Thinking on the Wing

pictureAt the first hint of danger a bird normally takes to flight. During the hundreds of defensive short flights, flighted birds take each day, they are quickly assessing potential dangers and deciding if they need to keep flying to avoid a real danger. These short flights require immediate and appropriate decision making abilities. We call this process "Thinking on the Wing".

The Parrot University has spent 20 years researching what makes a parrot "a parrot". Our 20 year flighted parrot experience includes over 800 flock oriented pet parrots, and over 4,000 flighted baby parrots from more than 50 species. Cumulatively this amounts to over 7,000 bird years of hands on experience. As a result we have found the number one characteristic that defines a "parrot" is its ability to fly. Flight is fundamental to every component of a parrot's mind and body.

Learning to fly well is the most complicated and important task a parrot can learn. Flighted parrots are healthier, more active, more coordinated, and have much better vision. Flying promotes higher intelligence, self-confidence, self-esteem and ultimately makes a more social long-term companion.

Can a parrot, designed by nature for millions of years, be truly mentally and physically healthy without flight?

Serious preparation for flight for the average parrot begins at about three or four weeks old.

pictureNeuropathway development in the coordination centre (cerebellum) of the very young parrot is the first step in preparation for flight. This process begins the first time the baby starts to move around in the nest and is substantially complete by six months. Every new type of physical activity programs more neuropathways in the cerebellum.

The cerebellum, which is at the bottom of the back of the brain, stores the program for coordination and ultimately supplies motor skills for flight. Neuropathways are the brain's electrical connections that allow information to be transferred throughout the body.

Since more experiences and activities lead to better motor coordination by creating more neuropathways, it makes sense that learning to fly adds an incredible number of neuropathways in the cerebellum.

Babies learn best when multiple senses are stimulated simultaneously (i.e.; sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell). The best opportunity for a parrot to learn is when a combination of senses are experienced at the same time. The senses of sight, sound and touch take on a very different nature during flight. When a particular skill is being developed or experienced by different senses at the same time a different neuropathway is reinforced for each sense creating a much stronger neurocircuitry for that skill or knowledge being learned. Flying offers a greater variety of situations that parrots need to utilize for optimal mental and eventual social development.

pictureThe parrot brain develops on a pre-determined schedule that has been 'finely-tuned' by evolution for millions of years. Each one of the senses, as well as mental and physical skills develop over a period of time, but not at the same time. Some of the development phases are symbiotic, meaning they need information being developed in another area of the brain for their own optimal development. For example, vision develops best when the baby can move around and see things from different angles and distances. Conversely, coordination develops best when the visual cortex can provide information on distance and perspective. Without this symbiotic relationship of vision and coordination, it is difficult to develop three-dimensional vision.

Two of many important brain functions required for flight are coordination and vision.

Coordination and vision develop in different parts of the brain, but are essential for the other's optimal development and critical for flight skills.

Coordination develops in the cerebellum at the back of the brain as the baby moves around and repeatedly tries new and progressively more complicated activities. The parrot's visual cortex, which is quite different from ours, connects with virtually every part of the avian brain. A baby's vision, at hatching, is a jumble of blurred shades, shapes and movements. The baby has the basic program to recognize these light rays entering his eyes, but needs to learn how to interpret the basic images so they can be directed to the appropriate part of the brain for interpretation.

pictureMotor skills and vision are in some ways so integral to each other that it is difficult to separate the two. As a baby flies towards a tree, he will begin to associate the visual changes with the closing of the distance between him and the object. As his motor skills develop, he will begin to anticipate an impending crash and learn how to slow down. The faster he flies, the faster the visual ability needs to be and the faster the brain learns to process the information, and the faster he will be able to fly. Teaching the brain to process information faster and on higher levels, promotes faster decision-making and fewer mistakes in all areas of mental, physical and social competence. This combination of skills is significantly more important in parrots since they are a prey species and constantly need to be ready to 'think on the wing'.

Compensating Networks

Now that we understand how important symbiotic neuropathway develop is, we can look at how other areas of development and personality are affected when normal brain development is interrupted.

picture When the brain is not able to process information fast enough it creates 'compensating, networks'. Compensating networks develop to make quick decisions when education and experience are not sufficient to quickly produce an educated decision.

Basically, when a situation calls for a quick decision, there are usually several variables that need to be considered. Highly functioning individuals quickly analyze every variable and make an educated decision. Lower functioning individuals often use compensating networks to jump to conclusions when they cannot think fast enough. This often occurs for two reasons: the bird wants to bypass a frustration situation, or for defence reasons does not have the time to work on the problem.

'Applied Learning' is the ability to utilize accumulated knowledge to figure out new situations. This ability only occurs after the birds' brain meets a minimum threshold of learning. Low functioning individuals that are unable to 'think on the wing' often use compensating networks. One of the most common is the 'bite first ask later' 'compensating manoeuvre'.

Six main areas where flight is important to a parrot


The pea sized visual cortex in a human is very tiny compared to the size of our brain. Our visual cortex is comparable to a warehouse that collects visual inputs, sorts them, and then distributes them to be processed in appropriate parts of the brain. A parrot's visual cortex is huge as compared with the birds' brain, and works more like a drop shipping distribution centre than a warehouse. Multiple major visual neuro connections throughout the parrots brain continually sorts and redirects information without the delay of sitting around in a warehouse. This significant dedication of brain power to vision is necessary because as a prey animal, on many predators lunch menus, parrots need to respond to visual stimulus much quicker than humans.

Information received through the eyes travels over many different neuro-highways to many different parts of the brain simultaneously. The more these pathways are used and reinforced through experience the quicker the overall response to visual stimulus will be.

