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Self-Improvement & Hobbies

Free range birds

Parrot lovers who believe their birds should fly freely meet every Sunday in parks to train their pets
The Sunday Times - March 11, 2012
By: Annabeth Leow
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Free range birds -- ST PHOTO: RAJ NADARAJAN

The squawk of excited birds is what draws attention. Creamy pink Moluccan cockatoos, bright green conures and gaily coloured macaws perch on beachside trees. Nearby picnickers gather around in curiosity, and cyclists stop to stare.

On its outing to Downtown East last weekend, the Singapore Domestic Flying Parrots group is once more attracting passers-by. 'It's like the East Coast Bird Park,' a member jokes.

The group was formed last November by parrot lovers Anthony See, 38, an IT professional, Ian Tan, 36, a hostel manager, and student Shermalyn Tham, 19, who believe that pet parrots should be allowed to fly freely.

Mr Tan, who got to know Mr See and Ms Tham a few years ago, says: 'We started with all the wrong reasons for owning parrots, thinking that they existed for us to show off, but now, everything we do is all for the animals.'

The group is opposed to 'clipping', where birds have their feathers trimmed to prevent them from being able to fly.

Although pet birds are routinely clipped by stores for safety reasons - young, untrained birds might escape and have little chance of surviving in the wild - the group says that clipping denies birds the chance to exercise.

'They clip feathers for their own convenience,' says Mr Tan, referring to retailers and owners who carry out the practice. 'But birds should be up there in the sky.'

And so, the group meets every Sunday in places such as Downtown East or parks such as MacRitchie Reservoir to train parrots and give them space to fly around freely.

Led by 12 members who serve as amateur trainers - including Mr Tan, who taught himself to train lovebirds as a schoolboy - members teach their parrots to respond to cues, such as tapping them on their beaks when they bite. Once the birds are comfortable with their owners and trained to respond to cues, they can fly on a leash attached to their owners' wrists while familiarising themselves with their surroundings. The parrots fly distances of approximately 100m and perch in trees and return at the sound of their owners' voice or whistle.

The final goal: free flight, when parrots fly unleashed and return safely to their owners' outstretched arms.

Depending on a bird's temperament, it can achieve free flight after a training period of a week to as long as half a year.

There are now about 40 members in the group, ranging in age from five to people in their 40s. They own parrots that were either adopted or bought. Parrots range in price from $50 for smaller breeds to up to several thousand dollars for larger ones.

One member, student Chan Jia En, 18, has kept a green- cheeked conure for the past nine months, and has been training it to fly since she joined last December. Calling its personality 'bolder' now, she feels flight does make pet parrots more confident.

Dr Kenneth Tong, a vet in his 30s who specialises in avian care, cautions that parrot trainers and owners should be moderate in their views and training methods. 'If you don't clip the bird, it can fly away and the bird might be attacked or starve in the wild. By letting your bird fly out in the open, you also risk them catching viruses or bacteria from wild birds.'

Members are aware of the risks of free flight, but insist the birds are well-trained enough to avoid hazards. Indeed, even though barbecue pits dotted the Downtown East shoreline, the parrots were careful to steer clear of the heat and smoke.

Freelance illustrator and tutor Evelyn Chua, 41, adds that her cockatoo, Angelo - at 25, the oldest bird in the group - can spot birds of prey long before she does, and will freeze and call out for her to take it away.

As Mr Tan puts it: 'It's like raising children. There are predators outside, but you can't keep them in the house forever.'



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