Walking down the tree-lined pavements of Singapore with Max is akin to taking a stroll with a celebrity. Curious passers-by stop and smile, children point in excited, wide-eyed curiosity, and a sizeable number ask for a photo opportunity to post on their social media profiles.
But Max isn’t a person. He sits on a wooden perch, has a brilliant plumage of deep reds, blues and greens, and is particularly delighted to be gifted sunflower seeds.Max is a parrot – specifically, a Green-Winged Macaw. These birds are usually found in the tropical forests of northern and central South America.
Unlike most other macaws in captivity, Max is free-flighted, which means he is able to fly like other parrots in the wild. Previously, the majority of parrot owners preferred to clip the wings of their birds – a pain-free procedure that involves trimming the feathers located close to the birds’ wingtips.
Since those feathers are designed to generate maximum lift, clipping them impairs their ability to achieve high altitude, thereby preventing them from escaping outdoors where it might struggle to survive after being accustomed to a life in captivity.
However, wing-clipping doesn’t render the bird entirely flightless. It still allows them to attain a height of several feet before gliding down safely, which is important if it needs to escape danger or falls from a height.
“The wing-clipping is to compensate between clipping it completely and still trying to keep it safe,” says Dr Gloria Lee, a veterinarian at Mount Pleasant Veterinary Centre.
But an increasing number of parrot owners in Singapore are eschewing the wing-clipping procedure, opting instead to train their birds to soar freely in open parks and fields before returning obediently to their owners’ arms when they are called.
The process can be time- and energy-intensive, however, taking anything from weeks to years of working with a trainer, and involving behavioural conditioning, constant repetition and positive reinforcement.
“All birds can fly. The question is whether it can come back to you,” says Nurhisham Abdul Wahab, owner of bird-training company Parrots Network and a trainer of seven years.
He explains that the length of the training process depends on how pliant the parrot is to instruction, and the strength of the bond between pet and owner.
But the owners of free-flighted birds say that the physical and psychological benefits that come from training their birds to free-fly outweigh the costs that are involved.
For one, it gives the birds the opportunity to get some much-needed sunlight and exercise that they may not receive being cooped up in a cage.
In addition, allowing them to fly with other birds mirrors their behaviour in the wild, where parrots instinctively fly and forage with their own species, a process known as flocking.
It’s a behavioural trait that is evident when these captive parrots are released, often intuitively soaring, banking and diving with immaculate precision, despite never having flown together.
At the same time, parrot trainers caution owners against looking at free-flying through rose-coloured glasses. The process comes with risks, primarily the danger that parrots may fly away and never return.
“Birds are smart but they are easily scared by objects or loud noises, like drones or low-flying airplanes,” says Louis Loo, bird-trainer and founder of a 6,400-strong Facebook group called Birdies and Family SG.
In addition, releasing birds in the outdoors, even temporarily, places them at risk of being open targets for larger, predatory birds like hawks and eagles.
It’s a cautionary tale that resonates personally with Loo, having lost one of his own Green-Winged Macaws when it became ensnared in an eagle chase, causing it to panic, collide into a tree and break its neck in the process.
Vets and trainers alike say that free-flying is just one of many options that owners can choose from to make sure their birds remain in the pink of health.
“Free-flying is not for every bird,” says Dr Lee. “Owners need to be very careful and understand exactly what the training entails.”
One of the most important things owners can do is to have a physical and social interaction with their pets on a daily basis, especially since parrots often look to their carers as their primary source of love and affection in the absence of a flock, she adds.
“People think that keeping pets is ornamental, but these are lives,” says Nurhisham. “Don’t buy them just because they’re cute. When you purchase a parrot, it’s a commitment.” – dpa