This article is about how to teach your parrot to show its wings on command, often called the big eagle trick. I simply call it Wings. The trick involves showing the parrot a cue or saying "Wings" and then the parrot opens up its wings and holds them high for everyone to observe how beautiful they are. Wings is a more intermediate trick and requires the parrot to be good at trick training. Ideally the parrot should already know some tricks like wave and shake. It is possible to teach Wings without any prior tricks but it would be much harder for the parrot to realize you are trying to shape a behavior. So far Wings was the hardest trick to teach to Truman.
Before beginning, it is very important that your parrot is already hand tame and is comfortable with you touching/opening its wings. For information about basic taming for parrots, refer to my Taming Guide. For information about taming a parrot to let you open its wings, refer to this article about Wing Taming. Even if your parrot knows other tricks, this one if very hands on so the special hand taming should not be overlooked. If the parrot is not already very comfortable with hands, the steps required in teaching this trick could make it become scared of hands. So please review the steps in the taming guides and make sure your parrot is very comfortable being touched and having its wings pulled open.
You will need to have a convenient place for your parrot to perch while teaching this trick because when you press on the wings, if the parrot doesn't have a good grip it may fall over. A table is no good for teaching this trick because your parrot will slide back when you press on the wings during training. The best tool for teaching the Wings trick is a Parrot Training Perch because you can adjust the height to train standing up or sitting down while your parrot perches comfortably. If you cannot get a Parrot Training Perch, your next best thing is to use a table top perch, however there is a chance of it tipping back or sliding as well. Using a chair back is also a possibility but it is likely too slippery and the same sliding issue would occur. Although it may be tempting to train on your parrot's cage, playtop, or cage door, it is best not to do this because it will get distracted and not learn as well.
Now we are ready to begin Wings training. The process is remarkably simple, however, extensive repetition is likely to be required for the parrot to catch on. I know three methods that the trick can be taught but I have only had success with one of them. I will briefly mention the other two but then I will focus on the one that worked best for my parrots. One way to teach wings is to capture the behavior by clicking whenever your parrot opens its wings on its own. This can be expedited by holding the feet and quickly dropping your hand so that the parrot puts its wings out reflexively. Click and reward whenever the wings come open and start putting it on cue. This works great for parrots that put their wings out to glide but does not work at all for parrots the tend to flap. My parrots flap when dropped and never just stick their wings out entirely when stretching so it couldn't work for me.
Another method that can be used for teaching Wings is to grab both wings and pull them open entirely, hold them there, click and reward. Once again this method did not work for me because it required too big of a jump from nothing to everything and it was making my parrots uncomfortable. So instead I offer to you the third and final method to teach your parrot Wings:
My method for teaching a parrot to open its wings begins by using the index fingers on both hands. Point them toward your parrots wing armpits, say wings (or whatever cue you would like to use), and press your fingers into the armpits gently pushing the wings open. Although the parrot will not understand the cue immediately, it is a good idea to start using the cue from the start because this gives the parrot more exposure to the cue by the time it learns the behavior. For the first training session, just keep practicing this procedure.
You may find progress to be slow at first because not only does the parrot have to learn the behavior, it may also need the daily exercise of practicing the trick in order to be able to easily hold its wings out that way. The first goal you are working toward is getting the parrot to release tension in the wings and let you push them open. If you feel that you have to press hard to get them open, the parrot hasn't learned anything. However, when it begins feeling easy because your parrot relaxes its wing muscles, then you know you are ready to continue to the next step.
In subsequent training sessions, it is important to let the parrot do as much on its own as it is willing to do. You cannot find out how much the parrot is willing to do if you keep doing it for the parrot. So after pushing the wings open with your fingers a few times, push slightly slower, less far, or don't hold as firmly the wings open. See if the parrot will make up the last bit on its own. A good time to click your clicker is at the moment you see the parrot making any motion to open or hold open its wings on its own. For instance if you get the parrot in the habit of you pressing open the wings for 5 seconds each time and one time you only hold for 3, if the parrot continues holding open a bit longer, then you know it is learning what to do.
Don't expect your parrot to open the wings entirely at this stage. Just opening them a little is progress already. Your first goal is to get the parrot to learn that you want it to do something with its wings. Getting the parrot to go all the way and open the primaries will just take lots of practice. Be sure to click and reward every bit of possible progress. However, if your parrot does a worse than usual job (for instance closing its wings while you try to hold them open), then do not reward and even ignore the parrot for a brief time.
Eventually you will reach a point where just touching or approaching your parrot's wings with your fingers will cue it to open them on its own. This is when the real cue training begins. At this stage I prefer to use a single hand (if the bird is small enough) to cue the wings open. I use the pinky and thumb of my right hand to press on opposite wings. This frees my left hand up to hold the clicker and treat. It is good to make this switch as early as possible because the parrot might get distracted by the clicker/treat hidden in your fingers when you use the two hand method. I found that Truman was bending his head down while opening wings to look for treats in my fingers, so I corrected this by blocking his head and serving him treats from above. If you want the wings trick to look like a bow, feed the treats lower but if you want the trick to make the parrot look proud, then teach it to hold its head up by feeding treats from above.
Once you've transitioned to the single hand cue method, all that is left is receding the cue. You have to work on using as little touch as possible. Just practice a lot of times and try to hold your hand further and further away when you issue the cue. If it works, try holding further away. If it doesn't then try again closer. Try pulling away a tiny bit while the bird is holding the wings up but before it drops the wings. Get it used to seeing your hand more away from it while still holding its wings up.
