Greys, Artha and Casper, and LSC Perdy. Other birds, rescues, rehomes and boarders, come and go from periods of a few weeks to few years. For most of the year except extreme cold, the pet birds also share a large aviary in daylight with a mixed flock of 15 parakeets. The Greys were my starter birds seventeen years ago. How lucky I was to obtain these birds from caring and conscientious breeders, the importance of which can't be over stated. The Greys came from Barrett Watson, Perdy from the bird room of Parrot Society secretary Les Rance. After subsequent experiences with less fortunate birds among the boarders, rehomes and rescues, which included biters, feather pluckers, and screamers, my knowledge base has steadily increased. By the time Benni joined the flock, I had enough confidence to hand rear him to weaning stage. That Benni was already over 4 weeks old and partially feathered made the hand feeding process less difficult.
Previously, I'd only hand fed Rock Pebblers and Karariki. Once Benni stopped growling at the looming human monster who had replaced his parents (it took 4 days) he readily accepted a bent spoon loaded with Kaytee weaning food four times a day.
Being a fretting type of person, I worried more than necessary and telephoned breeder/friends Mike Hurley and Barrett Watson often. They were kindness itself in dispensing advice. Benni, not having siblings to keep him warm, was given soft toys as a substitute. It was amusing when he was brought out for his 6 pm feeding. Monty (a rescue Grey) Perdy and Artha would fly down and wait in turn to have a spoonful of Kaytee. Casper never did.
Having dealt with and known several over-bonded and needy cockatoos over recent years, I was cautious about how much handling to give Benni. Mike Hurley pointed out that in the nest baby macaws are constantly brooded - not to worry about petting Benni.
I followed this advice and gave him a few minutes cuddling either before or after every feed and a playtime before the 6 pm feed. Mike warned against handling a chick with a full crop too much. Now that Benni's full grown, he has a regular playtime between 5 and 6 pm. He has his own toy box and mat. Perdy and the Greys do not try to play with or use his toys. Although they are still as destructive with anything else left lying around. TV remote boxes are particularly vulnerable. I have discovered to my relief that a full grown macaw weighing over one kilo, is actually less destructive than the Greys and cockatoo half his size.
I kept (and still keep) daily notes. These were essential when hand rearing and also useful for records of training behaviour. On September 28th, after 4 weeks, Benni had achieved a few firsts.
Benni drank a few sips of water from a bowl;
Benni ate several sprouted seeds from a dish;
Benni semi- perched on the scale (weighing 1,150 grams approx.)
Alfie, a ten-year old Blue and Gold, a well-socialised macaw, arrived for a visit. His gentle owner Debbie held both birds together, Benni on her lap, Alfie her shoulder. I allowed any visitors who wanted to hold him to give him a cuddle. He seemed to enjoy handling but the cooing sound was not heard with everyone. He started spreading a wing when he saw me. He started bathing himself in a water bowl.
I harnessed Benni at 63 days old with the Aviator harness. I put it on before a feed and took it off afterwards; he hardly seemed to notice. Now that Benni's grown up, I use the harness for two purposes: to be taken outside before a free flight session; to wear in the crate when I take him for any visit.
Parrot keeper friends, Anguel Jordanov and Wayne Cathay visited one week visit and put their 3 Greys in the aviary for fresh air and playtime. Anguel is a confident handler. 'Step up,' he asked Benni, who obligingly put one claw on his hand. 'Step up,' repeated Anguel. Benni put both claws on his hand and performed his first step up. Then he repeated it with me which he hadn't done previously.
As October progressed Benni's behaviour changed almost daily which included going outside and remaining calm for ten minutes wearing his harness.
I kept Benni in a plastic tub, placed at the bottom of an open-topped cage. Barrett had told me that I'd know when to remove the towel draped over the box to keep it dimmer as in a nest box.
From my notes - over a year ago:
October 4th Benni - 65 days old
Two milestones. At 5.30 p.m. I found Benni had climbed out of his tub and was climbing the cage bars. At 5 p.m. brought him to sitting room where he ate mango, pomegranate and sweet corn and two pellets. Mike advises taking him out of the tub which will do tomorrow morning. Vigorous wing flappings.
Monday October 6th Benni - 67 days old. Three further milestones. 3 spoon feeds only daily for 2 days. Benni moved to larger cage. Benni is perching. Now have to furnish larger cage. Vigorous wings flaps and vocalising. Trying to set up the cage to suit his growing abilities.
