Birds frequently manoeuvre around plant clutter in complex-structured habitats. To understand how they rapidly negotiate obstacles while flying between branches, we measured how foraging Pacific parrotlets avoid horizontal strings obstructing their preferred flight path. Informed by visual cues, the birds redirect forces with their legs and wings to manoeuvre around the obstacle and make a controlled collision with the goal perch. The birds accomplish aerodynamic force vectoring by adjusting their body pitch, stroke plane angle and lift-to-drag ratios beat-by-beat, resulting in a range of about 100° relative to the horizontal plane. The key role of drag in force vectoring revises earlier ideas on how the avian stroke plane and body angle correspond to aerodynamic force direction-providing new mechanistic insight into avian manoeuvring-and how the evolution of flight may have relied on harnessing drag.