Proper response to visual stimulus should take as little as a few thousands of a second, but the process is delayed when 'compensatory networks' intervene and may take several seconds to sort out, or process.

pictureParrots with poor visual skills take longer to assess visual stimulus which may cause the bird to need to react aggressively until the information is processed. For instance, a new person entering the room or someone reaching out to touch may provoke 'a bite first ask later' response while the circumstances are being processed.

Flying birds quickly learn to process visual inputs faster as they develop and reinforce new and improved pathways for routing visual stimulus at high speeds in a three dimensional manner. This educational process cannot take place without flight.


A parrot's primary means of defense is flight. Any time a parrot even suspects danger he takes to flight while sorting out the facts (Thinking on the wing). Parrots fly away so freely and readily that they rarely feel scared in the wild.

picture Feeling threatened or concerned, and being scared are two distinctly different emotions. As humans we can feel threatened by standing in the middle of a highway; however we need not be scared since we can easily walk to the side of the road to avoid danger. This is how parrots experience threats. They can easily fly away and rarely ever feel scared. Because they can be someone's lunch at any time, they become VERY scared when they cannot immediately avoid threatening situations. Flightless parrots quickly loose the ability to choose between flight or fight (flight or bite in a parrot's world). When a parrot cannot remove himself from a threatening situation, he will default to the second line of defense; BITE. Parrots with no ability to escape danger, or even perceived danger, become paranoid and tend to develop the "bite first, ask later" method of defense. Their defence response system operates so fast, they respond automatically when scared and often unexpectedly bite their owner by accident. Ultimately, most of these adult birds become unpredictable and lead very restricted lives.

pictureFlight is necessary for the 'Retreat and re-approach' behaviour that is very important for baby birds. When concerned, and unable to retreat from a possible threat, babies become scared and unable to learn during those episodes.


No parrot ever jumped out of the nest in the wild and knew how to fly. Babies fly into the side of trees, miss their landing sites and end up in a bush or worse. At The Parrot University we have watched thousands of babies use these same experiences to learn how to fly well. By experiencing these near tragedies as developing babies, they have honed all of their senses and will automatically avoid those situations in the future. A juvenile that learns the limits of his physical body, and how to stay out of trouble, will be more confident and easily learn to fit into a domestic human- bird flock as an adult.

"Flightless parrots are safe parrots" is the advice often given by less experienced bird behaviourists. Our 20 plus years of experience working with over 4,500 flighted parrots at The Parrot University have proven that hazards are significantly greater for flightless birds because they are less able to avoid dangerous situations. Not only can they not get out of harms way when necessary, they rarely know where danger lies because they have very limited life experience.

Some common arguments in favor of clipping wings include:

The bird may fly onto the stove or into a boiling pot of water.
Birds learn more quickly than us where danger is. In just a few minutes a parrot that has always been flighted can easily be taught that a stove is dangerous. If he finds himself accidentally headed in that direction he can easily hover like a helicopter and fly in another direction. Clipped birds that become airborne have very little control over which pot they land in.

When a bird flies onto another bird's cage, in a multiple-bird household, he will get into a fight.
Birds in a natural situation rarely get into fights. At the first thought of danger, one of the birds backs down and flies away. A clipped bird that accidentally ends up on another bird's cage will often get hurt because neither bird has the option to back down. It is very easy to teach parrots in a multi-parrot household to get along and respect each other's space, if they can fly.

pictureFlighted birds can get to the floor and get stepped on or eaten by the dog.
When a flighted bird accidentally finds himself on the floor, he can easily fly to a safe position. You must watch clipped birds very closely because they can only walk when they want to go somewhere and often fall off the perch. It is common for dogs, cats and human feet to injure birds that cannot fly.

Clipping wings will make a parrot easier to handle.
This reason has some truth to it. If a bird was not raised properly when young, and becomes an unruly adult, rendering him flightless will limit his 'retreat and approach' options. This eliminates the ability to get away and can result in dependency on the owner.

Flightless parrots are constantly exposed to situations where they feel afraid and out of control. With no control over their life parrots often develop paranoid schizophrenic behaviours. These individuals lack the ability to trust others. This syndrome is a significant factor in the development of the 'one person bird'.

pictureBirds are unable to learn not to fly into windows and walls.
All young birds and children walk/fly into walls and windows, but not forever. Flighted baby parrots learn very quickly. In the middle of Hartman Aviaries indoor nursery hangs a large window for the babies to practice flying through. It takes a maximum of 72 hours for a baby parrot learning to fly during their 'sensitive period' of flight development to realize they can see through glass but cannot fly through glass. This 'sensitive period' occurs when the average parrot is 8 - 10 weeks old.

Most parrots that are rendered flightless as a juvenile end up regrowing enough feathers to gain lift. These uneducated birds repeatedly fly into windows and consistently crash land because clipped birds are unable to develop flight motor coordination during the sensitive period of the cerebellum development. These disabled parrots are generally unable to 'think on the wing', and perpetuate the myth that parrots are too stupid to learn to fly in a home. This lack of coordination causes a kneejerk reaction by many humans to clip even more of the wing and worsen the problem.


picture A parrot in flight for just a few minutes receives more exercise than an active flightless parrot receives all day. A healthy wild parrot does not pant after flying a long distance yet very few pet parrots can fly across the room or aggressively flap their wings without an extended period of panting.

We all know the mental and physical benefits of exercise on all aspects of life. If a parrot is healthy it can concentrate and focus its attention, learn faster, and is more easily trained and will probably live longer. Young parrots must gain the maximum advantage from exercise to assemble billions of neuropathway synapses and achieve its potential IQ to become a high-functioning adult while its body and brain are still developing.