In the evening Benni playing on his mat in the sitting room. Perdy landed beside him he lunged at her and she flew off. The dog came and the same thing again. Was it defensive or aggressive? Benni is larger at 2 months old than the terrier or the LSC.
October 7th - a routine developing: a formula feed in the morning then a short play. Cage till lunch time, then formula, then playtime. Again. In the cage until 5.30 – 6 p.m. and then in the sitting room. No formula but foods offered and toys. The 4 other parrots are in the sitting room then. It is easy to see when he gets tired and then gets taken back to cage.
Reducing the number of hand feeds from 4 or 5 to one or two went at Benni's pace and took 15 weeks. The time I put in socialising Benni with people and other birds was well spent. Although now he is full size, he tends to boss the other birds but there has not shown any signs of aggression. Being in the aviary also from fledging has accustomed Benni to other species of birds.
Bringing up Benni was almost like having a human baby again. I tried to spend quality time at breakfast, lunchtime and afternoon with him. Like a human baby his awake times increased. I'd peek in and he seemed to be occupying himself with chewing wood.
October 19th Benni weighs about 1,030 grams. To determine weight exactly is difficult as he is reluctant to stand still on the scale. Then when he does his tail rests on the table and alters the weight.
I fed him at 5.45 p.m. and he finished 3 scoops; did not seem ready to go to sleep. He was perched on his 20 cm high log and he FLEW to the half a metre high stool. I don't know who was more surprised him or me. After that he made a few hop-jumps to my lap. But he was clearly tired. Put him back in his tub without even a squawk.
Thursday, October 23rd. First major problem. Benni kept us company at lunch time. Brought him into my office and started work on computer. Benni flew to my shoulder and started nibbling my hair. Put him back on stand. Benni flew to desk. Obviously he won't stay quietly and watch me work which the Greys will do.
Put his harness on and took him outside for a few minutes. Reasoning that fresh air and outside would be stimulating and hence tiring. Brought him inside at 2 p.m. and put him in his cage. He sat quietly on the bottom of the cage. Plan is for him to stay there until 5 p.m. then come into the sitting room for playtime with the pet parrots who are still in the aviary.
October 24 Benni first trip to vet for microchip. He was excited or worried or at least his face was flushed. Vet towelled him and he struggled but not dramatically. So next week we will know whether it is Master Benni or Miss Benita? He is flying short hops. Stayed in aviary with me for 30 minutes weight is 1,005 grams which is above average. Vet complimented me on his good behaviour. I was well chuffed.
November 8th Benni is at least 100 days old .Took him to the aviary this morning wearing his harness. Returned to fetch him after noon. I was in the end section of the aviary, three sections away from where he was perched on a thick rope. I called out 'hello, Benni.' And to my amazement, he navigated through the branches, through the gap, and arrived on my shoulder and said 'hello'. He's never flown more than a couple of metres indoors. I put him on a perch, went back to his rope, called him and he flew to me again. I stepped him down onto his rope and gave him a nut. I tried a 3rd time going into the end of the aviary but this time he did not manage to navigate through the gap and ended upside down on the roof. He was making noises but did not seem scared. I carried his indoors on my hand with a thumb over his claw. He tucked into his feed bowl of pellet, fruit and nuts. He gets excited in the evening and plays on his back like a puppy.
My intention was (and still is) that positive reinforcement methods are used for Benni's training. That is the absolute minimum of negative reinforcement or any forms of aversive handling, except the mildest like a time out. I don't even want to use the word 'no' if possible. All easier said than done.
Once Benni learned to fly, I practised indoor recalls. Benni instigated two cute tricks on his own which I was able to capture on cue. Ropes stretch across our sitting room. Ask Benni to 'Hang on one leg' and he flies to the rope, hangs on one leg and flaps his wings. When he rolls onto his back to play and I say: 'hold your hands, Benni,' clasps his claws for a few seconds. I've not managed to teach him a flighted retrieve but he's still young. He waves on cue and says 'Hello, Benni,' but only when he wants to.
