Wing Clipping

This last week has been all about controversial modifications to animals. From ear cropping, to declawing, all are legal but still considered abusive by majority. Though most of these posts have been directed towards dogs and cats, we can’t forget our feathered friends! A topic just as controversial and possible just as painful and unnecessary is Wing Clipping.

Wing clipping is the process of trimming a bird’s primary flight feathers (“primaries”) so that it is no longer possesses the ability to fly.

Wing clipping is usually performed by avian veterinarians, pet store employees, breeders, or the birds’ owners themselves. It is generally carried out on pet birds, particularly parrots. Most birds can regain their flying abilities after wing-clipping if they are allowed to re-grow their feathers. The purpose of wing-clipping is to reduce or prevent a bird’s ability to fly. This is seen as a means of preventing it from escaping by flight if it ends up outdoors, or simply out of its cage.

Techniques for clipping the wings vary primarily in the number of feathers cut and the amount of each feather left behind. A mild clip on one wing only can impair a bird’s flight greatly, as it renders the bird unbalanced in the air. This can cause injury or death to the bird. In most cases, it is only the primary flight feathers that are cut, and an equal number of feathers are trimmed on each wing to avoid causing the bird to become unbalanced in flight. The most common clip is quick and simple to do, but leaves exposed cut ends that occasionally may cause a bird to chew on the cut feathers.

Where parrots have clipped primary feathers, the molting sequence of these birds renders them vulnerable to damage of their growing blood feathers. These unprotected blood feathers are vulnerable to being broken and profuse bleeding can occur. Larger birds, and those with a higher wing-loading, remain vulnerable to blood feather damage for a longer period, since they are molting almost continually.

In addition to the physical effects of wing-clipping, there can be adverse behavioral effects. Birds use flight as an instinctive reflex action and as their first means of escaping any threat: they take to the air to fly upwards and away from the source of the threat; their fear then dissipates. Where this behavior is prevented by wing-clipping, this innate reflex action is denied the bird, and its fear will not subside. This may cause behavioral problems for the afflicted bird. When a bird needs to reduce its speed during flight, it employs a ‘reverse thrust’ action by extending its wing at the wrist joint and using the drag of its primaries as air brakes. While the reduced function of the clipped bird’s primaries prevent propulsion and therefore lift, this also reduces braking abilities, and so clipped birds may crash-land at higher speeds than full-winged birds.

There is no evidence to show that clipped birds are safer than full-winged ones, only that clipped birds are subject to different kinds of accidents than full-winged birds. Social pet birds (such as parrots) may also be clipped both to restrict independence and in attempts to make them tamer and easier to manage in order to encourage them to socialize with their owners. Some parrots that show aggression to certain people or other birds may be clipped to prevent attack. However, birds can be trained to accept flight requests or ‘commands’ and this removes the need for wing-clipping.

Some people feel wing clipping is a cruel or unhealthy practice as it denies a bird its most natural way of getting around, obtaining exercise and avoiding fearful situations. Although clipped birds can and should be encouraged to do wing flapping exercises, this does not provide the same exercise as flight.

Other concerns for birds with clipped wings:

  • While clipped birds are less likely to fly out open doors or windows or into surfaces, they are more prone to some other household dangers, such as being stepped on or being injured by other household pets.
  • Clipped birds sometimes appear insecure and less confident, perhaps from their inability to escape from perceived predators.
  • Over-clipped birds may have balance problems and fall easily, contributing to insecure or fearful behavior.
  • Clipped birds may be more likely to break a blood feather on the wing, as new and growing blood feathers do not have full length feathers next to them to provide support. Broken blood feathers can cause significant blood loss.
  • Pulling broken feathers (sometimes necessary to stop bleeding) is painful, and can cause permanent damage to the feather follicle.
  • It is very easy for an inexperienced groomer to over-clip a bird.
  • Birds that have not been clipped properly and have had their wings trimmed too short may not be able to land safely. Over-clipped birds can be badly injured if they fall from a perch or attempt to fly.
  • Wing clipping may create a false sense of security. Clipped birds, if spooked, are still capable of a short, powerful burst of flight.
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