Trimming Bird Wings

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Colonel Potter the macaw parrot with his wings spread out

Is trimming a bird’s flight feathers a good idea?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question. People who are for wing trimming (aka clipping) believe that birds are safer and less likely to get into trouble if their wings are trimmed. Anti-clippers, on the other hand, believe that clipping or cutting the flight feathers gives the bird’s person a false sense of security, and is harmful for the bird both physically and psychologically. It is up to you to decide what is best for your bird in your situation. Both decisions are temporary and can be adapted to new situations.

Is wing trimming right for your pet bird?

The decision about whether or not to clip the wings of a bird such as a cockatiel or parakeet should be made on a case-by-case basis. It depends on the individual bird, his or her personality, the environment, the dangers in the household and even the season. During the winter, for example, some people leave their birds fully flighted because windows and doors are not left open in that season, so the risk of escape is less than in other seasons.

At Best Friends’ Parrot Garden, we leave the birds in the flight aviaries and those who don’t like to go outside fully flighted, but the birds who are carried to the outdoor enclosures are always wing-clipped to help protect them. You will need to evaluate your home, your setup and your birds, and then make an informed decision about wing clipping. To help you decide whether to clip your bird’s wings, below are some of the pros and cons.

Pros and cons of trimming wings:

  • Birds are safer and won’t fly into walls, windows, open toilets or ceiling fans.
  • Accidental fly-away risk is greatly reduced.
  • Birds can’t get into dangerous items or destroy household furnishings or woodwork.
  • There are some potential benefits when training a bird to step up.
  • It encourages some birds to interact with different people.
  • Wing trimming does not eliminate the chance of a bird flying away when outside. Properly trimmed birds can be carried away with a strong wind. Flight harnesses are an option to ensure birds’ safety while they’re outside.
  • Proper wing trimming involves only the first five flight feathers, not all wing feathers. (See below for more information.)
  • Wing trimming requires maintenance as feathers molt.

Pros and cons of leaving a bird flighted:

  • People stop being as vigilant, since they believe that clipping the wings means the bird cannot fly. Everyone in the home needs to be committed to providing a safe environment, such as keeping doors and windows closed, keeping ceiling fans off, covering woodstoves and fireplaces, and maintaining separation from other pets and larger birds.
  • Parrots are inclined to excess weight, and flying is great exercise.
  • Parrots who can fly may be less inclined to pluck their feathers, scream for attention and engage in other antisocial behaviors.
  • Flying is a natural behavior and increases opportunities for foraging.
  • It’s difficult to clean up droppings outside of the cage.
  • A bird who is clipped improperly can fall, which may result in broken bones or internal injuries.
  • A flighted bird chooses to interact with people and is happier and more confident. This allows the bird to have more control over her environment.

What steps can be taken to keep flighted birds safe?

If you decide to allow your birds to fly, you need to take steps to keep them safe. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Never take them outside unless they are in a carrier or a bird harness.
  • Teach recall to your birds (train them to come when you call). This is a critical skill for flighted birds to have, so they are comfortable flying to you if they accidentally escape.
  • Help them become proficient flyers and, even more important, accomplished landers. Flying is instinctive, but landing is learned, and it can be difficult to master. One excellent method is to encourage your bird to jump from a stand onto your arm and then slowly increase the distance you are asking him to travel.

Finally, be open to changing your mind about wing trimming if the circumstances change, since a loving, respectful relationship between you and your bird is the most important thing.

How do you clip a bird’s flight feathers?

At Best Friends’ Parrot Garden, we clip about halfway up the first five primary feathers, making sure there are no ragged edges that could rub against the skin and irritate it. Primary feathers naturally molt faster than other feathers, since they would sustain frequent damage in the wild. If feathers other than the primary ones are trimmed, those feathers could only molt once or twice a year. Trimming reduces the surface area that allows a bird to catch lift, but does not eliminate it, so a trimmed bird could still safely glide to the ground rather than have a dangerous fall. Veterinarians with avian experience can take care of routine grooming needs.

Make sure that you are not clipping a “blood feather.” These are new feathers, which have a blood supply running through the shaft. It’s easy to identify these feathers when you are looking at the bird’s wings. Only clip feathers with clear shafts; otherwise, you run the risk of extreme bleeding, which can be difficult to stop.

If you do accidentally clip a blood feather, don’t panic. Crush the shaft between your thumb and index finger and hold it tightly for two minutes, allowing the blood to clot. Don’t let up on the pressure until a full two minutes has passed. You can also add a little cornstarch to the end of the shaft to help encourage clotting.

How often does a bird’s wings need to be clipped?

It depends on how often and when he molts. After a clipped feather has molted, a new feather will grow in and will need clipping once the blood supply has dried up. A wing trim can be good for a couple of months, or it could need to be repeated in just a few weeks. The best policy is to routinely check your bird’s wings to see if his feathers need grooming. At the Parrot Garden at Best Friends, we check each bird at least once a month.