The process is time consuming – a couple of hours at least every day. Recall training is not complicated. You call the bird to you. As soon as he lands on the outstretched arm, the handler gives the bridge word or uses a clicker; the bird is given a treat and often sent back to the perch to eat the treat. Recall training is essential for every flighted pet parrot in home or aviary or if they inadvertently get loose outside. What requires careful consideration is the amount of food management you practise. Training before meals is generally helpful. As a non-professional, I would never use weight management (adjusting the bird's weight via reducing food to ensure it is keen to fly to you.) I've found it counterproductive.
In our environment, Benni 'recalls' better outside if he's had a small meal. If he's hungry he starts to forage on the trees and aviary roof and won't recall quickly.
Flying in the barn
Wild macaws leave the nest to fly at 90-100 days. Benni was flapping his wings from 48 days old. Took first hop-flights at 11 weeks old. At 15 weeks old he could fly the length of the aviary (30 metres) and perch at one end. So the tasks ahead were to teach a reliable recall before we ventured outside. A local farmer agreed to let me use his enormous barn filled with straw stacks and tractors so that Benni could practise flying down from a height - all within an enclosed space. Owners sometimes cannot retrieve escaped birds who don't know how to fly down from a height.
Starting in December, barn visits took place several times a week for three months. Their success was patchy. Benni learned to play in the barn but didn't 'recall' consistently. A couple of critics advised me to stop barn visits because Benni did not recall well. Chris Shank who free flies cockatoos in Oregon said that the barn visits could be seen as an extended playtime. I decided to continue with them.
From my notes: Barn 6th visit. Today he was left in the aviary for 3 hours before the barn visit. When I fetched him at 1.45 p.m. he had flown away from his play shelf where he stays. He had found the parakeet's feeding shelf in the next section and he had cleared their dishes - probably about 100 grams of grated vegetables, fruit, sprouts and powdered nuts and seeds. A rich mix for cold weather.
In the barn, he flew from my hand to Peter's shoulder then sat there making little happiness sounds. Two refusals to fly to my hand. However, he would step up to me and then fly back to Peter and frat with him. I asked him to fly to me from Peter and he refused. He flew 4 times from the training perch and back to Peter. I did not ask him to fly to my hand as I thought repeated refusals not beneficial.
I interpret his behaviours as being full up and not wanting to fly but enjoying Peter's company #, a person he already knows and whom he finds more interesting as a playmate than boring old Mum. When asked to step up to have his harness put back on, he politely scooted round to Peter's other shoulder. I had to use an aversive and lift him off, put his harness on and take him home. Sitting on Peter's lap in the car he groomed his beard. So although the barn visit was not a successful in the aim of flying between us on cue, I judged it a success in social ability and being calm in a new place.
Tuesday barn 8th visit. Not much change from last week. Benni would step up for me but not fly to me. He would fly from my hand to Peter's shoulder then groom his beard or sit happily on his shoulders. Peter was amused and enjoyed the attention.
I increased the distance between myself and Peter until Benni was flying about 4 metres. We will try again on Thursday.
Our barn visits continued several times a week for three months. Benni behaved well indoors and in the aviary. Not until early March was I confident to try Benni with an outdoor flight.
Benni – Blue and Gold Macaw
Part two: Benni takes to the Air
Benni's first free flight session took place on March 14th 2015. He was used to being in the garden on a harness and being free in the aviary. Ryan Wyatt came to assist us.
Ryan, at 22 has been flying his Grey and Amazon for 3 years and for the last several months. Kovu, Benni's younger brother. Ryan's courage and youthful confidence make a good foil to my cautious, elderly fears. He visited three times to help train Benni in the barn and came to stay for the weekend for Benni's inaugural flight.
I continued with daily notes.
First session on Saturday March 14th 7.30 a.m. - cold sunny morning. Benni had been in his cage with pellets since 6 p.m. the previous night. Took him into the garden wearing harness and put him on the same training perch used in the barn. He was tense – feathers held tight. (So was I.) Gave him a nut and took off harness. He stayed on perch for a few minutes, flapping his wings vigorously. I called him; he did not respond. Ryan called and he flew to Ryan a distance of 5 metres. Back to perch. Flew twice to me. 10 metres back to perch.
About the 6th flight, he flew onto the aviary roof and straight down to me. I was conscious of my mentors' advice not to overdo early flights. The session lasted 15 minutes. Most nervous was me, Benni, too, perhaps, while Ryan remained calm.
