Wing Clipping

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

Should I have my bird's wings clipped?

The purpose of clipping a bird's wings is not to prevent flight completely but to ensure the bird is unable to achieve or sustain upward flight and to prevent escape, unwanted roaming, and exposure to dangerous situations. Birds allowed out of their cages, and especially those left unsupervised, may come across many dangers in the house or simply get to areas of the home where they are not welcome. They may fly out open windows and doors or into mirrors or open containers of hot liquids.

"After a few attempts at flight, they will quickly learn they are unable to go anywhere."

The goal of a wing clip is for birds to be able to flutter to the floor, not to produce a bird who will free-fall or crash to the ground potentially hurting himself. After a few attempts at flight, they will quickly learn they are unable to go anywhere. Some birds are less brazen or cocky, or cheeky with their wings clipped and tend to be more reliant on the owner and less aggressive. Wing clipping is commonly used when owners are trying to train their bird to step on to a hand or to move from place to place.wing_clipping-1

Is wing clipping cruel?

Different people have different opinions on this, and what is right for one bird may not be right for another. Safety for the bird in its environment must be the prime consideration. A clipped bird will still flap his wings while holding onto the perch or cage for exercise, and they are able to climb and walk anywhere. Flights into ceiling fans, windows, and mirrors or out open windows or doors are avoidable with a wing clip, so this simple procedure may actually save birds’ lives.

How are wings clipped?

There are many ways to clip a bird's wings and numerous opinions about the pros and cons of each method. Opinions vary regarding how many feathers are cut and how short they should be. Typically, the outermost five to six (primary) feathers are trimmed about halfway from the base of the feather to the tip. The feathers closer to the body (secondary feathers) should not be clipped, and no feathers should be clipped shorter than midway from base to tip.

While some people prefer the more cosmetic appearance when the outermost one to two feathers are left untouched, many small birds, like budgies and cockatiels, may still fly when these feathers are left at the end; ideally the outermost feathers should always be clipped. Both wings should be clipped simultaneously as clipping only one wing with the other left intact may cause the bird to fly around in circles. It is very important that you discuss wing clipping with your veterinarian, and establish a method that is functional, safe, and aesthetically appealing for you and your bird.

Can I do it myself?

Yes, but care must be taken. Before attempting this yourself, have your veterinarian show you exactly how to clip and which feathers to cut. Ideally, have an assistant hold the bird while you do the clipping. Always be mindful that newly growing pin or blood feathers (that retain blood in the shaft until the feather matures) will bleed quite profusely if accidentally cut. It is also very easy to break a bird’s delicate wing bones when you are restraining it during trimming. For these reasons, you may wish to ask your veterinarian to clip the wings during regular health check-ups rather than attempting this on your own.

How often do I need to clip my bird's wings?

Wings need to be clipped typically every 1-3 months after the start of a molt cycle, as new feathers grow back. However, every bird is different; some need clipping more often and some less. To prevent accidental injury from flight, you should regularly check the wings of your pet, since even a couple of new feathers growing in the right place may give the bird the lift it needs to soar. Never assume your bird cannot fly; always check or perfom a test fly.

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