Wing Clipping

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Should I have my bird's wings clipped?

A “wing trim” or “wing clipping” refers to clipping or cutting the feathers on the wing, not the actual wing itself.

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, preventing escape, unwanted roaming, and exposure to dangerous situations.

Birds allowed out of their cages, and especially those left unsupervised, can encounter many dangers in the house or access areas of the home where they are not welcome. They may fly out open windows and doors, into mirrors, or into open containers of hot liquids. Avian veterinarians regularly see accidental trauma cases in pet birds (e.g., hit by ceiling fans, getting feet or legs slammed in a doorway, flying into hot spaghetti sauce).

"Birds allowed out of their cages, and especially those left unsupervised, 
can encounter many dangers in the house."

The goal of a wing clip is to allow birds to flutter to the floor, not free-fall or crash to the ground, potentially hurting themselves. After a few attempts at flight, they will quickly learn they are unable to go far. Some birds are less brazen or cheeky with their wings clipped, tending 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, as the bird becomes less independent and more accepting of hand training.

Is wing clipping cruel?

Different people have different opinions about wing clipping, and what is right for one bird may not be right for another. The prime consideration must be safety for the bird in its environment. A clipped bird will still flap its wings while holding onto the perch or cage for exercise, and they can climb and walk anywhere. However, with a proper wing trim, you can keep your bird from flying into ceiling fans, windows, and mirrors, or out open windows or doors, so this simple procedure could save your bird’s life.

How are wings clipped?

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

For cosmetic appeal, some people prefer the outermost one to two feathers to be left untouched; however, 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, because 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/trimming with your veterinarian, and establish a method that is functional, safe, and aesthetically appealing for you and your bird. The Association of Avian Veterinarians has produced a recommended Wing Trim handout. Ask your veterinarian for a copy.

Can I do it myself?

Yes, but care must be taken. Before attempting to trim wings 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. If you do not hold your bird properly, it can hurt itself during the process.

Be mindful that all new feathers contain blood in the shaft until the feather matures, so any newly growing pin feathers (“blood feathers”) will bleed profusely if accidentally cut. It is also very easy to break a bird’s delicate wing bones when you restrain 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 it on your own.

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

Wings typically need to be clipped 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 often. 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 perform a test flight.

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