Second session at 11.25 a.m. -11.50 a.m. Benni's 2nd outdoor flight - more successful than first. He flew 15 times. He flew onto aviary roof. He flew onto his parents' aviary. He flew a large circle round the bungalow and flew down to the ground. He flew to me and Ryan several times and overshot us because he could not brake in time. I was jumping inside with joy because Benni appeared to be enjoying himself so much. When he landed on the bungalow roof, I went out of sight and he walked over to see where I was. He kept me in sight. Several times he flew to me then swept past. I do not know if that was lack of skill in landing at speed or deliberate.
March 21 Saturday evening weighed Benni = between 1,050 – 1,090 grams
Benni's playtime tonight 5 p.m. – 6 p.m. Very active and biting his stuffed toys. He would have nipped me perhaps, if I had not been shoving stuffed toys at his beak.
Early outdoor sessions continued without any major problems. Benni did not spook at crows or magpies or airplanes. He did not fly out of range. I heeded Neena's advice never to let him fly late in the afternoon in case he should choose to roost in a tree at dusk as her pair of Blue and Golds had done.
Most of the amateurs in USA who free fly, take their crated birds, drive to unfamiliar locations and fly there. I was reluctant to try this for the following reasons: under similar circumstances, I know of parrots who have been permanently lost; I also know of free flying parrots flying to strangers and inadvertently scaring them, even leading to police complaints. Because friends, adult children and grandchildren visit us, I have not taught Benni to avoid strangers. If you visit our home he's likely to land on your shoulder.
Fortunately, our bungalow stands in the middle of wooded fields. Benni's flight paths have now gradually extended further. He appears to be mapping out his territory by himself. His favourite direction is east towards the reservoir, one km away. He also flies south west and north. The flights which were of 30 seconds in March can now last up to 15 minutes. I presume he perches in a tree although I have clocked him in the air for six minutes. Susan Hilliard who flies various birds together believes that Benni, flying as a solo bird treats us as his flock which I agree to be the case. Flying him hungry makes no difference because he will forage for acorns, walnuts and fruit season and rose hips.
His learning on the job became apparent when during an early flight he landed in a bay tree and got tangled up in the branches. For around four months, he avoided landing in foliaged trees but now he lands in them all the time and uses them to forage.
Benni's style of flying became that of an at liberty bird not a strictly flying A to B bird. This is of course agreeable for the bird but less clear cut for the handler. Will Benni come down from the aviary roof, step up and come into the aviary when I want or when he chooses? Here is an example from my notes of at liberty flying.
I took Benni to the picnic table to encourage him to play there. He stayed a minute then flew out of sight. Flying back in sight a couple of minutes later. He did this three times. Each time he landed, he stepped up for a nut. Then flew off whenever I turned towards the aviary. He was away not more than a couple of minutes each time. After the third time flying out of sight he landed on the washing line behind the house. I took him into the house and offered a whole walnut. Then took him outside to the aviary using the walnut as a bribe.
It appeared that Benni was competently developing into a liberty bird that would make longer flights of his own volition - even if they were flights where he was out of sight for several minutes. This happened gradually, resulting in a couple of funny incidents. As spring advanced, I took Benni into the garden every afternoon and read my Kindle while he played. These afternoon at liberty sessions were almost 90% joy. Except for the day I lost him! After 30 minutes bewildered searching of garden and fields, I heard a muffled, 'Hello, Benni.' I realised what had transpired. I'd stepped him down from the bungalow roof, returned him to the aviary, become engrossed in my reading and forgot what I'd done. Truly a senior moment!
On another sunny afternoon, Benni was playing outside with me on the lawn. In afternoon sessions, he did not usually fly far and just preferred to play. That particular day, he chose to take off and make several long flights out over the stable, zigzagging in the air till he returned. Benni played a new game of crawling under my arms when I was lying on the grass reading. After playing 'hunt Dot' he flew to the aviary roof. I went to give his parents their afternoon snack. (Their aviary adjoins mine.) I was out of sight for barely two minutes. When I came back to the lawn, Benni was no longer on the aviary roof. I assumed he'd climbed to the other side where he forages oak mast. I called but no response. I began to walk round to the rear of the aviary; Benni flew down onto my shoulder before I got out of the gate. We went back to playing with stuffed tiger, his favourite toy when my husband Wal appeared. Benni had landed on his shoulder while he was out walking the dogs in the next field but flown away in the opposite direction to home. This must have been where he was when he was out of sight earlier and returned.
