TEDxSydney – Josh Cook – The Bird Whisperer


Well I’ve always been a non-conformist. When I was a young teenager I’d head off on a Saturday afternoon after school sport to buy pigeons from Paddy’s Markets at Redfern. And the funny thing is, it’s actually right here at Carriageworks where I used to come. It used to be Paddy’s and they’d sell all different sorts of things, including these pigeons. And I’d head out on the bus and the train for the sole purpose of rescuing these birds from the cramp confines of the cages in which they were being sold from within the markets.
And a lot of them were being sold from within the markets and a lot of them were being sold as food to eat. And if not the markets, I’d head out to a pigeon fancier’s place and buy some more exotic looking birds that were being bred to compete against one another in pigeon shows. And I guess what appealed to me was the idea of being able to train them to home and allow them to fly freely without the restrictions of the cages. And the idea of this was basically it was an idea that made me feel good but it wasn’t at the expense of the pigeons either and you know it was generally when I was supposed to be studying or doing schoolwork. But I found it much more fascinating to build this flock of homing pigeons and the whole process allowed for the noticing of different character traits and idiosyncrasies of the individual birds. It might be something you wouldn’t even consider pigeons to have but living with them in such close proximity and tending them on a day to day basis I was able to notice this. I was also able to notice just how much poo pigeons are capable of doing within a confined space. [audience laughter] Which just so happened to be my parent’s backyard. But they were always pretty supportive of my interests and, you know, my dad had kept pigeons in his childhood and then again into his adult life during my childhood, so I guess they’d rubbed off on me. By the time I started collecting the birds Dad no longer had his pigeons and I wanted to recreate the relationship he had with them and build this bird wonderland around me and umm, I didn’t see anything wrong with my obsession. It was a distraction that I felt I could justify through what I believed to be a noble purpose and you know it was for a good cause and not at the expense of the pigeons. And, you know, a sort of symbiotic relationship existed between us where I enjoyed them and they relaxed me and I was and they were able to live in an environment that I had provided for them and breed and grow in a fairly uninhibited way and, you know, I guess it was this need, in a way I was escaping my own reality by helping them escape theirs and it was this need to escape that we both had in common and in order I guess to reach our higher goal or potential we both need to be set free to fly in our own direction. But obviously it was not going to be something that I could rely on to support myself as, as a career, um you know, it just wasn’t going to happen or was it? Well the thing is, the irony is I still do it and the trick was I just needed to be able to turn what I initially thought what was this escape from reality and be able to accept it as an alternate one. And the thing is I’m now 34 years old and I work as an avian behavouralist and although there’s not a great call to train a 200 strong flock of homing pigeons, [audience laughs] there is a cause to train people who keep companion parrots as pets. In an attempt to better the lives of these animals living in captivity and people will sometimes say to me, you know when are you going to get a real job mate? Or is this all you do? But honestly I couldn’t think of anything more real and rewarding than being able to affect the lives of these often misunderstood highly intelligent creatures that have the potential to live for 80 years or more. It’s, you know, birds have helped me find my place in life and I sort of feel it’s my moral obligation to help them where I can, and to this day I’ll go to Bondi Junction. Those, you know, those pigeons you see hobbling around the streets of Sydney, you know, the ones that have often got toes missing or sometimes they’ve only got a stump to walk on. But I’ll stop and try and help them and take the string off if that’s caught around their toes or what not because I feel pigeons have been the roots in what I teach people and I’ll always have a strong admiration and connection to them for that reason. And the area in which I specialise as an avian behavouralist is loosely known as free flight and it’s basically training a captive bird or a companion bird to train, to fly freely in an outdoor environment and it’s based on a bird’s natural instincts to form a home range and also their instincts in the case of parrots to form strong social bonds with one another and it generally takes about 3 months to train a bird for free flight providing I’m training a bird which I consider to be a blank canvas. It takes one month to establish a rapport with the bird, the second month I like to build it’s confidence up in flying and I’ll do that in an indoor environment initially. And the third month is de-sensitising it to an outdoor environment in which I intend flying it in. And when I talk about a blank canvas I mean a bird that hasn’t been exposed to unnatural condition behaviours that are going to affect it’s overall, umm, you know, being able to go out and fly in an outdoor environment. And such things that would effect that would be things like over socialising with humans or the development of anxieties that they may have formed through an inability to fly and that’s often the case with companion parrots because they are often bought at a crucial developmental time in their life with already clipped wings, and this becomes the accepted way of keeping them without question. But I believe for a bird to develop into both a physically and mentally well balanced creature, it needs to be able to act upon these instincts in a natural a way as possible. And flight’s often one of these neglected instincts, but through flight a bird is able to develop confidence, self-confidence and is able to express itself amongst a whole lot of other things, umm, but I like to call, “free flight”. I like to call it, “thinking outside of the cage” because one, it’s exactly that, I’m taking birds outside into an outdoor environment.
