Updated November 29, 2020
There are two ways to clip wings. The lazy way and the right way. Vets have known this for a very long time. Why is it then that I rarely see a bird’s wing clipped properly? I keep seeing birds’ wings I can only describe as butchered, and injuries as a result. It’s time bird handlers and breeders got on board.
Why Clip Wings At All?
It seems like a cruel irony that if an animal has the incredible gift of flight, we take it away. However, even I as a bird lover can understand why it’s necessary at times. I would much rather see birds able to fly but sometimes it just isn’t safe.
If birds are kept in a secure aviary, there’s no need. In fact, I believe that a minimum length should be at least two wing beats just so flight can happen. Find minimum sizes for budgie, cockatiel and parrot cages here.
However, if a bird is free-flying, and especially if a shoulder-sitter, it’s just too easy for something to go wrong. A stovetop can be left on and a bird can land on it inadvertently. A door can be left open and a bird can be spooked and fly away. Once out, they will surely starve.
How To Clip Wings
Wing clipping is really feather clipping: even the wrong way shouldn’t cut into living tissues. That’s in contrast to pinioning where the wingtip is amputated. This is only appropriate for breeding & conservation programs.
Anyone doing either form of wing clipping needs to be able to recognise a blood quill. Many times I have sent birds away who have these immature feathers with instructions to return when they have matured.
The Wrong Way
I call this the asymmetric clip. What you do is you hold out one wing, grab a big pair of shears and make one cut across the base of all the primary and secondary flight feathers. It creates an ugly clip like the one pictured.
It’s not the ugliness I object to, it’s the asymmetry. When the poor bird tries to fly, one wing generates lift and the other doesn’t, tipping the body and causing uncontrolled descent.
Birds with this wing clip crash heavily and frequently. The pictures show the typical chronic wing and keel wounds seen in most pet birds who have been cut this way. What’s more, as new blood quills grow, they have no protection from other feathers and are easily broken. Blood loss can be fatal.
The only good thing to say about this style of clipping is that it’s very effective and long-lasting at preventing flight.
The Right Way
This is the symmetric clip. It requires removal of the primary flight feathers equally from both wings until flight at full power is no more than a controlled descent. A successful trim usually ends up with either two or three outer primary flight feathers. The coverts and secondaries don’t usually need cutting.
The trick is to test-fly the bird and keep removing feathers until the desired result is achieved. That should be a soft landing on the feet. The disadvantage of this clip is that flight can be regained earlier. However, it’s still often only necessary to do once a year after each moult.
The symmetric clip takes patience and finesse, like most things done well. I can’t show it to you well enough here, but a vet will be more than happy to teach you in person.
Though my advice is: leave it to a vet. It’s not that expensive, we can handle birds without injury and with it comes a good excuse for an annual checkup.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.