As summer continued, Benni flew every morning and played in the garden after lunch. This changed in October with cooler days, Benni began to make longer flights out of sight in the afternoon. On one occasion I did not retrieve him until 5 pm. Consequently afternoon flights were curtailed. To compensate, morning flights now last longer, extended from their initial 10 minutes to 30 minutes, an hour or even longer. During these flights, waiting anxiously for him to reappear, I spend time doing chores, weeding or feeding the aviary birds. I bring the pet birds out either in a crate or one by one on my hand with a restraining thumb. Seeing them will often entice Benni to swoop down from the telephone wires where he likes to perch, onto my shoulder enabling me to take him into the aviary.
How much liberty for at liberty birds?
My Internet friends, Kim, Susan and Neena fly at liberty birds and will let them stay out as long as they wish. They do not have 100% recall as a trained show birds generally has. Kim has two Greenwings who will often stay out all day on her ranch in Oklahoma. She will call them inside before night.
doubt that I will ever be confident enough to leave Benni unattended. I prefer Benni safely confined in house or aviary. This is making the assumption that Benni will always return to the aviary and will recall to me either for toy or special treat.
The routine goes something like this: I wait until Benni alights on the aviary roof. Then usually after 30 minute, I tempt him inside with a special toy or treat. I am glad none of my family or readers can see me, as this usually involves me animatedly jumping up and down and singing to lure him down. Macaws evidently do appreciate singing even if it's out of tune.
Would I recommend free flying for parrot owners? A question without an easy yes or no answer. Most professionals do not recommend hobby owners fly birds outside. You need to be fully confident you will not lose your birds. The risks are obvious, fly offs, predators both human and non-human and disease caught from wild birds.
Single birds are especially vulnerable as in the wild they rarely fly singly, and a single bird can be bullied by native birds or even fly off in search of colleagues they think they may have heard. My mentors have warned me that Benni, when reaching sexual maturity, may fly off in search of Mrs Benni. The Duke of Bedford who allowed more species of parrots to fly at liberty than anyone before or since, documented numerous mishaps that befell his liberty birds. Benni is larger than any local predator bird so I take the risk. I know of two free flying Greys shot by a farmer in my area. An American friend lost a cockatoo to a gun-happy neighbour objecting to cockatoo shrieks.
Benefits are as obvious as drawbacks. A flighted bird is a mentally and physically healthier and happier bird. You are giving the bird the chance to fulfil its natural potential and allowing yourself the inestimable joy of watching a bird in flight. A bird hovering above you then swooping down and landing on your arm is a thrill that free fliers can never tire of.
However, the training is neither for the faint hearted nor those with little time to spare. You have to be aware of the physiology of flight. What method of training you are going to use? Have you got helpers on the ground?
Some professionals use weight management as falconers do. But this is not to be recommended for amateurs. Positive reinforcement training works as well for the bird that will go out of doors as for the indoor bird.
Don't fly a bird outside unless you're prepared to spend time daily possibly for several months, training a reliable recall. Unless you're prepared for the anxiety of a fly off or a night spent worrying while the bird roosts in a tree overnight, you should not attempt free flight outdoors. But keeping a bird flighted and teaching her to fly down from a height like Benni learned in the barn and also fly to you on cue is worthwhile for every pet parrot. CB, one of my mentors, had an indoor flight trained Grey escape one night. The good little bird remembered her recall training and flew down (in the dark) from a tree to her owner's arm. You do need mentors to guide you in this fairly uncharted aspect of parrot husbandry.
Benni is now 15 months old. He's flown outside since mid-March with no mishaps so far. Will this continue as he reaches maturity? Only time will tell. For myself I'm glad to have had the chance, the time and enough help and support to achieve my aims. Benni - as well my other pet birds - will one day need a new home. I trust that I'll be able to find a free flying one for him when the time comes.
The author wishes to thank, Bill Naylor and Chris Shank for editorial help. Without the generous help of Ryan Wyatt on the ground, and Internet support from my free flyer friends in USA, Neena MacNulty, CB Buckley and Susan Hilliard without their advice and support Benni would still be an indoor flyer.
Steve Martin runs courses at NEI ranch in Florida using positive reinforcement training methods.
Chris Biro runs Skype courses for outdoor free flight and can be contacted on http://www.libertywings.com/program-info/booking-a-class/
© Dorothy Schwarz, 2015