And I’m flying them and also it challenges the mainstream way of keeping companion parrots. For me thinking outside of the cage, it’s allowed me to tap into this ah, another dimension of, in a way, of keeping birds. Because, you know, if I had been able to develop these connections with birds that I would not have been otherwise been able to make if I had gone down the straight and narrow, I suppose, but, um, you know, It’s when birds don’t have the ability to access these natural instincts in the natural way that things can often take an irreversible turn for the worse and they can develop psychological disorders, um, that we often see as inappropriate forms of behaviour. But there are actually appropriate forms of behaviour in response to the inappropriate ways in which we have kept them. Such things as excessive screeching, they may even self-mutilate which involves pulling all their feathers out and the other thing they do is aggressive biting, but um, for that reason we really need to embrace flying and all the instincts that in essence make up a bird, you know, birds in in captivity develop their instincts just as they would if they were in the wild and it’s important to be aware of this and embrace it so that we’re not going to cause damage to an animal that we consider to be a companion. I recently finished a job that involved training a communal flock of free flight birds where there were 30 macaws, 15 Eclectus parrots which now breed in a wild environment and they bring their babies back to the aviary, there’s 8 redtail black cockatoos along with 5 yellowtail black cockatoos, 2 Amazon parrots amongst several other species of parrots and, um, it’s a unique situation that’s never been done before and it gives me great satisfaction knowing I’ve been able to provide these birds with this lifestyle and they’re able to develop as birds in their own right, umm, you know, they’re let out from their aviary first thing in the morning. They return home to roost of an evening. But, umm, you know, working with birds in an outdoor environment, it brings me in touch with the natural world which I find is important in this day and age and it helps me gain perspective, um, you know, I need to be in tune with that natural world in order to do what I do and I need to know of predators in the area such as birds of prey and their natural food source in that area and how they, the birds that I train will be affected once in that area and I mean you know, I also need to be aware of weather patterns how they might affect a bird and I need to be able to do all this as part of the process in assessing the suitability of the environment in which to fly these birds and I find it very real and sometimes more tangible that what’s often considered to be the real world because it can mean the difference between life and death for these, in the decisions I make for these birds and I find that very grounding but ah, you know, I needed to have the confidence to embark on this project and take these calculated risks with these birds that I’d become so attached to and, I mean, these birds meant a lot to me, and the people that owned these birds also had to have the confidence in me. My time on the project’s now ended but I know the birds still fly free. And I can only hope that the people who own this marvellous collection continue to do the right thing by them. But it’s this project that’s inspired me to embark on my latest project with free flight and that’s the training of a blue and gold macaw named Mango. And Mango’s here with us today so I’d just like to introduce you. [Josh calls out] “Mango” [whistles] Come on girl. [whistles] Come and say Hi. Come on. Don’t be shy. Come on Mango. [whistles again] Come on! [audience laughs] Come on. Come have a cookie. [whistles again] Come on Mango. Come on Mango. Come on. [whistles again] Good girl, come on. [whistles again] Beautiful. [applause from the audience] That’s the way. Yeah. She loves her shortbread biccies. First thing in the morning normally. It’s been a bit of a wait today. But, ah, you know, with Mango, unlike the flock of birds on the property which I trained, which was a fairly isolated property. I mean, she, I’ve trained her in suburbia and she’s one of an initial flock member and I intend getting more when I’ve saved up enough money. But, umm, it’s had an effect on her social habits and her inclination to want to socialise with people [bird screeches loudly] Which isn’t hard to do in suburbia especially considering we live two doors away from the local park [bird screeches] And when Mango flies, apparently the local vets get 20 calls a week saying there’s an escaped macaw flying around Bronte, but anyway…. Umm, she……….. [bird screeches] Oh it’s ok. You wanna play or eat cookie? There you go. And anyway, so it engages conversation, umm, with these people and Mango’s got an innate attraction to kids and I’m not sure if it’s the screams and high pitched calls but she’s fascinated by them, it could be the fact that the local school kids have a blue and yellow uniform. [Josh and audience both laugh] So she might think they’re like a little flock of macaws. But whatever it is it engages this interaction and they’ll often ask me, you know, has she escaped and what if you don’t get her back? I get great joy in being able to tell them that, you know, [bird screeches] She lives an alternate lifestyle and ,umm…. [audience laughs] you know, and they love it but the whole thing is umm, she’s living this lifestyle and I guess she, when they say to me has she escaped, I guess in a sense she has escaped, she’s escaped sort of a system of preconceived ideas and in doing so with a bit of luck she may have just inspired them into, “thinking outside of the cage”. Anyway, thank you very much. [audience applause and cheers]

13 thoughts on “TEDxSydney – Josh Cook – The Bird Whisperer

  1. Definitely how birds should be kept. Not in cages.
    Becoming a society that needs to be more in tune with it's environment this is a great way to begin.

  2. This flight training has been done for many years already before Josh. See libertywings c o m to see videos and training instructions.

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  4. That was a wonderful talk, Josh, thank-you for getting up on stage and explaining what you do for birds. I learnt quite a lot from your talk, and I was fascinated with your experiences with the pigeons. A lot of people do stop seeing those of which there are large numbers, so it was greatly encouraging to hear you 'talk up' pigeons, one of the maligned species, who are of course, as lovely and intelligent as all other bird and, indeed, all animal species.

  5. i see too many pet owners who think owning birds is as simple as just having them. Birds are complicated and need this freedom to be able to thrive.

  6. Such an amazing man!! I also have loved birds, dogs, cats..actually any animal are cool. But working with birds has got to be an amazing adventure.

  7. I wish I knew then what I know now. Never would I have bought an Umbrella Cockatoo. I regret that decision every day. She is an amazing creature and deserves so much more than I can provide.

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