It only took me 3 training sessions to get Truman through all of the steps outlined so far but then it took nearly two weeks until he learned to respond to the trick from a remote cue. If I brought my fingers in close he'd do it but from more than a few inches away he simply wouldn't. It just took a lot of practice until he just got it. I knew he was going to get it when he randomly opened his wings for the first time without me cuing/poking him. This showed me that he knew I wanted him to open his wings and he was opening them to beg for a treat. Now all I had to do was reward when he did it on cue and ignore it when it wasn't cued. In that one breakthrough session I went from him opening his wings only when cued within an inch of his wings to opening his wings on cue from several feet away or even just saying it. The duration will vary with every individual parrot and species but this is not a quick/easy trick to teach. It definitely took longer to teach to both of my parrots than most of the other hand cued tricks.
This is a good trick for teaching the "hold" on. You teach the parrot to hold the pose for as long as you hold the cue or until you click. If the parrot drops its wings while you are still holding the cue, then it does not get rewarded, but if it holds out till the end, you click and reward. Obviously start with shorter durations but work them longer and longer so that the parrot learns to hold the wings out for as long as the cue is going.
After two weeks of training, Truman is still only opening his wings part way. It will take a lot more training to get him to open them all the way like Kili does. However, this was the exact method I successfully used on her. I just kept cuing wings and rewarding the best 4 out of 5. When the parrot is really eager to get the treat, it will show of by stretching the wings open as much as possible and as long as it is just a tad more than last time, you're making progress. By always rewarding the better ones and ignoring the worst, you can continually encourage the parrot to try harder. This takes a long time (weeks to months) to perfect but rigorous training is no longer needed beyond this initial training to put it on cue. Once the parrot clearly knows to do wings from the cue, you can just practice wings a few times each day perpetually and the bird will improve how it opens its wings over time. The stretching/exercise will certainly help get there. It took many months but definitely less than a year to get Kili to open her wings all the way.
The wings trick is really impressive and beautiful. It shows off the parrot's wings which is a unique feature that makes it a bird. You can use the wings trick to show your friends what bird wings look like up close without forcing your parrot. The wings trick is also a good way to inspect your parrot's wings for broken feather or new ones coming in. Although it may look fairly simple, it's not a natural behavior for most parrots so much training is needed. The hard work and patience teaching this trick will be greatly rewarded because this is a spectacular and uniquely avian trick.
Here is a video from actual training sessions that shows how I taught Truman the Cape Parrot the Wings trick:
Fortunately Truman is quite tame from the breeder. He already steps up and allows touching. However, there are some additional taming exercises that I must do with him in order to prepare him for some tricks that I would like to teach him down the line. Furthermore these taming behaviors make maintenance easier as well. The two things I am working on are laying on his back in my hand and letting me pull his wings open.
I have been using a combination of modeling, flooding, positive, and negative reinforcement to begin taming these behaviors. The modeling involves having Truman watch me hold Kili on her back and open her wings. Kili doesn't mind these at all and I don't have to give her treats but I do just so Truman can see he can get treats for it too. Flooding involves the fact that I just do it. I flip him on his back or open his wings whether he wants to or not. He just has to get used to it happening to him. The negative reinforcement is that I flip him back up or let go of his wing when he relaxes and stops resisting me. The positive reinforcement is that I give him a treat upon completion of each behavior.
By using all methods of training in combination, not only can I catalyze learning but also prevent over use of any one method. While I don't want to be too forceful by using flooding and make him phobic, I also do not want him to be overly treat dependent and refuse otherwise. Here is a step by step guide for how to tame a parrot to let you roll it on its back or open its wings:
Rolling parrot on back:
1) The parrot must already know how to step up and be comfortable with you touching it 2) Put your hand on its back and slowly roll it back 3) Stop when the bird starts getting uncomfortable (even if it is not full reclined) 4) Hold that position briefly 5) Upright the parrot and reward 6) Repeat with incremental increase of angle and duration
Opening parrot's wings:
1) The parrot must already know how to step up and be comfortable with you touching it 2) Put your hand under the parrot's wing and press it up slightly to raise the wing under armpit 3) Hold briefly, release and reward 4) Pull gently by the solid front part of the tip of the wing and hold open briefly, release and reward 5) Repeat and progressively open further and hold longer
Here is a video of a taming session with Truman. The video is quite long but I recommend watching it through entirely because I demonstrate different things throughout the video and provide helpful tips as I go. This is a real training session in progress. There are no final results yet but even by the end of the taming session Truman is less resistant to the exercises.
Taming your parrot to lay on its back is not only useful for teaching the play dead trick but also to be able to hold it to trim its nails and to be able to carry it from place to place. Taming the parrot to open its wings is not only useful for training the wings trick but also can be used to inspect wings for broken feathers, clipping, and putting on a harness. Remember that this can be a long gradual process that requires a lot of patience and practice. It can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks or months before you see results. However, if you practice these taming behaviors a few times a day over a long period of time, the parrot will get used to this and allow you to do it even without treats. Once your taming is complete, be sure to practice these behaviors on occasion so that the tameness is not lost.
Finally I'd like to mention that Kili and Truman are beginning to get along much better to the point that they were sitting together on a 12 inch perch and not even fighting.