by Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Note: Before attempting to clip a bird’s wings, an owner should be sure to have a wing trimming lesson from an experienced trimmer, such as a veterinary professional, bird trainer, or breeder.
Like human hair and pet fur, bird feathers are shed and regrown regularly. Birds lose their feathers in an orderly, sequential process, rather than all at once, so that in the wild, they are never rendered flightless and subject to predation.
The feathers birds require for flight—so-called “flight feathers”—consist of the 10 outermost wing feathers, called primaries, and the 9 to 25 (depending on species) innermost wing feathers, called secondaries. All of these feathers are anchored in bone. As new feathers grow in, they initially contain blood in the shaft, looking like a drinking straw filled with blood, and are called blood feathers. Blood recedes toward the feather base as the feather matures, so that the shaft eventually looks like an empty straw. There are nerves at the base of the feathers, near their attachment to bone, but there are no nerve endings along the feather shaft.
If wing feathers are cut or damaged, the bird’s ability to fly is usually impaired. Some bird owners and trainers choose to cut primary feathers to inhibit flight. While certain people are adamantly opposed to this process, there are times when it is appropriate; it depends on the specific bird in a specific situation. Regardless, wing trimming is temporary, and as new feathers grow in to replace cut ones—just like hair growing back after a haircut—a bird’s ability to fly is regained.
When done for the right reasons and in the correct manner, wing clipping can be painless, helpful, and safe; however, it is not right for every bird or every owner.
When to Clip the Wings
Many bird owners and trainers choose to clip their pets’ wings when they are training them to step-up on a hand or come out of their cages. In these instances, it is much harder to train a bird if it is sailing uncontrollably around a room. Owners also may choose to trim their bird’s feathers if the bird is exposed to potential hazards, such as open windows and doors, mirrors, ceiling fans, heavy furniture or appliances behind which the bird could become easily trapped, lit fireplaces, candles, stoves, or exposed containers of hot liquids, such as in a kitchen or dining room. All of these situations are dangerous if a bird flies into them. Other bird owners trim their pets’ wings so as not to have them fly around the house leaving messy droppings in their wake, or have them land on curtains, rugs, or furniture that they could chew up and destroy.
Ideally, wing clipping is started when birds are young and aren’t used to flying; that way, birds don’t automatically try to take off during training and land on the floor. Wing clipping may be performed in older birds as well, even if they are accustomed to flying, but it may be best to trim a feather or two at a time in these birds, so that wing trimming is done gradually and the birds have time to realize they can’t fly anymore.
When Not to Clip a Bird's Wings
While wing clipping may be appropriate for some birds in specific situations, it is not right for every bird. For example, overweight birds that need to slim down often benefit from the exercise gotten from flying. In addition, birds living in households where there are other potentially predatory pets, such as cats and dogs, are generally safer when they can fly away, out of these animals’ reach. Birds living in homes with small active children also may be better off being able to fly out of the way to avoid being trampled.
Finally, many birds truly enjoy the process of flying and the independence of being able to get from place to place, and as long as owners take safeguards, such as shutting windows and doors, covering mirrors, turning off ceiling fans, and ensuring there are no exposed flames, hot liquids, or predatory pets, it is fine for a bird to fly around while supervised.
How to Clip a Bird's Wings
There are many different methods of wing clipping. However, not all of them work equally well to prevent flight, and not all of them last the same amount of time to prevent flight. The goal of a proper wing trim is to trim enough feathers to prevent a bird from achieving lift as it takes off, but not to trim so much so that the bird drops like a rock to the ground. A bird with a proper wing trim should be able to glide safely to the floor without sailing around.
To hinder flight, you must trim the primary feathers. Some people choose to trim a varying number of the outermost ten primary feathers, but only the outermost five primary feathers need to be trimmed to prevent flight, in most cases. Trimming more than that, or trimming the secondary feathers, is not necessary and can actually cause problems when the sharp cut end of the trimmed feather is close to the body and sticks into the bird’s side, causing skin irritation. Many birds will pick at cut feathers if they are too close to their bodies, as the trimmed edges annoy them. Cutting only the outermost five primary feathers makes it less likely that the cut ends will rub against the bird’s body and disturb them.
Some bird owners leave the outermost two primary feathers intact when they are trimming, as this type of clip leaves a more pleasing cosmetic appearance when the bird’s wings are folded, making it appear as if they are not clipped at all. I generally do not recommend this type of clip, since all it takes is the regrowth of a single clipped primary feather in this case to allow the bird to fly again. Many owners don’t realize that a feather has grown back, exposing the bird to potential danger without their owner’s knowledge.
Primary feathers should be cut below the level of the primary covert feathers (the shorter, smaller feathers visible overlying the primary feathers, close to their attachment to bone, on the inside of the extended wing). The lower third to half of the primary feather should be clipped off, but no more. Trimming more than this length gets too close to the nerve endings of the feather at the base, near the bone, and may cause a bird discomfort. In addition, care must be taken never to cut a newly formed blood feather, as this could lead to severe, persistent bleeding that can be life threatening if it isn’t stopped.
What to Do if a Wing Clip Goes Badly
Before attempting to clip a bird’s wings, an owner should be sure to have a wing trimming lesson from an experienced trimmer, such as a veterinary professional, bird trainer, or breeder. If too many primary feathers or any secondary feathers are trimmed, or if the primaries are trimmed too short, a bird may plummet to the ground if it attempts to fly. Heavy-bodied birds, such as African gray parrots, Amazon parrots, and cockatoos that attempt to fly with too short a wing trim may actually split open the skin and muscle on either side of the keel (breast) bone, causing significant injury.
Inappropriately trimmed feathers will grow back over time but may take months to regrow, and feathers that are trimmed excessively short may never grow back or may regrow in a deformed (twisted, bent) manner. If a blood feather is cut, excessive bleeding may occur that must be actively stopped by applying pressure to the cut end with a paper towel until clotting occurs—often not for several minutes. If a cut blood feather does not clot with the application of pressure, a small amount of flour, warm candle wax, or bar soap may be applied to the cut end to stop bleeding. Commercially available styptic powder may also be applied; however, this material can be very caustic, injuring healthy feather tissue, and it can be toxic if the bird ingests it. Therefore, styptic powder should be gently rinsed off with warm water after the clot has formed, without touching the feather to avoid disturbing the newly formed clot.
Proceed with Caution
When performed properly and for the right reasons, wing trimming can be a helpful training tool and may prevent life-threatening injury for some birds. It is not right for all birds, however.
If you are considering trimming your bird’s wings and are not sure whether it’s best for your bird, or if you are not clear on how to do it, seek the advice of a trained veterinarian, veterinary technician, bird trainer, or breeder to learn how to perform this procedure safely and effectively.